New Ireland / Hidden Ireland: Reading Recent Irish Fiction

Kim McMullen

Seeking the “lost land” of Ireland—a place of historical complexity and intense, if ambivalent, personal significance—poet Eavan Boland recalls first a Dublin street “of statues: / iron orators and granite patriots. / Arms wide. Lips apart. Last words” (“Unheroic,” 6). Such a public thoroughfare is perhaps what evokes Ireland for most Americans, and indeed, from the vantage point of the nation’s coming of age as a European state, not a former British colony, Irish identity might seem as secure, perhaps as banal, as a street full of monuments. Yet Boland is haunted by an alternate vision: the incidental memory of a man, a hotel resident, who “finished / his day of ledgers and telephones” to return to his room and secretly tend “a wound / from war or illness—no one seemed sure / which would not heal.” When she seeks the “difficult knowledge” of her own country, Boland probes beyond the iron-hewn “certainties” of “Ireland hero history” to uncover the patient face of the unhealed” and reveal a hidden Ireland whose traumas endure beneath the triumphant public narratives of the past century.

The persistent presence of the past animates, to a considerable extent, the current renaissance of Irish fiction, including the six novels under consideration here. When the protagonist of Nuala O’Faolain’s My Dream of You responds to her editor’s suggestion that she write a historical novel by saying “‘I don’t know any history,’” he retorts, “‘If you don’t . . . you’re the first Irish person I ever met who doesn’t’”(20). That there is a resurgence of Irish fiction seems indisputable, and these six novelists—Roddy Doyle, Patrick McCabe, John McGahern, Nuala O’Faolain, Jamie O’Neill, and Colm Tóibin (all of whom, with the exception of MeGahern, are barely into middle age)—are in the thick of it, winning among themselves most of Ireland’s major fiction prizes several times over. Their reputation outside Ireland is equally substantial: Doyle’s The Van (1991), McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto (1998) and The Butcher Boy (1992), McGahem’s Amongst Women (1990), and Tóibin’s The Blackwater Lightship (1999) have all been shortlisted for the Booker, with Doyle’s Paddy Clarke HaHaHa taking the prize in 1993. Even relative newcomers Jamie O’Neill and Nuala O’Faolain have made their marks. O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys (2001) garnered a £350,000 advance from his London publisher while O’Faolain barnstormed U.S. talk shows after her first book, the autobiographical Are You Somebody? (1996), achieved best-seller status here (see “Loose Leaves” and John Boland). The conjunction of the new Ireland of the economic boom and the hidden Ireland of a complex postcolonial past fuels this extraordinary productivity. As Cohn Tóibin has noted, “‘If you surround huge areas of expression with silence for so long and then a society suddenly opens up . . . a lot of people are going to start writing clearly and dramatically. That’s what has happened here. When people talk of the death of the novel I laugh. In Ireland, it’s reaching a heroic phase, like in Britain and France 150 years ago’” (quoted by Riding).

Even in the dynamic new “new Ireland,” enjoying the unprecedented economic prosperity and the rapid social change of the information technology boom, and now hosting thousands of asylum-seeking immigrants and recruiting tens of thousands of guest workers mere decades after stanching its own emigrant hemorrhage, residues of past trauma—emotional and psychological, personal and national—surface persistently. Habits of silence have been broken as a new generation seeks the difficult knowledge of its own country. At times, as in Doyle’s A Star Called Henry or O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys, the narrative returns to the public “street of statues” to revise key moments of national emergence, in both cases the Easter Rising, as a way of constructing a more heterogeneous notion of Irish history than has yet prevailed. In other novels, Tóibin’s The Blackwater Lightship, O’Faolain’s My Dream of You, and McCabe’s Emerald Germs of Ireland, the damaged psyches and emotional struggles of individual Irish men and women gesture toward residual social pathologies, borne by the economic, cultural, and social isolation, emotional austerity, and sexual repression that attended Ireland’s emergence as an independent nation in the 1930-1960 period. Of the works under consideration, only in John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun does a peace of sorts descend upon a landscape witnessing the quiet passing of the first post-independence generations.
Roddy Doyle. A Star Called Henry. New York: Viking, 1999.
For Roddy Doyle, the hidden wound in independent Ireland remains the poverty that left Dublin with some of the worst slums in Europe under British rule, and that lingered, under subsequent Dails and Toiseachs, in the north Dublin working-class suburbs that are the signature settings of Doyle’s previous novels. A Star Called Henry, part of a projected trilogy entitled The Last Roundup, returns to north Dublin a century ago and takes up a crucial Irish origin myth to trace a road not taken, an unfinished revolution. In this fantastic comic fable, we are present at the creation of modern Ireland, viewed significantly through the eyes of a Dublin “street arab,” Henry Smart: “We robbed and helped, invented, and begged. . . . We were little princes of the street, little packs of enterprise and cunning. We were often cold, always hungry but we kept on going going going” (65). Fierce, but often lyric, irony, not Joyce’s scrupulous meanness nor the rather sentimentalized prose of Frank McCourt, marks Doyle’s treatment of Dublin squalor, as in his orgasmic depiction of a rabbit stew in the mouths of those who have known only hunger and lice:

