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Finding Dan – Synopsis
Finding Dan is part historical fiction, part genealogical detective story. Daniel O’Rourke was ‘the most dangerous man in Dungannon’; Mal is his great-nephew, determined to find the real man behind the legends told by his family. Was he the stubborn patriot, refusing prison clothing and food? Was he truly a great of Gaelic football, despite being broken by prison? And could he really have disgraced his family by fathering an illegitimate daughter?
Finding Dan is a discontinuous narrative. It is, firstly, the tale of how Mal, born in Tyrone but now living in London, makes an uneasy return to his family home to investigate, with his father Frank, the legend of Daniel O’Rourke. This is a legend of evasion from arrest, internment on a diseased ship and hunger strike; it is the legend too of glories on the Gaelic football pitch, and a lifelong principled stand against all things British. But, the more that Mal and Frank search, the less they find of this Dan. Instead they discover a different man, surrounded by people but ultimately alone, never at home from the moment he is on the run, defying description by both family and authority. A new legend is constructed, but is interrupted by the ragged edges of Ireland’s past, its troubles both distant and recent but always ongoing.
The novel begins one day in Coalisland, with Dan spotted pushing his bike up Main Street. This is an unexceptional day, but it will be the last of his life. Mal, his great nephew is seen first as a boy. He finds an abandoned car, apparently primed to explode. It’s a memory that endures and explains his distance from his place of birth. Mal ignores the warnings of his uncle Phelim not to meddle, and returns to Northern Ireland to take up the research that Frank, his father, has already begun. Records reveal that Dan was considered very dangerous. He was arrested for possession of a Colt revolver, he was heavily beaten in prison for refusing to conform and, before he could be released, he was interned in a workhouse in Larne. Winnie is Dan’s sister, with memories of his time on the run and on the prison ship SS Argenta, of how only a letter from the president of Ireland could persuade him off hunger strike, and of how he came out a ‘broken man’. He had a sweetheart, a girl from Rostrevor, who would have married him only he was ‘not one to marry’. Then Mal hears the startling news of a man in Coalisland who insists that his wife is the daughter of Dan O’Rourke. Is this the mystery, alluded to in a memoir written by Dan’s sister, Molly?
By now the narrative has already been broken. Sean Hales and Padraig O’Maille are two TDs in the new Irish parliament, patriots in the war of independence but now marked men in Civil War Ireland. They talk through the night in a Dublin hotel of their times with Michael Collins, and of his ambush and assassination. They themselves will be gunned down in the morning. Elsewhere, Hegarty is an Irishman, imprisoned in an English gaol for the brutal murder of his landlady. Upon release he will make his way back to Limerick, to kill his disloyal wife in front of the child who is not his. Later we are introduced to a journalist, known only by his by-line Slemish. Following the mysterious death of Breen, his colleague, Slemish inherits the prestigious Searchlight column. He is dogged by McGuffin, both the source of all of his stories, and the apparent possessor of the key to Breen’s death. Is Slemish himself the murderer? Will Slemish evade arrest and board the liner to New York with the sharp-tongued Molly?
We next see inside Dan’s prison file, to read letters from the Home Office demanding his internment; letters to him from his mother and supporters; letters from him to his sister, Molly. Mal is introduced to McConaghy, a man who knew Dan better than most, but who seems at first to shed no new light. McConaghy is the same man who, more than 30 years before, helped a Dublin sportswriter track down Dan to the shed in Creenagh that had become his home. Dan had been merely “a scribbled note in the margins of another man’s story.” The other man was Bob Stack, star of the four-in-a-row Kerry team, who paid an unlikely visit to Coalisland and who made an unlikely friendship with Dan. In his quest for Dan the journalist finds Mrs Jackson, the admirable owner of a Rostrevor guesthouse, who might just have been the girl Dan once loved. Dan tells the writer his whole story, as if it is his last chance to be remembered, but the hack is a has-been and cannot do it justice.
Grim comic relief is offered by the committee to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. While a hapless technician tries to rig up the aerial which will bring to them their 37 seconds of fame, the members of the committee bicker and bring to the fore conflicting and diverging strains of Irish nationalism.
Frank finally receives Molly’s memoir. Contained within it is a denial that Dan fathered a child, and the revelation that he had had a vasectomy performed upon him in prison. Frank is not satisfied until he can read the birth record of the child involved. Dan was not the father. But Frank’s research takes him further, to suggest that Dan had not been on hunger strike either. By the time he meets up with Mal, he is unsurprised to learn that documents fail even to place Dan on the Argenta. The meeting they had put off – that with Dan’s surviving brother, Patsy, in Creenagh – now seems too late. But Patsy and his wife Phyllis will escort them to the boggy cemetery, where Dan lies below a gravestone engraved with the wrong date.
The novel finishes with the events that took Dan to that grave. He is in his new home, too large for him. He is expecting Phyllis, the sister-in-law he rejected but who nevertheless still attends to him, to arrive with his dinner cooked. There is a total solar eclipse and life shuts down. Dan is overwhelmed with regret for a life of missed loves, and he is heart-stricken. Phyllis will find him, and Phyllis will make the trip into Dungannon to register his death. Freed from her burden, she returns to her home in Creenagh.