A change of scene for Ulster actor with debut novel

Ciaran McMenamin is to kick off the Belfast Book Festival.
Ciaran McMenamin is to kick off the Belfast Book Festival.

Not only has Ciaran McMenamin just published his debut novel, Skintown, to rave reviews, he has also just married beautiful Yorkshire actress Annabel Scholey, well known for starring in the BBC supernatural drama Being Human, amongst many more hit shows.

Having recently enjoyed a beautiful wedding ceremony in the picturesque setting of Lusty Beg in Fermanagh, the Enniskillen-born actor turned author has certainly had a busy time of late, and just last week returned from honeymoon in Sicily with his new wife.

“I am extremely proud of my roots and enjoyed showing off my hometown to people who haven’t been able to visit before”, Ciaran explained.

“The setting of Lusty Beg is incredible, the Yorkshire ones all loved it! I think they’ll be going back again for a visit, definitely.

“We picked Sicily because some of our good friends were performing in one of the amphitheatres there, and we just thought we would go over to see them and explore. We had an amazing time”.

Having enjoyed a successful acting career spanning 20 years after achieving a BA in Acting from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 1998, some may consider Ciaran’s decision to move into writing a bold move.

But Ciaran’s flair and passion for writing is clear, with critics quickly hailing his debut novel as the new Trainspotting, whilst others have drawn comparisons to Pulp Fiction thanks to its hilarious dialogue.

“It’s definitely black comedy!” Ciaran is quick to add.

Indeed, with a storyline featuring tenacious youth overcoming the political upheaval of the 90s to bridge divided cultures - at least for a little while - Ciaran believes the comparisons only stretch so far, and he’d be right: “It’s a book about young men and there are drugs in it. The comparisons in a lot of ways stop there, if you ask me.”

And as he explains, this certainly wasn’t the first time he had set his pen to paper: “Writing was my original passion, and it actually got sidelined by acting. My career had been great and I am really grateful for all of the opportunities I have had in my life, but it is absolutely amazing now to finally have had the chance to write my own story - using my own words, rather than channelling somebody else’s.

“It has been difficult in the past to find the time and the focus to sit down and write a complete novel, but I have always enjoyed writing.

“I had written short stories and played around with writing in my spare time for many years, but it wasn’t until I was in my mid to late 30s that I sat down and decided I would finally do it.”

Initially Ciaran sat down to write a short story that he could then turn into a short film, but once he started he found the voice of his main protagonist, Vinny, and Skintown went from there.

However, due to his expansive acting career spanning the last 20 years, Ciaran was initially afraid of how people would react when they were told he was writing a novel.

“I am very proud of the novel, but initially when I was writing it I didn’t tell very many people!

“I was almost afraid they’d roll their eyes at me and think ‘Oh no! Not another actor trying to write’”.

But after receiving a grant to go to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annamakerring to work on his novel, Ciaran said his confidence grew.

“Martin Lynch was there, and as well as a few others, he was really supportive. That was really encouraging.”

And it seems Ciaran was certainly wrong to doubt himself as despite just being published in April, Skintown has, perhaps unsurprisingly, already been snapped up by leading Republic of Ireland company Blinder Films - who quickly ensured they hired Ciaran to create the screenplay in order to retain that ‘unique voice’ the quality of which makes the novel stand out so well against the crowd.

Skintown is Vinny’s drink and drug fuelled odyssey through fighting, fishing, rioting, romance, reconciliation and acid house. Bristling with a restless energy and drunk on black humour, this superb debut is a wild ride.

Set in the ‘summer of love’ post-ceasefire rave scene of 1994, locals will enjoy spotting Northern Ireland references and throwbacks. For example, the famous Portrush nightclub Kelly’s plays a key role - although the name has been changed.

And whilst the novel is not based on his own life, Ciaran says there are a few moments of inspiration from his own life experiences.

“Belfast in 1994 was a time of great hope, joy and abandonment, everywhere you went - a real sense of hope.

“It’s set over a week, and politics are there in the background.

“Certain aspects of Vinnie is how I saw the world at that age, and there may be certain coincidences - but 90 per cent is fiction!”

However one incident did offer a starting point for the book: “A girl asked me to pretend to be her girlfriend because she needed a lift home and the two chaps in the car turned out to be rather scary older gentlemen of the other religious persuasion.”

“They were giving it the big lip when we actually crashed the car.”

Bizarrely, they all ended up bonding as a result.

“It’s always stuck in my head because it was so blackly funny; a perfect microcosm of Northern Ireland!”

There’s one other notable coincidence, Ciaran adds: “Although I certainly would have partied in Kelly’s (Portrush) back in the day.

“Put it this way, between Kelly’s and Shine in Belfast I certainly did a lot of research in the 90s!”

Set during a time of historic importance of Northern Ireland, Ciaran is able to relate with people through Skintown who were forced to grow up with the backdrop of troubled politics on the doorstep - despite most having no interest.

He said: “Vinny has no interest in politics he just grows up there, and that’s one thing I feel is really important.

“All the Northern Irish people I have ever known and still know aren’t particularly bothered about this thing one way or the other. They find it absurd, they find it sad and they’ve got an amazing amount of gallows humour from being brought up in it all.

“The reality is that 99 per cent of people who come from Northern Ireland wish it all wasn’t going on, we don’t care what religion each other are - it doesn’t matter. Skintown highlights the absurdity of this war that is going on.”

You would be forgiven for assuming Ciaran thought long and hard about the name of his debut novel. The name Skintown is attention-grabbing, striking and holds great meaning to a Northern Ireland audience (Enniskillen locals use it when referring to their hometown).

But as Ciaran explained, that was not the case:

“It’s our nickname back home, and so I just used it as a sort of working title until I could come up with a name.

“But the publishers absolutely loved it, especially due to the connotations of drugs, the identity and the background of the novel.

“In actual fact though, Skintown could be any generic Northern Ireland town from that side, and captures that experience of growing up in the 90’s.

Indeed, Ciaran has captured his home dialogue expertly, with short sentences and cut throat Northern Irish humour shining through and resulting in dozens of laugh out loud moments.

Among the highly-praised critical reviews, Ciaran says one moment stood out from the rest - when renowned Irish author Joseph O’Connor who was appointed Frank McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick in 2014, spoke of his enjoyment upon reading the novel.

“A supercharged riot of a debut novel, zinging with confidence and intelligence”, writes O’Connor.

“It was just amazing to get that response,” Ciaran explained. “It was brilliant to get all of these great reviews, and when I got the O’Connor quote I just couldn’t believe it!

“He is a literary hero of mine, so for him to have not only sat and read my novel - but to speak of how much he enjoyed the book and would put it onto his Creative Writing course at Limerick University - that was a real career highlight. It outshone any moment in acting! Acting is amazing but writing has always been a real passion of mine. I love creating my own world in writing and to hear those words from one of my greatest heroes justifies all the work I put into it.”

It is clear that Ciaran’s heart truly lies in writing - and of course his native Northern Ireland.

His future plans include working on the screenplay for the movie Skintown, which he estimates will take around one year to complete. That’s in addition to his second novel which is already in the works.

‘‘Completely different’’, to Skintown, Ciaran explains, he is already a third of the way through a historical fiction novel set in Ireland and France loosely based on his grandfather in the 1920s.

Skintown, by Ciaran McMenamin, is published by Doubleday, £12.99.