by Ingrid Vaileanu
Interview Francophone : Why did you choose to write in the genre of historical fiction about the death of Michael Collins?
Sean Hillen: Coincidence, I suppose.
After many years in journalism, I focus now mainly on travel and entertainment writing and on one particular assignment I found myself in southwestern Ireland, in Cork at the Michael Collins House Museum, in the town of Clonakilty near where the rebel leader was born and grew.
I drove there and became intrigued by the adventurous life this man had led - a man, keep in mind, who had worked at age 16 at a pretty mundane job as a ‘boy clerk’ in the Post Office Savings Bank in West Kensington, London before becoming a revolutionary, putting his own life at risk, leading men into battle, planning and ordering executions. And, at one time, being the most wanted man in Europe.
And here in this little museum, I was intrigued to see some of his personal artefacts, including an old black bicycle, which he used to trundle around Dublin on, often in disguise, to avoid British soldiers who were searching for him.
Then, reading that the centennial of his tragic death was approaching, the idea grew on me to write a piece about him.
Learning his untimely death in an ambush on a lonely road was still an unsolved mystery and that evidence had been deliberately destroyed that could have revealed his killer and perhaps those who planned the ambush encouraged me even more to embark on the writing project.
I also realised, in effect, I was being given a blank canvass upon which to paint my own version in words of a pivotal historical event that changed the course of Irish history. And that no-one could say my version, far-fetched as some might think it, wasn’t true, because no-one actually knew what the truth really was.
Interview Francophone: You’ve been involved in different kinds of writing over the years, from murder to medicine and science to war and the arts during your journalism career, not to mention a novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ and a memoir, ‘Digging For Dracula,’ why now choose the format of a novella for ‘Driver’s Diary?’
Sean Hillen: In one word - time. I’m a bit of a procrastinator and while I had visited the museum in Cork more than a year before the centennial of Collins death, I didn’t actually sit down to write anything until a week before the commemoration day itself, a Sunday, attended by the high and mighty in Irish social, political and cultural circles at Béal na Bláth the site of his death.
Initially, disappointed in myself for lack of effort, I thought I had left it too late to write anything, but found myself in a friend’s home in Bucharest, Romania of all places having some medical tests with some free time at my disposal, and the notion overcame me.
I knew I’d end up in an asylum if I tried to write a full novel of 80,000-90,000 words in such a ridiculously short time and thought of alternatives such as a short story. Then I hit upon the idea of a novella. To be honest, I had to research just how long a piece of writing had to be to be considered a novella, and when I learned the number of words such a genre required, I decided it suited my purposes.
Even so, I realised full well I had left myself a helluva difficult challenge, to pen around 20,000 words in five days, not to mention editing and revising. But, with the encouragement of my wife, Columbia, and her immense editing skills - and one particularly arduous 16-hour writing session over a Saturday night - I managed it, completing it three hours before the commemoration ceremony was due to begin back in Ireland.
Looking back, it was a rather crazy week. And, I don’t mind saying, there were times I was ready to give up and throw in the towel.
Did being born in Ballymurphy and growing up in Andersonstown in Irish Republican west Belfast during what is known colloquially as ‘The Troubles’ have an influence on your writing of ‘Driver’s Diary’? After all, you knew people who had been shot or killed or injured in bomb explosions during the civil strife. And you yourself were arrested several times, once being accused by Special Branch detectives, wrongly, of killing a British soldier, a scary time, I’m sure.
Like many others in my neighbourhood during that dark period, my teenage years until my mid-20s were filled with protest marches, riots and the building of barricades, right up until I emigrated to the US. In fact, the last news story I covered were the hunger strikes in Long Kesh prison of Bobby Sands and other young men who died, some from west Belfast.
While I was never a member of the IRA, I was born Catholic and understood full well how we, as a section of the community, faced outright discrimination in many aspects of life including jobs and housing. As such, being from a working-class background, I grew up a fervent socialist. And still am, supporting the concept of a united Ireland and the original concept of a 32-county Irish Socialist Republic.
