Literary acclaim growing for city-based Irish novelist

Brendan Sweeney hopes that his debut novel, ‘Once in Another World’, will appeal to anyone who has left their home in search of something different

Long before the Celtic Tiger breathed new life into Dublin and beyond, Brendan Sweeney, a Copenhagen-based teacher, grew up in County Cavan during the 1970s and 80s – another world, some of his fellow émigrés might concur, and certainly the title of his debut novel appears to reflect this sentiment.


“Ireland was a horrible place in the early 1980s,” recalled Sweeney. “I thought it was miserable: there was a lot of unemployment and the Catholic Church was telling everyone what to do.”


In search of something different


it wasn’t long before Sweeney had stopped working as a features writer for the now defunct Irish Sunday Press and left his homeland in search of something different. It led him on many varied travels and exploits, including teaching English to an Olympic Team, presenting the news on German radio, and witnessing first-hand the throes of fascism in Spain during the 1980s, including “people giving fascist salutes, and posters of Hitler on his birthday”.


So in many ways, ‘Once in Another World’, which proclaims is “an excellent debut novel”, represents the end of a journey for Sweeney and the start of a new one.


Since arriving in Copenhagne in 2005, a city that he now considers his home, he has washed dishes in Tivoli, taught at Den Internationale Højskole in Helsingør, worked as a research officer at the Australian Embassy, acted as a press officer at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, and taught cross-cultural communication at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS) – his current position today. 


The real IRA story


But all that might be about to change. According to critics, ‘Once in Another World’ has all the elements of a classic spy thriller, and it has so far received several tremendous reviews. 


The book, which Sweeney describes “as a kind of ‘film noir’”, is set in the 1930s and tells the story of a young idealistic IRA recruit and his lover, a Jewish refugee from Germany. 


For Sweeney, the IRA was an obvious choice for his debut novel. 


“Growing up in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, the IRA was very active, he recalled. “This fascinated me: the way they behaved and how people perceived them.” 

“The 1930s were a very dramatic time and the IRA was in a very interesting situation – a lot of the IRA were supporting and in contact with the Nazis, and a lot of them fought and died in Spain fighting against the fascist government,” he said.


“Even the Nazis made films about the IRA. They were fascinating: it wasn’t much to do with Ireland, but it was anti-British propaganda in which the Irish are portrayed as these heroic Aryan peasants fighting against the corrupt, incestuous British.”


His research into the IRA’s background and operations was helped by his own family’s stories from the period and also interviews he had done with the movement’s members and their families as a journalist.


Research at the range


Sweeney conceded that he enjoyed finding out about mundane everyday stuff like the price of a new bicycle (five pounds) or the price of beer (eleven pence for a pint of Porter). He also described enthusiastically how some research required a more hands-on approach. 


“There is obviously a fair amount of shooting in the novel, and I really wanted to find out what it was like to fire a gun.” This, he explained, led him to a shooting gallery in Østerbro.


 “For an Irish person, it is amazing that I could walk in off the street and be handed a weapon with no licence or identification,” he said. “The first thing I did was bang away with a rifle for a bit, and after that I was given a semi-automatic pistol. I could have wiped everyone out!”


However, there were some areas of his writing that he struggled with: the love scenes. It was an area his journalistic training had not prepared him for, and extra research wasn’t really an option. “It is a tricky thing to write about,” he conceded. “If you are too explicit it becomes pornographic, if you are too metaphoric it sounds like something from ‘The Arabian Nights’.” 


He describes how he overcame this difficulty once the main characters moved to an area more familiar to him. “Once I got them out of Dublin and into the countryside, it was almost as if nature supported them.” And even though Sweeney has been living abroad since the early 1990s, he found he was able to e

asily describe the same remote parts of the countryside that had featured so heavily in his own youth.


California dreamin’


Sweeney clearly writes what he envisages. “I see the book almost as a film,” he said. “It is very filmic in the way it is written.”

And he has even imagined it getting the Hollywood treatment. 


“A good choice [for the main character] would be Colin Farrell, but I am not sure if he is too old,” he said. “Cillian Murphy from ‘The wind that shakes the barley’ and  ‘Inception’ would also be good, or an English-speaking actor with a good Irish accent. Brad Pitt did it and got away with it, but his Californian tan didn’t really fit in Ireland.”


Meanwhile, in between his bouts of California dreamin’, Sweeney has already begun work on his second novel: “an obsessive love story about an Irishman who works in the Middle East and is involved with a Danish woman”, which is based in Copenhagen. 


‘Once in another world’ will be released in Denmark at an official launch at the Arnold Busck bookstore at Købmagergade 49 in Copenhagen city centre at 3pm on Saturday October 5.