We speak to Ardal O’Hanlon on publication day for his second novel, Brouhaha. Known for wry looks at life and society, you can except similar observations from Ardal in fiction, as satire, comedy and mystery mingle in a tale of a small border town during the transition to peace.
he recent death of Dove Connolly has brought an end to his life, but the beginning (and community wide panic) of questions around past strange and unsolved events.
Rumours abound as Dove’s best friend returns to Tullyanna after years away and it’s not long before his arrival sees him the subject of unwelcome attention.
“I suppose from a publisher’s point of view they’d prefer it did tick a specific box, but I suppose from my own point of view, I always had big ambitions for it,” says Ardal of not being able to put Brouhaha in one genre.
“I wanted it to be funny; it was important to me that it would be darkly humorous, but not at the expense of the drama.
“There would be humour, but it would come very much from character and from situations, that was really important.
“I wanted to kind of at least play around with the tropes of crime fiction, acknowledging that it’s not an out and out crime thriller.
“I love crime fiction, and I’ve and I’ve got a lot of respect for it, and I wouldn’t presume to call mine an out and out potboiler, I don’t think it is.
“I did want to use some of the tropes of crime fiction just to just to give the story some momentum as much as anything and give it that kind of deadpan tone and some of that kind of hardboiled language.”
While the politicisation of memory dominates Brouhaha, it remains a funny, intrinsically Irish novel, full of weirdness and oddities that we may not find unusual, but others would.
“That was another thing that was really important to me, to capture some of that detail, that minutiae of small-town life, the little pieties and little hypocrisies and the mores of everyday life in a small town,” says Ardal, who is currently starring on Channel 4’s Taskmaster.
“I really wanted to get that as well across and you’re absolutely right, what we consider to be perfectly normal, other people might think it very surreal and kind of odd and especially growing up along the border where you had a sectarian conflict raging only a few miles away.
“You had the Troubles and all the atrocities that went with that and you know, a lot of people just carried on with their lives, and that’s the only way that you can cope is to kind of put your head down and get on with it.
“So we consider that’s perfectly normal, so when we watch shows like Fargo on TV or something like that, we can relate to that almost, that kind of violence undercurrent or that sort of deadpan humour and so on.”
History is something of matter to Ardal, who fronted documentary Tomb Raider, delving into Ireland’s famous archaeological sites, discovering what they tell us about our past and why their discovery was so important.
The documentary also picked up on his interest with the Celts and the myths and legends of popular imagination.
Brouhaha equally focuses on the past, on what was remembered versus what really happened — plus the history that people choose not to talk about.
“I celebrated the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement as much as anyone,” says Ardal.
“I felt like it was just a great day for the island of Ireland, having grown up watching the news every night.
“The peace has been hard won and very well preserved really given everything.
“It’s been a great time in history, but a small price to pay for that, in the sense that some families didn’t get justice, some families didn’t get to the truth.
“A blind eye was turned to some events, and I suppose my book touches a little on that as well.
“I don’t think it’s a political novel; I don’t think you need to know about Irish history to appreciate the novel, but I do think it adds a little extra dimension to it, certainly for an Irish reader.”
We talk of another book, The Vanishing Triangle by Claire McGowan, also featured in the Belfast Telegraph Review, with the author describing life on the other side of the incredibly close, almost imperceptible border.
Living in such a location may feel like another world, we suggest.
“Even as a kid it was surreal,” says Ardal, who is from Carrickmacross in Co Monaghan.
“I was always fascinated by that, and not just Troubles related but any sort of violent incident that happened in my little sleepy town.
“I used to read the court reports avidly as a child in the local newspaper and I was shocked but fascinated by the just gothic level of violence.
“I think I touch on it in the book. One of my characters is a journalist and she writes these court reports.
“It would often be people you knew personally and who would be lovely, shy, quiet types, and then they’d be howling at the moon that weekend,” he laughs.