They sucked the soup off carrots, swallowed chunks of the bunny. They coughed and filled their mouths with bits of spud that melted to wonderful slush on their tongues. (29)

Doyle’s Henry, like Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai with whom he shares the legacy of British colonialism, is buoyant with picaresque energy as he rides the crests of his nation’s history, “play[ing] the last post at the grave of O’Donovan Rossa” (92), part of Connolly’s Citizen Army during the 1913 transport workers’ lockout, reading over Pearse’s shoulder as he pens the Proclamation of Irish Independence and adding the clause “about the rights of children” (99), for he is merely fourteen. This potted history is kept lively and ironically self-effacing by Henry’s outsider status and by a class-borne inoculation against the most virulent strains of romantic nationalism. Henry notes of the 1918 parliamentary elections:

So Sinn Fein, just a few years before a little gang of cranky nuts and bad poets, swept to victory everywhere except the bitter parts of Ulster and Trinity College. (210)

Nonetheless, this is familiar stuff, and we may wonder why Doyle retreads the dusty ground that so many in his generation have found suffocating. Journalist Fintan O’Toole, writing in the 1987 Raven Arts broadside “16 on 16,” for example, confesses to a childhood confusion of the Rising leaders with the Magnificent Seven (“Yule Pearse and Patrick Brynner” 12241) and concludes darkly:

1916 inured us to failure, befuddled us so that we don’t know the difference between an inept tragedy of errors and a solid achievement. It has given us a theatrical masochism, content with suffering so long as the gestures and symbols of defiance are right. (225)

In part, Doyle’s comic excess breathes new life into a moribund tale, managing to take the piss out of the romantic theatricality of an earlier generation’s hagiographic narrative of sacrifice even as he celebrates the exhilarating patriotic resourcefulness of individual men and women like Henry and his schoolteacher-turned-lover-turned-comrade, Miss O’Shea, who blow in to a village to rob the post office like some Hibernian Bonnie and Clyde and then “the rebel and the rebellette . . . cycled out of town” (251).

More pointedly, Doyle’s historic revisionism restores key factions—socialists and women in particular—which have been airbrushed from the official portrait of Ireland’s founding fathers. Punctuating the grotesque comedy with moments of lyric poignancy, Doyle convinces us that, for a lad like Henry, the Rising represented a moment of genuine possibility by breaking open the grinding poverty and inertia of the Dublin tenements to change and chance. While Collins and deValera have imperial Britain in their sights, Henry stalks a different target when he blasts a shoe store window:

I shot and killed all that I had been denied, all the commerce and snobbery that had been mocking me and other hundreds of thousands behind glass and locks, all the injustice, unfairness and shoes—while the lads took chunks out of the military. (107)

At once anti-heroic and heroic, Doyle’s postmodern parody both mocks and re-narrates the origin myth of the Irish nation, in a kind of “strategic” mythologizing that contains the seeds of its own comic unmasking, a manifestation of the doubling gesture Terry Eagleton describes in his Field Day pamphlet, “Nationalism: Irony and Commitment.”

But Doyle’s parodic history has a deeper agenda, explicitly voiced in Henry’s growing realization that the revolution he is helping to make is not, finally, for him:

There was no Henry Smart MP. . . . I was bang in the middle of what was going to become big, big history. . . . I was one of Coffins’s anointed but, actually, I was excluded from everything. . . . I was never one of the boys . . . I’d no farm in the family, no college, no priest, no past . . . And none of the other men of the slums and hovels ever made it onto the list. (210)

Nor have women like Miss O’Shea, who refuses to make tea and “sangwidges” for the rebels with the rest of Cumann na mBan, preferring instead the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics that earn her the nickname “Our Lady of the Machine Guns” among the mountainy people. The novel may end with the promise of national independence, but Henry and Miss O’Shea remain disenfranchised by a gender and class hierarchy that is identical to that which obtained under British rule, presided over by the personification of Irish capitalist opportunism, the mysterious Alfie O’Gandúin, and the perennial warlord, Ivan, who found their nation explicitly in the name of economic self-interest: “I’ll be ready to lead my people into the new Ireland,” claims Ivan. “It’ll be very like the old one,” replies Henry. “It may well be, Captain, but it’ll be ours.” “Yours,” corrects Henry (315).

The boom-time Ireland for which A Star Called Henry was written is the genealogical descendant of Ivan’s and O’Gandúin’s brave new world. When we consider Doyle’s latest novel in relation to the Barrytown trilogy (The Commitments [1987], The Snapper [1990], The Van [1991]), and Paddy Clarke HaHaHa (1993), and The Woman Who Walked into Doors [1996]), it seems clear that for Doyle, Ireland’s revolution remains unfinished, not because of the status of the north, but because of continued class and gender inequities that can be traced directly back to the nation’s founding moments. By rewriting the sacred text of the Rising with deconstructive vigor, Doyle exposes the conceptual error at the center of his imagined community. And ironically, it is precisely with this parodic unmaking that Doyle expresses a persistent faith in the possibility of a newer Ireland, for A Star Called Henry is, after all, the first of a projected trilogy. Eternally buoyant, floating literally above the shite, Henry exits the novel on a note of hope, celebrating the birth of a new generation—Henry and Miss O’Shea’s child, illegitimate, beautiful, female, and called “Saoirse,” we hope prophetically:

