Tadhg Coakley: Honoured to be Cork's One City/One Book choice

Ex librarian Tadhg Coakley turned to writing late in life, but his second novel has been rewarded with a huge honour in his native city, writes Marjorie Brennan
Tadhg Coakley: Honoured to be Cork's One City/One Book choice
Ballinlough-based author, Tadhg Coakley. 

As the classic piece of literary advice goes, ‘write what you know’. 

It was a maxim that Tadhg Coakley followed for his debut novel but although he knew his subject — the GAA — well, he was also aware that it was a notoriously tricky one to write about. 

The First Sunday in September, published in 2018, told the story of a fictional All-Ireland Hurling Final day from the points of view of several recurring characters and the Mallow native tackled it with the same vigour he had brought to the pitch in his years playing hurling in school, college and for his native county.

“Writing a GAA novel was something I always wanted to do. I never understood when I was growing up why there wasn’t more sports fiction in Ireland. 

"We love literature and we love sport, we are obsessed with those two things in Ireland. 

"But it is difficult to write about sport in a fictional sense — John McGahern called it the double artifice. 

"A lot of the best sports novels, by people like Nick Hornby, are not about players or the game itself but about how we feel about it more than anything else,” says Coakley.

The 59-year-old, who lives in the Cork suburb of Ballinlough, was a latecomer to writing, deciding to plunge into a new career after taking early retirement from his job as a librarian, first in Cork City library and later in CIT.

“I thought I’ll have to occupy myself in retirement so I decided to write a book, a crime novel. To facilitate that, I signed up for the MA in Creative Writing in UCC. 

It was a really huge boost to me because I was part of a community of writers and I was immediately treated as a writer by the faculty. The First Sunday in September came directly out of short stories I wrote for that and I have been more or less writing full-time since. 

Coakley credits the course with giving him the confidence he needed to get published.

“I always wanted to be a writer in many ways but I didn’t think I had it in me. 

"You can’t really be taught to be a writer but you can be encouraged, supported, given a safe environment and pushed, because there are so many deadlines as part of the course.

"It is easy to start a novel, short story or poem, it is not so easy to finish it and send it to people, that is the hard part. 

"The MA helped me to get over all those initial hurdles. You have to really want to do it as well — to be honest, you have to be a little bit cracked to be a writer.” 

Coakley is treading the more traditional terrain of crime fiction with his second novel, Whatever It Takes, the novel he began writing before undertaking the MA.

“After I did the MA, I felt I had the confidence to go and finish the crime novel. I changed it a lot. 

"It was originally in the first person, but after about 60,000 words, I switched it to the third person and brought in other characters and their voices as well.” 

The plot and protagonist of Whatever It Takes are both firmly rooted in Cork.

"The sense of place is very important. In the same way as I would have loved an Irish sports fiction book to read growing up, I would have loved a crime novel set in Cork city. 

"Luckily, since I started this book, there have been other crime books set in Cork, by Kevin Doyle and Catherine Kirwan, and Catherine Ryan Howard’s new book will be partly set in Cork, I think, so that’s really exciting. 

I wanted a strong sense of Cork in it, even though it doesn’t matter if the book is set in Oslo, Ystad, Edinburgh or wherever as long as it seems real, that’s important. So I really worked hard at that, to make it authentic.

As writers from Ian Rankin to Patricia Cornwell can attest, having a well-drawn central character is a hugely important element of a crime novel, and Coakley hopes readers will become as attached to his detective garda, Tim Collins, as they have to Rebus or Scarpetta.

“I said I would have a go and create a typical real Cork character. Collins is a single man in his early 40s, a single man living in Cork city. 

"He is also a former inter-county hurler, I threw that into the mix as well to make it interesting,” he laughs.

In Whatever It Takes, Collins goes up against a criminal kingpin, Molloy, when a young woman’s body is found in the river. 

“The book becomes a battle of wills between the two of them. It’s not so much a whodunit as what happens next,” says Coakley.

“I hope to have a follow-on from this, so the character has to be engaging for the reader — the plot almost becomes secondary in a way. 

"I remember the moment when Henning Mankell killed off his hero, Inspector Wallander, when he killed him off. 

"I was on holidays in France and I can vividly remember the café I was in. I gave a shout because I said this can’t be happening, you can’t do that to Wallander. He does it so coldly and suddenly, it was like a bereavement.” 

Getting one book published was an achievement for Coakley, and he can’t quite believe his luck that not only is his second on the shelves, but that it has also been chosen as the title for the Cork: One City, One Book initiative for 2020.

“As an emerging writer, to get that kind of affirmation on my second book, it is really a thrill. To follow in the footsteps of Catherine Kirwan and Billy O’Callaghan is a great honour as well, especially because Cork played such a big part in the genesis of the book.” 

While a lot of focus in the literary world is on new ‘young’ talent, Coakley says he is an example of how writers can emerge at any age.

It is an unreal experience because I was 57 and I thought I would never even write a book, never mind get one published, let alone see it in a bookshop. I would say to anyone my age or older not to give up if they want to write a book. 

"It is great when the next young thing comes along, the new Sally Rooney or whatever — and she is amazing — but writing is about life experience and there are a lot of people who don’t have the opportunity to write for lots of reasons. 

"It can come at any time. There are lots of examples who produce their best work much later in life, people like Annie Proulx, or Philip Roth, who was published when young but his best work came later. 

"If writing is in you, if you have the yearning to do it, it should be facilitated at any age.”

- Whatever It Takes, by Tadhg Coakley, published by Mercier Press, is out on Aug 7 and is also the Cork, One City, One Book title for 2020.

One City One Book

The One City One Book project transforms Cork into a citywide book club, with individuals, groups, and organisations reading one selected book, in turn building a sense of community, promoting reading and literacy.

Facilitated by Cork City Libraries, the project also aims to support emerging local authors. 

Previous recipients were Darkest Truth by Catherine Kirwan, and The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind by Billy O’Callaghan and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, by Yiyun Li.

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