I’d committed myself to writing a thriller a year for HaperCollins and I just couldn’t do that anymore
If a young Peter Cunningham had ever been asked to stand up and tell the class about his father, there would have been something of an awkward gap in the story. And even had he known then what he knows now, he would’ve had to keep his mouth shut. His family had always known Cunningham Sr was a highly decorated WWII Royal Engineers army officer. He was a local hero in Ballybricken in Waterford, the corner of Ireland that has always been a constant in his son’s 30-year career as a novelist. Like tens of thousands of Irish nationals, his father travelled over the Border to enlist with the British army and fight Hitler. He went up to the North in 1940, and two years later was working as a citizen with the Royal Engineers in Omagh. Suddenly, he was gazetted as a second lieutenant to Scotland. This, Cunningham tells me over the rim of his coffee cup, was “an extraordinarily unusual development”. Something was amiss.
“I’d never been that interested but in my father’s old age I found myself trying to understand the process by which he became an officer,” he explains. “I had to go right back into the 1930s to where he came from.”
What was uncovered has formed the backbone of Cunningham’s umpteenth novel, Acts of Allegiance. In short, his father was a spy.
Cunningham folds his legs and clears his throat. He details how his father, Redmond, came from Home-Ruler stock. His own father had been John Redmond’s election agent, hence the name, and he had grown up in a household that was pro-Fine Gael, anti-Dev and anti-Republican. De Valera’s policies during the economic war of the 1930s ravaged his grandfather’s pig-exporting business. When war broke out, Redmond couldn’t reconcile the stance of neutrality. Enlisting with the British army was tricky for “a non-officer, middle-class young Irish guy with very few connections” because the opportunist IRA had declared war on Britain. Through a connection in the livestock trade, he managed to get a job as a clerk for the Royal Engineers.
“I asked him when he had just a few years left in life what he actually did and he told me,” the author says. “You had the enemy within in Northern Ireland — there was fear of both a German division in Ireland and the IRA. He would have been providing information about IRA sympathisers and so on.”
By the time Cunningham Sr returned from duty, he was the only Irishman to receive the Military Cross for Gallantry for his heroics at the Normandy D-Day landings. That nerve in the field is possibly a result of the knife-edge he lived on in Omagh. Cunningham’s belief is that he was rumbled and had to be flown to safety, hence the sudden posting in Scotland. “I think the strain of that told on him all his life. He wasn’t the easiest of men.”
It makes Acts of Allegiance, a nuanced spy saga set in the fledgling Republic, a particularly personal work for the 70-year-old. Like le Carré’s oeuvre, his father’s soirée as a secret agent and that of the protagonist in Acts of Allegiance is more mundane than the Martini glasses and gadgets, but laden with treacherous pitfalls all the same.
Cunningham said elsewhere that, as a spy, his father “mingled, observed, listened and reported”. It doesn’t sound too dissimilar to a writer.
“Yes,” he nods slowly. “Never thought of that. I started talking about the whole business with my father with some sections of my family for the first time some years ago. It mightn’t have been that popular, but that’s what writers are here for — we’re here to say what happened and present that the best way we can.”
He might seem like your average man of letters and Aosdána member, but there is nothing average about Cunningham’s journey to elder statesman of Irish fiction. After leaving Waterford and studying in UCD, he worked as an accountant and commodities trader both home and abroad.
An avenue into full-time writing opened in 1985 when his first novel, the thriller Noble Lord, was picked up by HarperCollins for £10,000, a good payday at the time. A UK agent followed. He became a thriller-writing machine for the next number of years, pouring his experience of the financial world into white-collar crime sagas under pen surnames such as Lauder, Wilben and Benjamin.
The entire universe was then upended in 1990 by unimaginable tragedy. Peter Jr, the eldest of six children with wife Carol, was killed in a car accident. “That was a bomb in our lives,” he says. “And here was I, having given up the day job and committed myself to writing a thriller a year for HarperCollins and I just couldn’t do that anymore. I just. Could not. Do it.”
It’s crushing to listen to Cunningham, with brittle calm, relate the path such absolute grief sent one on. He speaks about how it “completely reoriented” his and Carol’s life, and, ultimately, was the making of him as a writer. He was no longer interested in genre fiction that could be fired out in eight months. The decision “to go deeper” was forced upon him and resulted in more tender, socially-aware and award-courting fare such as Consequences of the Heart (1998) and the Prix de l’Europe-winning The Sea and the Silence (2008).
Although he’d go on to learn that thrills and perspiration were in his family DNA, thriller-writing itself couldn’t save him anymore, he softly explains.
“You never go back to the point at which you left the road, at which this happened. No day goes by that I don’t think of Peter 20 times. Sometimes there’s a comfort that he’s there for me to lean on. I’m not a religious person but that’s as close as I get. I embarked on writing as a way of life in a way that I hadn’t before, and it was thanks to Peter.”
Honour: Cunningham’s father, Redmond, was the only Irishman to receive the Military Cross for Gallantry for his heroics at the Normandy D-Day landings.