In the Irish border town of Dundalk, Aoife works in the underworld, dealing in bootleg tobacco and alcohol and petty crime. When she meets Annie, a beautiful whirlwind of a woman, she becomes infatuated and decided to take her along for her biggest job yet – shifting 10 kilos of cocaine to England. As Annie tries to broaden Aoife’s horizons, Aoife faces a choice between the woman and the town she loves, and her decision kicks off a series of events that will change everything. A debut novel, written in Dundalk dialect, Iron Annie is fresh, fierce and full of life.
Aoife lives in your hometown of Dundalk, having moved ten miles south from Mullaghbawn just over the Northern Irish border. Tell us about the significance of place in the novel, why Dundalk is unique, and what it’s like to grow up in a border town.
Place is central in Iron Annie. It’s like a character in itself. The Town, Dundalk, but the wider region too, the border region. You’ll have heard a lot about the Irish border in recent years, and I bet a lot of British readers would wonder why on earth that affects them so much. But believe me, it affects us a lot more. And by us I mean communities of all persuasions from both sides of the border. On one hand, the community variously referred to as Republican, Nationalist or Catholic are represented by a bunch of talking heads who lobby for its abolition and the unification of Ireland. Drive to a Unionist/Loyalist Protestant majority town and you’ll see flags celebrating the centenary of partition. Drums are beaten, rhetoric is spouted – and that’s when things are going well.
In between the noise of it all, people try and get on with life. There’s a certain pragmatic type of character around here we call a ‘wheeler-dealer’, who are adept at turning their hands to whatever works at any given moment. Whether or not what they are doing is strictly legal is neither here nor there. I think it’s quite natural, when you’re presented with an obstacle like an artificial border, when communities are cut off from one another, to seek ways around it. I’d say that’s fairly common the world over. I was born in Newry, Northern Ireland, and all my family have roots in the North, so I think it’s something I’d be quite naturally preoccupied by.
The Rat King is a Traveller with a degree, Aoife is a woman holding her own in a crime ring. Were you trying to subvert stereotypes here and do you think women’s rights and Travellers’ rights have changed significantly in Ireland?
I’m not seeking to make a political pamphlet out of a novel. My guess is that these things have changed in recent years, a lot and for the better, but that there’s still a lot of work to do, particularly on the more subtle manifestations of misogyny, racism and prejudice. Still, I can’t say I was trying to do anything in particular in writing about Aoife and the Rat King. They’re just the characters that came to me. But the women I know hold their own wherever they go, and I’ve met Travellers with degrees –
maybe that says something about it.
Was it a challenge to write entirely in Dundalk dialect?
Not really haigh. I’m from Dundalk.
Aoife finds herself trying to offload cocaine from a small-town underworld more used to dealing in bootleg alcohol and tobacco. Have drugs and organised crime spilled over from the cities to the smaller towns in Ireland or was there never much of a distinction?
In my lifetime at least, drug use and its distribution has been prevalent in smaller towns like Dundalk. And I don’t think that’s unique to Ireland. I don’t want to write a thesis on the causes of that, but it might be linked to many things, from boredom to a lack of prospects. But like a lot of things, it’s a fact that does exist and not talking about it won’t do anything helpful.
Aoife says that in Dublin she feels like a foreigner but in Liverpool she doesn’t. Why is this?
I think that this can be understood fairly simply as the way in which people from Liverpool or Newcastle might feel out of place in London. My feeling has always been that there are a lot of places in England that share commonalities with places like Dundalk, particularly in the North (of England). I’m talking about places which also tend to be looked upon as peripheries by the self-appointed centres. There’s something terribly violent in that, whether we’re talking about Dublin, London or Paris – the idea that if it’s not happening here, then it’s not really happening. But people in Dundalk, and in Liverpool, know that life is happening to them too, and that it’s just as meaningful as if it were happening anywhere else.
Aoife says it’s the “idea” of the English she hates, not the people. What’s in the distinction here, and how do you think Brexit will affect relations between the two countries?
Let’s just say that in a place like the Irish border region, where decisions made elsewhere have real and really negative consequences for day to day life, there’s bound to be kickback. That’s true whether you’re talking about the massive sense of uncertainty and fear brought around by a foreign referendum (Brexit), or the very act of partition that took place a century ago. And if that elsewhere is England, well yeah, that’s where that kickback will be directed. But I do think that the vast majority of people in Ireland know that the English people are fundamentally very decent people, who have been misled and manipulated by their own elites. You still have a monarchy for god’s sake!
As for how Brexit will affect relations, it certainly won’t help them. Which is mad, since one thing that struck me through the entire process was that we, the Irish, are your best friends in Europe. I think that’s true whether we’re talking politically, culturally, or on an individual level. And the first duty of a friend is to tell you when you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
You have two more novels written, what can you tell us about them?
Well, I wrote one when I was 23, which I had the good sense to lock away forever. But it was good practice! Another I wrote just before Iron Annie, a very different piece of work. Which I think has potential, but needs a serious re-write. For now, though, I’m still working on the follow up to Iron Annie, and a number of side projects related to it. Watch this space!