Following the publication of his highly acclaimed debut novel Skintown about rave culture in 1990’s Northern Ireland, Enniskillen actor Ciarán McMenamin talks to Eileen Walsh about drugs, protein shakes and orange marches. And with his book being hailed as the new Trainspotting, the film rights to Skintown have already been snapped up. watch this space.
People in Northern Ireland are tired of hearing stories about the Troubles, people in the South of Ireland are not remotely interested in the subject and people in the United Kingdom barely even know where the place is, so why do you think anyone would want to read your book?
If you’re going to ask me why anyone would be interested in a story set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, you might as well ask me why anyone would be interested in a story set in Charlottesville or why anyone would be interested in a story set in Palestine a few weeks ago. I think human beings are interested in stories about anything.
I set out to write a book about young people that was set in Northern Ireland that was based on fact rather than on lies. And the thing I’m most proud of about the book is the reaction it’s got in England, where a lot of people said to me, “I never actually thought about Northern Ireland in that kind of context at all.”
People are interested in stuff and people are certainly interested in stuff where life is kind of extreme and life is more difficult and life is more interesting.
Growing up in Northern Ireland in a lot of ways was fucking mental. But it was also one of the most interesting places to grow up and I wouldn’t change it.
Skintown seems to be loosely autobiographical, with the main character Vinny being yourself basically. Apart from all the drink and drugs and wild partying depicted in the novel, there are some pretty bizarre sectarian scenarios as well as some scary and very hairy situations. What is the most surreal experience you had growing up in Northern Ireland?
The incident at the start of the novel, when Vinny finds himself in a car with two loyalist thugs because he has to pretend to be the girl’s fella, is one of the few fully autobiographical sections in the book. A version of this happened to me when I was 18 and always stuck with me as a surreal microcosm of the whole place.
We dropped the girl home and they began to make it clear that my future was painful as they knew rightly I was a Catholic, despite my protestations to the contrary. When things looked really hopeless we crashed the car. Down fifteen feet into a field. The car was a total write off. The thugs were both drunk and we had a crisis on our hands and all of a sudden we were best friends in a shared new drama and all of the other sectarian shite literally went out the smashed front window.
Sounds like Brexit.
You’re living now in Hastings in England with your wife, after having spent the guts of 20 years living in London. You left Northern Ireland a long time ago. Was there anything in particular that made you want to leave ?
I would be lying if I said the Troubles fuelled my burning desire to leave home. I left home to see a bigger world and to go to drama college. This would have been the case had I grown up in a small town anywhere. I would also gladly live in Fermanagh again. I love the place. My soul is definitely happier there. I just can’t convince my English wife.
Vinny, the central character in Skintown seems to be totally uninterested in religion. What’s your take on it? Are you a believer?
To be honest, I have absolutely no time for religion. When I am bringing up kids, at some point hopefully, I will not be putting them into a faith school, like I was. I think the Catholic Church has been one of the biggest scourges in Irish history. As the man said at the end of the book, it took 800 years to get most of Ireland back from the Brits, and then we just gave it all back to the Catholic Church. I’ve no time for religion and I think the sooner we become more and more secular, which we are doing, the better it’d be for everybody.
Much of the novel is pretty graphic with lots of drug-taking and sex. Were you worried about what your wife would think of it? And maybe that it promoted drugs and promiscuity?
The sole purpose of Skintown was to promote promiscuity. My wife has read the book but I wasn’t nervous at all. I’d have been more curious as to what she thought about all the drink and drug-taking. We all know people who run around doing mad shit but they don’t all take as much fucking drugs as I did. And quite clearly, you can’t write about all that stuff in that nightclub on those drugs without having experienced it.
I used to go to the raves. I’ve been to about 60. In London and in fields in Somerset and in Belfast. I was in Kelly’s in Portrush once. I’ve been up there a few times for the after parties. I knew that world.
Why did you base the book around Kelly’s, given that you were only there once?
Kelly’s was the driving force at the time for that world and that escape. It was an almost mythical concept that everyone was aware of. The Friday night exodus to Kelly’s. The crazy druggie ravers and their little Kelly’s secret club. I knew many friends who lived for it. I was always on the edge of it. I was more into the drugs than the early rave music which I hated but I loved the vibe and the concept, and in my experience it definitely broke down old barriers between people.