Described as a ‘whip-sharp satire,’ Ardal’s Brouhaha is peppered with plenty of perceptive phrasing on Tullyanna’s residents and the motives for their actions.
But the minutiae that Ardal speaks about is ever present: how someone eats their (many bowls) of cereal to moving commentary on being a parent and grandparent.
Can a writer feel pleased when a specific phrase or paragraph hits the mark?
“Ah, you really can,” he laughs.
“You’re always very, very nervous about the end result and how it’s going to be received. Today, on publication day, I’m bricking it because it’s out here now in circulation. It’s beyond my control now, I’ve done what I can with it.
“At the time I was writing this, I have to tell you, I was really into it, and I was chuckling to myself all day long. I got great satisfaction from it.
“I’ve attempted to write other novels over the years and other long form projects like film scripts and things where I was really struggling, and I wasn’t enjoying the process.
“I just felt with this story and with this tone and with these characters, I felt I was onto something. I really went with it and that’s great satisfaction from the writing point of view when you come up with a great line.”
Ardal’s debut novel, The Talk of the Town, was published in the late 1990s and also centres on secrets and the importance — and outcome — of others’ opinions.
He says that lockdown helped spur his writing — it ‘kind of’ came back easily — and that with his other projects, whether documentaries or writing comedic stand up, the writing process is quite similar.
“The bottom line is you sit down to a desk every day, in front of the blank page, and you try to fill it up with whatever is bugging you at the time, or whatever you’re trying to process,” he says.
“And with this novel, I suppose I had a good first draft, which I’d written about five or six years ago, and I was delighted with that first draft.
“And then I got busy with other things, other projects, and I’d always intended to come back to that. So when lockdown came around, I had the time and I think that’s really important.
“I’ve learned that to do something like this, you first of all need a very good idea and then you need to really carve out a good chunk of time.
“You need to eliminate all distractions and the pandemic, while I’m not saying it was a godsend or anything, it wasn’t, but at least from the point of view of writing this project, there were no other distractions.
“Everything else had collapsed in terms of my working life so I was able to focus on this single-mindedly for a year or so. It kept me sane to have this to do every day.
“I’m used to live performing,” he continues, “and productions and travelling every week and you always have this anxiety, this low-level anxiety, that you walk around with.
“My life is adrenaline fuelled to some extent; you do need a certain amount of adrenaline to go on stage.
“For the first time in my working life, that was gone. I was trapped in the house, there was nowhere to go.
“I actually felt like my body at least relaxed.
“Mentally I was still up to 90 but physically, I kind of relaxed in a way I hadn’t done for a long time. I think that helps as well.”
Ardal has endeared himself to many TV lovers — of course, firstly as Father Dougal McGuire in the iconic Father Ted, as George Sunday/Thermoman in My Hero and later, as DI Jack Mooney in Death in Paradise.
Being fortunate to be part of TV royalty as one of the Craggy Island trio is one thing, but he’s also delighted to part of a more recent programme.
He laughs when we say we must talk about Derry Girls, wherein he played Eamonn, son of Aunt Bridie who dropped dead at a family wedding.
In the final series, Eamonn’s complimented for his shapely pins (thanks to Aunt Sarah) when he temporarily moves into the Quinn/McCool home.
“It was absolutely brilliant,” he says of his appearances.
“I’m very conscious that my role is a very small cameo but just to be part of what is now a piece of TV history,” he says.
“I think Lisa was making a nod to that by casting me in Derry Girls,” he says of the link.
“She was always very conscious of that link, you know, between Father Ted and Derry Girls. She was paying homage to Father Ted in some way by casting me in it.
“It’s such a great show, such a great celebration of women, a celebration of Northern Ireland. It’s such a warm show featuring representations of all the generations. And then she managed to sneak in the politics as well. It’s incredible.
“A lot of people made the point during the week that people
in the UK particularly learned more about Northern Irish history in an hour of comedy than they did in 20 years of watching the news.”
Brouhaha by Ardal O’Hanlon, HarperCollins Ireland, £16.99, is available now