CIARAN MCMENAMIN has written his ode to Fermanagh in his second book, a page-turning thriller and story of heart-breaking love and friendship.
When a pivotal scene in the book, takes the female and male protagonists on a chase through Fermanagh countryside to the freedom of the Irish Republic, the detail about the landscape and atmosphere, terrain and sky is drawn from Ciaran’s treasured memories of a childhood spent running all over the land at his grandparents’ home.
“The Sunken Road” may have as its backdrop World War One and the events which took place on the border at the Battle of Pettigo in 1921, but it is much more about its main character, a woman, who is intelligent and well-read, strong, feisty and capable but, as Ciaran said, “Must wait to see who will marry her to find out how her life will turn out.”
Ciaran spoke to the Herald from his home in London. More specifically he conducted our interview from his car outside his home because his two-year-old daughter had just gone to sleep and the 4G is not what you’d expect in central London.
The author of “Skintown” had harboured the idea for his second book because of a life-long fascination for war stories. “I’ve read and watched everything going about World War One and then I started reading some Irish history and found myself drawn to the story of the Battle of Pettigo in 1922.
“I was interested in the event itself because it was so local and I wondered why so little was spoken about it,” Ciaran added, “When I researched it I learnt that it suited both sides to keep it under wraps.”
The Battle of Pettigo and Belleek in the summer of 1922 was the last significant action between British forces and the IRA in Ireland’s War of Independence.
The battle, in which Field Marshal Montgomery, Michael Collins and Winston Churchill were all personally involved at various stages, is notable in Ireland’s War of Independence because it was the only stand-off during this period in which British forces used artillery. It was significant also for the propaganda war fought on newsreels afterwards when official British reports state they suffered only one fatality, a fact now recognised as a mis-truth.
What peaked Ciaran’s interest in the subject matter for his second book was family history. His grandfather fought in the Battle of Pettigo but as the author says today, “Like everyone else who was involved in conflict he just didn’t talk about it, he kept his counsel.
“But I was also interested in a grand-uncle who was sent from the family farm one day to buy creamery cans and never returned.
“The family received a letter in 1915 to say he had been killed in France,” Ciaran added.
Ciaran clearly enjoyed the many hours going down military rabbit holes for the thorough and precise research he conducted on WWI and the War of Independence before writing “The Sunken Road”. He even took a trip to France when a former military commander in Northern Ireland during the Troubles met him off his ferry and took Ciaran on a road trip that literally followed in the footsteps of soldiers from Fermanagh, Tyrone and Donegal who signed up to fight for the British on the Western Front. The book’s publication is timely with this year marking the centenary of partition in Ireland when Pettigo was effectively cut in two by the border.
It has to be said, however, that “The Sunken Road” is not just about war. “The female lead is a great character,” Ciaran enthused, “I thought to myself ‘what about the people who were waiting at home?
What about the women who had to hold the fort on rural farms at home with few options?”
Ciaran describes the story as a love story and his “love letter to Fermanagh”. Francie and siblings, Archie and Annie, grew up in the wild countryside around Fermanagh. When Francie falls in love with Annie, he swears to protect her brother when they head off to war.
Life in the trenches is bleak, brutal and brutalising and Francie returns to Ireland, to fight in the War of Independence, scarred by the secrets surrounding Archie’s death and an unpalatable revelation concerning bullying Crozier, his commanding officer.
Critics have described “The Sunken Road” as a ‘page-turning thriller’ and ‘heart-breaking love story’ with one reviewer giving Ciaran’s second novel the kudos aspired to by every story-teller when she wrote: “I couldn’t put it down and when I finished reading it, I couldn’t get the characters out of my head.”
When asked about his writing habits, Ciaran said he immersed himself in Fermanagh to write “the Sunken Road”. He hired a cottage in the Cladagh Glen with no WiFi and went at the research and writing for his book like turning up for work.
“I tramped the hills of the Marlbank Loop and let my imagination just run away,” he explained, “It was during that trip that the penny dropped about the strong female character at the centre of the book and I found a really good way to tie up two topics of interest to me World War One and the Battle of Pettigo.”
For all the Fermanagh scenes in the book, Ciaran said he only had to call to mind the many happy hours and days running around at his grandparents’ land, fishing and playing as a child.
Ciaran, who was best known for his acting roles before releasing his first novel ‘Skintown’, the coming-of-age debut set in 1990s Enniskillen, has also been working on the screenplays for both his novels. Explaining the process involved in getting films off the ground, Ciaran, said he is confident that both films will come to screen whenever Covid restrictions are lifted.
The ‘Skintown’ film has already been given the green light and is awaiting the end of lockdown and director Brian Kirk of Game of Thrones fame and Oscar-winning producer, Alan Maloney. are already signed on to the film adaptation of “The Sunken Road”.
Meanwhile, Ciaran, who had put acting on the back-burner to concentrate writing, which he says he loves has just been offered a role in a new TV programme based in Northern Ireland. The author and actor said he is just looking forward to hanging out with people again.
Describing his latest project Ciaran told the Herald, “It’s easy Sunday night viewing – a modern cop show set in a town like Ballykissangel and I play the main cop character. It’ll be filmed in Donaghadee.
“The town will be called something else on TV but I can tell you, it’s Donaghadee”, he dead-panned.
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