Peter Cunningham’s father served in World War Two. And though Peter knew he was brave – he was the only Irishman to be awarded the Military Cross – he always wondered how his fortunes had, suddenly changed in 1942.
“With his Nationalist background, he had felt unable to enlist in 1939. Instead, he worked as a civilian clerk with The Royal Engineers in Omagh; but then within 10 days, he became a second lieutenant in Scotland, with the Royal Engineers, and that was incredibly unusual. He never spoke about it, and I always wondered, how did he get in?”
Towards the end of his life, his father answered Peter’s question.
“He said that in Omagh, his main function was to provide information, trying to figure out what was happening in the area. He worked undercover, and had to go to Belfast to be debriefed. And then something happened. Maybe he was rumbled, so, wham! He went to Scotland.”
Although he was intrigued by this, Peter wasn’t altogether surprised to learn that his father had been a spy.
“Living on the edge was almost second nature to him. He took risks, and would, later, become a gambler, but I think it had a big effect on him.
“I tried to imagine the horrible world of espionage, where no one trusts anyone else, and no one knows what the hell anyone is up to. It’s a world where you don’t have partnerships – you have handlers and their assets.”
Deciding that it would be an excellent subject for a novel, Peter began work on Acts of Allegiance, but he moved the action to the time of the Arms Trial, and the subsequent burgeoning of trouble in Northern Ireland, but the lead character, Marty, is informed by his family experience.
“I grew up in that Haughey era. It was absolutely sensational! The Minister for Finance and the Minister for Agriculture arrested for gun running in a modern democracy! We thought we’d got beyond all that, but realised we hadn’t at all!”
The Cunningham family in Waterford have always been interested in politics. Peter’s grandfather was an election agent for John Redmond, the leader of the Irish party, and he was chosen as the Godfather to Peter’s father.
“When I had just left school, my parents brought me to Saint Cloud racecourse in Paris. My father used to drink in a tiny cubby-hole under the grandstand. I was brought down there, to find him drinking with Lemass – who had been Taoiseach, and who was, of course, Haughey’s father in law. I was sent upstairs with Lemass’s bets. I wish I could go back there, and hear what they talked about.”
He replicates this in a key scene in Acts of Allegiance that sees Charles J Haughey approach Marty, asking him to act as a go-between, and to make contact with Iggy Kane, his cousin and childhood friend, who is emmeshed in the newly forged IRA faction in the North. Marty feels uneasy, because he’s not comfortable helping the republicans, but he goes along with it.
“Marty is a conflicted character; in his family background, his religion and his political allegiances. The risks he takes aren’t really so much conscious, as risks he slides into, because the cause is something he scarcely believes in.”
Recounting the events, three years later, of Bloody Sunday, Peter conveys the shock and despair felt at the time.
“I was working in Dublin in 1972. I was in the march that ended up burning down the British Embassy.” His father was even more incensed. “He was appalled. He went upstairs and got out his war decorations. He put them in a box and posted them back to England.”
This isn’t the first time that Peter has based a novel on real events. Back in 2003, The Taoiseach, a thinly disguised depiction of the Haughey era caused a minor sensation.
“A lot of the players were still around, so one had to be extremely careful. I called my character Harry Messenger, and had several long sessions with libel lawyers before publication. A lot of things had to be changed, like the colour of people’s hair, and how they spoke. It felt like sacrilege at the time.
“Some people were very angry. They thought the novel was disrespectful, and I heard that a lot of the business figures in Dublin were annoyed by it.” He laughs. “That made me think, I must be getting something right!”
Peter started writing almost as soon as he could read.
“It was a compulsion.” He wrote short stories at school, earning five guineas for one of them, through publication in a magazine called, Awake. But after gaining a poor pass BA in English and Economics at University College Dublin, He became a chartered accountant.
“Then I went to the states for a job in the New York Stock Exchange, and hung around there. Then I came home and got married, and had to work. But I kept writing, and was published by David Marcus in New Irish writing, and the two became great friends.
Things changed, when, on a trip abroad, Peter bought a thriller, read it, and though it was something he could do.
“I wrote a thriller called Noble Lord about an IRA plot to assassinate the Queen at the Epsom Derby. It did very well. I published it with the pseudonym Peter Lauder, because I thought it might be a global success and make me a household name, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted that.”
He followed it with more thrillers, writing one a year for the next four years. Some did well, and, with lucrative advances, Peter gave up the day job, but then a number of things evolved.
“I didn’t want to go on writing pot boilers. I wanted to be more reflective, and to write books that you could open on any page and read aloud from.”
Peter’s wife, looking after their six children, was supportive, but in 1990, tragedy struck.
“Our eldest son was killed in a car accident on his way back from school. It was indescribable, and stripped everything away to the bare wire. That confirmed all I’d been thinking. I felt I had to write about these more profound emotions and issues than occurred in the books I had been writing.”
Over the years, he penned the four Monument novels – based on a fictitious Waterford. These were well received; the fourth, The Sea and the Silence won the prestigious Prix de l’Europe. At the same time, Peter wrote reviews, and opinion and travel pieces for newspapers, and gained a column in The Irish Independent.
He started writing Acts of Allegiance in 2008, but getting stuck, he walked away from it, and wrote The Trout, a novel using fly fishing as a metaphor, that was published last year, to wide acclaim. Then, retrieving Acts of Allegiance, he worked hard to make the structure work.
“Writing is all about the business of craft. This book goes backwards and forwards in its time frame, and it has to feel natural to the reader. My entire office was covered with chapter headings and summaries, and I went around trying to get it to work. Then I tested the prose by reading it aloud. That way so many infelicities pop out.”
He is currently in the foothills of a new novel for Sandstone Press. Does writing make him happy?
“I think so. Time seems to become suspended. When you have the knack of something; when you know you can do it, albeit with effort, it is a happy place to be. Long may it last!”
Acts of Allegiance by Peter Cunningham. Sandstone Press: €14.99.
© Sue Leonard. 2017