Getting a deal with a major publisher is a dream come true for any upcoming novelist. So, when Alan McMonagle got word in October 2015 that the “main man in Picador had made a strong connection” with Alan’s debut novel, Ithaca, the Galway-based writer was stunned.
“My heart was coming out through my chest and I was nearly on the ground,” Sligo-born Alan recalls.
At that stage, nothing had been confirmed, but a few days later, ‘the strong connection’ became more firm.
He got a two-book deal with the London based publishers and Ithaca, which has been described as “a stunner” by Edna O’Brien and “compelling from start to finish” by Pat McCabe, will be officially launched in Galway on March 9.
Softly-spoken, modest Alan, who already had two short-story collections published by two Galway publishing houses, had served a long apprenticeship before this deal came along.
Not that he minded. Listening to him, it seems that writing is as important to Alan as breathing – although he acknowledges he cut off that particular oxygen supply for a time in his teens and 20s.
But as a child in Longford, he was always writing stories, and he recently received a copybook from his father, which contained a story that seven-year-old Alan had penned. It was about two aunts who turned into ‘gi-ants’. He laughs now, but it’s obvious that even then he had a vivid imagination.
And with Ithaca he has created a special world, set in the Irish midlands in the wake of the Celtic Tiger where people’s lives are falling apart. Nobody’s is more fractured than Jason’s, the 11-year-old narrator of Ithaca. He lives with his Ma, Jacinta, a single parent aged 30, whose life is complex and chaotic. She loves Jason, but wants her own life which involves lots of vodka, fast cars and a male caller. Jason knows things aren’t right but he’s too young to work out just what’s wrong – something that’s crucial to the novel’s tension. As he aims to find a safe space of his own, Jason retreats to a swamp close to their failing town where he meets a young girl. She’s equally lost and possesses an even more vivid imagination.
The pair embark on mythical journeys from Egypt to Ithaca, trying to find a world “of blue skies and sandy beaches” that couldn’t be more different from their own reality. But there’s an edge of danger to their relationship.
Ithaca is a warm, poignant and often funny novel – its main characters are flawed but are hugely likeable too, so the reader wants them to succeed. And Alan’s fictional midlands town is full of instantly recognisable support characters; gossips; bullies, failed entrepreneurs; begrudgers; cynics and decent folk.
The ‘When and the Where’ were very important to Alan as he embarked on this book.
The When was immediately obvious, as post-Celtic Tiger Ireland offered plenty in the way of drama.
The Where was crucial too – locations such as the Swamp and Rich Hill create a claustrophobic atmosphere and leave a vivid impression.
These places are fictional but drawn from reality, says Alan, so Rich Hill where the toffs live, is based on Galway’s Taylor’s Hill. This is a route Alan travels regularly, cycling from his Knocknacarra home to the city centre.
Alan first moved to Galway as a teenager to study Commerce at NUIG, a qualification that “was lost on me”, he says, quoting friends who knew it wasn’t for him.
All he really knew as a youngster was that he wanted to leave Longford.
“It was typical teenage stuff – I wanted to be gone,” he explains, adding that there’s nothing wrong with Longford and it has been very supportive of his writing career.
Alan finished his B Comm and spent his 20s “drifting”, working in an office for a period and then travelling the world with his girlfriend Fionnuala “my fantastic, supportive and encouraging other half”.
It was she who encouraged Alan to return to writing when he was in his 30s. “She said ‘you have to do something about this’,” he recalls, explaining that he had stopped writing “at the age of 12 for the best part of 20 years and I was just not right without it”.
So he resumed, taking a Diploma in freelance writing with a Dublin college, which gave him the discipline of writing reports, meeting deadlines and putting short pieces together. Positive feedback from his tutor encouraged him to continue and he successfully applied for the MA in Creative Writing at NUIG in 2006.
That was a game-changer.
“Writing can’t be taught,” he feels. “But the MA gives you qualities like focus, concentration and discipline. Now, I show up every morning regardless of what will happen. The part of your brain that you use for writing is remote and if it’s going to work, you have to show up.”
The MA course was also diverse, allowing him to dip his toe in a variety of genres – poetry, short-stories, drama, fiction, reviews and hard news.
He selected the short-story genre for his graduation portfolio and wrote more than 12. They eventually became his first collection, Liar Liar, published in 2008 by Wordonthestreet.
“It encouraged me to keep going,” he says. He then thought he’d embark on a novel, but it wasn’t that simple.
“I wasn’t ready. A short story and a novel are two different beasts. A novel is a slower accumulation than a short story.” He eventually reshaped the manuscript as a series of short stories and it became his second collection, Psychotic Episodes (Arlen House).
He was maturing and improving as a writer and that collection got positive reviews. He also got invited to read at festivals, and at the 2014 Dromineer Literary Festival in Tipperary, organised by Eleanor Hooker, he shared a stage with fellow authors, Donal Ryan, Julian Gough and Paul Lynch. They were very encouraging and, unbeknown to Alan, Paul sent Psychotic Episodes to his own agent, Dublin-born London-based Alan Mulcahy.
The agent was impressed and asked Alan if he was working on a novel. That has now become Ithaca. Alan wrote several drafts which were read and edited by his friend and fellow writer Aoife Casby before he sent it to the Mulcahy agency.
A series of emails followed which led to a restructuring of the book and refining of the characters before Alan Mulcahy sealed the deal with Paul Baggaley of Picador.
