Conal Creedon’s new novel puts a magic-realist twist on the tale of a cleric’s unrequited love for a nun, writes
In London, those born within earshot of Bow Bells are known as Cockneys. No equivalent word exists for those who dwell under Cork’s Shandon Bells, which is a pity because such a term would come in handy when writing about Cork novelist and playwright Cónal Creedon.
Even on the approach to his home, in the building next door to where he was raised, the four-faced liar and its iconic gold salmon weathervane dominates the sky-line.
Creedon has carved out an unlikely little oasis for himself on the city-centre street where he grew up. One storey up, above a courtyard full of well-tended pot plants, the author offers tea in his satisfyingly writerly living room, surrounded by memorabilia and books and well-worn armchairs. His dog’s claws tick-tack across tiles through the kitchen, dominated by a large Aga, as he puts the kettle on.
Next to the tea things lies a copy of Creedon’s new novel, hot off the press but 20 years in the making.
Despite a proliferation of plays, documentaries, short stories and a recent biography, Begotten Not Made is his first novel since 1999’s Passion Play.
“I’m delighted with it,” Creedon says of the book, which is published by his own company, Irishtown Press, and which even contains pen and ink illustrations he’s done himself.
“Putting a book together is a really creative process itself. If you deliver a book to a publishers, that’s it, you wash your hands of it. But I have great fun with the design: it’s my product.”
Inside the covers of Begotten Not Made, there unfolds a tale that’s part poignant love story and part meditation on the phenomenon of faith, a uniquely Corkonian take on magical realism served up with Creedon’s customary flair for colourful dialogue and tall tales. He’s dubbed it “a fairy tale for the 21st Century.”
It’s not a sequel to Passion Play, but there are biblical themes in common and both novels belong to a suite that Creedon says will ultimately contain two further volumes.
While Passion Play charted its protagonist’s acid and booze fuelled journey from purgatory to heaven one Easter, Begotten Not Made is set at Christmas time.
An elderly priest, Brother Scully, has long harboured a 50-year unconsummated love for a nun, Sister Claire, who he met just once, during Dana’s winning performance on the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest. Each dawn, he watches for a light at her window.
One Christmas Eve morning it never materialises, prompting Brother Scully to delve back through his memories and his painstaking analysis of scripture, which has led him to a unique and highly plausible theory regarding the true paternity of Jesus Christ.
It’s a book that has truly been 20 years in the making, Creedon says: it was emerging even as he was finishing off Passion Play and continued to seed as he researched the New Testament for his critically acclaimed 2000 play The Trial of Jesus, which was performed in promenade on Good Friday, with a final crucifixion scene taking place atop Patrick’s Hill.
Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, Creedon was immersed in a host of theatre, and broadcast projects. Now, he says, he’s ready for prose again.
Sitting on a “mountain” of written research, it was his stint as UCC’s writer in residence for 2016-2017 that restored Creedon’s focus.
The impact of being in UCC was “huge,” he says. “It had more of an impact that I thought it would. I really engaged with it and there was a sense of refocusing on what I was at. You meet the students who are all writing themselves and you get really into that energy again. I said right, now I’m ready to make sense of this thing.”
Irish society seems gripped in a backlash against the abuses of power of the Catholic Church: in two recent referenda voters rejected the church’s position. Just days ago, it was announced that a full exhumation of infant
remains would take place in Tuam. Perhaps it’s a curious point in time to publish a book with a priest as protagonist?
Creedon says in the current cultural climate it can be hard and even painful to remember that the clergy came from amongst our ranks. Irish sons and daughters became our priests and nuns, often to escape poverty. “I found when I sat down to write that I was writing about the underbelly again: bedsit-land, prostitution, drugs. I wanted a new approach to write about what you might broadly class as working-class values and I started wondering what slice of life my character could come from.”
A lot of the Christian Brothers would have joined through that necessity, in the social context of the time. The second son on a farm would have gone on to the priesthood.
It’s a complex reality summed up pithily in the novel as Brother Scully reminisces about his first night as an ordained priest, in an unshared bedroom for the first time in his life: “He smiled when it occurred to him that a vow of poverty had made him a man of means overnight.”
Educated by Christian Brothers in the North Monastery in Cork, Creedon displays a forensic level of curiosity about the New Testament in Begotten Not Made. Was he ever drawn to the priesthood himself?
He smiles: “No.”
“I think the New Testament is a great book: I think the stories are incredible. The basis of belief is that something has to be incredible: if something’s just a fact there’s no belief involved. If you go with the story as it unfolds, it all makes a lot of sense. In a way.”
Creedon shows off a black and white picture of him sitting on his father’s knee as a small boy, at the centre of a veritable avalanche of Creedons, including his brother, the broadcaster John Creedon: they were raised in a family of 12 above their parent’s shop, the Inchigeela Dairy, off Coburg Street.
Later, Conal would run a launderette on the street before the literary bug bit.
His father was “a very funny guy and a great storyteller,” he says. “Maybe that need to tell stories came from there, but I don’t think there’s a clear path to it. I just found I had a lot of time on my hands in the launderette.”
Throughout his plays, short stories and documentaries, Creedon emerges as someone who cares deeply about the culture, customs and linguistic quirks of Cork’s denizens. He’s a fervent and generous supporter of other Cork writers, playwrights and cultural endeavours.
With his dog, nicknamed Dogeen, at his heels and the ubiquitous doc martens and three-quarter-length wool coat, Creedon cuts a familiar figure on his outings about town under the Goldie Fish. Is he
conscious of himself becoming a character in one of his own books?
“I wouldn’t see myself as a parody of myself,” he says wryly.
Cork’s the kind of town where everyone seems to know each other anyway. The people who don’t know you very well will put you into that small frame, a pigeon-hole. But the people who do know me know I’m not that.