Irish-language genre fiction has been a long time in the making. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the self-conscious nature of a literature that had to be revived, precedence was long given to three things: helping learners, recording that which was dúchasach (roughly, authentic); and establishing a Big “L” literature.
Children’s literature and the occasional outlier aside, it was only in the latter years of the last century that popular writing took root in Irish, at a time when the demand for crime fiction was exploding on the island. Almost 20 years into the new century, Irish-language writers have produced an impressive array of crime novels and thrillers, ranging from the trashy beach read to the literary hardboiled.
Perhaps the most impressive yet is Tairngreacht by Proinsias Mac a’ Bhaird, an ambitious and well-written thriller that marries modern corruption with early Christianity surprisingly neatly.
Mac a’ Bhaird is primarily known as a poet, though he has also written novels and short stories. Tairngreacht is his second mystery novel to centre around an element of traditional Gaelic culture – in Rún an Bhonnáin, it was a particular sean nós song; in Tairngreacht, it’s the competing prophesies of two early Irish saints – yet the two books are worlds apart in scope and plot.
Tairngreacht is by far the better novel, and particularly impressive is the extent of Mac a’ Bhaird’s research, which ranges from hagiography to roofies, morphine and IEDs. Though a significant chunk of the story takes place in 569 AD on the island of Islay in Scotland, Tairngreacht is overall a gratifyingly modern novel which, unlike so many modern books, doesn’t feign ignorance of the existence of YouTube and Twitter, Snapchat and Grindr.
So what is it about? Brace yourself. Despite being rooted in fact, the plot is niche and improbable, but well-told and entertaining.
The year is 2013. A young Irish man, a burnt-out journalist by the name of Conchúr, visits the graves of two exiled Irish taoisigh in Rome. His plans to research their time in Italy are quickly abandoned when he witnesses the brutal murder of a young man at the site of the graves.
Puzzled at the complete media blackout of the murder, and then misinformation about it, Conchúr is drawn into a deadly conspiracy featuring not one but two secret societies, each with their own mascot-saint. One side, Céilí Dé is determined to bring down the papistry so that an ancient, authentic Christianity may be reborn based on Celtic spiritualism. The other, na hUaisle Dubha, is somewhat like a Catholic Freemasons, determined to defend the Pope at all costs.
The book spans three countries and two millenia, yet it never feels ridiculous: Mac a’ Bhaird takes time to build the scene, to develop characters and their relationships to one another, and navigates the scope of the book expertly. The plot is complicated but exciting; among several highlights, the denouement is truly edge-of-your-seat stuff as Conchúr and his pals try to thwart a (scarily viable sounding) drone attack on Vatican City.
Although very much designed to entertain the reader rather than pontificate (geddit?), the book does have some interesting things to say about the modern church. While Mac a’ Bhaird manages not to be heavy-handed in his representations of Vatican corruption, the overall picture painted of the upper echelons of the church is highly cynical, and we are reminded that there is nothing inevitable – perhaps, even, not much ecclesiastical – about Ireland being Catholic.
At nearly 340 pages, the book is slightly too long in parts, and the resolution of an important subplot about Conchúr’s actions under the influence of roofies was, to me, unsatisfying. Those small quibbles aside, Tairngreacht is a great read and a laudable departure from the Celtic Tiger-era model of crime writing in Irish, which can’t help but express dismay at modern, moneyed Ireland’s seeming immorality.
This is also, to my knowledge, the first Irish language crime novel to substantially take place abroad – no bad thing for a literature that can at times veer towards insularity. The Irish is excellent and the production values high. Tairngreacht is one of the best books to be published in Irish this year.