Tadhg Coakley is a Cork writer whose debut novel is set against the high-stakes backdrop of an All-Ireland hurling final. The First Sunday in September (so-titled because that’s when the final is traditionally played) tells 19 different characters’ stories, drawn together by a day of high emotion both on and off the pitch.
I spoke to Tadhg about how a creative writing Master’s, and his own time as a player, helped to bring the book to life.
Tadhg, I feel personally invested in The First Sunday in September because I’ve been following its progress for ages, so hearty congratulations on its publication! The manuscript was shortlisted for the Mercier Press Fiction Prize 2017 [which was won by Cethan Leahy for YA novel Tuesdays Are Just As Bad]. Can you share how it came to be published? And had you already sent it out on submission elsewhere or was this competition its first venture into the world?
Thanks, Anne. Yes, one of the stories in The First Sunday in September, ‘Angels’, was in the same 2017 From The Well Anthology that you won with your brilliant and
lovely ‘Smoke in the Rain’. And I’ve read pieces from the book a few times at Fiction at The Friary too. I submitted the book for the Mercier Press Fiction Prize in January 2017, which was its first venture out into the world and luckily it was longlisted in March and then shortlisted in May for the prize. Although I didn’t win, I got the magic phone call from [general manager] Deirdre Roberts in June 2017 to tell me that Mercier Press wanted to publish it.
I had also sent it out to three other Irish publishers in February 2017, all of whom, eventually, declined it – but by that time I had happily committed to Mercier Press anyway.
The book is described as a series of linked narratives similar to Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart – at what point did you know you had a novel on your hands as opposed to a short story collection?
Really good question. I think I knew it when I was still composing the first overall draft of the book. At that time, I found myself threading narrative themes through the different pieces, and braiding the stories together. The same characters were reappearing throughout the book and I began to look upon the whole thing as one single entity, rather than many separate stories. I knew that I was telling the overall story of one particular day, but through the eyes of several different people. But the book was about the day, with the match at its heart, and everything was spinning or turning around that fulcrum.
That process continued when I was working with my editor at Mercier Press, Noel O’Regan, when at Noel’s suggestion, I finalized the rearrangement of the narrative arc and the book then had a beginning (before the game), middle (during the game) and end (after the game). I wrote the first chapter of the book as an opening chapter and rewrote the last story as a closing chapter during this period too.
I’m very curious about the structure in terms of writing – did each story lead you on to another or did you write each as a standalone and then seek out ways in which they could connect?
It was mostly that each story led to another, or to put it more accurately, each
character led me to others. The first story I wrote, ‘Dúchas’, was about a father, Tim Collins, watching his son Sean play in the game. And from that, I immediately knew I also had to tell the story of the day from the point of view of Tim’s wife, and Sean’s mother, Evelyn, and Sean himself. Likewise, when I wrote a story called ‘Passion’ about a pregnant English woman, Sarah Taylor, who finds herself at the game, I knew I would also have to tell the stories of her Cork boyfriend and both his parents.
Likewise with the character Saoirse Keane, who appears in two stories during the
game as an eight year old. I wanted to finish the book with her, many years later, as a young woman. We meet another character, Paddy Horgan, early in the book on his
way to Dublin and then late in the book on his way home. And so on.
Have you written a hurling-themed book because GAA plays a part in your own life?
I played hurling with my club Mallow from the age of about eight to when I was
30 and maybe I do have unfinished business with the game.
It isn’t a big part of my life any more, but I do find sport very moving, engaging and interesting. I actually see sport as another type of storytelling. But I never set out to write a ‘hurling’ book – and I don’t think of The First Sunday in September as a ‘hurling’ book, as such, though hurling is probably at its heart. Certainly not a GAA book, whatever that means.
It happened very organically, first with one story that happened to be set during a match (although it’s really about a father’s loss), then a cycle of interlinked stories, and it all just grew from there. I have always wondered why there wasn’t a sports-related novel in the Irish canon and perhaps that was a trigger. But I really only began to think about such things after I’d written the book, not before or during the writing.
You completed the Creative Writing MA programme at University College Cork. How do you feel that has shaped your work? And would you recommend that writers do an MFA?
