Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Legend of St Ernan's Blues



When I completed work on the first Inspector Starrett mystery  – The Dust of Death – I immediately (quite literally the following morning) started writing the 2nd in the series - Family Life. Although I had the idea for the three books right from the get go, I didn’t start work on the 3rd title for several years. Starrett is a very enjoyable character to write but I had to wait for the right time in order to make it work. Time had to pass on and off the page; things had to happen, things which I had no say in, but yet, things I had to pay attention to. On top of which, in the meantime I had other writing pleasures to attend to.  Like the Castlemartin stories, the 10th Kennedy and the 1st McCusker.  

I had the opening scene of the 3rd Starrett in my mind's eye for ages.  A young novice priest would be found slumped over in a chair while a pot of potatoes still boiled on the nearby stove. There wouldn't be any noticeable marks about his body that pointed to the reason for his demise. Starrett and his team would be called in to investigate. There was a wee bit of an Agatha Christie vibe to it, although maybe the original title - with a nod to Paul Simon's beautiful lyric - Hello Darkness My Old Friend, was a bigger clue to my themes.  I did like the Agatha Christie approach where she would have the majority of the suspects in the one space; you know, like a train, or a boat or a library. I thought my mystery would be better suited to a retirement home for priests. I took time out from writing and spent quite a bit of time "getting to know" the 11 members of clergy, working out their backstory, their foibles, if you will, and making them individuals.

Now I needed a house, a believable house.  
I’m always discovering that fact is stranger than fiction - much stranger - that real locations are always infinitely more interesting than fictional ones. Take for instance the case in point: St Ernan’s House on St Ernan’s Island, located a stone’s throw from Donegal Town.  I was intrigued by the island and the house from the first time I encountered them.  I believe Catherine and I may have stayed in the house when it was a guest house, and I admit that might even have been my imagination.  But either way, bit by bit, I discovered the history of the Island. The story about how the causeway was built is true; the fireplace coming from the burnt out Eske Castle and the original antique pen nibs addressed to then owner, John Hamilton, being found in the house, are both true and have been included in attempts to try and make fiction read as fact. The four master writers that Starrett discovers amongst the St Ernan’s residents in the house are nods back to the original 4 master writers who were based in the nearby Donegal Town Castle and endeavouring to write the history of Ireland.

Now I had my house, a lone house on a small island, an island, and I also had my title: St Ernan's Blues. 

When I was doing research for St Ernan’s Blues I was intrigued by both the house and the island. I tried several times to fix up a visit to go and examine the Island and, if I was very lucky, the house.  The owner was very polite; the times weren’t convenient, “maybe check in again in a few months,” he said. I did and (equally politely) a few more times after that. Eventually he agreed I could come over and Catherine dropped me off by the front door and she and her father Gerry and our two nephews, Oisin and Darragh, went off for a drive around the grid lock that is Donegal Town, promising to return to pick me up. The owner was very generous with his time and showed me around the wonderful historic house.  I was always conscious I was encroaching on his time and tried really hard to do the swiftest version of the tour, while keeping my wish for an investigative walk around the island to myself. Don’t get me wrong, the owner was at all times very hospitable, but I believe by the time Catherine returned to pick me up, his sigh of relief was definitely visible.  He walked me out to the car and as we were saying our goodbyes, he though he recognised someone in the car. 

“Is that Gerry McGinley?” he asked.

“It is indeed,” I replied.

“How do you know Gerry,” he asked, as he quickly walked over to the car.

“He’s my father-in-law,” I replied.

“Sure you should have told me that,” he said, as he opened the car door and started shaking Gerry’s hand furiously. 

You see my father-in-law was a well loved legend in Donegal; very sadly he has since passed. The owner knew him and everything changed immediately. As he chatted away to Gerry he invited me to have an explorative dander around the island, “and go and look around the house again if you want to” and when I returned they were still chatting away ten to the dozen. 

From their chat I got a sense of the old Donegal, of how people dealt with each other; of how when people know you are connected to people they know and respect, they are prepared to offer you the same genuine hospitality friends of theirs would recieve in return, were the situation ever reversed.  

I came away from my visit to St Ernan’s Island with the words (and melody) from a famous traditional song of the county. “Your hearts are like your mountains in the homes of Donegal,” ringing around my head and my soul and knowing that the time would never be better to start work on my book.