[E]very square inch of the place mocked me, grabbed at my ankles. It needed blood to survive and it wasn’t getting mine . . . I’d start again. A new man . . . I had a wife I loved in jail and a daughter called Freedom I’d held only once. I didn’t know where I was going . . . But I was still alive. I was twenty. I was Henry Smart.(342)

Jamie O’Neill. At Swim, Two Boys. New York: Scribner, 2001.
Jamie O’Neill’s exceedingly ambitious At Swim, Two Boys also dives into the historic waters of the Easter Rising, parting them with an epic sweep and an operatic flourish that share Doyle’s revisionist agenda but none of his postmodern irony. At Swim tracks the fortunes of two Irish teenagers, Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle, from their meetings at the legendary Forty-Foot bathing rocks where a courtship is carried out in the swimming lessons Doyler gives Jim in anticipation of their heroic swim to the Muglins, a distant desert island in Dublin Bay, to the dramatic climax of their relationship on Stephen’s Green during Easter week, 1916. O’Neill utilizes these classically star-crossed lovers to explore nuances of working-class aspiration and anglicization in early twentieth-century Dublin, a social landscape he surveys with a shrewd eye for detail. On the make, Jim’s shopkeeper father requires Jim to call him “Papa,” not the colloquial “Da,” yet Jim is teased unmercifully by the boys in his fashionable school for “liv[ing] in a corner-huckster’s,” especially since “the school wouldn’t play a match but his [father’s] cart rolled up with pop and sweets” (42). Doyler lurches almost invisibly into the Mack household as a muck-shoveler, hauling the municipal dung cart, and when he joins the local pipe band, it is he, not Jim, who draws scorn: “In this band, Mr. Doyle, we are accustomed to a respectable music . . . in the tradition of Kuhlau and Briccialdi. . . . We do not slip and slide the like of Phil the Fluter at his ball” (58). Shedding layers of sexual and social acculturation along with their clothes, Jim and Doyler plunge into the bracing waters of Dublin Bay with exhilarating abandon, and the love scenes that eventually follow are boldly drawn, combining tenderness and rough sex, lust, humor and lyricism—precisely the sort of thing one would hope for two young men swimming free.

The epic expanse of O’Neill’s novel comes not from chronological range—its action is compressed into a single emblematic year—but from an extensive supporting cast that brings color and texture to the central love story, supplying cultural context for its wider allegory. Ex-quartermaster for the Dublin Fusiliers, inveterate knitter of stockings for Tommies at the front, West Briton Mr. Mack functions as the comic father who must be deposed, and yet by novel’s end, even he is caught up in the terrible beauty of the Rising. More complex is the role played by Anthony MacMurrough. Living on the family estate and cadging cigarette money from his Aunt Eva, he seems the stereotypic Anglo-Irish toff, at loose ends and casually eyeing local boys; but as he is drawn into Jim’s and Doyler’s orbit, acting as both lover and benefactor for their affair, he too is changed utterly, shedding cynicism and apathy as his passion for the boys grows into a love of their nation.

MacMurrough’s character is further complicated by the materialization of a cast of alter egos who function as a libidinal chorus. Schoolmasterish “Scrotes,” (the “loftier portion” of MacMurrough’s thoughts) plays superego to “Dick” the id (MacMurrough’s “membrum virile and the wayward cerebrations that command it” [170]), with “Nanny Tremble” supplying maternal affection and “the chaplain embark[ing] on his hellfire-jaw and sodom-talk” (162). This psychological conceit serves a thematic end, as when Scrotes’s philosophizing provides a metacommentary on homosexual desire:

The world would say that we did not exist, that only our actions, our habits, were real, which the world called our crimes or our sins. But Scrotes began to think that we did exist. That we had a nature our own which was not another’s perverted or turned to sin. Our actions could not be crimes, he believed, because they were the expressions of a nature, of an existence even. (255)

Yet these phantasms intrude awkwardly into O’Neill’s fundamentally realistic narrative, as if they were the palimpsest of some earlier draft that has not been fully reconciled with the novel before us. Less labored—and fun to spot—are the cameo appearances of historical figures: unnamed, but unmistakable, Constance Markievicz “appeared on the sward” of Stephen’s Green, “calmly stood there and took her aim. She fired. A machine-gun was silenced, actually silenced. She returned, waving her arms. . . . ‘Can’t have the rotters have all the running,’ she said” (546).

Even given its epic ambitions, At Swim, Two Boys gains significant comic energy from O’Neill’s occasionally ironic conjuring of the cultural landscape of 1916. Ardent nationalist and suffragist, MacMurrough’s Aunt Eva plans a garden fete to reintroduce her nephew to society, rescuing his reputation in Ireland by representing to her Sinn Feiner guests that his two-years hard labor in British prison (“for gross indecency with a chauffeur-mechanic”) was a trumped-up charge to “traduce” the memory of his nationalist grandfather (178). Later, when MacMurrough realizes that a nationalist uprising is indeed underway and that his friends Doyler and Mack have signed on to it, he signals his own rebellion by marching up to the first peeler that he sees, announcing his name and address, and declaring “now, this fellow here, he fucked me last night” (549), before punching the policeman in the stomach.

