Luke Cassidy’s debut novel Iron Annie (Bloomsbury, September) opens with a woman pretending she’s interested in a man and then stealing his bag while he’s in the toilet.
Bakin deep in the swell of the night she was, sat there sittin through the barrels’a shite comin spewin out’a yon lad’s mouth. Tryinta impress her he was. T’impress her. Can y’imagine yon? Ar Annie n’all? The fuckin Iron Ann.
The whole novel is in this voice, the voice of Aoife, a sharp and funny drug dealer in Dundalk. She fills the reader in on back-room negotiations, mess-ups, sexual revelations, and a fraught road trip to England to offload ten kilos of stolen cocaine.
When I met Cassidy for a pint in Dublin, he said that the book’s opening lines were the first words in Aoife’s voice that he wrote:
Writing in Ireland is very female-led these days and one thing that I’ve noticed is that there’s always a hint of surprise when people say: ‘You really captured a woman’s voice.’
I think there is this strange idea that men and women are somehow fundamentally different. And I think there’s a suspicion that men don’t listen to women because a lot of men are not good at listening to women. But if you can listen to, Jesus, the other gender, it’s not like the other side or something. I’ve never considered it like that.
Iron Annie is being published on both sides of the Atlantic and has been optioned for TV by the producers of Bodyguard and Line of Duty, World Productions. In the US it will be published by the Penguin Random House imprint Vintage.
Penguin Random House have a policy that if anyone is writing out of their own perspective they’ll commission a sensitivity read.
I was living with two queer woman in a shared flat in Ljubljana when I was writing Iron Annie in 2018 … Often I’d say “Dana, Sasha, can I read you this new bit of the thing I’m writing?” Slovene people are very direct people, in certain ways; they would say: “No that’s bullshit. You wanna read this book.” They’re both very literary women so they were able to give me a good steer on all of that long before Penguin Random House commissioned a sensitivity read.
Idiosyncrasies of Aoife’s voice make for fast-paced storytelling. She doesn’t notice clothes and there’s no stopping to fill in what the interior of a pub or trailer looks like. The book’s short chapters are collected in sections with titles like “Wait till I tell Ye”, “This’ll sound funny, But”, “Here’s the Craic”.
Only when I met Cassidy did I realise that for all its high-spirited, high-stakes stories, the book’s structure is that of a ruminating mind.
You have this linear narrative of Aoife and Annie going on a road trip and then this cyclical narrative of Aoife returning to the past, whether she’s trying to point to the moments when the danger was present or sometimes retreating into ‘Ah but things were good’. My main interest in this is how does memory work.
The question of flawed narration is one to which Cassidy has an interesting point of entry. For his doctoral thesis in the cultural anthropology of the narrative he conducted interviews with former IRA-members.
If you’ve been in jail for 10 years or something and you join the RA again, or maybe you never left, but if you go back into combat or active duty, what is happening there? What is that process? Because that has often been understood as a very black and white kind of statistical “This kind of person from that kind of background who experience this kind of thing”, but what I found was that there was an immensely rich storytelling process that informed the actions of these men, because they were always men. They basically inhabited a mnemonic world (a word specific to memory studies) in which the history and their place in it was entirely distorted but you couldn’t talk to them about that. You couldn’t say to them: “Well actually, Cúchulainn wasn’t fighting the Brits and you have nothing to do with Cúchulain or Brian Boru or whatever.”
In the book, IRA members are seen as hypocrites.
Now, Paddy, the local ringleader’a the fake RA-heads – the ‘Real’ IRA or whatever they liketa call themselves – he’s a dealer himself so it’s pretty funny him actin like a vigilante an that. Half’a them ones’re at it. They deal what they say is clean, an come down hard on all the honest drug dealers when they feel like it.
The book’s depiction of the meshing of the IRA and the drug world is one of a few fronts on which Cassidy delivers a cutting analysis. He also treats the market forces of small-town drug dealing, police-dealer understandings and the difference between Garda and PSNI crack-downs.
Much of the book’s action is between drug dealers, but Cassidy’s stylistic choices and liberal helpings of humour make this world seem unthreatening. There’s a scene with a gun that’s almost slapstick. There are more heists than there is coercion or dealers in debt. Drug addicts are out of sight. There is a point where Cassidy broaches a profound emotional register to countenance a casualty of the drug trade but the underlying humour soon returns. Cassidy holds the most vicious characters in the book at many arms’ length, referring to them exclusively as sharks. Cassidy has described the world of the book as “larger than life” rather than “journalistic”.
This softer edge might also have something to do with Aoife’s point of entry to this world. I read the book thinking of her as a drug dealer, and while that’s what she does for most of the book, there is a distinction to be made. Cassidy told me about the “Wheeler Dealers” of the border counties.
