War is not a game of Tiddlywinks.
War arrived on my doorstep when I was still at primary school. The IRA brought it when they turned up one morning to shoot our next-door neighbour. The British Army had already moved as an occupying force into our towns and villages across South Armagh, disrupting the normal life of everyone as they fought a vicious conflict with the IRA. Neither side gave much quarter.
I’m sure there are as many ways to react to such experiences as there are human beings. But for me these drove a powerful interest in history, particularly Irish history, in an effort to understand how we had come to the bloody circumstances that shaped the society I grew up in. It was also to more fully grapple with some of these issues that I wrote The Undiscovered Country, a tale of a murder investigation by Republican Police in a fictional part of county Mayo during the war of independence.
I left Ireland, when I was 23, to work first in Ethiopia and then as a humanitarian worker in Afghanistan and Angola. War, I found, differed in scale in each of these places. But what all had in common was that they enmeshed ordinary people in systems of increasingly brutal inhumanity towards other ordinary human beings. And, even if you try to stand apart from armed partisanship, war can entrap you in other lethal choices. It leaves nothing clean. As one of my characters, Eamon, observes, “War is not a game of Tiddlywinks. There has never been one fought without atrocities on all sides.”
Given all of this, I’ve always found it troubling the way that some who have never heard a shot fired in anger fetishize the military. It has almost become a national pastime in the UK, where a romanticised ideal of the Second World War has become an alternative established church, and where the British Conservative party now even resent the idea that British armed forces should be held to basic human rights standards. But Ireland is not immune to this either. Those singing “Up the ‘Ra” at a recent Sinn Fein electoral success displayed spectacular insensitivity to all those who suffered so grievously at the hands of the IRA, treating the awful tragedy of war as if it were indeed some sort of robust game of Tiddlywinks. These revellers have forgotten, if the ever knew, what another of my characters, Sophia, understands, that with civil war, “Even when the grief fades the bitterness won’t.”
Always close to the front of my mind these thoughts were brought to the surface again reading Charles Townsend’s fine history of the Irish War of Independence, The Republic. Reading it alone one night on a work trip I was intrigued by the section on the functioning of the Republican police and courts. My mind wandered to the idea of what might have happened if some of these police had come across a murder they had to investigate.
I thought no more of the idea until a few days later, back at home and I mentioned this to my wife. “That’s interesting,” she said. “What happened next?”
So, at this prompting, I began to write into existence my two reluctant murder detectives. Trying to follow Elmore Leonard’s advice on writing, the book grew out of the conversations that the characters had.
But if Elmore Leonard was one inspiration, the historian Christopher Browning was another. Contemplating atrocities in the Second World War, Browning wrote that if, without having lived through the events he described, a person declared that they would definitely behave one way rather than another, then they are saying simply one thing: that they don’t know what they are talking about. Circumstances can profoundly shape individual human’s actions, particularly if they are not clear what their moral values really are in relation to those circumstance.
As my narrative evolved, I found my protagonists were confronted with all the moral ambiguities that I’d seen over a lifetime at the margins of battles and war. The innate desire of my two principal protagonists to do the right thing was not, I found, any guarantee that this would actually happen.
I hope the result is entertaining and also that it is unsettling. Even in societies at peace it is important not to be glib about war. As John Hume never tired of reminding us, the essence of humanity is diversity, and yet too often that is used as a basis for prejudice and violence. But, at the end of the day, there is always hope. As Sophia also says, “Moral outrage… more… than killing, is what ultimately changes the world for the better”, because, when we can stir enough of that it is when we shall overcome.
(c) Aidan McQuade
Author photography (c) Jakub Sobik, Anti-Slavery International
About The Undiscovered Country:
1920, the Irish War of Independence. Amid the turmoil of an emerging nation, two young IRA members assigned to police a rural village discover the body of a young boy, apparently drowned.
One of them, a veteran of the First World War, recognises violence when he sees it – but does one more corpse really matter in this time of bitter conflict?
The reluctant detectives must navigate the vicious bloodshed, murky allegiances and savage complexities of a land defining itself to find justice for the murdered boy. Neither of them realises just how dangerous their task will become.
‘One is struck by its mordant wit and fierce intelligence’ Martin W. Sandler, National Book Award-winning author and historian
Order your copy online here.