Yet as engaging as these characters are, and as specifically realized their world, the early chapters of At Swim, Two Boys evince a retro stylization and an overfamiliarity of action and characterization, as if O’Neill had printed his landscape in sepia tones. There is too much of the old Bloom in O’Neill’s characterization of the comic Mr. Mack, a “genteelry grocery man” (9), compulsive improver (“There’s a pucker idea: [holy water] fonts for trams. Should send that in the paper” [281) and amateur adman (“Might better have had two [poster] orders made up. One for the swells, other for the smells” [261). Similarly, MacMurrough’s arch witticisms clearly mimic Oscar’s at times, without the wild liberatory excesses of the original. Perhaps anyone traversing the overdetermined literary and political terrain of Dublin in the first two decades of the twentieth century must wrestle ghosts, but O’Neill’s derivative characterizations seem deliberately to evoke earlier texts, not with the parodic intention of subverting them, but seemingly to capitalize upon their familiarity. Unlike A Star Called Henry’s, At Swim, Two Boys‘s contrivances are not exaggerated enough to earn the postmodern doubleness of a magic realist text, but they are too studied to work well with the novel’s basic realism. In this context, the title’s allusion to Flann O’Brien’s postmodern classic, At Swim-Two-Birds, seems particularly misleading.

These tensions become more complex when we consider the novel’s central action, as the individual swimmers/lovers, Doyler and Jim, are swept up in the tide of history. Doyler and Jim’s longstanding pledge to meet for their symbolic swim to the Muglins (and the unstated although inevitable consummation of their desire) on Easter Sunday, 1916, explicitly plots the coincidence of romantic love and romantic nationalism. Far from being dead and gone, romantic Ireland is reborn in O’Neill’s novel through the sanctified sacrifice of loving comrades, a Whitmanic ideal conjured in the novel’s epigraph (“I will make inseparable cities with their arns / about each other’s necks; / By the love of comrades”) and hibernicized by Patrick Pearse. In itself, the passionate story of political brotherhood and desire is moving and lyric, as when Jim obliquely confesses and sanctifies his love for Doyler by transforming Doyler’s Citizen Army into the “Sacred Band of Thebes”:

And each man stood with his friend by his side. They fought that way, friend and friend, side by side. . . . They never once broke or ran. “For you know,” said Jim, “it would be awful hard to do anything dishonorable with your friend by your side. . . . The Sacred Band of Lovers, each man so brave and true to the end.” “So that’s what they was,” said Doyler, “lovers?” . . . “They were all of them lovers,” Jim said firmly. (519)

O’Neill’s plot imagines the possibility of a sexual revolution that is co-extensive with the national revolution, with every shot fired by Jim, Doyler, and MacMurrough against a British sniper becoming simultaneously a strike against sexual repression and homophobia. When Jim reminds Doyler that the British imprisoned MacMurrough, Doyler responds cynically, “‘Sure the Irish would gallows him, only for the scandal of naming what he done.’” But Jim counters confidently by imagining a new Ireland: “‘Not in my country they won’t’” (521).

The important contribution of O’Neill’s historical revisionism, then, is to broaden the discourse of Irish nationalism, hitherto decidedly heterosexual in its articulation of the eros of political desire. O’Neill foregrounds the contributions made by gay men to the nationalist cause (Roger Casement appears prominently) and, more important, suggests that the liberation promised by independence has been only partially fulfilled so long as sexual repression and homophobia continue in the Ireland for which men like Dolyer and Jim sacrificed themselves. The sexual politics of the novel are thus irreproachable. But it is O’Neill’s unequivocal reiteration of romantic nationalism that gives one pause, as At Swim, Two Boys sweeps away several decades of careful postcolonial and feminist critique of nationalism itself. As early as Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars (1926), the satire of the more dangerous excesses of sentimental nationalism was seen as a necessary preamble to consideration of the class and gender issues left unresolved by Irish independence. Particularly, as Fintan O’Toole suggests above, the cult of romantic sacrifice—the “theatrical masochism” that makes perpetual martyrdom for a political cause an end unto itself—seems especially in need of reconsideration, not reiteration. To the extent that it resuscitates romantic Ireland, O’Neill’s novel would benefit from a blast of the postmodern equivocation that blows through A Star Called Henry.
Colm Tóibin. The Blackwater Lightship. New York: Scribner, 2000, (London: Picador, 1999).
Any such anxieties about “national becomings” seem to be fully resolved in the suburban Dublin onto which Cohm Tóibin’s The Bklckwater Lightship opens. It is emphatically a contemporary scene, with questions of identity—national, sexual, gender, class—presumably settled. Helen, Wexford-born principal of a primary school used as a national model by the Education Ministry, and her Donegal-born husband, Hugh, a teacher at a popular Irish-language school, throw a party for Irish-speaking friends and South Asian neighbors in their light-filled house—they are “the first in their estate to build an extension—a large, square, bright room which served as kitchen and dining-room and playroom” (6)—where chili is served alongside the Guinness, and traditional musicians play fiddle and uilleann pipes in the kitchen alongside a singer who has just cut a bestselling CD. This is the new “new Ireland,” living out the residues of its postcolonial legacy without apparent tension: heterogeneous and cosmopoitan, yet securely and self-confidently Irish; materially advantaged and liberated in terms of gender roles, yet focused on family, community, and traditional culture.

