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The dark heart of the Celtic tiger

Rob Doyle told David Hennessy about his award-winning debut novel Here are the Young Men coming to the screen with a star studded cast and how he wrote the book during his time in London.

It was when Dublin author Rob Doyle was nominated the Newcomer of the Year at the 2014 Irish Book Awards for his debut Here are the Young Men that he had another stroke of luck.

Although he missed out on the award, it was then that he first met Eoin Macken, the actor and director who has just brought Here are the Young Men to the screen.

Macken, recognisable from roles in Merlin and the lead role on US medical drama The Night Shift among others, was also nominated for his debut novel, Kingdom of Scars. He has also directed several feature films.

Although they both lost out to Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours, it was the start of Eoin adapting the book about alienated youth and toxic masculinity for the screen.

Rob told The Irish World: “I think that was the first time we met. I think that’s when he approached me, either then or shortly after, with the idea.

“I think his people, producers or someone, wanted him to make a film of his own novel and he said, ‘Look, I’d rather do Here are the Young Men’ and so got in touch with me and asked me what I thought. Obviously I went, ‘Yeah, go for it’.

“He had a real energy and he was just passionate. He’s very distinguished. He’s an accomplished guy. He just struck me pretty much immediately as the kind of person who is not all talk, the type of guy who can get things done and get things moving.

“He just had this passion for the book and for the story and there was no hesitancy at all really (from me). He got such a great cast and such great people working on it. It’s an indie production so God knows how they got all the funding and financing and backing and all that stuff but they made it happen. He was clearly the man for the job.”

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Doyle’s debut was chosen as a book of the year by The Irish Times, Sunday Times, Sunday Business Post, and Independent.

Now available on digitial platforms, Here are the Young Men stars Dean-Charles Chapman, known for playing Tommen Baratheon in Game of Thrones, starring as Matthew Connolly. Matthew and his friends Kearney, played by Finn Cole of Peaky Blinders and Animal Kingdom, and Rez, played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo who starred in Sing Street, have just left school when they witness a horrific collision in which a young girl dies.

All three are affected by what they have witnessed in different ways. Rez tries to commit suicide. Kearney travels to America where he brings his dark fantasies to life.

Unable to cope, Matthew withdraws from his girlfriend with dire consequences.

The impressive cast is completed by Anya Taylor-Joy, known for The Queen’s Gambit, Irish actors Emmett J Scanlan, Susan Lynch and Conleth Hill of Game of Thrones, Vikings lead actor Travis Fimmel and Noomi Rapace of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

“I never really got into Game of Thrones myself but I remember when the cast was announced my status seemed to raise within my own family and stuff because they’re all big Game of Thrones fans so the fact that I could mention that King Tommen was in it went down well. Then Finn Cole from Peaky Blinders which I did watch and Ferdia Walsh- Peelo and then Anya Taylor-Joy who has become a megastar in the meantime.

“It’s kind of the dream. For someone to adapt your first book into a film is pretty wild. You hear about a lot of books that got optioned for films and then for one reason or another it never happens.

“Even after Eoin Macken decided that he was going to turn it into a film, I was still kind of tentatively hopeful but still not 100% sure it would happen so now that it’s finally out, it’s brilliant.

“It is a story that I’ve lived in as a novel for so long, I was writing it for four years and then seeing it adapted into a different vocabulary, a different language of expression is fascinating.

“They’re talented people. I was living in Berlin at the time and I came back for a few days just to watch filming and hang out on the set and stuff. It was very clear how talented they were watching them work.

“It wasn’t like I was suggesting anything or supervising or anything of the sort. It was more just fascination, just to see it and then Eoin asked me about being in a cameo. If you look closely there’s a climactic rave scene and I am dancing around in the background. That was fun.”

Althought they don’t know it, Matthew, Kearney and Rez are Ireland’s most fortunate batch of school graduates of all time.

Set in 2003, the Celtic Tiger is still booming. Although Kearney soon departs for America, emigration is not necessary for these school leavers.

“It was a crazy time and in its way, not necessarily on the surface but just a little bit beneath the surface, a very dark time. I feel and I felt at the time growing up that there was a real malaise despite the new money, the wealth and the prosperity.

“I think the themes of the book and the film are perennial in the sense that youth and alienation are not going away any time soon. In fact, they just take on new forms but I guess the same essential dilemmas, situations, anxieties and fears that the film explores are kind of timeless even though it is so rooted in a specific time and place.

“I never sat down and said, ‘I’m going to write a book about the frailties or the dark side of the masculine psyche or the unmasculine psyche’. It’s more intuitive.