It’s somebody who will deal in counterfeit cigarettes but also, if somebody has a ton of spuds that they’re looking to offload, they’ll deal them fine. It doesn’t matter. That very specific resourceful character that exists on the border.
Cassidy’s cast includes men who undermine Aoife on the basis of sex, but she is successful anyway. Surprised to see a woman get on so well in this world I asked Cassidy: “As a dealer, are you not required to physically fight your corner?”
I wouldn’t like to overplay the insight I have into that world because I am not a drug dealer and I am not a bootlegger but I think having grown up in that place; in my teenage years there were a lot of people who were involved at various different levels. [For a doctoral thesis in anthropology] I interviewed ten men who did terrible things in the Provisional IRA in the time of the Troubles and I think those worlds are much less black and white than we imagine. Certain headlines and events that appear now and then will feed in to that imagination but I think there’s an awful lot more negotiation and supposition and subterfuge that goes on which means that force may come in to play but I think even in this gangster-type world, for want of a better expression, it’s rarely the first resort.
An episode which illustrates that, which I wanted to be comical as well, is when the Maguires [dealers] invite these lads from Liverpool and they’re threatening to take over. It’s a process of negotiation at that point, and Aoife’s great strength there is that she’s smart. I was very inspired in a way by David Simon’s case studies in The Wire and the character in the first series, the second in command, Stringer Bell, who is ostensibly a drug dealer but also he’s going to community college and reading ancient Chinese philosophy. He’s really smart and he’s just trying to work with what’s in front of him.
I often think of myself and what I’m doing now as “I’m trying to work with what I have.” Hence the Cabaret. I happen to have talented friends so I’m trying to do something with them.
The cabaret, which premiered in Dundalk in October, is a one-woman play composed of verbatim sections of the book with a focus on Aoife and Annie’s relationship. Eleanor McLoughlin gives a commanding performance as a fierce and funny Aoife, rendering occasional mock-serious impressions of other characters.
The unusual staging has two bands on stage. Punk band “False Slag” let loose (à la rave) on one side. “Dandelion Few”’ sing mellow folk songs on the other side. The production avoids turning into a wordy musical by keeping the spotlight off Aoife during the music. McLoughlin playfully mocks the men in the punk band for their hipster moustaches, for being good for nothing. The book provides ample fodder.
There was one point at the cabaret’s premiere in Dundalk when the air went out of the room.
settled folk don’t care bowt travellers, they’d love them all to be smothered in their sleep, they’d love themta juss go away cept they won’t. So most settled folk are dead frustrated cause they haveta call them the Travelling Community even though they’re juss thinkin scum.
I asked Cassidy about this.
People are racist. I don’t mind making people feel uncomfortable. I think that it’s helpful. If even one person went away from that thinking about that … I think that Eleanor did that marvellously. There’s not a word of that that I would say is untrue.
The quoted section about Travellers is in the voice of a character called Rat King, so called because he keeps a live rat in his pocket. (One of the book’s other larger-than-life characters dresses in a caterpillar suit.)
Rat King runs a drug operation. He is shrewd, good to Aoife, and in addition to being fluent in French, has an unnerving ability to switch from the Dundalk vernacular to ultra-academic English. Some other dealers refuse to deal with him because he is a traveller. This activates the same sense of injustice in Aoife that sexism does. I put the following proposition to Cassidy: “The most educated person in the book is a Traveller. Aoife hasn’t been to college but she, far more than college-educated Annie, sees through things. The book seems to be making a point about who should be thought of as intelligent.”
I wouldn’t want the book to be misread as a sort of a thesis … Books that are reviewed as being about ordinary lives or working class narratives or this sort of thing often presuppose a certain level of stupidity. Most drug dealers or people who are involved in those activities who I’ve had the chance to spend time with, most wheeler dealers, are very smart people. Very smart in a way that I’m not. I can try to be but I don’t have that level of instinctive smartness. And Aoife in that sense is very different from me, she’s very instinctive, very quick. I think Rat King is more like me, which means that the next book is more intimate, though we’re still very different.
The ending of Iron Annie is practically a drum roll for a sequel, but Cassidy’s sights are set on the longer term.
I think that, these days, publishers are trying to market and create a brand around any author who’s any way successful and the authors do lean in to that and I’m not sure that it’s good for the work. I’ve committed to a trilogy of books in this vein. But I do not intend to always write about Dundalk. I do not intend to always write fiction which is identifiably Irish. I have a novel that I have been working on all through this time which is very different.
Luke Cassidy’s Iron Annie was published by Bloomsbury last September.
Mary Nagle lives and works in Dublin