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"We grew up in the North saying 'what is going on here, this is insane, it's pathetic'"

Actor Ciaran McMenamin’s debut novel is inspired by his youth growing up in Enniskillen during the Troubles

McMenamin, Ciaran c. Michael Shelford Ciaran McMenamin Source: MIchael Shelford

THERE’S STILL A stigma about all things North here and across the water. My intention writing the book was to write a book about young Northern Irish people that young Dubs, young Glaswegians, young Cockneys, whatever, can see themselves in the young people. And the Northern Ireland stuff happens to be the backdrop of where they’re from.

Actor Ciaran McMenamin knows that when people read about his life story – he grew up in Enniskillen during the Troubles – and then see the topic of his debut novel Skintown (it’s about a young man growing up in a small Northern Irish town in the 1990s), he might suffer a bit from pigeonholing.

But for 41-year-old McMenamin (you’ll have seen him in Midsomer Murders, Primeval, and Silent Witness amongst others), the book was a chance to tell a story that’s as applicable to people in Cork as it is to kids up north.

“It’s not a ‘Troubles’ book,” he says when we meet in TheJournal.ie‘s offices. “There was a lot more stuff came out as I wrote it. There’s more Troubles-type stuff than I had ever intended but I think it’s all the more interesting for it actually. It’s a good mixture.”

The book centres on a young chap named Vinny Duffy, a Catholic guy with a penchant for drink, women, and smoking. Oh, and a bit of a taste for drugs. The book depicts Duffy’s adventures as he gets himself embroiled in drug dealing and other nefarious activities, with some nasty consequences.

It’s crammed full of ‘Nordie black humour’, as McMenamin puts it, and its seat-of-your-pants opening scenes came straight from his own life. He once was convinced into taking a lift with a young Catholic girl so he could pretend to be her boyfriend – in the front of the car were two Loyalists. The car ended up crashing, and the men were forced into a détente by dint of circumstance.

The book is full of moments like this – where people from opposite sides of the political divide are forced to get on.

“The minute they crash, there’s this shared new dilemma,” says McMenamin. “I thought that was a microcosm of an ironic look at Northern Ireland. Then I found Vinny’s voice very quickly when I started to write that. I realised there was something very interesting at looking up there, with the eyes of a kid who sees how absurd it is.”

SKINTOWN-DEMY TPB with flaps.indd

‘You’re just a Paddy’

McMenamin finds much absurd about stereotypes surrounding Northern Irish identity – or identities – and how they change depending on location. “In my experience if you’re the biggest Prod, Loyalist, Unionist in Northern Ireland the minute you get off the plane in London you’re just a fucking Paddy,” he says.

“And I’ve friends, Protestant friends from that background who are living in London who said within six months of being in university in London they were calling themselves Irish because no one over there understands or gives a shit. And the other side of the coin is if you’re the biggest Republican, chucky, in west Belfast or wherever, if you come down to Dublin for the day, you’re just from the black North. You’re just from ‘up there’.”

So the irony of that is these dreams of these other places that we want to identify with don’t really, in my experience, exist – so ironically we’ve probably more in common with ourselves.

That’s why he welcomes people like Rory McIlory saying that they identify as Northern Irish. “I’m like fuckin’ good on ya mate, good on ya,” says McMenamin.

“We all know you’re Irish as well, you’re not saying you’re something… that’s OK and I think maybe the more of us do that the better, and be proud of being from the North. If you want to call it the north of Ireland fair enough, we have our own shit, we have our own sense of humour… it’s no bad thing.”

‘This is insane, this is pathetic’

McMenamin is a longtime actor – and says that though writing was a long-term aim of his, it took until he was in his late 30s to feel able to “have the focus, to sit” and write.

When he did sit down to pen Skintown, he found that it was a chance to get out all of his mixed feelings about the Troubles, and the many absurdities that can result from such circumstances.

“My friends all grew up going ‘what the fuck is going on around here, this is insane, this is pathetic’,” he recalls. “I thought it was a funny angle to come at it from.”

But McMenamin says he is “not going to cash in on the Troubles” with Skintown. “I had a perfectly trouble-free existence really. Obviously things were going on around you… but I didn’t have any loved ones killed; I was never put in harm’s way,” he says.