And indeed, the fissures that soon appear in this polished middle-class surface seem deeply personal. A friend brings the harrowing news that Helen’s brother, Declan, is in hospital, struggling with the last stages of AIDS, and with the peremptory power of the dying over the living, Declan demands that Helen break the news to their mother, Lily, from whom she is estranged, and that the entire family gather for a reunion at their grandmother’s sea-side house in rural Wexford. In that isolated cottage perched precariously upon a crumbling cliff top where Helen’s grandparents lived for years as if the “turbulence below them, the waves crashing hard against the cliff face . . . were not there” (59), facing Declan’s illness is, ironically, no more agonizing than confronting the family animosities that distance, time, and carefully restricted contacts have managed to contain. Declan’s AIDS thus becomes the occasion for Tóibin’s examination of the pervasive, hidden, wounds lingering in his family—itself a synecdoche for contemporary Ireland—whose public successes are marked by Lily’s entrepreneurial transformation of early widowhood into a flourishing computer consulting business and Helen’s liberated balance of suburban home and model career as an educator.

Tóibin’s primary interest is with Helen, as her self-satisfied lifestyle, and the emotional denial upon which it rests, crack open with Declan’s news. The resurrected relationships with her mother and grandmother release suppressed details of a troubled childhood, at the center of which is Helen’s abiding bitterness at “. . . the non-answers to questions, the sense of her mother as being utterly remote, lost to her” (58) when, at age eleven, she and Declan are abandoned for months at their grandmother’s house while their mother accompanies their father to Dublin for what turns out to be a cancer diagnosis and his eventual death. Helen most resents the years of silence, and even after a decade’s estrangement and in the face of Declan’s illness, Lily and Helen settle immediately into their surprisingly poisonous dynamic:

“I was just saying, Helen,” her mother said, “I would have loved a daughter who cared a lot about clothes and furnishings and colour schemes and all that. You know, when you came into my house the other day, I would have loved if you had made suggestions about colours or where to put things. . . . ” “It’s a new daughter you need then,” Helen said. “With all your money, why don’t you buy one?” (205)

Mother love, here, is anything but unconditional, and full adult autonomy seems, to Helen at least, to demand continued adolescent rebellion.

This mother/daughter antagonism seems uncomfortably universal, part of the dynamic of modem individualism, and yet such is the deftness of Tóibin’s understated prose that these scenes of family conflict resonate metaphorically to suggest distinctly Irish social issues surrounding modernization and change, generational difference, personal autonomy and traditional kinship claims, and a legacy of silence, especially in relation to sexuality and physicality (“there was a sort of shame about it,” says Lily about her husband’s death [2441). In one scene, a child’s food preferences—for sliced white bread over brown bread and for anything but the homely rural diet of cabbage, turnips, and eggs—signals a conflict of generations and of social values, as his granny preaches the discipline, self-sacrifice, and frugality that marked the postindependence decades: “‘You don’t eat because you like the food, you eat to live, that’s why you eat’ was one of her sayings” (59). While no specific mention is made of famine, this familiar childhood struggle plays out against the Irish historical context to highlight the immature self-indulgence of present consumer culture in stark contrast to an older generation’s stoicism and self-discipline. And yet Declan, who is the particular child in question, has grown into a man with his own stoical powers, as he faces his illness and imminent death with humor and dignity.

In a pointed challenge to traditional Catholic values, Tóibin comforts Declan with a functioning gay family unit comprised of his friends Larry and Paul, who join him at his granny’s cottage to tend him during his illness, supplying much-needed love and comic relief, and modeling a fierce loyalty, honesty, and generosity that Declan’s dysfunctional biological family must rediscover. In defiance of the emotional reticence which constrains the latter clan, Larry, Paul, and Declan talk and talk. Some of the novel’s most powerful scenes come through their matter-of-fact narratives, staged as confessions of sorts in a room whose twilight is periodically illuminated by flashes from a nearby navigational light. The symbolism is obvious, yet under Tóibin’s control, such figuration rarely troubles the novel’s realism. Paul tells of his long search for a Catholic priest willing to marry him and Francois, the love of his life; Larry offers a tragicomic tale of being inadvertently outed to his family by national TV news coverage of a tea hosted by Mary Robinson at the presidential lodge for a delegation of gay men and lesbians. Public institutions like the church, and the private dynamic of the family, are sent scrambling before the rapid change of sexual politics in Ireland. Ultimately, however, no one is left behind in this dialogue of generations and social/sexual values, for Tóibin’s characters—like the Ireland of Robinson’s presidency—are rich with internal complexities and surprising reserves of strength and flexibility. Even Granny Devereux, as a member of a generation that weathered economic deprivation and political turmoil, shows herself admirably able to confront Declan’s particular trouble. “She knew all about AIDS and the search for a cure and the long illnesses” (47), for she has been schooled by the dialogue on sexuality initiated in her conservative Catholic society by such media outlets as Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show. Transfiguration, however belated, remains a possibility in Tóibin’s Ireland.

