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.
Exploring the merits of moving into the west
Broadcaster Mary Kennedy has an abiding image of those early mornings when she’d set out from Dublin at the crack of dawn to begin work on another day’s filming down the country with Nationwide.
“I always liked to go in the morning rather than stay there the night before – so I’d be on the road early. And from the moment I’d hit Newland’s Cross, all I’d see was a line of traffic of people trying to make it from home to their workplace in Dublin,” she says.
These were people whose day began before dawn to get their bleary-eyed kids ready to drop at a childminder along the way, so they could be on time for work – and then race home to hopefully see those same kids before they went to sleep.
But if the pandemic had a positive, it was the realisation that work was something you did, not a place you went to. As a result, many people finally grasped the nettle, moving out of the city and sometimes even taking their work with them.
Which is why Mary – busier than ever since her supposed retirement from RTÉ – is presenting a new television series called Moving West, focusing on those individuals and families who have, as the title, suggests, relocated to the West.
One of the programmes comes from Galway, where Mary met with Stewart Forrest, who relocated with his family from South Africa to Oughterard, and Carol Ho, a Hong Kong native who has also settled in Galway.
The TG4 series also stops off in Sligo, Mayo, Kerry, Clare, Roscommon and Leitrim.
Read the full story in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops now. Or you can download our digital edition from www.connachttribune.ie
Community’s tribute to one of their own – saving final cut of turf after his passing
A local community responded in force to the death of one of their own – a man who had given so much of his life for the good of the parish – by paying one last practical tribute to him last week.
They lifted and footed his turf.
John Geraghty – or Gero as he was known – lived for Gaelic football and he’d filled every role imaginable with the St Brendan’s GAA Club since he came to live in Newbridge in 1983.
He’d cut the turf before he died last Tuesday week, but there it lay, until his old GAA friends organised a bunch of guys – made up of the football team, friends and neighbours – to meet in the bog last Wednesday evening to lift and foot/clamp John’s turf.
“Upwards of 50 fellas from the community showed up,” said St Brendan’s chairman Gerry Kilcommins.
Which was just as well, because, as Gerry acknowledged, John – himself a two-time chairman of the club in the past – had a lot of turf cut!
“It took up an area around three-quarters of the size of a standard football pitch,” he said.
Not that this proved a problem, given the enthusiasm with which they rolled up their sleeves for their old friend.
They started at 7.30pm and had it done at 7.55pm – that’s just 25 minutes from start to finish.
Read the full, heartwarming story – and the St Brendan’s GAA Club appreciation for John Geraghty – in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops now. Or you can download our digital edition from www.connachttribune.ie
Liver donor dad would do it all again in a heartbeat
It is nearly two years since Paddy Browne gave his daughter Sadhbh part of his liver to save her life. And just ahead of Father’s Day, he reflects on how he would do it all over again in a heartbeat, without a single moment’s hesitation.
After an initial testing time in the first six weeks when they beat a path to the intensive care unit after the operation in St King’s Hospital in London, Sadhbh has never looked back.
“She’s thrived and thrived and thrived. She skips out to school every day. She loves the normal fun and devilment in the yard. She’s now six and started football with Mountbellew Moylough GAA, she loves baking, she’s a voracious reader – she’ll read the whole time out loud while we drive up to Crumlin [Children’s Hospital].”
But it could have all been so different.
Sadhbh from Mountbellew was diagnosed with Biliary Atresia shortly after she was born. She quickly underwent major surgery to drain bile from her liver. It worked well until she reached three years old when an infection caused severe liver damage and she was placed on the liver transplant list.
She was on a long list of medication to manage the consequences of advanced liver disease. While she lived a full life, she would tire very easily.
Paddy was undergoing the rigorous process to be accepted as a living donor when one of the tests ruled him unsuitable. His brother Michael stepped forward and was deemed a good match.
Then, further tests revealed that Paddy was in fact eligible for the operation and the previous result disregarded as a false positive.
Read the full, uplifting story in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops now. Or you can download our digital edition from www.connachttribune.ie
Organ Donor Cards can be obtained by phoning the Irish Kidney Association on 01 6205306 or Free text the word DONOR to 50050. You can also visit the website www.ika.ie/get-a-donor-card or download a free ‘digital organ donor card’ APP to your phone.