Alan took on all suggestions and wasn’t a bit precious– for him it was about writing the book that best served his characters.
He has succeeded. Ithaca has been compared to Pat McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (but it’s not as bleak). And Alan knows McCabe, a former primary teacher, who taught him in third class in Longford.
Ithaca may not be as bleak as The Butcher Boy, but Alan does put Jason through the mill. The youngster is still standing at the end, although the question of how he will fare in the future is something that the reader must decide.
This reader saw a positive future for Jason which pleases Alan, because that’s what he feels too.
“This little guy is only a danger to himself. He wouldn’t hurt anybody else,” he says.
Alan is working on a second novel – Picador gave him all of 2016 to get that off the ground before he embarked on the Ithaca publicity trail. His deal is worth £50,000 and he’s very open about that. It’s nice money, but given his long apprenticeship, it’s not extravagant and no more than this genuinely decent person and literary craftsman deserves.
■ Novelist Mike McCormack will launch Ithaca in the Galway City Library, Hynes Building, St Augustine Street, on Thursday March 9 at 6.30pm.
Community fights back on hospital ‘downgrade by stealth’
Raw emotion, sadness and some anger filled the air at Clifden Town Hall on Sky Road last Sunday afternoon as a shaken community gave honest, personal accounts of the impact the closure by stealth of Clifden District Hospital would have on the people of North Connemara.
The public meeting was hastily organised after fears emerged on Friday that the HSE may transfer respite services from Clifden to Merlin Park Hospital, 50-plus miles away in Galway City.
Families were told their loved ones in Clifden Hospital may have to move home, or go to Merlin Park the following Monday, due to ‘issues with staffing’.
An axe has hung over Clifden Hospital for some years, but this latest move stirred the community to fight back to retain services locally.
Galway County Councillor Eileen Mannion (FG), who organised the public meeting with Senator Sean Kyne, said 625 people signed the attendance sheets and an estimated 650 people attended.
“The community effort spreading the word was unbelievable; the turnout was unbelievable,” she said.
“It wasn’t just anger; it was raw emotion in the room. Sadness. Family members spoke about the calls they got on Friday. The feeling that their elderly person was being rejected; that they weren’t being respected.
“One man stood up, three years waiting for respite care for a family member, and then to be told after a few days in there that she’d have to be taken home or to Merlin Park.
“We’re 50 miles from Galway. If there’s no traffic you might get to the outskirts in an hour but with the traffic in Galway, you could be another hour to get to Merlin Park. Not everyone has transport either and they’ve to rely on buses.
“A young woman stood up at the meeting and said her dad was dying in Galway. And she had to go to Saint Vincent de Paul to get money to pay for a B&B so that the family would be close to him when the end came. People gave their personal stories, and it was just heart-breaking.”
(Photo by Carmel Lyden: Teresa Conneely from Roundstone addresses people at the public meeting in Clifden Town Hall).
This is a shortened preview version of this article. To read extensive coverage of the Clifden Hospital story, see this week’s Connacht Tribune. You can buy a digital edition HERE.
Pilgrim took to his feet to realise dream!
Clifden man Breandan O Scanaill, who is on a pilgrimage from his home town of Clifden to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, received a Mayoral welcome and a memorial crest when he arrived at the Asturian town of Navia last week.
Breandan, whose walk from his home outside Clifden to the reputed burial place of St James in Santiago, began in April, was walking through Navia in Spain when a local man came over to chat to him.
“He asked me about my journey and was interested in the fact that an Irish man had turned up in the town,” says Breandan, who had been admiring the Chapel of San Roque at the time.
The local man outlined the history of the building and the town to Breandan and they began chatting more generally about history and architecture – topics dear to the pilgrim’s heart.
Breandán’s new friend introduced himself as the Mayor of Navia, lgnacio Garcia Palacios, who invited the visitor from Clifden to visit the Town Hall.
This is a shortened preview version of this article. To read the rest of this story, see this week’s Connacht Tribune. You can buy a digital edition HERE.
Local Property Tax rate to stay unchanged despite Council chief’s plea
Councillors have agreed to keep the Local Property Tax (LPT) rate unchanged – despite pleas from management that Galway County Council is predicted to spend at least €22 million more than it brings in for the next two years.
County Chief Executive Jim Cullen had recommended an increase of 15% on the LPT rate for 2023 and 2024 – amounting to €2.1m extra in the coffers annually – which would bolster its case when it came to pleading for a greater share of funding from central government.
In an estimation of income and expenditure for the Council, taking into account “unavoidable” expenditure and income changes set to hit, the Council would run a deficit of €9.04m in 2023 and 13.2m in 2024 – well over €22m unless there was a change in finances.
“I am hopeful of an uplift in baseline [funding] levels . . . we cannot continue to ignore the fact that other councils have raised LPT and their citizens enjoy a better standard of services that in Galway,” he stressed.
He told a meeting this week that €9m would be needed to maintain services next year at the same level as 2022. This was due to significant cost increases given that inflation is reaching 9.6% currently. Pensions, gratuities and payroll increases from the national pay agreement, increments and additional staff were all adding to bigger outgoings.
Without that extra funding, it will be necessary to reduce spending by that amount with a negative impact on service and staffing levels, he said.
This is a shortened preview version of this article. To read the story, including the councillors’ discussions, see this week’s Connacht Tribune. You can buy a digital edition HERE.