Ellie O’Byrne chats to Kevin Doyle about his debut novel, To Keep A Bird Singing
KEVIN DOYLE sits in a Cork city centre café, looking out at a bustling street scene. Cork in 2018, with its grandiose plans for the future, seems a far cry from the Cork of Doyle’s debut novel, To Keep A Bird Singing, which is set in austerity-riddled 2010.
“Expenditure is now as high as before the boom,” Doyle says, surveying a street where young women walk busily by, laden with bags from high-street clothing brands. “Looking back, that era became the past more quickly than I expected it to. It still left a mark, though: the corruption, and the wider disaster we’re still left with, of the debt and so on.”
In Doyle’s debut novel, protagonist Noelie Sullivan is amongst the many lay-offs of the late Noughties. An unemployed former punk living on Douglas Street, Sullivan is browsing a second-hand shop when he stumbles upon his old record collection, which had been stolen at the height of an earlier recession, in the 1980s. Repurchasing the collection, Sullivan discovers an intriguing clue inside an album cover, leading him down a trail of murder and corruption that leaves none of Cork’s elite untainted.
It’s got all the ingredients of a thriller: an underdog hero, scenes of action, including near-drownings and torture, and shadowy, powerful figures lurking in the background. It’s been branded Emerald Noir, a nod to the Nordic Noir movement in crime writing, which presents readers with a similarly gritty view of the world.
But this is Cork Noir, set very firmly in Ireland’s little second city, on Doyle’s own stomping ground. Certain similarities between Doyle and his main character are evident: Doyle, like Sullivan, graduated from UCC and worked in the chemical industry in Ireland and then in the States before moving home. How autobiographical is the novel?
“Well, I did have a collection of punk records that was robbed in the 1980s,” Doyle says. “It was quite a good collection. At the time I was pretty miffed. I was very into that scene when I was in college: I was one of those people who went to the Arcadia and went to all the gigs and everything.”
Doyle even gets a mention of legendary Cork punk act Nun Attax into his book. Sullivan, then, like Doyle himself, is rooted amongst a cohort of men and women who were a part of Cork’s punk movement throughout the 1980s, and the political ideologies that went with it.
“He’s come to realise that the old rebellion that he identified with isn’t really the norm,” Doyle says of his protagonist. “There was an article last year about the drummer from The Clash becoming a chiropractor. You can look at punk with rose-tinted glasses, but the reality is that lots of old punks have just gone totally mainstream.”
Police, clergy, politicians, developers: the authority figures in Doyle’s novel are rotten to the core. His heroes are very much the “little” people: an unemployed man, victims of child sex abuse and the industrial school system, and a harried and overworked journalist at a local paper.
It’s a book in which Doyle’s own politics — he’s currently campaigning for a Yes vote in the forthcoming Eighth Amendment referendum, and in the past was involved in the water charges protests and the campaign to retain public access to the Old Head of Kinsale — are evident on every page. Is this the first socialist whodunnit? He laughs heartily. “I like that.”
Doyle touches upon many hidden elements of Irish society, like clerical sex abuse and IRA informants’ dealings with the police. Cork is small, and such subjects, while fictionalised and infused with drama in his novel, might be a little close to the bone for some readers.
Is he worried that people won’t respond well to his taking a microscope to the city’s underbelly? He looks genuinely concerned.
“Initially I avoided writing about Cork but this one was set in Cork from the beginning: Douglas Street, Sunday’s Well,” he says.
“I grew up on the northside, near the Glen, and I realised I had all these great locations in my head. A lot of the action might be things people feel don’t happen in Cork, but they have
happened in other places.”
To Keep A Bird Singing, published by Blackstaff Press, is out now