A Mad and Wonderful Thing

Mark Mulholland

Number 1 Recommendation For 2014 by BOOKTOPIA, Australia

A Mad and Wonderful Thing

‘Excellent. Deeply satisfying and moving. I also think that sufficient time has passed since the Good Friday Agreement to, at last, have a novel that goes inside the head of one of the ‘Troubles’ protagonists and hear the pros and cons of the conflict (to take up arms or not,) told in an original and exciting way. Ireland has a new and exciting voice.’ Liam Neeson

‘It’s an emotional, shocking, gorgeous read, rooted in such painful reality… magnetic and lyrical.’ Jon Snow, Newscaster, Channel 4 news

A first novel set in Ireland, about a sniper taking down British soldiers, but mainly a love story which speaks to anyone anywhere any time.

Johnny Donnelly walks his own sure path. Then the beautiful Cora Flannery comes into his life and takes up residence in his head when he really needs to be focussing on the task at hand. Johnny and Cora share an intense and poetic love for each other and for the land that they were born into – the historic earth of Ireland. Combining tender and brutal drama – a braiding of love and war – A MAD AND WONDERFUL THING has a cast that includes a young man who is an apostle for the philosophies of Mary Poppins and yet kills for country, a young woman who believes that the gateway to the land of eternal youth is a hill on the edge of town, a caretaker who appears repeatedly in his green overalls and dispenses droplets of wisdom but who has been dead for years, and a teacher who takes a boy aside and brings him to battle.

Written in a unique, seductive voice and giving a profound insight into the mindset of a committed freedom fighter (or terrorist, depending on whose side you are on). And all the while it is a wonderful, passionate and heart-wrenching love story. It’s about the ultimate cost of choice, a quest for universal truths, it’s the story of one man’s love for his country, of man’s love for woman.

‘A great read.’ Jeremy Irons

‘Set in Dundalk in 1991, the storyline of this markedly ambitious first novel is one to reckon with: Johnny Donnelly, a young apprentice carpenter by day is a secret IRA sniper by night, and determinate to assassinate 10 British soldiers in reprisal for the 10 republican prisoners who died during the hunger strikes when he was aged 10.

A humiliating encounter between his father and British soldiers at night-time vehicle check-point, witnessed from the back seat at age six, might suggest motivation enough, but Johnny, who kills his first soldier at 16, believes he was simply “born for the battle”. Or so he contends until he falls in love three years later with Cora Flannery, who, unaware of his paramilitary life, hopes aloud he will never “get involved” in the conflict. It’s a promising premise, and there is much to admire therein: not least the portrayal of Johnny’s friendship with his older workmate Bob Hanratty – a spiritual mentor capable of quoting the poet Christina Rossetti – who after his death reappear to interrogate Johnny about the murderous path he has taken. […]

The close of the novel reads very much (and very well) like a thriller, as Johnny heads to Banville, Co Down, to thwart – not facilitate – an IRA bomb attack on the town. But a thriller is not what Mulholland intends with his narrative so much as a morality play. And so Johnny, a lad from age 10 with all the answers bar one, his ultimately forced to turn and ask his ghostly companion Bob: “How do we know what is right?”

Shortly after, in a compelling scene on the Burren, Johnny enlists the ancient geology of that stony landscape to instruct Bob on “the futility of action if it is measured against time”, and that “what tribal claims we make, ultimately don’t make sense”. It’s hugely persuasive argument – and not without heart, like the novel itself.’ The Sunday Times, UK and Ireland

‘This is a fascinating and profound book – a story of love and brutality and tenderness and death. It is a book which stays.’ Irish News

‘Mulholland’s debut novel, A Mad and Wonderful Thing, has plenty to say. The novel is narrated by a young man named Johnny Donnelly. Johnny is charming, funny and eloquent. He is also an IRA sniper. Part fable, part thriller, A Mad and Wonderful Thing can be read as a modern take on the story of Cú Chulainn.’ The Irish Times

‘I salute Mark Mulholland for writing this thought provoking, brave and well written book and I look forward to his next publication. In a year when the market is overwhelmed with war related books, mainly about WW1, Mulholland’s book explores another dimension in the nature of war.’ RENÉE LEEN-HUISH, Tinteán

‘Beneath the passion, wit, and poetry of A Mad and Wonderful Thing is an undertow of tragedy. This is a world where our moral certainties are challenged, where gentle domesticity and sudden violence disrupt our expectations.’ ROBERT GOTT

‘The real central character in this book is Ireland. Mulholland apparently effortlessly conjures up the country through its history, myths and legends, its landscape . . . Mulholland has a great gift for the vernacular, and the novel is both evocative and lyrically written.’ The Daily Mail (UK)

‘Mulholland knows the book will be controversial, particularly in Ireland and Britain, especially because of Darren. But it is Dundalk that is most lovingly portrayed in this novel, with many, many references to places that townspeople would be very familiar with that are beautifully, humourously and evocatively written. […]

Interwoven between historically accurate and real-life experiences is the ‘unreal’, the fantastical, which makes this book like nothing you have read before. Mulholland draws on the rich mythology of this area and helps to contextualise Donnelly’s view of the armed struggle for Ireland’s territory.