Still, growing up in that time meant he was not free from the grip of violence.

“What’s interesting about the book is just by being part of a society like that at all everyone has their own trauma,” he says. “Vinny has a tick – he can’t walk past an individual car because he is [convinced] it is going to blow up. That is something I had, I sat down to write the book and went ‘Oh that’s completely to do with growing up in such a bizarre traumatic place’ and that’s really interesting.”

I sat down to write a bit of a romp and a laugh and something more serious and something more cathartic happened.

Vinny Duffy is an amalgamation of different elements and people. While the author doesn’t share in his character’s love of violence, they do share a passion for music. Songs play a large role in Skintown, helping to give an insight into Duffy’s character and passions, and also serve to highlight how different he is to his raver friends.

Though McMenamin admits he is “not going to pretend the drug taking [in the book] didn’t happen”, he says he “did my research 20 years ago and had a very good time doing it”.

“I wanted to write an honest character,” he says.

To do that, he let go of the need for people to like Vinny Duffy. This was something he learned early on in acting – how to quell the urge for the audience to like you. “That’s not the point, it’s not about being liked, it’s about being real,” he says.

“I found the same when writing – don’t try to be cheeky or quirky, just write the story of what he’s doing. And you know there’s bits of it even now when I read it I’m like – there’s times when these kids are… I don’t particularly like how they talk about women,” he admits.  ”There’s misogynistic moments in it but that’s how young lads talk, and in other ways they’re very poetic and romantic. It’s hard for me to read some of it but I’m also really glad it’s like that.”

Drugs and sectarianism

Making the transition from actor to novelist can be a tricky one – McMenamin kept his writing almost totally private, only having one confidante in his sister. “It’s more frightening because you think people will be ‘oh the actor, now you’re just going to write a book, are you’,” he says. “So I think I was a bit protective.”

One part of the book that the pair discussed at length was the role raves played in breaking down barriers in the north.

“I remember that, driving up in a car from Enniskillen to Portrush with friends, no bullshit, no sectarianism, and chatting away going ‘we’re going to do this, we’re going to get fucked up’ and then you’d literally walk in and the Ra sold the drugs on that side and the UVF sold [them on the other]… and you’d go and do your own thing and then meet in the middle.

It was just a subconscious thing of going ‘if they are buying bullets with the drugs money, I’m just not buying your bullets’. It’s really weird.

McMenamin lived away from home for many years and is now settled in London with his Yorkshire-born actress fiancée, Annabel Scholey. She had no knowledge of Northern Ireland, but “she got all of it”, says McMenamin, because his protagonist acts as a truthful narrator.

For example, Vinny Duffy details how when people meet, they silently assess what religion the other might be. “No matter how removed you got, or far away it is, you do slip into that – you’re completely trained,” says McMenamin. “The first thing you do at home is when you’re chatting to someone even though you don’t care or it’s not an issue, you subconsciously work out if they’re a Protestant or not.”

It’s that kind of weird day-to-day reality that I wanted to point out. Because we all do that – in fairness we do that up north but we’ll joke about it amongst ourselves.

Next up for McMenamin on screen is a role in the Conor McPherson TV drama Paula, where he plays an “arsehole of a PSNI inspector”. But the coming months will be all about the writing.

He’s written about a third of his next book, which is historical fiction, partly based on his grandfather’s experiences in the first incarnation of the Free State Army. There’s also the script for Skintown to work on, after the film rights were bought by Dublin’s Blinder Films.

For all of Skintown’s depiction of violence, drugs, and civil war, McMenamin says “there’s a lot of joy in the book, but there’s a lot of bleak stuff in the book as well”.

“I hope somewhere between the two there’s a message of hope and positivity in it,” he says.

“There’s obviously a warning in it, there’s a reminder for certain people and certain politicians at the minute to knock themselves in the head and remember how much better things have been. Because I think when people get complacent you get used to something and you forget how bad it was before.”

Skintown is published by Penguin and out now.

Read: Here are the things that must happen before and after a united Ireland becomes a reality>

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