“I guess in a way it could be said that it was prescient in that it’s rarely you look at a news website or a newspaper these days without seeing the ongoing discussion of the dangers, the excesses and the problems of masculinity confronting us.”

Both the book and the film deal with Ireland’s disproportionate rate of suicide.

“Suicide touches us all. There’s very few of us who is very close to a family where something like that has happened.

“Again, it wasn’t really a conscious decision. It was just when I was writing that story and about those characters it was just inevitable really because of the kind of intensity and darkness of the story. It was inevitable that suicide, masculine extremism- All of this came bursting out through the story, through the characters and the film does stay faithful to that.”

When Rez tries and fails to kill himself, Kearney’s response to the news is that his friend could not even get that right.

Kearney boasts of American girls ‘begging for sex’ but when Matthew has a quick look on his camera, he sees videos of unconscious girls being raped and homeless people being mercilessly targeted.

“He’s a nasty piece of work. He’s a psychopath really.

“It was kind of fun writing that character in a really twisted way because he gives expression and form and externalises the darkest and dirtiest foulest reaches of feeling, of emotion, of imagination. He’s scary.

“Because it’s set in 2003, it’s all happening in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in America which the lads become kind of obsessed with, particularly Kearney who is watching the unfolding war in Iraq as kind of pornography, like an action movie.

“He becomes fascist in his views on other people. He’s obsessed with tormenting the weak, tormenting the vulnerable, hating weakness, hating vulnerability so his targets are women, the homeless, alcoholics, drug addicts, all this kind of thing. He’s kind of like a little Hitler, a street punk fascist almost waging like a genocide on everyone he sees as inferior. At least this is what is going on in his imagination.”

Life has imitated art in a disturbing way with attacks on the homeless becoming common in recent years.

“It is true that since then every now and then somebody will send me a link to a news story going, ‘Christ, that’s eerily like what you described in the book’.

Eoin always wanted Rob on board with any adaptation. Initially both Rob and Eoin wrote their own versions of a film script but both were happier to go ahead with Eoin’s.

“I think it just became apparent pretty quickly that he was going to take the reins on the screenplay. He did want me involved which is nice and we both wrote a draft of the screenplay but his was just better.

“I just read his one and I was like, ‘Look man, you’re more invested in the story at the moment’.

“When you’ve spent so long writing a book your energy has just moved on and you just want to head to the next thing so it was very hard for me to be as in tune with the characters and find new ways to envisage those scenes.

“He just brought freshness to the project so it just became natural that he would then take the reins in terms of writing the screenplay.”

What is it like for Rob to see his story brought to life? Was that giving his demons a face? “Good question. I’ve only seen it once so far, believe it or not, which was when it was screened online as part of the Galway Film Fleadh so that was the one and only time I’ve seen it.

“I’m watching it again tonight. My girlfriend and my friends are coming round and we’re all going to watch it in a celebratory way. It was kind of nerve racking, I needed a couple of drinks before to kind of settle my nerves.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be so alarming and disorientating just to see something that was so internal and personal and difficult.

“It’s a difficult kind of book not just to read, it’s difficult in its intensity and it’s subject matter and to see that given external form was kind of alarming.

“I enjoyed it immensely in one way and found it kind of unnerving in another way.”

Rob spent many years in London living in areas like Stoke Newington although he also spent time around Finsbury Park and Holloway Road. He remembers this time fondly and it also coincided with the writing of his award-winning debut book.

“I actually wrote Here are the Young Men while I was living in London. I wrote the entire thing in London and because it’s so Dublin, as one person said, ‘Dublin is almost a character in the book’, I don’t think I could have written it like that in Dublin.

“I had spent four or five years living in London in my late twenties. It was a really good time, a really happy time actually.

“I needed to be away from Dublin to be able to access that image of it, to revoke it in a specific and intimate way because I was relying on memory and emotion rather than actually what was around me.

“London was a very productive time. I get really nostalgic thinking about those years. They were really fun years. I was working as an English teacher and then writing.

“The great thing and the main reason I moved there was because all of my Irish mates were already living there and so I had a ready made community and social group.

“You know when you move to a different city at fist it’s kind of intimidating? I had so many good mates, it was a lot easier.”

Rob admits he has almost been tempted to return as Dublin gets harder and harder for writers and artists to live in.

“As I’ve probably said in every interview, I’m probably boring people by going on about it now but the thing is Dublin is becoming difficult to live in if you’re an artist or a writer or a musician or anything like that because it’s so pricey.

“I’m probably going to move back to Berlin and maybe make it a bit more permanent.

“Even just ten years ago or less, it just seemed more affordable, more livable, more bearable, now it feels like creative people are being driven out which is a shame.”

Here are the Young Men is available on digital platforms now.

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