A Conspiracy of Lies, by Frank Connolly, Mercier Press, 352 pp, €16.99, ISBN: 978-1781176627
Consider for a moment the many things you “know for a fact” that you could never prove in a court of law. Every journalist worth her or his salt is familiar with the agony of having the inside track on a story, its truth established to one’s own satisfaction but knowing you will never get it past the in-house lawyers. News of this kind circulates in a particular way, on a level of discourse we have all of us learned to handle skilfully, never giving our full assent but sure, as we absorb a particular story, that there is the feel of truth, or at least of some truth, in what we are hearing. The investigative journalist who has invested time and much hard work in cultivating a wide and deep range of sources, who has become skilled in placing these sources on a scale of reliability, whose honed instinct has been well-developed, will necessarily feel the agony that attends such stories a little more keenly. To have the elements of truth in your hand, to feel the itch to put this truth out there in the public domain, but to be restrained and frustrated by the constraints of what must be provable in law … it’s an occupational hazard of course, but somehow I doubt that this lessens the agony.
The customary solution for many journalists, the cure for both pain and the unscratched professional itch, is to write a novel, to cloak truth in fiction, deep enough to keep the hounds of the law at bay yet not so deep that the reader can’t piece out or puzzle out what’s being told. Frank Connolly is considered by many, including myself, one of the best investigative journalists of recent times, so when he sets a novel in and around the tumultuous days of 1974, when the bombs went off in Monaghan and Dublin, one is inclined to sit up and pay a particular kind of attention. Sure enough, in A Conspiracy of Lies the reader will feel that he or she is getting a considerable education in the murky and often savage politics of the day ‑ no shortage here of hints as to the provenance of the bombs (and of the bombers’ masters), and a very great deal of backstairs political intrigue. Much of the texture of the book, in fact, the savour of the thing if you will, is given by the knowing elaboration of party intrigue, the struggle for government, the toxic to and fro of Irish-British relations at official and darkly, perhaps murderous, unofficial levels. If you are drawn to a Manichean view of how our lords and masters conduct themselves out of the public view ‑ and sometimes quite blatantly in the public view – you’ll find much to intrigue you here. Nothing as blatant as point-to-point mapping of course, but you don’t have to be familiar with the ins and outs of, say, the Sallins case, to be convinced by the ugly and savage behaviour of the Garda Heavy Gang as it turns up in a key scene of the book.
We are not dealing here with a roman à clef, however, rather with a novel, a work of fiction, that draws its persuasive atmosphere and texture from an intimate knowledge of what went on behind the half-shut doors of that dark time. The narrative drive of the book is, in fact, a rather touching love story, a gradual uncovering to each other of two people damaged by the times they live in, unsure of themselves and of each other, who find a tentative salvation in surviving the dangers of what they have discovered by chance. Joe Heney and Angie Whelan are marked by their experiences of the Dublin Bombing ‑ she almost lost her mother, he almost lost his life in those savage attacks ‑ and their separate experiences will inflect and colour their subsequent lives in ways that plunge them, all unknowing, into a world of possible hurt. What they discover through overhearing conversations in the restaurant where they work, knowledge they feel fated first to pursue and then make public, is what drives them together, apart, and then together again as they pursue, for themselves and for the reader, a story that has an eerie, even unsettling, ring of the plausible. I put it like this because sometimes the author surfaces from deep inside his tale, destabilising his characters in order to point his moral. Natural enough, I suppose, to find the frustrated journalist sometimes elbowing the novelist aside under the pressure of the back-story. That said, Connolly makes skilful use, sometimes very skilful use, of what we may feel sure are large dark truths from those dark and barely examined times, but never to the extent that the knowingness undermines the unfolding story of love between young Joe and young Angie. Drawn from the city’s margins, unprivileged and powerless, harried and threatened by forces far beyond their control, they nevertheless manage to win through to a small place in the world where love and justice are somehow, however tentatively, served.
Theo Dorgan is a writer and poet. He lives in Dublin.