Resources for Writers
The Nameless Dead, Brian McGilloway
The Nameless Dead is the fifth in Brian McGilloway’s series featuring Garda Inspector Ben Devlin, set on the southern side of the Irish border. As the book opens, we meet Devlin at a dig by the Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains on an island, Islandmore.
Brian McGilloway has a reputation as a thoughtful, intelligent crime novelist. When it came to the subject matter covered in The Nameless Dead, McGilloway was aware that huge sensitivity was required to immerse true-life tragedy in this fictional story. Louise Phillips asked Brian for writing.ie, about how the book came about, and how he set about this difficult but important task.
McGilloway explained, ”Writers are like magpies, picking through experiences and stories, seeing connections, creating narratives from all the shiny things picked up along the way. It’s impossible not to be inspired by real events, by people you meet, by conversations you overhear. They coalesce in the imagination and appear in a narrative, often sub-consciously. For me, this is an essential element in writing fiction.
For me, fiction reinforces our connectedness to others, our common experiences as human beings. It is, I believe, both an attempt by the writer to understand and reflect his or her perceptions of the world in which we live, and also an expression of infinite hope that others will share those views enough to want to read it. By extension, I think crime fiction is a way, not just to connect us with others’ experiences, but also to give voice to ‘the victim’ and to highlight injustice in society. James Lee Burke argues that it is the writer’s obligation to ‘tell the truth about the period he lives in and to expose those who exploit their fellow man.’ It’s no surprise then that the past decade in Ireland has seen an explosion in crime writing.
However, literature should also delight as well as instruct. Crime novels are not simply personal polemics; if they were, no one would read them. The reader must be entertained enough to want to turn the page, to maintain their connection with the writer through the text. The challenge then for a crime writer, is to create a narrative that is first and foremost an entertainment, without sensationalising or exploiting the real suffering that the novel often reflects.
The Nameless Dead was inspired by two different events. During September 2009, a local priest, Rev. Patrick O’Kane, began blessing the burial sites of unbaptised babies in Moville, County Donegal. Refused Christian burial in Church graveyards until the late 60s, these cillini, or ‘little churches’, are spotted around the countryside. A year later, over the course of the final months of 2010, The Independent Commission for the Recovery of Victim’s Remains located three of the Disappeared.
A number of things struck me about these unrelated incidents. In both instances, steps had finally been taken to rectify a denial of a most basic human need; to properly bury the dead according to the rights and customs of their faith. The mothers of the unbaptised children in particular commented on how they felt their child had been refused an identity, a sense of having never existed. It also struck me, as I listened to the families of those who had died, how often they referred to having been in a state of limbo; a comment made all the more poignant as, traditionally, that was the supposed destination of the unbaptised after death. This idea of limbo and the associated sense of being caught in a perpetual border was the one which connected, for me, these disparate events.
Consequently, the book concerns the discovery of a child’s body in a cillin during a dig for The Disappeared. The legislation for the recovery of the Disappeared states that any evidence uncovered in a dig is not admissible in criminal proceedings. In digging for a fictional member of the Disappeared on an island in the middle of the River Foyle, caught in the borderland between North and South, in a geographical limbo of sorts, the excavation team uncover a cillin. Among those remains, they find a victim of murder; a child whose killing, by law, An Garda cannot investigate. Of course, this being fiction, Garda Inspector Benedict Devlin follows his conscience.”
Blending true life that are still very raw and harrowing to today’s readers, with fiction, must have been a challenge, and I aked Brian how he tackled this. He told me, “While I wrote, I was constantly aiming to ensure that the book maintained the fine balance between reflecting the reality of those events, while at the same time, not exploiting other people’s pain. The denial of burial, and the failure to bury those nameless dead in marked graves, was an affront to the dignity of the individual. Yet, to too closely intrude on the grief of those left behind would likewise assault their dignity.Crime fiction should aim to reflect the truth of those who suffer without adding to that suffering. Most crime writers will research their subjects at length. In this case, that included for me, discussions with those involved in the digs for the Disappeared and those affected by the cillini. I use such research to inform my description of what happens within the book, rather than simply regurgitating someone’s singular experience. As a result, I deliberately choose to fictionalise all the characters in the novel from the start. To appropriate the identity of real people, to use their grief in a narrative entertainment, does not sit easily with me. It takes particular skill and sensitivity to manage that, as evidenced by writers like Eoin McNamee and David Peace.
I hope that, in The Nameless Dead, I have created a true and accurate reflection of real occurrences, but without exploiting any individual’s suffering or grief. A novel is, first and foremost, an imaginative act: it may be inspired by real life, but it is, ultimately, a fiction.”
(c) Brian Mc Gilloway August 2012