Historian Andrew Hughes turns to fiction to tell the fascinating tale of an ordinary man in the the pay of Dublin Castle spymasters in 1841.
Judicial records note the fate of a man named John Delahunt, convicted of murder in 1841. But the historical record was silent on the reasons why this man spied on his fellow Dubliners. After further research, Hughes turned to fiction in order to fill in the gaps and bring the tale he uncovered to life. The result is his impressive debut novel, The Convictions of John Delahunt: A Story of Murder.
The spy network run from Dublin castle did more than force of arms to keep the British in power over Ireland during the couple of centuries before independence. Its importance can be inferred from Michael Collins’ decision to assassinate almost the entire intelligence corp on “Bloody Sunday” in 1920. The lack of leadership and intelligence from this group was a key factor in the rebel army’s early successes in the War of Independence. Hughes’ novel provides a fascinating look into this manipulative and ruthless world.
The fictional John Delahunt is a Trinity student of good family background, but little real ambition. Left with scant money and no guidance by his father’s long illness, Delahunt has few scruples and drifts into a languid existence of drinking and wasting time rather than studying. After a drunken night ends in violence, Delahunt meekly helps Dublin Castle detectives finger an innocent student in order to damage that student’s father’s political faction. He gets paid for his assistance, and seizes upon this as his easiest prospect of income.
After he elopes with Helen Stokes, the daughter of a well-to-do family who are secure in social pecking order, his need for funds grows acute, and he begins reporting to the Castle with gusto. Initially confining himself to real crimes, and helping to convict three men who beat an old man almost to death, Delahunt begins to see how those associated with Dublin Castle operate outside the law, even getting away with murder when necessary. This exacerbates his already rash and impetuous nature.
Life does not go well for Delahunt and his new bride. They burn through the irregular payments he earns, and soon find themselves slipping from polite society and living in a slum. Helen gets addicted to laudanum, a powerful narcotic, and her brother acts to remove her from Delahunt’s influence and bring her back into the family fold. Just who is a worse influence on whom is debatable, but that’s not the real focus of the novel. Delahunt find himself in a desperate-seeming situation, and conceives a foolhardy plan to con some more money out of his handlers.
Knowing that information leading to a murder conviction carries the largest reward, Delahunt watches a mugging unfold, and does nothing to help. Afterwards he attempts to frame the mugger, a poor man of no education or connections, in order to extract more money. His colleagues see through the ruse in a moment — he’s neither the first to attempt such a scam, nor the most creative. After that, Delahunt knows the only question is whether his inevitable punishment comes at the hand of the courts they nominally serve, or by extra-legal methods at the Castle’s discretion. He already knows the Castle’s agents treat their black sheep more harshly than their enemies. But even with this knowledge, he hasn’t the morals or the spine to seek another way of making a living, and he embarks on a final desperate scheme.
Hughes’ novel is a fascinating look inside the murky operations of Dublin Castle, and the nascent intelligence and propaganda war it waged against prominent nationalists during the late-19th century. It’s hard to have much sympathy for Delahunt, who seems rather pathetic in his extended adolescence, but the supporting characters are well-drawn and we do come to feel sorry for his addict-wife, his lonely Italian immigrant neighbors, and some other supporting characters. The historical insight and sympathetic minor characters more than sustain our interest in the face of a fairly self-serving and greedy (though completely realistic) title character, and The Convictions of John Delahunt turns out to be rather an engrossing historical novel.
Other recent Irish novels you might enjoy include:
Black Lake by Johanna Lane — Review coming soon…