My understanding of Irish history was shaped by that background and so I would have learned a lot - not so much at school but through conversations and my own reading - about the 1916 Easter rebellion and the executions of leaders such as James Connolly and Padraig Pearse.
As for Michael Collins, my friends and I all knew of his exploits, he was a model for us as young people. I’d be in agreement with his views on Ireland’s future. Of course, he dying so young - he was only 31 - made him both a martyr, as well as a hero.
As for Éamon de Valera, for me his personality and his role in Irish history was cloaked in mystery and contradictions and I was never quite sure of his veracity. I attended St. Mary’s Grammar School in Belfast run by the Congregation of Christian Brothers, a Catholic religious group - where I was later a teacher - but we were not taught, or indeed encouraged to analyse Irish Republicanism through the years and the various rebellions. Maybe the powers-that-be at my school felt, as the war was going on right outside the school gates, that they could create more young martyrs if they allowed discussions on such history. Or maybe it was the ethos of the Catholic Church itself as an institution, which was never overtly supportive of Irish Republicanism or indeed socialism, much preferring the status quo, even if it meant slipping discreetly into bed with the British government when it suited it.
As I grew older and learned more about de Valera, I have to admit, my views of him worsened, especially his treatment of Michael Collins. Naively or not, Collins helped de Valera a lot, even planning his escape from a prison in Wales, and taking care of his wife and children when de Valera was in America. In return, unwilling to go himself, knowing he would never return with an agreement for a united Ireland, de Valera sent Collins and others to the negotiating table in London. Ironically, in the end, after starting a civil war that led to the deaths of so many people, de Valera followed the views and strategy Collins had initially proposed.
In my view, de Valera was deeply jealous of Collins, of his popularity and his charisma, and he came to hunger for power, seeing Collins as his main rival. It is well known that Machiavelli was de Valera’s favourite author, ‘The Prince’ being his ‘Bible,’ and he certainly was Machiavellian in his pursuit of power.
Interview Francophone: Your view of the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland is epitomised strongly in ‘Driver’s Diary’ and - to put it mildly - not in a positive way. Why did you portray it in such a manner, especially you having been born Catholic?
Sean Hillen: I grew up Catholic, ritually going to Confession on Saturdays and attending Mass on Sundays and being brought to Novenas and other special services by my mother. But I grew out of that ethos, particularly after emigrating to America, where I had the chance to experience a more secular world. For the want of a better word, I’d now consider myself a Pantheist.
As for my views of Catholicism, universally I consider - like most religions - it has done more harm than good, through its corrupt and what I’d call, outdated and warped, practices and beliefs. In Ireland, it took the socialist ideals of those brave men and women who died in the 1916 revolution and tore them to shreds. Using de Valera as a pawn, and a wiling one at that, the Catholic Church took over the most important aspects of Irish society, health and education, and imposed its ethos on it. Together with de Valera, it even wrote itself into the first-ever Irish Constitution, giving itself special status in the document.
To my mind these two entities had most to gain from Collins death - he not being a friend of the Church - so it seems obvious to me that they could well have been directly involved in plotting his death.
Corruption and hypocrisy within the Catholic Church has come to light in recent years with seemingly endless and horrific accounts of sexual abuse of children and young people, the stories emerging from Blackrock College, Dublin being the latest in a litany, and misogyny by their members.
Interview Francphone: Until recent years, eased somewhat by the referendum of 2015 that made marriage between same sex couples legal, homosexuality in Ireland had been a subject steeped in controversy, a taboo in many ways, with the Catholic Church damning it as a sin against God. In ‘Driver’s Diary,’ you have two gay men play major roles. Why?
Sean Hillen: To be blunt, I have found the stance taken by the Catholic Church against same sex love to be offensive. And immensely hypocritical in view of what we now know about the sexuality of many priests.
Several years ago, in Donegal where I live, I was asked to host a community meeting about clerical pedophilia, which sadly was rampant in that part of rural Ireland, even featuring in a front page article in The New York Times. It was my first experience of being close to the victims of such abuse - the people, now adults, but young schoolchildren when the abuses took place - and I was deeply emotionally affected by their stories. I also had a friend, now sadly deceased, police detective Martin Ridge, who officially investigated such accusations, finally writing a book, ‘Breaking The Silence,’ about his experiences and the psychological suffering meted out to him by priests and bishops for pursuing his investigations, and indeed by certain people in his community.
