The Northern Irish author and actor tells John Meagher about his new novel about the men who fought in both the Great War and the War of Independence
The Battle of the Somme in July 1916 continues to hold a dark place in the collective imagination. It was one of the bloodiest episodes of World War I. In just two days, the 36th Ulster Division of the United Kingdom’s ‘X Corps’ suffered nearly 6,000 deaths. The bravery of those soldiers would be reflected in the fact that of the nine Victoria Crosses awarded to those who took part in the battle, four went to men from Ulster.
Fast-forward just a few years and some of the men who fought in the trenches had joined the IRA and were fighting previous colleagues and their former employers as the War of Independence convulsed the country.
Ciarán McMenamin has long been fascinated by this aspect of Irish history. His second novel, The Sunken Road, follows the fortunes of Francie, a young Fermanagh man who is drawn to both the horrors of war on the continent and to guerrilla fighting of the freedom struggle here.
“I’ve always had a fascination with the Western Front and how that war, in many ways precursed what happened in what we call our revolutionary period in Ireland,” he says. “It’s well documented that some of the bad guys — the Black and Tans — were shell-shocked from their experience on the Western Front. But I find it really interesting that quite a lot of the IRA guys had been at the Western Front too. Maybe one in 10 of them [IRA insurgents] had fought in the British army.”
One of the intriguing aspects of The Sunken Road is how Francie goes from fighting alongside men from both sides of the religious divide to being hunted by his old commander when the War of Independence breaks out.
In places, the book reads like a thriller, especially as the reader becomes so invested in Francie’s fate. “The idea that whatever happened in France to this guy is why he’s fighting against the British — I just really liked it as a storyline and there’s a love story that ties it all together,” McMenamin says.
His fascination is not just with those who go to war, but with those left behind too. “We’ve all read the books and seen the films of the guys writing letters home but you never hear that much about who the people they’re actually writing to are and what their experience was,” he says.
“You usually don’t get more of an impression than of the obedient, loyal person and I really wanted to flesh that out into the idea of a woman 100 years ago who literally was born with no choices — your world is about men and whether they decide to incorporate you into their world or not.”
Literature is stuffed with novels that depict World War I, but there are far fewer literary depictions of Ireland’s independence and civil wars. McMenamin was keen not just to tell a compelling story, but to get the historical detail just right.
He immersed himself in the worlds of the Great War and the conflict in Ireland in its immediate aftermath. He read a great deal and, with his father, visited battlefield sites in France and Belgium. He was able to call on expert guidance too, from Lieutenant General Philip Trousdell, the retired General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland.
“I wanted the book to be as authentic as possible,” he says. “These are specific times and places and there’s a duty to be accurate.”
Even before publication, the book has aroused plenty of interest. It has already been optioned for filming and, for much of the pandemic, McMenamin has busied himself with writing the screenplay.
As a trained actor with more than 20 years’ experience, he is well placed to adapt the book for the screen. Even when it came to writing The Sunken Road, he feels his work in front of the camera helped him with certain aspects.
“It definitely helps with dialogue,” he says. “That’s the nuts and bolts of being an actor and I think it can ensure that your dialogue is very realistic.”
Previous acting roles also helped when it came to writing The Sunken Road. One of his first credits was the 1999 World War I film The Trench, starring future Bond Daniel Craig.
“Cillian Murphy and myself were the token Paddies,” he says. “But with the guns and all the warfare paraphernalia, it was Boy’s Own-dream stuff.”
McMenamin’s acting career is that of one who has worked steadily across a number of genres, but without making it to the household name status of the aforementioned Craig and Murphy. There have been appearances in TV drama series Jonathan Creek, Silent Witness and Midsomer Murders, an Agatha Christie adaptation and an appearance in the recent RTÉ-BBC co-production Paula. He has lived in London for several years and is married to the English actress Annabel Scholey.
Writing has always been a part of his creative outlet and in 2018 he published his first novel. Skintown, which featured copious amounts of drugs and sectarianism, was widely acclaimed for its depiction of life on the edge in 1990s Northern Ireland.
He drew from his own experiences coming of age at a pivotal time for the troubled province — he was 22 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
“I don’t see it as a book about the Troubles,” he says, “more about growing up at a certain time and having a particular worldview, but I wanted to capture something of the distinct black humour of the place.”
Both Skintown and The Sunken Road have taken up a huge amount of his creative imagination over the past five years and the acting has largely taken a back seat. He had toyed with giving it up — “acting can take a back seat from you too,” he quips — but then landed the lead role in a forthcoming BBC drama.
“It’s called Hope Street and it’s set in a rural police station in Northern Ireland. It’s not heavy — it’s not about the Troubles or anything like that — it’s modern and, to put it this way, it’s more Bally-K [Ballykissangel] than The Fall. It’s good to have a few different strings to your bow, but I really do love writing and I do get more out of it creatively than anything else.”
‘The Sunken Road’, published by Harvill Secker, is out now