I liked the partying. I liked the drugs and I liked the scene, the fun and the girls. Music was and still is a big part of my life, but then it is for everybody. It’s a connection. For everybody.
Tell us about the soundtrack that runs through the book. It seems pretty important to you. The different songs that appear have their own section and are listed at the end of the book as Vinny’s Playlist and it’s up as such on Spotify.
The music through the book is almost like another character in Skintown. Vinny has different musical tastes to a lot of his peers. And he tells a lot of the stories through the songs that are in his head. And all of us go through life with our own soundtrack, whether it’s what we’re listening to in the gym or the car.
It’s different from everybody else’s but it’s our soundtrack. But as soon as you meet people who like the same music as you, you sort of instantly like them and find you have something in common with them, rather than stuff that’s keeping you apart.
At the end of the day, two young Stone Roses fans, from East Belfast and West Belfast when they are 17, will end up sitting having a conversation obsessing about the Stone Roses. And that can be the thing that makes them realise that they’re not as different from each other as they’ve been told since they were born. I think there’s a really strong sense of that in the book.
One of the main themes in the book, because it happened to me, my sisters and everybody else, was this notion that the dance music scene and the drugs broke down the sectarian barriers in Northern Ireland.
Some of the writing in the book is absolutely stunning, poetic almost. One of the most vivid scenes is where some of the guys are coming down after a rave, scrambling down a hill at the beach, on their way to an after party.
The writing’s always been there. There’s writing in my family. There wasn’t any drama but there certainly was writing. My Uncle John, JP McMenamin wrote all Gerry Anderson’s comedy characters. All those great things we enjoyed. The woman with the cat. And Rosie Ryan. And all those letters Gerry read out every day on his show on BBC Ulster.
My uncle was posting those every morning. He sat all day on his own writing for Gerry. He had a very unique way of seeing the world and an amazing grasp of language for a man who never left Castlederg. It’s quite a phenomenal thing. I was a bit wayward at school but the thing I was really good at was creative writing, particularly writing punishment essays. I used to take a lot of pleasure in them.
The main character in your seemingly autobiographical novel, Vinny, at some point falls deeply and madly and passionately in love. Hopelessly even. But next thing you know, he spots a different girl he likes and it’s like the other girl never even existed. There is a later discussion about emotional unavailability. How would you define this?
It’s about the male tendency to spend your life always thinking there’s something better round the corner as opposed to realising that what you have in front of you is as good as it could and should ever get.
It’s actually a concept that’s probably more relevant now than to those kids in the mid 90’s but it’s something I’m really aware of at the minute with all this online dating on Tinder, which I did some of myself, I’m not ashamed to say.
But this concept of getting up every day to flick through the 15 new pictures of the girls you’ve been ‘liked’ by or paired with…there’s a whole generation of young people out there that are flicking through pictures, making decisions about people before they’ve even cracked a joke, watching pornography every day and you can kinda see a world, for a lot of people, where the glass is always half full.
How did you deal with your emotional unavailability?
Mine was a natural progression from youth to age and then meeting someone at the right time as opposed to the wrong time. I think now things are completely different. Everything is so image driven. Young fellas drink protein shakes, not Guinness. The start of the end!
You talk a lot in Skintown about the tradition in Northern Ireland of Orange Marches. How would you describe them to readers in the South of Ireland?
They are the ultimate personification of outdated biblical anger and bile that’s dressed up as culture. It’s pathetic that they call it culture now and they call it the Orange Fest and all that. I think it’s so nasty. The bottom line is, like in the Da’s closing speech in the book, if we stop getting annoyed about it, it won’t work.
Orange Marches only exist because they annoy the other side. I quite like the idea of a world where every Catholic in Northern Ireland puts on a wee red, white and blue onesie and goes out and joins in every year and makes them cups of tea. Then in a decade, they’d be gone.
Can you tell me about the best rave you were ever at?
The best rave I was ever at happened at the Caves in Ballintoy outside Portrush and the details are now available in all good book shops.
Like he says, it’s out in the shops. Go and buy it!