Friday, August 24, 2012

Black and Tans: An interview with historical fiction author David Lawlor

Today I'm talking with David Lawlor. He is an Associate Editor with the Evening Herald newspaper in Ireland and has been writing features, reviews and working as a produciton journalist in national newspapers for 22 years.

He's come to Unnecessary Musings to talk about his book on the Irish War of Independence, Tan.

1) Please tell us about your book.

Tan is set during the Irish War of Independence, which ran from 1919-1921. It tells the tale of Liam Mannion, who returns to his home town as a Black and Tan - he must wrestle with his duty to the Tans and his loyalty to his childhood friends, who are now fighting the Crown forces.

The Black and Tans was the nickname given to ex-servicemen from the First World War who were recruited as Temporary Constables to try to restore order in Ireland. They soon became notorious for their brutality and ill-discipline.

To this day the Tans hold a special place in the Irish psyche. They have been demonised (justly) for their actions yet quite a lot of them were actually Irish themselves. I thought it would be interesting to write a story from the perspective of someone who joined this body of men out of desperation and soon was faced with the reality of their actions against his very own people.

2) What inspired you to write a book about the Irish War of Independence?

My own family history is full of fascinating stories from this time. My grandfather was very active during the War of Independence and the Civil War which followed, so I think that that had a part in drawing me to this era. Also, as a fictional topic, this era has only been lightly touched upon. It is a time in our history that is revered but also one which is quite raw, especially in terms of what each side did to one another during the Civil War. For those reasons I have always been fascinated by it.

3) When writing historical fiction, it's often easy to find information about the major events and personages of a period. A quick trip to the library will give you a timeline for instance. What's more difficult is getting a good feel for the small details that can bring historical fiction to life. Can you share a bit about what sort of research you had to do when trying to get a handle on such details?

You're right, J.A. it's the little details that can make all the difference. With regards to Tan, I spent quite a bit of time researching weaponry - from 'Smellies' (the nickname soldiers gave to the Short Magazine Lee Enfield - SMLE - rifles) to Mills bombs (early hand grenades). I also checked up on uniforms and clothing (particularly what women wore in 1920), and on the type so f tobacco poeple smoked and the papers they read.

Part of the story is set in Manchester, so I had to consult some old maps to find a specific setting there that suited my main character, Liam. He works in a cotton mill for part of the story, so I had to learn the manufacturing process of mills in order to describe it (hopefully) convincingly. For all of the above I found enough information on the internet to help my story.

My other concern was that I was writing about a specific event in Irish history - the destruction of Balbriggan, so I had to do some homework on the map of the town in those days and the names of the streets. I went to Balbriggan and walked its streets, chatting with some of the locals about the burning of the town...that helped, too. Having said that, though, I never wanted to slavishly follow every detail of that event, I just wanted it as a backdrop to the rest of the story.

4) Please tell us a bit about your main characters.

My main character Liam was unjustly accused of rape by a senior police officer and had to flee his home town before enlisting in the First World War. He has been scarred by the war and must reconcile himself to it and to the fact that his own family and friends are fighting the very soldiers he is now serving with. He is very atached to his father, Dan, but is at odds with his more uptight brother, EoIn, a bank manager who is in league with the British forces.

Frank Clery is Liam's childhoood friend and now a senior IRA commander . He is a fairly dashing sort but one imbued with a soft side, too. It is he who sets up local resistance to the British forces and thus finds himself on a collission path with his old pal, Liam

Kate Hanrahan is the local beauty and Liam's love interest. She is fiercly republican and operates a spy ring in the town

Webber is the bad guy, the RIC District Inspector who framed Liam for a rape in order to cover up his own infidlity.He is ruthless, self-obsessed and extremely ambitious.

5) The situation in Ireland and Northern Ireland has evolved over the decades. What are your thoughts on the current state of affairs as they relate to the legacy of the Irish War of Independence?

That's a very big question and one which both historians and politicians wrestle with to this day. The Civil War was a terrible tragedy in our history - many huge talents lost their lives in that conflict. Had they lived their influence would certainly have changed the type of nation that we evolved into. Michael Collins, the charismatic leader of the Free State forces, was killed 90 years ago this week. Had he survived he would most certainly have made the country a more liberal state. It was Collins who negotiated the truce that ended the War of Independence, he would surely have found a better way to work with the British in those early years. He was just 31 when he died so he would have had a long time as the country's leader to make things work politically. I think that his influence could quite possibly have made the later Troubles avoidable. Alas, we'll never know...

6) Is there anything you feel people misunderstand about the Irish War of Independence?

I think people see it in a very black and white way. The notion that a sizeable chunk of the notorious occupying force was made up of their fellow Irishmen is an uncomfortable truth for some to deal with, even to this day. I also feel that there were very many dark deeds done in the subsequent Civil War, which have yet to be aired, People like their history to be straightforward, but when you get cases of brother figthing against brother - as happened then - well the word 'straightforward' doesn't apply, especially with the families concerned.

7) Are there any authors who have influenced you?

Lots. I like all sorts of writers from Jack London to John Connolly. I love Connolly's style...he is a beautiful writer - economical with his words but poetic, too. He's my favourite modern thriller writer - and an all-round decent bloke, too!

8) Please tell us about your future projects.

I've two other novels under my belt - an historical fiction set during the Irish Famine, which involves an American Indian (yep, you read correctly - the Choctaw indians were very good to the Irish people during the famine). The other is a modern crime novel set in Dublin, which involves a stalker and his five victims. Currently, I'm two-thirds of the way through a sequel to Tan, which is set in the battlefields around Ypres, in the aftermath of the First World War. It incorporates a collection of very ordinary veterans (Liam Mannion among them) from the war, who still carry its scars both mentally and physically, and who decide to return to France to retrieve something precious left behind in the heat of battle. The journey resurrects their wartime memories, and they must cope with this and a few other obstacles that reveal themselves. After that, I've plans for a third book in this series, set around Michael Collins' truce talks with the British in 1921.


Thanks, David.

Tan is available for purchase at Amazon.

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