We caught up with author Jack Byrne earlier this week to talk about his debut novel Under the Bridge and his inspiration. Under the Bridge is the first in a four-part series, The Liverpool Mysteries, from Jack Byrne, which follows reporter Anne and student Vinny, as they become involved in a story of unions, crime, and police corruption after human remains are discovered at a construction site.
Jack was born and raised in Speke Liverpool, although his parents first lived ‘Under the Bridge’ in Garston, Liverpool and his family comes from Wicklow, Ireland. Jack said, 'We're all aware of the post-famine influx of Irish Immigration from the mid-1800s, but there was another smaller but still significant wave in the 50s and 60s after World War Two. It was a story that I hadn't seen told.
Irish people came in tens and even hundreds of thousands to rebuild England, to work on the docks in Liverpool and London or the factories and hospitals of Birmingham and Guildford. This was also a period of growing struggle and militarisation in the North of Ireland. This novel is a product of that tension. My mother was born in Liverpool but her parents were born in Wicklow. My dad came from Wicklow to Liverpool in the late 40s early 50s. So this is partly our story, it is the story of the city we came to, and the country we left.
Growing up my identity was primarily as a Catholic, the Irish side was almost invisible. In our Catholic school, I can't remember a single lesson, in history, geography, or any other subject that mentioned Ireland. For others, there may have been a stronger family identification. For me looking back, Ireland was like a ghost in the room, you might sense it, know it, but it was never fully there.
What I thought was family self-censorship, was actually part of a wider reality, to be Irish and identify with the country during the times of The Troubles, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act in the last decades of the 20th Century was not always easy. When St Patrick's Day parades filled the streets of Boston and Sydney they were noticeably absent in Liverpool.'
Irish and Scouse identities are incredibly important themes in the book, not just to the characters, but to the way we view Liverpool, do you feel this is well represented in the media or fiction at large.
'I think this question is not just about Scouse, at heart it's about class. People in Newcastle, Sunderland, Birmingham, and yes Liverpool have very strong connections to regional identity, in part because of a feeling of rejection of and by, the national government. But that rejection and identification are as much about class as regionalism, we trust our own. But first, we have to recognise what we have in common, and that includes recognising the racism and sectarianism at the heart not just of Liverpool, but the nation of Empire. Whether it was Thatcher, Blair, or Johnson we instinctively know they don't represent us and look for alternatives, as this series develops this becomes clearer for the characters too.
The Irish diaspora plays a very important role in the novel. Do you feel that experience is as important in the modern world as much as it was then?
Absolutely, the waves of Irish immigration may have passed (for now). However, the sons and daughters of these workers have made and remade the UK. The Beatles, Oasis even Bowie has Irish heritage, there is no aspect of our society from politics to sport that has not been influenced by this. I want to be clear though, I am not claiming some kind of special place, this is what our country is, a collection of waves of immigrants who have ended up on this island, everyone knows for example that we have a Royal family of German heritage. There are also new communities that have to struggle to establish their place in the UK. The question of identity is constantly being recast and redrawn, whether it is about Brexit, national or regional independence, or family history and ethnicity. The third book in the series features Mina a woman of Somali heritage in Liverpool, because like us the city is constantly developing and changing.
What have you read which has helped you through the lockdown?
Most of my reading is connected to research for what I am writing at that moment. In the last lockdown, I read a lot of Chris Hedges the American social commentator, as well as James Baldwin. But I am also catching up on local authors, so Terry Melia's Tales From The Greenhills, and Caz Finlay. I am also re-reading an old favourite at the moment Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark.
Can you tell us about your development as a writer?
I wrote my first novel a long time ago, it is sitting on the shelf next to me unpublished. I have always known I wanted to write, but when my first novel was completed, what could I do with it? I didn't know anyone in publishing, I couldn't afford to have it photocopied or the postage to send it out to agents, etc. So I did what we all do, I got on with life. The big change for me was the arrival of self-publishing because I thought 'bugger them,' I'll publish it myself. I can write and print a book and if no wants it, who cares I will have achieved that part of my ambition. So that was the plan. Luckily for me, Northodox arrived at just the right time. The internet allows us to sidestep the literary establishment, although we have to recognise it still exists, so young or aspiring writers should get on with it, write, then try and find your audience.
What is the hardest thing about writing your novels?
For me the plot, I sweat over it, it is like getting blood out of a stone. It's built piece by piece over a couple of months. I want my books to be enjoyed at whatever level the reader approaches them; as crime stories, mysteries, family saga's, so all the background information, history, setting, politics, are pointless if the books are boring. So I work very hard above everything else at making sure they are a good read.
Under the Bridge will be published in spring 2021.