Alison Moore on Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son

Alison Moore on Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son

Author photo of Alison Moore © Paul McVeigh

I first met Paul McVeigh at a Word Factory event at the Society Club in Soho in 2013, over a good number of G&Ts. Paul is great company – he’s good to be around, a lot of fun, and unfailingly supportive of his fellow writers. A couple of years later, I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of his debut novel, The Good Son, which is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

One of the novel’s many strengths is its child protagonist, Mickey Donnelly, who, as it happens, is great company. I wrote in support of it that “Mickey Donnelly is one of those characters you believe in with all your heart, and after I’d finished reading, I found I really missed his voice. The Good Son is a robust, funny, and truly charming first novel.”

The following year, writing an article for the Irish Times, I had the opportunity to talk to Paul about the writing of The Good Son, and it was fascinating exploring the line between Paul’s own background and his fictional character’s childhood.

Mickey Donnelly, narrating his story in the first person, was born the day the Troubles started. Paul, who grew up in the same part of Belfast as Mickey, was also born as the Troubles began, but not on exactly the same day. That fictional tweak is a narrative delight; it’s a great first line. It was you that started them, son, says his Ma.

The Good Son is set over one summer, when Mickey is in between primary and secondary school and dreading the prospect of having to go to St. Gabriel’s. Mickey adores his mother and his younger sister, and this is a story as full of love as it is antagonism towards a bullying brother and an abusive, alcoholic and disappointing father, and the violence of the Troubles.

Mickey’s world is vividly drawn, from No Man’s Land [where] there’s always riots to the Eggy field [where] there’s glue-sniffers. I discovered from Paul that every setting in his novel is a real location from his childhood. The Donnellys live one street away from the McVeighs, which helped Paul “make the fictional shift”, though I love the detail that what was the McVeigh family dog is now Mickey’s dog, Killer. While the majority of the events in the book are entirely fictional, the author was indeed caught up in a bomb blast while he was off on his own where he was not supposed to be, albeit in a different location and, thankfully, without the dog.

The Good Son is full of humour, and Paul has spoken compassionately about using humour to ease the reader’s journey through the brutal reality of Mickey’s childhood. Mickey’s mother has some good, harsh one-liners:

“What am I goin’ to do with you, Mickey Donnelly?”
“Put me in a children’s home?” I say.
“They wouldn’t take you,” says she.

At other times, she’s just plain harsh: “if you say one word to the rest of them I’ll kill you stone dead”. Paul has observed that Ma sometimes withholds affection in order to toughen Mickey up, in order to protect him.

The Good Son was shortlisted for a number of awards, won the 2016 Polari First Book Prize and was the 2016 City Reads title. It’s some years since I first entered Mickey’s world; revisiting the novel now, I was moved all over again by Mickey’s situation, his strength and determination, and by the ending of this fabulous book which has love and hope written all over it.


Alison Moore has published five novels including The Lighthouse (2012) and The Retreat (2021), two collections of stories, and a series for children, all with Salt.

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