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Review of Iron Annie: Life and love in Dundalk’s bleak underworld

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Author Luke Cassidy. Picture by Megan Doherty

Author Luke Cassidy. Picture by Megan Doherty

Iron Annie by Luke Cassidy

Iron Annie by Luke Cassidy

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Author Luke Cassidy. Picture by Megan Doherty

Iron Annie Luke Cassidy Bloomsbury, €13.99

Luke Cassidy’s startling debut is the story of the novel’s narrator Aoife – her work, her friends, her dreams, hopes and fears – all told through the lens of her doomed love affair with the occasionally cross-dressing Iron Annie of the title.

Set as it is around Dundalk – “the Town” – in Louth, the most beautiful county in Ireland, the book was always a likely winner.

Indeed, in a novel that is heavily laden with colourful characters from Dundalk’s underworld, the Town itself holds its own as a living breathing entity. Aoife and her associates, while seemingly living on the fringes of society, are very much at the centre of the Town’s activities – it’s not called El Paso for nothing.

“I sell booze. Illegally distilled vodka an gin. An I run counterfeit fags across the border. Sometimes I boost stuff from people’s gaffs but I’m trynta get out’a that.”

Aoife’s love for and loyalty to her friends and the Town are central themes. She is aghast when Annie suggests they start a new life away from “that shitty town” while the pair are shifting coke in England. 

The book moves forward and back in time, telling tales of parties, gigs, lovers, crimes and misdemeanours. It is a heady experience, infused with humour and grief. Aoife and Annie are fascinating and very different characters. It’s sometimes difficult to discern what they see in each other but this mystery of their relationship is what sucks the reader in. Although Aoife’s old friends try to plant seeds of doubt about Annie – she’s originally from East Belfast, a big red flag in Dundalk – Aoife resists their machinations and remains devoted.

Aoife is a rough-around-the-edges, arm-scratching, fiercely loving misfit who has found her tribe in Dundalk, having moved across the border many years before. Her voice, heavy (perhaps a little too heavy at times) on the vernacular, is strong and urgent – the voice of a been-there-done-that philosopher.

Annie often appears aloof and condescending. Although her incisive political analyses are sometimes spot-on, Aoife starts to see through the pontification about capitalism and the system when Annie dumpster dives while they have plenty of drug money for food or when Annie suggests they build a crime empire in the UK.

Being carted away in an ambulance, suffering a severe allergic reaction, Annie whispers to Aoife: “What I was trying to say was that in my view the political classes used the issue of marriage equality quite cynically just to score a victory. To be on the right side of history for once. The whole thing was just a carnival. You think they really care about us?”

And it is perhaps this, the undimmable ferocity of Annie’s quest for truth and freedom, that keeps Aoife wanting more.

Ultimately this is a book about belonging – to family, friends, lovers and place; and freedom – to love, to let go, to just be.

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Aoife is an extraordinarily strong female character and for that alone Cassidy must be applauded. But there is more to this novel. All of the characters are gloriously vivid but entirely believable. The Town and its underbelly are starkly yet lovingly described.

This is probably this year’s most ambitious and well-written debut. ‘Mon the Town.


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