BALLINROBE NATIVE Mick Donnellan must surely be one of the busiest writers based in Galway. Over the past year he has staged three of his plays at the Town Hall - Sunday Morning Coming Down, Shortcut to Hallelujah, and Gun Metal Grey, all of which were enthusiastically received.
Clearly not a man to rest on his laurels, Donnellan has now published his debut novel, El Niño, a noir thriller set in the west of Ireland – and, just for good measure, his latest play, Velvet Revolution comes to the Town Hall next month.
The central character and narrator of El Niño is Charlie, a seasoned pickpocket and recovering alcoholic, who plies his light-fingered trade amid the streets of Galway. Things get complicated for him when he falls for exotically-named beauty, El Niño, and then becomes embroiled with dangerous crime-gang associates from his past.
Charlie’s relationship with El Niño is full of passion and possibility but it is also threatened by his entanglement with vicious gang boss Kramer and his underling, PJ.
With the grittiness, pace, and crackling dialogue that will satisfy any noir-fiction devotee, El Niño – like Donnellan’s plays – also peers into some of the seamier sides of Irish life.
“I was interested in juvenile delinquency and how such a person can grow into a full-blown criminal,” Donnellan reveals over an evening chat about his novel. “With Charlie, I was interested in knowing who he was underneath all that. I remember Martin Cahill [The General] once said that St Patrick’s Industrial School was like his secondary education and Mountjoy was his university. I wanted to explore that kind of idea in a way that was accessible, that you could recognise; to make the character a local guy who could be funny and likeable yet at the same time pretty ruthless.
“Another major theme is alcoholism and the effect it has on Irish society. It’s similar to the drug use and the life of crime that are in the book, where all three people can get trapped in a cycle. Ultimately, there is no real redemption for any of the characters in the novel, they’re all overrun by society, the reaction to them as criminals, and their own behaviour with drugs, including alcohol.”
Donnellan readily acknowledges the influence of crime fiction doyen Ken Bruen on his work.
“I read a lot of crime novels growing up, people like Elmore Leonard and the films of Quentin Tarantino were there too,” says Donnellan, “but the major thing for me was coming into touch with Ken Bruen because he showed you could have a crime novel set in Galway, you didn’t need to have it located it in London or America.”
There is nothing like a femme fatale to enliven a good crime thriller and the novel’s eponymous El Niño effortlessly fits the role.
“I love her, she’s great,” Donnellan declares. “I wanted to have one of those classic femme fatale kind of characters, this crazy, really attractive, and wild girl who you could fall in love with in a second.
“She exudes sexuality and charisma. I wanted her to have this wild relationship with Charlie and offset it against the backdrop of the inescapable things that come against him. He has a chance to go straight and get out of crime and for himself and El Niño to get away but fate gets in the way.”
Donnellan is a graduate of NUIG’s MA in creative writing and he cites the personal benefits of doing the course.
“It did two things,” he says. “First off it set a deadline to produce pieces of writing and within that structure and with other writers around you it becomes easier to write than if you were on your own, so by the end of the year you find you have a significant body of work. It also introduced me to different methods of writing such as screenwriting, journalism, poetry, fiction, and drama, and I think there are bits of all those in the novel.”
Finally, what of his upcoming play, Velvet Revolution?
“It kinda goes back into El Niño territory,” he replies. “It’s a two-hander about this couple in a destructive relationship. He is a gambler and she is this seductive girl who is flirtatious and difficult to trust. He’s got himself into debt with a loan shark for €50,000 and the play is about this loan shark being on the way to their place to get his money and the two them are trying to decide what to do because they don’t have it. It’s quite different to the other plays.”
El Niño is available for €12.99 from Charlie Byrne’s, Bell Book & Candle, and Dubray Books and from www.originalwriting.ie Mick Donnellan is giving a reading from the book tonight at Campbell’s Tavern, Cloughanover. Velvet Revolution runs at the Town Hall from April 9 to 16. Gun Metal Grey returns to the Town Hall main stage in June.