The unfortunate experiences of my main characters, Jimmy and Brian, reflect a reality insofar as people like them were victimised by the Church.
Interview Francophone: In literary terms, what were the main difficult challenges in writing ‘Driver’s Diary,’ aside from completing your novella within such a tight time-frame?
Sean Hillen: As always with most writing projects - plotting.
I wanted the two main characters - the journalist, Colm, and his American friend, Patricia, from my previous novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ to be involved in the action in some way to provide continuity between the two books. I also wanted west Donegal, a place I know well after 15 years living there, to be a shared location between the two books.
In conversations with my wife, Columbia, the idea of a lost diary emerged. Once that happened, the rest fell into place quite well, linking the finder of the diary with the journalist in Donegal and telling the story through the diary.
Initially, I didn’t know which character was going to shoot Collins. That emerged as the story evolved and during discussions about the plot with my wife.
One particular writing challenge was how best to portray the personalities of my main characters, Jimmy and Brian, through their language, their diction, a challenge made all the more difficult as the story is told mainly in diary form. I envisioned them as working-class men who may have left school early to join the rebels and had distinct local accents.
The task facing any writer in such circumstances is to achieve a balance between creating an accent that sounds credible and one that readers will understand. Never easy. I faced a similar challenge in my novel ‘Pretty Ugly,’ where I featured two characters, Ernie and Seamus, based on local people. In that case, they lived in rural areas. In contrast, I envisioned Jimmy and Brian in ‘Driver’s Diary’ as being from urban areas.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
During a 40-year international media career in both Europe and the US, Sean Hillen has been war correspondent, medical and science reporter, arts reviewer, travel writer, editor and publisher, as well as media trainer and creative writing coach at ‘Ireland Writing Retreat.’
Born in west Belfast, northern Ireland, Sean cut his teeth in journalism at his local paper, the ‘Andersonstown News’ where he wrote a weekly column before working for Belfast Telegraph newspapers, The Irish Echo and The Irish Times. Emigrating to the United States, Sean worked at the United Nations Media Center in New York before moving to Kansas City with Scripps Howard Broadcasting and then The Kansas City Times, becoming the daily newspaper’s health and science correspondent.
Sean’s writings have also appeared in other newspapers including Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, the Daily Mail, The Sunday Times, The Sunday Business Post, as well as specialised publications such as American Medical News, the national newspaper of the American Medical Association, American Nurse, national magazine of the American Nurses Association, and Nursing Times in England.
After winning regional and national journalism awards, Sean left the US for Eastern Europe when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, as a volunteer with the Human Rights League to establish the first post-Communist journalism schools in Romania. This led to him working with international aid agencies such as the United Nations Development Fund, Soros Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, British Council and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). He then became a foreign correspondent for The Times and The Daily Telegraph, London, before establishing his own national publishing and events company based in Bucharest for 15 years.
Sean earned two postgraduate degrees, in journalism at City University, London, and economics at University College Dublin (UCD). He was also elected national chairperson of the US Fulbright Commission in Romania, a position he held for four years and was also honoured by the President of Romania for launching the nation’s first-ever Corporate Citizen, Civic Journalism and Community Service Awards.
Sean’s other books include a memoir entitled ‘Digging for Dracula’ about his experiences in eastern Europe on the trail of the legendary vampire and contemporary novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ linking Ireland and the US and focusing on corruption in the lucrative cosmetics industry. His travel and entertainment writing can be found at Worlditineraries.co and JustLuxe.com
Sean shares his life with his Transylvanian medical herbalist wife, Columbia, and three enchanting dogs, two Irish collies - Siog (‘fairy’ in Irish) and Lugh (the Celtic Sun God) - and an intelligent rescue dog from Romania aptly named Einstein. They live most of the year in the ‘Forgotten County’ of Donegal, the most northwesterly region of Ireland, with the rugged landscape of the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ as a magnificent backdrop.