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The Branchman by Nessa O’Mahony

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Article by Robert Craven ©.
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Set in the aftermath of the Irish Civil War, Nessa O’Mahony has written a novel as historically important as Frank O’Connor’s ‘Guests of the Nation’. Set in 1925, Detective Michael Mackey of the Special Branch travels to East Galway to root out subversives hell-bent on scuppering the fledgling state. He finds himself caught up in a murder, a spider’s web of old grudges, loyalties and unrequited love.

O’Mahony’s strengths as a writer is her ear for the tones and cadences of the West of Ireland as well as an eye for detail and the murky world of civil war politics that still resonate today. She handles set pieces masterfully and maintains a tight rein on the plot. Each of her characters to a lesser or greater degree are conflicted, be it Mackey’s colleagues who have now become the ‘Guardians of the peace’ from the disbanded R.I.C. or the antagonists who cannot accept the six-county border, the Treaty or the new political breeze blowing in from Dublin. She captures too, the landscape of Ireland, evoking the wild unpopulated areas of beauty and their inherent dangers from an ambush. Locals are deftly drawn and clearly identifiable through crisp dialogue and small gestures that capture their character; as Bertold Brecht once observed, each character should have a ‘guest’ and again O’Mahony adheres to this observation.

She touches too on the other great taboo of Irish Independence and the subsequent civil war, the de-mobbed Irish who fought in WW1 for England of whom Mackey is one. She doesn’t dwell on the horrors of the trenches, but in short blunt passages captures the death and misery the men endured. This adds greater conflict to Mackey’s character, not knowing who to trust or who knows his background prior to his new posting. It’s a different country he returns to after shipping out in 1914 to France.

A brilliant and worthy novel, one the Irish State Broadcaster, RTE should look at closely as a TV film. From the moment he appears on the page, I pictured Mackey being portrayed by Robert Mitchum; a man who could silence a room by just walking in. Mackey’s a flawed character, an outsider who makes occasional mistakes, but it a professional, loyal to his new employers and not afraid to stand up for the people he’s assigned to protect. A memorable creation from an unspoken part of Irish history.

(c) Robert Craven

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