The Blackwater Lightship thus offers a compassionate examination of old injuries and attendant silences, not simply a judgment upon them. The novel may trace the family dysfunction and emotional scars borne by Helen and Declan to their mother’s emotional withdrawal after her husband’s death, but it also insists that Lily’s repression was, itself, an attempt to adapt to her own historical moment, necessitated by her confrontation with a medical and religious hierarchy that left her ignorant of the seriousness of her husband’s condition and with an emotional vocabulary inadequate to her pain. The complex strategies that allow one generation to survive its particular traumas may inadvertently distort and damage relationships with subsequent generations, but what is most compelling in this quiet, humane novel is its refusal to blame, its desire to understand, and its commitment to healing. As the hidden sufferings of one family are slowly revealed, Tóibin invites us to imagine a truly modem Ireland in which old secrets are spoken and individual lives and families are made whole.
John McGahern. That They May Face the Rising Sun. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.
John McGahern has made a long and distinguished career of the scrupulous observation of rural Ireland and the emotional tensions playing beneath its domestic surfaces, and in so doing he has imagined an alternative to the sanitized pastoralism that epitomized official Ireland as recently as the 1960s. The nation seems to have come around to his view: his third novel, The Dark (1965), an unflinching portrait of a Roscommon scholarship boy abused physically and sexually by his constable father, was banned by the Irish Censorship Board, leading in turn to McGahern’s loss of his teaching job, but his 1990 Amongst Women, similarly critical of a rural Irish patriarch (in this case, a Republican hero) and his emotional tyranny over wife and children, won the Irish Times / Aer Lingus Award. Preferring detailed investigation and understated realism, McGahern’s novels offer corrective or cautionary tales rather than confrontational naturalist expose or subversive modern and postmodern ironies. In this respect, McGahern (along with his contemporaries Edna O’Brien and Jennifer Johnston) is a link between the critical realism of Sean O’Faolain and Frank O’Connor and that of younger writers like Tóibin, Nuala O’Faolain, and Dermot Bolger.

In his most recent narrative, That They May See the Rising Sun, McGahern observes a year in the life of contemporary rural Ireland and the characters drawn by simple proximity into the social orbit of Kate and Joe Ruttledge, a couple recently returned to his native townland from metropolitan London. In stark contrast to At Swim, Two Boys and A Star Called Henry (and, for that matter, O’Faolain’s My Dream of You and McCabe’s Emerald Germs of Ireland), the power of McGahern’s story lies in its quietness, its lack of plotting or drama. Readers keep waiting for something to happen and, in the expanse of time in which it does not, life advances in all of its daily detail, carried forward in the subtle rhythms of the friendship between the Ruttledges and their neighbors, Jamesie and Mary, and through minute interactions with a cast of idiosyncratic acquaintances. There is “the Shah,” Ruttledge’s gentle old bachelor uncle who attends mass each week and dinner each night with “that woman down in the hotel” and who drives his late-model Merc magisterially down the rutted lanes, having amassed a small fortune, although he is illiterate. There is predatory misogynist, John Quinn, who recruits his third wife through the Knock Bureau, a marriage service attached to the Knock shrine, a Mayo pilgrimage site that came to rival Lourdes in popularity after an apparition of the Virgin appeared there in the late nineteenth century (“You’d think,” observes waggish Jamesie, “the priests and nuns would have something better to do than running a bucking shop” [119]). There are the two rival farmers, jockeying for space for their trailers at the livestock auction, eyeing each other ominously until “violence seemed a hair’s breath away,” who instead burst into a competitive duet that diffuses their animosity: “‘Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise. All lost in a wonderland’” (140). There is Bill Evans, mildly retarded and emotionally stunted, farmed out as a child from a Catholic orphanage to labor for one abusive family after another until he ends up an old man, still hauling water from the lake in buckets for his current employers, neighbors of the Ruttledges: “His kind was now almost as extinct as the corncrake” (9).

The entire world of That They May Face the Rising Sun seems “almost as extinct as the corncrake,” anachronistic in its slow pace and idyllic in its natural harmonies. Yet the pellucidity of McGahem’s prose, and his humor, preserve the story from sentimentality and nostalgia. Moreover, as the Ruttledges attend equally to birthing lambs and to writing ad copy for a wine importer as consultants for their former London employer, we discover a muted cosmopolitanism that harmonizes effortlessly with the rhythms of provincial life. McGahem’s is a kind of sophisticated pastoralism—not the purifying primitivism of Synge’s generation that saw the suffering and isolation of the so-called peasants as authorization of national identity, but rather a modern hybrid form, in which one grandchild might prefer to be in the meadows making hay with the old ones while the others vacation with their parents in a Tuscan holiday rental. Parading through the lobby of a Donegal beach hotel in his “Boer war-era” bathing costume, the Shah might initially provoke the mockery of younger patrons, but after a while the ridicule stops: “He was so unbothered and so much himself that people began to take to him in the end” (102). The scene becomes emblematic, for McGahem, of the place of traditional rural life in the context of the new, cosmopolitan, Ireland: neither reviled nor romanticized, it is easy in its skin, attractive precisely because it is so “unbothered” and “so much itself.”

