November 05, 2013

Writing the present through the past

Behind the Book by
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When Coll Coyle, a struggling tenant farmer in 1832 Ireland, accidentally kills the landowner he works for, retribution is fierce. Forced to flee the country for America, Coyle exchanges one bleak existence for another when he finds work digging the rail beds for the Pennsylvania railroad. And he’s still being pursued by the relentless overseer, Faller, who is determined to see Coyle punished. That’s the premise of Paul Lynch’s powerful Red Sky in Morning. Here, Lynch shares the inspiration for this carefully crafted and highly praised first novel.      


I spent years trying not to be a writer. I gave it my best shot. I gorged on the literary greats and believed it would be folly to try and emulate. Better to quit while you are ahead, I thought, and avoid any embarrassment. I took the dream I had carried all my life and quietly buried it.

I wrote music and played in a band. I became a sub-editor on a national newspaper and learned the technique of writing and editing. I became that newspaper’s film critic and honed consciously my grasp of narrative. I began to notice that though I loved deeply what I was doing, my soul was not singing. Something deep in my spirit was not being addressed. My weekly film essays were developing a decidedly literary bent. I was starting to sound like a frustrated novelist.

"I wanted to strip Irish history of its clichés and find in it something meaningful for a new generation."

I had an epiphany on a hillside on Lipari when I was 30. I knew in that moment I had failed in my bid not to be a writer. That my psyche was starting to buckle. I knew in that moment that I would write for the rest of my life. I rushed back to my hotel and began to write my first short story.

Bubbling deep was the wellspring of a novel. I had watched on Irish television a documentary called The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut. What happened at the railway dig near Malvern, Pennsylvania is a mystery. In 1832, 57 Irishmen arrived in America and went to work on the Pennsylvania Railroad. A few months later, every one of them was dead. Cholera had struck the camp, but it is believed that what took place was mass murder. A good many of these men came from the area of Donegal where I grew up.

Something powerful struck. It was 2009. Ireland was sliding into economic depression. People were beginning to emigrate again. I saw in Duffy’s Cut a moment in history that could speak with the power of myth. I wanted to strip Irish history of its clichés and find in it something meaningful for a new generation that found itself angry and powerless.

I had to learn to carve writing time out of my hectic week. I wrote on my day off and at evenings. I used up all my holiday time to write. I wrote through numbing tiredness in the hope that what I put down would later make sense. I learned that once you commit your consciousness to the page, it can always be rewritten. That the real work of writing is rewriting. So I rewrote and rewrote until I could hear the book hum.

It took me just under three years to write Red Sky in Morning. When I started writing the book, I had a full-time job and neighbours each side that were long-settled in the area. By the time the book was finished, I had lost my job, the newspaper I worked for had collapsed, and both of my neighbours had emigrated to America. While the past had become the present, I was writing the present through the past.


Paul Lynch

Get the Book

Red Sky in Morning

Red Sky in Morning

By Paul Lynch
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316230254

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