That pot candy show with Marter, private trust, Ireland's leading private hospitals with locations nationwide, including Dublin, Cork and Limerick. This is News Talk. It is 1867 and an Irishman called Stephen Doyle arrives in Manchester from the United States. Doyle is a veteran of the American Civil War and has joined the Fenians, the secret society intent on ending British rule in Ireland. Head Constable James O'Connor has fled grief and drink in Dublin for a sober start in Manchester.
His job is to discover and thwart the Fenians plans. Well, that's the premise of the abstainer, which is set to be one of the best historical fiction novels of the year. And its author, Ian Maguire, is on the line. Ian, good morning.
Good morning, Pat. What attracted you to Manchester in the mid 19th century and the Manchester Martin Martyrs and the background to all of that? Well, yeah, there was a number of a number of different factors which sort of led me to think this might form the basis of an interesting novel, I suppose the first thing was that it's just the story of the Manchester market is the story of the crime. The incident which led to the hanging and the consequences of it just struck me as a very sort of interesting, powerful, exciting, sort of dramatic moment of history.
And it also struck me as a moment of history that hadn't been really dealt with very much in fiction. So that appealed to me. I mean, I think it appeals to me to find historical moments which haven't been thought about by novelists so much that I'm attracted to that idea of sort of fresh ground and being able to move into this area, which is quite open in some sense. So that all appealed to me. And the other thing I think which which made me think it might form the basis of an interesting novel, is that the issues and concerns which are thrown up by this incident, even though it's over a hundred and fifty years ago now, still seem to me to be concerns which were kind of pressing and interesting to us now in the 21st century.
So it's a it's a story which is about nationalism. And, of course, we're experiencing sort of resurgence of various kinds of nationalism in Europe and elsewhere. And it's there's also a story about political violence and the question of why why certain people feel able and willing to to kill and die for a certain set of beliefs. And the psychology of that is very interesting to me. And it seemed to me still something that people would want to to find out about and think about and read about.
Now, your characters are very interesting because their backstories are are so compelling. I mean, that the head Constable James O'Connor and it's interesting that he has been, if you like, deployed to Manchester, Dublin at the point at that time, was it the second city of the Empire? So, you know, he's a man with problems. His wife and child have died. He has taken to the drink and he has become the man of the title and abstainer the abstainer.
And he finds himself doing a job in Manchester at a time when the so-called Manchester Martyrs are about to be executed.
That's right, yes. So he's the protagonist of the novel, and as you say, he has this important back story, the history, his history is very important to the novel. And I think the novel is one of the things the novel is really concerned about is this question of how how people as individuals or perhaps as as kind of collectives or even as nations deal with their own history and the pains and the and the traumas of the past. And I think throughout the novel, O'Connor is attempting to struggle with his own past most immediately, the loss of his wife.
So in that sense, it's it's his grief that he's really struggling with, but also things that happened to him in his childhood. His father was was transported for for a crime when he was very young. So he lost his father. So is this sense of how how does this individual come to terms with the past? How does he escape from the past? And is it possible for him to escape from the past? So so he's always in this process of trying to trying to break away from what's happened, trying to make a fresh start.
And there are things which keep on sort of pulling him back, pulling him back and making him feel that possibly the past is inescapable. Now, the other character, Stephen Doyle, he's equally compelling in his background because he's fought in the American Civil War and he's in Manchester on a mission. That's right. Yes, and I mean, both O'Connor and Doyle are based on not specific characters, but on types of characters. So O'Connor is a policeman who's been seconded to Manchester from Dublin, and that that's actually happened to several policemen.
They were brought over to try and help control the Fenian threat. And Doyle is a yes, as you say, a veteran of the American Civil War. And many, many of the people were involved in the attempted rebellion in Ireland. In eighteen sixty seven were were veterans of the Civil War. Obviously, they were military men who had vast military experience. So they were seen as very useful in this revolutionary activity. And I imagine what I imagine is that Doyle is brought over to try and take revenge for the hangings.
And in fact, there were there were all kinds of rumors after the hangings that the Fenians would attempt to take revenge in one way or another. Such things as blowing up the Manchester gasworks was one rumor. Another, another slightly far fetched rumor was they might ambush the queen's train as it came from Balmoral to London and kill her or kidnap her.
So there was there was the rumours were rife after the hangings and so. Well, I do in the novel sort of imagine what would happen if if one of those rumours happened to be true. And the idea is that the Fenians send Stephen Doyle from from New York with a mission to take revenge for for the for the men have been hanged.
Was it difficult to recreate the Manchester of the mid 19th century? You're not a Manchester man, I believe.
And no, I'm not from Manchester originally, although I have lived here for quite a long time. So I do feel that Manchester is kind of my home. So, yes, it was I mean, the research in some sense was easy, but in another sense it was difficult. I mean, it was easy because I do live here. I do live in Manchester. So in some sense, I was able just to go and sort of walk through a lot of the streets, which are mentioned in the novel, and sort of remind myself of familiarise myself with sort of geography of certain parts of the city, which I didn't know so well, but which is which the Irish the population tended to live in in the 19th century.
So so there was it was wasn't too difficult in that sense. But then I soon realised, of course, that most of nineteenth century Manchester is long gone, even though there are some sort of magnificent Victorian buildings which still stand. A lot of the places and particularly the places where the ordinary people would have lived and worked and moved have disappeared. So that became more of a challenge to try and imagine the lives of these working class, ordinary people who were involved in the Fenian activity in Manchester.
So in order to do that, I mean, I, I read as much as I could. I used maps a lot. So there are some fantastic sort of mid 19th century ordnance survey maps of Manchester which go into great detail. So that allowed me to kind of imagine imagine the city. I mean, they name pubs and like and tell you the names of the shops and mills and so on. So that was really useful. And also there is there are some photographs, some really early photographs of Manchester in the sixties.
So so that all that was useful. And then, of course, as a writer, you just have to kind of use your imagination as well and try and sort of fill in the gaps in that way. Well, you must be delighted with the initial reviews for the abstainer, particularly, you know, the pressure coming on from your last novel, The North Water, which was long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. New York Times, 10 Best Books of 2016 Royal Society of Literature ENCORED Award for the best second novel of the year in 2017.
So when this one is greeted with what looks like critical acclaim, you must be really pleased.
Yes, and relieved, as you say. Because because, of course, you know, I mean, I think the success of the North, what it took me was a very pleasant surprise. I mean, with that novel, I really had no idea of how it was going to be received. It was a it was a slightly different kind of novel for me. I didn't have even had a publishing contract when I was writing it. So I was I just didn't know how it was going to be received.
And then it was great. It was a great success. And so, yeah, writing this one is kind of wondering, well, is it going to be similar or is it going to be different? People like it, like it. But yes, the reviews, the early reviews have been really positive. So I'm relieved and pleased to see that.
Well, it is a terrific read. Absolutely. It's called The Abstainer. And its author, Ian Maguire, thank you very much for joining us.