Every time I see the long angular shape of Ken Bruen loping through the back streets of Galway, I say to myself: ‘Bet he’s on a new case.’ Ken Bruen is acknowledged as one of the world’s best crime writers. He has written an amazing 27 novels, compiled numerous collections, and won heaps of awards and nominations, especially for his first Jack Taylor series beginning with The Guards (published 2001 ).
Ken was born in Galway in 1951, went to the Bish, then on to Trinity where he got a Ph D in guess what? Metaphysics. Travelling in Asia, Africa and South America he taught English for years before he let his dark imagination loose in a long series of clever novels, one with the intriguing title of: Her last call to Louis MacNeice (1997 ).
If there is anyone who hasn’t read Bruen, then I recommend that you look over your shoulder, pull your jacket collar up around your ears, and pick up The Guards. Galway will never look the same again. The Guards introduces us to the misadventures of a disgraced former police officer, Jack Taylor, whose life has been dogged by alcoholism and drug abuse. He is now trying his luck as a private investigator. As Taylor stumbles along, Bruen brilliantly sketches in a background of the changing Ireland we have all witnessed in the past decade or so. For Bruen it has been a disappointing revolving door. Instead of freedom which we may have expected following the decline of the Catholic Church as a social and political power, it has disappointedly been replaced by a materialistic, and a spiritually drained society.
Galway bookseller Des Kenny first met Bruen in the Galway Arms bar, 20 odd years ago. Bruen was trying to publicise his first novel by quietly putting a free copy on every table. Des picked it up.
‘Did you write this?’
‘Can you call in and see me in the morning?’
‘And who the fuck are you?’
‘Jaysus. I’ll be there at ten.’
Sense of conspiracy
The Guards is one of the 101 Irish books you must read suggested by Des Kenny in a recent book Kenny’s Choice*. It’s a good, solid popular list, that includes a sprinkling of the classics, and as you would suspect with a personal choice, there are some surprises in both the inclusions and omissions. Books by Maeve Binchy, surely one of Ireland’s greatest exports, are found in bookshops throughout Ireland and Britain. Even if you have never read one of her books, you have only to hear her explosive conversations on the radio to realise that she is an inveterate storyteller with a magic gift for dialogue and humour. Kenny says that the charm of her Light a Penny Candle allows readers to feel that the story is for their ears only... ‘this adds a delicious sense of conspiracy, an almost childish delight in a secret shared.’
Tom Kilroy’s The Big Chapel reminds us again what a good read it was when it first came out in 1971. Based on a 19th century scandal in County Kilkenny, when a local bishop tried to replace a village school with another run by the Christian Brothers. The change was resisted by the parish priest and the teacher, splitting the village into two factions, provoking riot, arson and finally murder. It was perfectly pitched and could have happened yesterday.
I was reminded of the extraordinary performance that Galway’s legendary actress Siobhán McKenna gave when Druid Theatre presented Tom Murphy’s moving Baileganáire in December 1985. Siobhán’s inspirational and unrivalled interpretation of this role was to be her swan song. She died within a year of the inaugural performance. The lives of the three women in the play, which tumble out in a torrent of words, will still find an echo in every member of the audience.
Part of the pleasure of the book is to seek out authors that have intrigued me, to read about some authors I am not familiar with, and to wonder why some were left out. I would love to see anything by the roguish John B Keane; and I feel that any collection of Irish writers should include the magnificent Muiris Ó Súillebháin and his haunting testimony of island life Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty years a-growing ), published 1933.
There is a curious Galway connection between the vulnerable Muiris and the classical Cambridge scholar at Galway university, George Thompson. The two men met when Thompson first visited the Blasket Islands, off the Co Kerry coast, in 1923. Muiris was all set to follow his brothers and sisters to America, but Thompson, who was intrigued by Muiris’s flow of words, persuaded him to join the Garda Síochána instead. As a garda Muiris was posted to Indreabhán (Inverin ) where he wrote his famous book. It was a success, and for a time Muiris left the Gardai, to write full time. He wrote a second book, Fiche Blian Fé Bhláth (Twenty years in Bloom ). But Muiris did not bloom, nor, I believe, was he happy. He drowned in 1950 either at Blackrock, or at the Silver Strand, or off Salthill beach. I don’t where.
Another interesting feature is the anecdotes of bookselling life in Kenny’s bookshop on High Street. In the late 1970s the author’s father handed him a manuscript and said: ‘Read that, and tell me what you think.’ Des had recently married and money was tight. He worked in the bookshop but at the time business was slow. His wife Anne was the breadwinner, and Des was considering his options. But he read the manuscript and jumped to his feet. He knew instantly this book was the genuine article. The title was Nineteen Acres, and its author was the renowned journalist John Healy. Kenny’s would publish it. Nineteen Acres recognises the contribution to Irish life made by hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrants, and the extraordinary personal sacrifices they made to do this. It speaks about the loneliness they suffered, and the ingratitude of an uncaring society back home.
Healy’s earlier book, Death of an Irish Town, (published 1968 ), exposed the destruction of the social and cultural fabric in the West of Ireland, specifically in his hometown of Charlestown, Co Mayo. Healy raged at how the rural west was ignored by the bureaucracies in Dublin.
“Keep your mouth and your legs closed. Keep your ears open. And send home the ticket for Anne.” How many thousands of tearful heartbroken mothers gave this advice to daughters they would never see again? Has it got a resonance today? Probably not. But Healy was lucky. The daughter in question was to become Healy’s mother. She was one of the lucky ones who returned.