It was hugely important for me, as it provided a safe space where I could write and
learn about writing. Writing, especially ‘public’ writing, where you ‘declare’ yourself a writer is a very vulnerable act. Initially, I think it can be a very lonely place, and one full of rejections and self-doubts, with many very good reasons to quit. When I took early retirement from my job as a librarian in 2015, I wanted to write and I felt that the MA would provide me with an ideal platform, which turned out to be the case.
Initially, I wanted to complete a literary crime novel I’d begun, but when I started
studying and writing short stories under the tutorship of Mary Morrissy, I became
hooked on the form. The First Sunday in September grew out of one story I wrote for
a fiction module in UCC, ‘Dúchas’, and then in my dissertation, which comprised five
interlinked stories and which was supervised by Madeleine D’Arcy, who was very
supportive and instructive.
The MA also placed me in a community of serious writers and I learned hugely from
them, and also developed great friendships. In UCC, you are treated seriously as a
writer and you have deadlines and exercises to complete, so you develop discipline
and rigour, but it’s also hugely rewarding to have others read and critique your work and you theirs. I would recommend it, for those who feel they cannot go it alone, and who want to be thrown in at the deep end – if they are ready for that.
There aren’t too many sports-related novels around. Did you seek inspiration from any other books, like Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, for example?
Not really, in fact I shied away from such books while I was writing The First Sunday in September. Of course, I was aware of them, and I had read some in the past (including the brilliant Fever Pitch), but I really just tried to get each story and character right, first, and then develop the overall novel.
I learned on the hoof, really, how to approach the sport within the text. When I wrote ‘Dúchas’, for example, I learned that one cannot have a lot of description of a match within a story. Ironically, it takes from the tension that the characters are experiencing. The writing has to be about the people, not the game. Likewise, as a writer, I cannot imprint my own feelings about hurling onto the characters – that shows and the reader will know it’s me and not that character. I’ve seen that in other sports-related novels and that kind of editorializing is disastrous as it takes the reader out of the story and deadens the emotional impact.
Initially, I wasn’t even going to have a single story from ‘within the white lines’ or inside the game, as I couldn’t find a way in. Sports writing in fiction can seem very hackneyed or clichéd – Eimear Ryan has written very well about this [her excellent essay on the difficulties of capturing camogie in her writing is here]. Then I read ‘Coitus’ by David Means and that gave me an idea for a framing device for the story ‘Five Seconds’, which takes place during one long clearance by a Cork back, as the ball moves through the air towards a waiting hand.
What are you currently working on?
I have begun a series of personal essays on sport. Why is it that 3.5 billion people
watched the recent football World Cup? What do people feel when they watch
Kylian Mbappé, or Ashling Thompson or David Clifford perform some marvelous feat
for their team? Why do hundreds of thousands of Irish people travel the length and
breadth of the country each summer, year in year out, on pilgrim paths to Tullamore
and Ennis and Wexford and local grounds in every county in Ireland? What do I feel
when I watch a match and how does this relate to my family, my childhood, my age,
and the art of storytelling? I’m trying to answer some of these questions.
I’ve also finished my crime novel. I need to start sending that book out, but I’m
prevaricating for some reason – perhaps I’m not fully happy with the antagonist.
I like to torture writers by making them choose just five favourite books. What absolutely has to be on your tiny bookshelf?
That is torture, but here goes: Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout; From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; Collected Short Stories by John McGahern, and Kate Atkinson’s next book [Transcription], due out later this year.
What’s your ideal writing environment (other than pitchside, obviously)?
My desk, at home, with a fresh cup of tea, early on a rainy November morning, with
a sentence half-finished from the day before.
You can only watch one thing from this day henceforth – will it be hurling, soccer or Eurovision on a loop?
Haha, that just gave me an idea. What about a musical that takes place when two
soccer and camogie teams arrive to the same ground to play a game, and mayhem
ensues? Provisional title: Croker, The Musical.
Tadhg Coakley graduated with first-class honours from the MA in Creative Writing in University College Cork in 2017. His stories have appeared in publications such as Quarryman, The Honest Ulsterman and Silver Apples, as well as in the From the Well anthology. The First Sunday in September, published by Mercier Press, is his debut novel and is available now at all discerning bookshops and on Kindle.