In contrast to the adolescent energies that drive Doyle’s and O’Neill’s novels and to the mature interrogations of Tóibin, O’Faolain, and McCabe, That They May Face the Rising Sun evokes Ireland at late middle age, neither absorbed by its nationalist origins nor frustrated by the limits of its cultural borders, but rather at home in the wider world. Obviously this version of rural life contrasts sharply with McGahem’s earlier, darker evocations. While there are traumas here (John Quinn begins his amorous career with a brutal, and public, marital rape, Jamesie’s brother—exiled to a London bedsit and a humiliating career as janitor in a Vauxhall plant—comes home simply to die), they are not left to fester secretly, but rather are openly discussed and thus made part of the vitality of the everyday. If one has any critique of this beautiful, subtle narrative, it may be precisely the limits of its virtues: a world this commodious, this able to absorb sadness and pain with playfulness, generosity, and love, may remain fundamentally a fiction, however powerfully McGahern’s mimesis convinces us of its reality. But the elegiac tone that creeps into the novel toward the end anticipates precisely this reaction. Like the sexton’s painstaking positioning of the grave to allow the dead to “‘sleep with [their] head ‘in the west . . . so that when [they] wake [they] may face the rising sun’” (282), McGahern attentively lays out these lives to honor a provincial world that may well be passing.
Nuala O’Faolain. My Dream of You. New York: Riverhead Books, 2001, (London: Michael Joseph, 2001).
A glance at the title of journalist Nuala O’Faolain’s first novel, My Dream of You, and a rehearsal of its plot, might tempt most of us to shelve it with high-end historical romances. Grieving the unexpected death of her only intimate friend, a colleague writing for the same travel magazine, Kathleen de Burca returns to Ireland after a thirty-year exile to pursue details of a historical divorce case, known to her only from the proceedings of the House of Lords, that turns on an unimaginable love affair between an Anglo-Irish landholder and her coachman in western Ireland in the last years of the famine. Kathleen’s editor encourages her project, with one caveat: “ . . . a book about an unusual love affair and a sensational Victorian divorce case would do very well, but I certainly don’t think that about yet another tome on the sorrows of Ireland” (74). However, O’Faolain’s novel deftly balances both historiographic modes, as Kathleen’s engagement with the Talbot divorce story restores specific human poignancy to the abstract sorrows of Irish history, in, for example, her chance discovery of an inventory of the “entire material wealth” of the four thousand people of Gweedore, Donegal, in the decade before the famine:

1 cart, no coach or any other vehicle, 1 plough, 20 shovels, 32 rakes, 7 table forks, 93 chairs, 243 stools, 2 feather beds, 8 chaff beds, 3 turkeys, 27 geese, no bonnet, no clock, 3 watches, no looking glass above 3d. in price… (68).

At the same time, Kathleen’s attempt to narrate the profligate affair between Marianne Talbot and William Mullan helps breathe life into the colonial politics of the famine—and of scholarship about it—as her first draft of “The Talbot Book” eagerly warms their historic flesh with insights into the disorienting boredom and isolation of Ascendancy women, drawn to competitive gardening as one of the few acceptable feminine amusements, and the quiet dignity of a groom from a leading Catholic family, now dispossessed, “their land granted to the Talbots’ predecessor sometime after the battle of Aughrim” (163). When O’Faolain reveals in a note that Talbot v. Talbot was, indeed, “an actual event,” and quotes verbatim from various archival materials that she (and Kathleen) have identified, she adds a frisson of historical intrigue and a metafictional element to the storyline.

As the famine narrative twines through Kathleen’s biography, we grow to recognize her fixation with the Talbot / Mullan story as her indirect way of tending to her own damaged life. A prolific and talented travel writer based in London, her sophisticated exterior masks a psychological and emotional numbness. “Dessicated” is her word for herself, with each exotic destination simply another existential deferral of her confrontation with a barren childhood (“Such wilfully stunted lives, the lives of respectable Irishmen of my father’s generation! I was terrified that I was as unloving as he . . .” [1711), her consequent self-exile in the imperial capital where she must disguise her Irish accent in order to rent a basement flat, and an indiscriminate sexuality that confuses desire with love, “liberation” with emotional abnegation (“I was the most confused and wayward feminist you could imagine” [4241). While O’Faolain figures Kathleen’s struggle in deeply personal terms, it also represents the entailed birthright of a generation of Irish women and men who, like Kathleen, fled the provincialism, sexual discipline, and emotional austerity of mid-twentieth-century Ireland for a metropolitan world they perceived to be more open and generous, just as their ancestors fled the other great hunger a century earlier. Kathleen muses:

I put the two things together, home and the Famine, and I used to wonder whether something that had happened more than a hundred years ago, and that was almost forgotten, could have been so terrible that it knocked all the happiness out of people. (4)

Writing historical romance, then, affords a therapeutic outlet for Kathleen’s rich imagination and repressed emotions (we are reminded of Janice Radway’s theories of the genre), even as the particular story she pursues holds out the possibility of redemptive passion in the midst of unimaginable pain. As she researches the story of love among the ruins of nineteenth-century Ireland, Kathleen travels the same emotional and geographic territory with a middle-aged Irishman, Shay, to whom she opens herself with an emotional intensity that floods her dry life.

Yet, throughout both subplots, O’Faolain tries the sentimental conventions of romance and finds them wanting. My Dream of You tempts us (and Kathleen) with their easy resolutions and emotional gratifications but ultimately provokes a critical skepticism when, at novel’s end, Kathleen abandons “The Talbot Book” and the equally contrived ending Shay proposes to her own love story (“Oh I could have it all! . . . A new computer on a table in a sunny room, and the grass outside the window . . . I would have a gate, just for the pleasure of hearing the car stop at the gate and the man get out . . . ” [3541). Through a sequence of narrative turns initiated by newly recovered archival materials, Kathleen discovers the inadequacies of her romance formulas before the complicated national and gender politics of the nineteenth-century plot. Simultaneously, O’Faolain leads her slowly to the recognition that these conventions cannot resolve the postcolonial tensions in her own life either.

My Dream of You may begin as a historical romance, but it concludes with a critical unmasking of the genre. As one of Kathleen’s consultants on the project, a local librarian, observes: “This story does exactly what a lot of the highbrow fiction coming into the library these days does—it keeps changing as you look at it. You don’t know what to believe. Our readers hate that of course” (381). And so, of course, may O’Faolain’s readers. Romance fans may be disappointed when the Talbot / Mullan love story is complicated and ultimately undermined by details of economic and political history, and feminist or postmodern skeptics may grow so impatient with O’Faolain’s installation of romantic conventions that they may abandon the novel before she arrives at her antiromantic conclusion. Nonetheless, it is a risk worth taking, for O’Faolain’s critical strategy focuses our attention on the politics of narrative representation, on the degree to which certain genres may conspire to obscure hard—and crucially revealing—historical truths. It is an insight My Dream of You shares with Roddy Doyle’s mock-epic treatment of the Rising and with Patrick McCabe’s deep skepticism of Irish pop culture.
Patrick McCabe. Emerald Germs of Ireland. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Fans of Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992) know that the more winsomely the Irish eyes are smiling, the more likely they are to mark a psychopathic urge, and thus will approach Pat McNab, the protagonist of Emerald Germs of Ireland, with caution. As “the most ordinary fellow you could ever hope to meet” (xiii), Pat is a forty-five-year-old mammy’s boy, show-band wannabe, copious alcoholic, and loner; not coincidentally, it’s rumored that some fifty or fifty-five of his friends and neighbors in rural Gullytown are buried under the laurel bushes in his back garden, their passing marked only by the addition of a new tune to Pat’s impressive repertoire of traditional ballads and show songs. “The Turfman from Ardree” is out back, along with the “Three Lovely Lassies in Bannion” and “The Little Drummer Boy,” each chapter spotlighting yet another turn in Pat’s homicidal cabaret.

Most readers will enter this grotesque comedy gleefully, relishing the excess and mad inventiveness of McCabe’s dark imagination. McCabe is a virtuoso mimic of the genteel phrases that oil daily interaction in provincial Irish towns, as in the unctuous estate agent’s discourse with which he describes the McNab homestead:

The spacious and well appointed if somewhat cobwebbed rooms and fabulous whitewashed outhouses could not but be the envy of many in these property-coveting days, not to mention the stables. Especially the stables . . . [A] visiting tourist . . . would be hard-pressed not to produce a camera and take any number of photographs to record the scene for posterity. . . . (42)

In the face of such bourgeois smugness, we cheer when Pat’s anarchic spirit plunges to ever greater depths, forcing the narrator to caution that

any would-be recorder for posterity [should] make an exception of the stables . . . for the scene can hardly be described as a ‘palatable’ one. Reminiscent, perhaps, of one of these Friday the Thirteenth or Chainsaw Massacre-type films, indeed any horror vehicle specifically targeted at the youth market. (43)

The novel is most hilarious when Pat’s insanity exposes (and thus subverts) the bizarre pop lexicon of Hiberno-American sentimentality; the chapter entitled “Love Story” begins, “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? Loved Mozart and Bach? And the Kilfenora Ceilidh Band?” (204). In the face of Pat’s epic abnormality, the reader grows impatient with the exonerations of the soft-mouthed narrator, which often seem more grotesque than the behavior they attempt to explain:

For the plain truth is, reader, that Pat was simply one of life’s unfortunates. . . . [E]vents mov[ed] with a rapidity that pitched a perfectly innocent young man into the very heart of a black and swirling cosmos. . . . No, Pat was no sociopath, and in the fullness of time the truth will emerge and the enormity of Pat’s heart and generous nature will be revealed to the world. (116)

Let the lad be mad in peace, we say; this is a surreal landscape, like Beckett territory or that of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, and psychological platitudes are out of bounds.

Yet with each new chapter, Emerald Germs of Ireland twists us through another turn of ontological—and moral—vertigo, and the novel morphs from an anarchic celebration of the absurd, to a parodic case study of Pat McNab, to a poignant psychopathology of everyday Irish life. Set upon by an officious neighbor investigating Mrs. McNab’s disappearance, Pat is whipped through a series of emotional manipulations that leave him spinning—through eroticized infantilization, guilt, fierce defense of his mother in the face of Mrs. Tubridy’s charges ( “‘. . . the little ankle socks she put on you! Is it any wonder they’d call you names and make a cod of you! