AISLING MEATH talks to Cónal Creedon about his new book, Art imitating Life imitating Death, to be launched as part of the Cork International Short Story Festival
IN 2003, when Cónal Creedon was researching the short story Guests Of The Nation by fellow Cork writer Frank O’Connor, in order to adapt it for an RTÉ radio play as part of the O’Connor centenary celebrations, he never imagined what intriguing strands of the tale he would uncover.
Readers of the 2016 edition of the iconic Cork Christmas publication the Holly Bough might recall Cónal’s account of the story there, but for those whom the details have become blurry with the passage of time - have no fear, the scintillating tale is once again recaptured in his new book, Art imitating Life imitating Death, which will be launched at lunchtime on October 14 at the Crawford Art Gallery as part of the Cork International Short Story Festival.
Guests of the Nation was one of the stories in the textbook Exploring English which was part of the Inter cert course, later to became the Junior certificate.
For many teenagers discovering Guests of the Nation, its impact was visceral, for although the story may be short, it contains a moral dilemma of vast proportions.
This was not lost on the young Cónal when he read it for the first time. “Something about that story just stopped me in my tracks,” he wrote.
Set against the backdrop of the War of Independence, it is about two young IRA volunteers, Bonaparte, the narrator of the story, and his comrade Noble.
The tale unfolds in an isolated cottage in the countryside where the lads are guarding their captured enemies - two British soldiers, Belcher and Hawkins.
Partly due to their enforced circumstances in rural isolation, a camaraderie blossoms into a friendship between the captors and captured as they pass their days together. The evenings unfold into lively fireside card playing sessions amid banter and passion-fuelled conversations pondering the meaning of life.
There is an unnamed ‘woman of the house’ in the mix, and one of the British soldiers, Belcher, whose personality belies the name, shows her his very gentlemanly side by helping her with household tasks. However, the cosy sojourn ends on a horrific note when the young volunteers are tasked to perform their duty, and as an act of reprisal are ordered to take Belcher and Hawkins outside and shoot them dead.
Often cited as a powerful anti-war story, it certainly gives pause for thought about the human being underneath the uniform, and the futility of the loss of human life in the name of war.
“It’s a bizarre contradiction, but the preservation and protection of life is a primary driving force of humanity,” observes Cónal, “and yet for some reason we seem to be hot-wired in our DNA that conflict resolution should involve the total annihilation, carnage, death and the destruction of warfare.
“Thankfully, I have never lived in an active war zone, so I have never faced the moral dilemma. I don’t know or understand the contradictions. It would be very easy for me to say I am a pacifist, but I believe the term pacifist can only truly be measured in the context of an active war zone.
“But it does seem to be that the term ‘anti-war story’ does not, as the phrase suggests, challenge the validity of warfare.
“It seems like all wartime narratives, no matter how dark, in some ways humanise the brutality of war, so I’m not actually sure if the term ‘anti-war story’ is an accurate expression of the intention.
“It’s difficult to know what inspired O’Connor to examine this topic, but without a doubt the brilliance of it is that it explores and lays bare humanity at its most powerful, and also at its most vulnerable.
“‘The Stockholm Syndrome’ is well documented and I guess that’s what this story is about. What happens when sworn enemies form friendships during the heightened emotional time of active conflict?” Cónal reflects.
O’Connor was himself a member of the Irish Volunteers and would have been familiar with numerous incidents of British hostages being taken around the time of the Irish War of Independence.
In the course of his research for the radio play, Cónal was sifting through the archives, intrigued as to why O’Connor had named one of the characters Noble, as it was not a name he was familiar with from Cork or beyond.
Then, in a cluster of seemingly random coincidences, he stumbled upon a strange twist in the tale. “In the course of my research, I found myself thumbing through a stack of dusty old Irish Volunteer application forms. I came across the name of Noble Johnson with an address at 11, Devonshire street.
“I have lived all my life on Devonshire street and knew that No.11 was, and still is Pa Johnson’s pub. My neighbour Barry Johnson told me that his grandfather, uncle, and brother were all named Noble.
"I was amazed, and to stumble across this nugget of information in the bundle of application forms and discovering that it led to so close to home, well that is truly the joy of researching.
“Call it pure speculation on my part, but given that both Frank O’Connor and Noble Johnson were members of the Irish Volunteers, both born on the Northside, and Johnson’s pub was, and still is a well known landmark hostelry, could the character of Noble Johnson have been inspired by my neighbour Barry’s grandfather?
“Obviously, I don’t know if Frank O’Connor ever dropped in for a drink to Johnson’s, but I would be surprised if he didn’t. For one thing Cork was a lot smaller then, and Pa’s has been a popular local bar for generations.”
Cónal’s meticulous research also unpicked another interesting thread to the story, and he discovered that senior British officer Major Geoffrey Compton Smith had been held hostage and killed in Donoughmore, the birthplace of Frank O’Connor’s mother.
In furthering his research, he recalls a very moving visit to Donoughmore, and discovered Guests of the Nation bears many similarities to the true story of Compton Smith. Through closer inspection of the facts, he steers the reader into observing many robust similarities, concluding there is a strong possibility that Guests of the Nation was inspired by that true story.
Art imitating Life imitating Death gives the reader an insight into the mind of one fascinating Cork writer, Creedon, contemplating another, resulting in the fleshing out of O’Connor’s story, and adding a further layer of understanding into the fabric of some of the most emotionally elevated and traumatically charged days of Irelands troubled past.
Cónal’s radio adaptation, Guests of the Nation, is currently available on You Tube and it’s well worth a listen.
It’s teeming with Cork talent, produced by notable Cork producer Aidan Stanley, the music Míse Eire written by Cork legend Sean Ó Riada, and it is percolated with the talents of Cork actors such as Liam Heffernan and Niall Tóibin.
“I have always been a great fan of Tóibin. I remember in the late 1970s being in America, and I had an LP of Niall’s stand-up, and whatever house we visited, it was played on the turntable. He was huge at the time.
“So it was great to work with Niall, he performed in three of my radio plays, and we actually became pen friends for a while, writing letters to each other, in the days before email became a thing.”
In a further section of the book, Cónal presents the content of an online exchange he had with Dr Conci Mazzullo of the Universitá di Catania, which was conducted when email was a thing, during the recent days of lockdown.
The resulting essay, The Joy of Writing after 20 years, was first published in Studi Irlandesi, A Journal of Irish studies published by Firenze University Press.
Conal’s memory is redolent with scenes of the colourful life all around him growing up in a busy shop in Cork city, and as Irish society went through ever increasing changes towards a more secular society, Cónal experienced it all through the lens of his teenage years and into young adulthood.
“It would be impossible not to notice the massive cultural shift that happened in the late ‘60s and early ’70s. These changes which happened during my formative years, set up the zeitgeist of punk and post-punk which had an impact that went far deeper than just being the soundtrack of a generation, and which opened up the floodgates for a whole different style of creative expression.” he recalls.
And that transformation of society as witnessed by Cónal can be summed up in the final words of Bonaparte in Guests Of A Nation.
“And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again”
Art imitating Life imitating Death by Cónal Creedon is available in Waterstones and at irishtownpress.com