I’d com­mit­ted my­self to writ­ing a thriller a year for HaperCollins and I just couldn’t do that any­more

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Acts of Al­le­giance is pub­lished by Sand­stone Press, priced €16.99 PHOTO: TONY GAVIN

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.

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