Sunday Times Review of Irregulars

Sunday Times Culture Section 21.07.13

Irregulars by KEVIN McCARTHY
New Island £13.99 pp383

It’s Dublin, 1922, and demobilised Royal Irish Constabulary man Seán O’Keeffe is at a loose, fragile and unemployable end. He drinks too much, he’s lonely for any kind of companionship, he is spooked by memories of combat in Gallipoli and in Ireland’s ‘’Tan War’’, he is mourning the death-in-action of his younger brother, and he is guilt-ridden at not seeing his parents for months even though he lives less than a mile from the family home. A chance meeting with a doctor alerts O’Keeffe to the fact that his father – also a former policeman – is ill. Three days later, after a skinful of booze and with the vague recollection if ‘’a heady miasma of perfume and sweat....the laughter of women and a crackling gramophone’’, O’Keeffe finally returns home.
His father, now drifting in and out of early-onset Alzheimer’s, burdens O’Keeffe witha moral debt that must be repaid to Ginny Dolan, a powerful brothel keeper in the city’s infamous Monto area. For some unknown reason, Dolan had O’Keeffe’s father in her pocket, and it is now the turn of his son to take that place. Ginny Dolan’s request? O’Keeffe must find her beloved teenage son, Nicholas, who has taken up with republican guerrillas (aka the ‘’irregulars’’).
With a nod to fellow Irish-American writer Dennis Lehane, Kevin McCarthy – whose 2010 debut crime Novel, Peeler, also featured the character of O’Keeffe – blends a rigorously researched, factually based storyline with an array of crime-novel characters, only a few of which come across as hackneyed.
O’Keeffe stalks his prey through the main thoroughfares and back streets of Dublin, via detention camps in Gormanstown. Dolan is embittered and quick-witted: ‘’Only in Ireland can men let politics come between them and a screw,’’ she notes.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a strong interest in Irish history – McCarthy writes such an involving, oft-times harsh story that lack of knowledge neither intrudes nor undermines they enjoyment. The contextual mood seems realistic for the times that are portrayed. Depression and disappointment, poverty, prostitution and child abuse are all here. No pretty pictures are painted and Irregulars is all the better for it

Tony Clayton-Lea