It is not an easy subject – the aftermath of the recent struggle continues to affect daily life in Ireland. But Mulholland’s story works on a number of levels – it is not just a novel about an IRA sniper – it is also gives the reader a lot of uncomfortable things to think about. Are you on Donnelly’s side? Can you see the goodness in him, despite him being a cold-blooded killer? And it makes you think about the past, how it has haunted this town for decades, and leaves you wondering if Donnelly, ultimately, does the right thing. […]

Mulholland’s is a major achievement. It is a boyhood dream fulfilled, suitably enough, by writing about his childhood.’ The Argus

‘Set amongst the streetscape and hinterland of Dundalk, A Mad and Wonderful Thing is a story about cause, about why we do the things we do, about motivations and conflicts, about choices and costs. It is the story of the search for reason through one boy’s war for nation. In a passionate work combining tender and brutal drama – a braiding of love and war – A Mad and Wonderful Thing is the story of man’s love for homeland and it is the story of man’s love for woman.’ Talk of the Town

‘A lyrical, poetic and passionate tale…’ Sydney Morning Herald / Canberra Times

‘A MAD AND WONDERFUL THING – Number 1 recommendation for 2014

Remember that phrase from Jerry McGuire ‘You had me at hello’? Well, this book did that. It reeks of Irish charm, without laying on Oirish cliché.

Intense and unashamedly passionate and romantic, this is the story of Johnny Donnelly, a young man blessed with charisma and charm, beloved by all who know him. He falls hard for the beautiful Cora Flannery but keeps a secret from her: in his other life, he is an IRA sniper, shooting British soldiers. When tragedy strikes, Johnny has to choose his loyalties and find a new way to love his country.

Written with playful, light and poetic language that embraces music, a proud history, a beloved and wild landscape and the country’s darker torment, the novel shifts mood effortlessly from tragedy to love story as swiftly as the Irish weather. It tackles the great moral paradox of its central character with deftness and sensitivity and changes gear, ramping up the drama to an unexpected thriller-style climax. A sparkling debut that celebrates the vitality, resilience and humanity of Ireland.’ BOOKTOPIA, Australia

‘Debut novelist Mulholland has Roddy Doyle’s gift for the vernacular… you will be there with him till the bitter end.’ Townsville Bulletin, Queensland (also in Weekend Post Cairns/ Herald Sun / Gold Coast Bulletin)

‘Ultimately this is a redemption story and a story about life – just how mad and difficult and surprising, heartbreaking, impossible and wonderful it can be. The language is descriptive and flows beautifully making it a really lovely, summer read that has surprising twists and high drama.’ The Co-op Blog

‘A Mad And a Wonderful Thing is the lyrical, poetic and passionate tale of a popular and charismatic young man called Johnny, who falls in love with the beautiful Cora […]The book is very visual and builds to an unexpected climax of tension that shifts it from tragic love story into thriller territory.’ Interview by Caroline Baum on SMH, Canberra Times and the Saturday Age Melbourne

‘A Mad and Wonderful Thing is Mark Mulholland’s terrific first novel. Johnny Donnelly, our charismatic hero, is a young man of many parts: a carpenter, a self-taught philosopher, and a cultural nationalist of the first order.’ The New Zealand Listener

‘A debut novel from that clever Aussie publisher – Scribe. In turns elegiac and disturbing. Pulls off that trick of making you sympathise with a character who does some truly awful things. Has a genuine OMG moment. One to watch.’ May Contain Nuts

‘What defines a man? Is it the overall shape of his life, or the individual moments? The insignificant kindesses or the significant cruelties? A study of character, both of the individual and country, A Mad and Wonderful Thing traces the life of Johnny Donnelly, a charismatic and philosophical young man … but (who) is also involved with the IRA.’ The Book Show, 4zzz FM, Brisbane

‘The final act is marvellous, as Johnny faces the brutal calculus of his moral code. Here we also see echoes of McGahern’s marvellous work Amongst Women, as Mulholland fashions his own grim IRA chieftain, and settles his own account of the cost. A scene at a borderlands farmhouse, triggered by a disconcerting waft of perfume, is thrilling, appalling and marvellously resolved.’ The Sunday Age Melbourne

‘It’s a strange irony that Bernard McGinn died of natural causes just a few months or so back; Mcginn was part of an IRA group of snipers based in South Armagh, Northern Ireland, on the Irish border. Between 1990 and 1997 they terrorised the British army and police, killing seven soldiers and two police. Johnny Donnelly, the central character in Mark Mulholland’s stunning first novel,A Mad and Wonderful Thing, is also a sniper for the IRA. Johnny is smart, charming and attractive – all the young women in his small town are in love with him. When Johnny was six, his Dad made a wrong turn and the family were stopped at a British checkpoint where the soldiers humiliated his father and terrified his family. It was an incident that Johnny didn’t forget, though his anger had little direction until a teacher, Delaney, took a shine to the smart, restless young man.

At first Delaney has him helping with small jobs, moving weapons and supplies, then an assassination of an informer and his handler, before teaching him to shoot. Johnny’s hatred of the British gave him no cause to question until he met the beautiful Cora, who shares his passion for Ireland but not for the methods of the IRA. Although she knows nothing of Johnny’s role in the IRA she senses his anger and impulsiveness: ‘Tell me you’ll do no harm, Johnny.’ Johnny’s answer is equivocal.

A Mad and Wonderful Thingis an extraordinary book; it confronts political and moral choices with a harsh brutality, but is, as well, a great love story.’ READINGS, Australia

‘A thoroughly engaging novel that follows a young IRA sniper during the Irish Troubles who is passionate about life, his cause, his country and Cora Flannery, but a turn of events makes him question what he thought was certain. A Mad and Wonderful Thing is a story about why we do the things we do, the consequences they have and finding redemption when all seems lost.’ Sunday Mail, Brisbane

‘Despite the light-hearted banter, the real pathos underlying the Irish charm and wit permeates the book as Mulholland brings to life Ireland’s bitter, strife-torn history. And he proves an extremely gifted story-teller to boot.’ The Weekend West, Perth

‘A Mad and Wonderful Thing is an extraordinary book; it confronts political and moral choices with a harsh brutality, but is, as well, a great love story.’ Readings (Australia)


  • Scribe World English
  • Osburg Verlag Germany

Material: Finished copies (283pp)