Actor Ciaran McMenamin's debut novel Skintown recalls drink, drugs and music of 90s
Having his first novel published marks a lifetime ambition for actor Ciaran McMenamin who tells Gail Bell how drugs, raves and Northern Ireland's 'peculiar' black humour made their way into Skintown
'HORRIFYING and hilarious' is one of Ciaran McMenamin's favourite reviews of his debut novel, Skintown, released this month and it pretty much hits it on the head.
Main character Vinny Duffy is having a bad Saturday night when all he had wanted was to eat his "soapy bap" of a Hawaiian burger and wash it down with a few pints in Chippie Street.
Instead, a "mindless act of kindness" sees him wedged into the back seat of a shiny black Ford Fiesta and off on a drink and drug-fuelled odyssey into a long, dark night of the soul, broken occasionally by raved up moments of bliss and time spent "watching the patterns moving on the ceiling".
Already being compared to Irvine Welsh's cult Trainspotting novel which Danny Boyle transferred to screen in 1996, Skintown (sobriquet for Enniskillen) doesn't pull its punches when journeying at high speed into the drug-addled raves of 90s Irish youth culture.
It's a tricky subject, but the Enniskillen-born actor, whose 20-year career has included the title role in David Copperfield as well as film parts in To End All Wars and The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, is unrepentant.
"It's not a moral story and there's no moral message about drugs," he says, categorically. "It's an honest portrayal of what was happening at the time and how kids were more worried about how to get to the next rave than what was happening around them.
"It's humbling to be compared to Irvine Welsh, but Skintown is based around northern Irish humour and how, despite the backdrop of the1994 IRA ceasefire, young people's focus was still on music, love, sex and drugs.
"I wanted to make people laugh, at the absurdity of everything, and the humour is black, in a peculiar northern Irish dark way. I certainly didn't want to glorify drugs but I didn't want to preach either. It is what it is: a visceral, graphic story of our times."
Strong language aside – and Skintown is not for the faint-hearted – the writing style is paradoxically poetic, with McMenamin attributing this to his inner poet, probably inherited from his uncle, JP McMenamin, to whom the book is dedicated.
"He was a writer, a poet, and he was so funny," McMenamin recalls. "He wrote all Gerry Anderson's characters for radio and was my inspiration. The Fermanagh landscape played its part as well – I walked the boardwalk up Cuilcagh mountain recently with my dad and that scenery is all you need for creative escapism."
Maybe so, but, as well as imagination, the actor has drawn on his own experimentation with drugs and bad boys to bring a dynamic realism to the story which is threaded together with a musical soundtrack of the decade – from bands like The Who to Leonard Cohen.
"I did experiment with drink and drugs, I did it recreationally and, thankfully, I came out unscathed," he admits. "There's good stuff and there's bad. The reality is that young people do do drugs – and there were 10,000 raves happening across Ireland at the time; they were sort of hard to avoid.
"My sisters said reading the book was like reliving your youth and it is a bit like that. Youthful desires, mistakes and ambitions are universal, whether you're in Belfast, Dublin, Glasgow or Manchester."
McMenamin, who says he is more proud of having his book published than being bestowed with any acting award, begins Vinny's escapade with an episode from his own life involving an incidental car ride with some local "hardmen".
Skintown opens with Vinny getting into a car with some dubious characters purely because a girl he fancied – "an all-singing, all-Irish-dancing, tin-whistle-blowing wee heartbreaker" didn't want to risk a lift home with them alone.
"I'm from a Catholic background, but, at 18, I took a lift with some scary people who wouldn't have liked my religion one bit, because a girl asked me to pretend I was her boyfriend so she would feel safer," he explains. "I couldn't say 'no' and we ended up crashing 15 feet down into a field in the middle of nowhere in Fermanagh. I only suffered whiplash but I remember being genuinely scared.
"For the book, I upped the rhetoric a bit and exaggerated the characters of course. It was my only real experience of anything remotely Troubles related.
"But, religious tensions are just a backdrop to the story as I was determined to offer a refreshing take of young people living in the middle of it all. I hate sides, so no-one comes out of the book well – not the Catholic Church, not the Orange Order.
"The funny thing is, after that incident, the guys who scared me became my friends. They would call into the filling station where I was working and bring me fags. I think they regarded me as their Fenian mascot."
Now based in London, the Saving the Titanic actor – who had a starring role in last year's acclaimed stage version of After Miss Julie at The Mac – has the writing bug firmly embedded and is already working on book number two.
"It's historical fiction, with a World War 1 element, and is based around my grandfather's experiences," says the plain-speaking graduate of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and former pupil of St Michael's College, Enniskillen.
"I was good at English at school and I have always wanted to write, but I lacked time and patience. I am happy now to sit for days and not see anyone when, before, I would be itching to join my mates at the pub. Then, acting came out of left field and took over."
His mother can take the credit for that after she took him along to Ardhowen youth theatre in Enniskillen "on a whim" which led to a drama residential in Derry with the Ulster Youth Theatre.
"I was 16 and I remember it was an amazing experience," McMenamin says. "I had this overwhelming realisation that this was what I wanted to do."
We will see him up next playing the part of an "annoying jobsworth" detective inspector in a BBC adaptation of Paula, a revenge thriller from the pen of playwright Conor McPherson which was shot in Northern Ireland and will be broadcast on BBC2 later this year.
He jokes that he is also hoping to win a part in a film adaptation of Skintown after film rights were sold recently to Blinder Films – although first he must write the screenplay.
"It's a few years off yet, but yes, Vinny is definitely coming alive on screen," he adds. "I don't know who I would like to play his part – somebody much younger than me. Maybe, I could play his da."
Before that though, there is the small matter of his wedding and the biggest role of his life to date – groom to his actress girlfriend and soon-to-be bride, Annabel Scholey.
Despite once claiming he would be crazy to get married, the 41 year-old bachelor will tie the knot in Lusty Beg island in Fermanagh on May 14.
:: Skintown is published by Penguin Random House and the soundtrack to Vinny's time in Skintown is available to listen to at penguinbooks on Spotify.