ECHOLAND (Liberties Press) last year, and it’s fair to say the conversation was wide-ranging. Enid Blyton, John Creasey, James Joyce, Franklin Roosevelt, Nancy Drew, Bill Clinton and Charles Haughey – they’re all here. To wit:
When it comes to telling stories, Joe Joyce isn’t exactly single-minded about the form he works in. A journalist by trade, he published a pair of critically acclaimed crime thrillers in the 1990s, Off the Record (1990) and The Trigger Man (1991). He reinvented himself as a playwright for The Tower (2008), an imagined meeting between the ghosts of James Joyce and Oliver St. John Gogarty. With co-author Peter Murtagh, he has published two non-fiction titles: The Guinnesses: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Most Successful Family (2009) and The Boss (1997), an account of former taoiseach Charlie Haughey’s years in power.
The latter book in particular was very well reviewed, although a certain Charles J. Haughey was distinctly unimpressed.
“He was very upset by the book, apparently,” says Joyce. “There was an occasion when he was meeting the other party leaders, Garrett Fitzgerald and Dick Spring – they were in government at the time – and he got very emotional and started almost crying to them about the book. Of course, one of the things with Haughey was that you never knew when he was putting on an act. Afterwards people kept asking him to sign copies of The Boss. He always wrote the same thing, ‘There is not a word of truth in this book.’”
He laughs quietly at Haughey’s hubris, but then presses on, keen to give both sides of the story.
“Haughey was an intriguing character in many ways. What tends to get forgotten, I suppose, is his charisma. The only way to understand him, I think, is to look on him as an actor. He modelled himself on French presidents like Francois Mitterand, people who are really big into the idea of the royalty of power, all the symbols and all the rest of it. He never wore a watch, for example. But when he walked into a room, he was absolutely the centre of it. And it wasn’t just the women.”
That combination of traits, the journalist’s desire to present both sides of the story and the vivid imagination that excavates a story from the bare bones of the facts, is what brings to life Joe Joyce’s latest offering, the novel Echoland. Set in Dublin in 1940, it opens with young army man Paul Duggan being promoted to G2, or Irish military intelligence, as German troops blitzkrieg their way through Europe.
With Ireland clinging to a tenuous neutrality, and rumours of invasion growing stronger by the day, it’s a time of intrigue, betrayal and espionage.
“It’s obviously one of the defining periods of modern Irish history,” says Joyce. “From a fictional point of view, what really interested me was trying to put myself back into that situation, which is a challenge because we all know now what happened, in order to capture the uncertainty of the time. I think we tend to look on the past as a simpler time, but that’s because we know what happened. The people of the time didn’t know what was going to happen – in fact, a lot of people thought they did know what was going to happen, and were wrong.”
Paul Duggan and his colleagues in G2 aren’t only concerned with German spies and a possible invasion by Nazi Germany. Ireland’s neutrality was also under threat from the British, who were pressurising the then taoiseach, Eamon De Valera, to join the Allied cause. De Valera’s refusal, Joyce believes, had consequences for Ireland for decades to come.
“I think that things would have been quite different if we hadn’t been neutral. It would have had a major effect on the later years of the 1940s, and on into the ’50s and ’60s. The more you get into that period the more you realise that the knock-on effect [of Ireland’s neutrality] probably blighted Irish-American relations up until the time of Bill Clinton. There was a serious falling-out between Franklin Roosevelt and Ireland because of it, and that had a real effect on us in the 1950s and 1960s. To the extent that, even when Kennedy came here [in 1963], he was not going to talk about Partition, he was not going to get into any of that. On the other hand,” he acknowledges, “it was perfectly understandable that Ireland would want to be neutral. It was only 20 years or so since we’d been fighting the British ourselves.”
Despite the vividly rendered political backdrop, Joyce emphasises the fictional aspects of Echoland.
“To me it’s an historical thriller. Hopefully it’s a good read above anything else. It’s not trying to push any particular line about neutrality or government policy or anything of a serious nature like that.”
Can we call it an old-fashioned spy novel?
“That’s fine with me. A spy novel, a political novel … I mean, what it’s not is a crime novel. You see these kinds of books classified as crime novels all the time, when they’re absolutely not.”
What’s the difference between a crime novel and a spy novel?
“To me, spy novels or political novels are more about ideas than they are about action. They involve action, of course, but they’re not about solving a particular crime. They’re usually about issues to which there is no simple or indeed complex answer. The story doesn’t resolve itself on the last page, necessarily, when the bad guy gets caught.”
A softly-spoken, self-deprecating 65-year-old, Joyce grew up in Ballinasloe in Galway reading “all the usual Enid Blyton books, Nancy Drew, The Castle of Adventure, all that kind of stuff. I graduated – if that’s the word – to all the John Creasey’s and other big crime writers of the time, mainly from the 1930s. A lot of them seemed to involve the Riviera and jewel thieves, who I see are still in business.”
“A lot of things got in the way of the writing,” he says, “from having to earn a living to health issues. Serious health problems held me back for the best part of 10 years. Why start all over again? Because it was always something I wanted to do.”
What got him back writing again, for the play The Tower, was an imagined conversation between the ghosts of James Joyce and Oliver St. John Gogarty. Did he ever stop to consider the audacity of writing dialogue for James Joyce?
“I know, the arrogance of it. Jesus, when I think about it now …” He shrugs. “I hadn’t written anything for a very long time, and that was the first thing I wrote in my so-called second coming. I live quite close to the Martello tower in Sandycove, and I was just walking by it one day, wondering what these guys might say to one another if they met now.”
Instead of the world-famous James Joyce, however, it was the largely overlooked Oliver St. John Gogarty’s reinvention of himself at an advanced age that intrigued Joe Joyce.
“What really got me interested was when I was in Renvyle House Hotel in Connemara, which Gogarty had owned and run as a hotel, and they had various things up on the wall, framed newspapers and telegrams and so forth. They had a piece there about Gogarty leaving Ireland when he was 61, going to live in New York – and I could see that age coming at me, and it seemed like a great idea, that you could start over again at 61. So that’s what fascinated me.”
Gogarty, who served as the inspiration for Buck Mulligan in Joyce’s Ulysses, wasn’t just a poet and author, but a politician, athlete and doctor besides.
“Gogarty was as smart a guy as Joyce, possibly even smarter, but he was a man with too many talents. And why is one writer remembered and not the other? Basically what it came down to, I think, was discipline.” A wry smile. “With which I totally empathise.”
Echoland by Joe Joyce is published by Liberties Press (€13.99)
This interview was first published in the Irish Examiner.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.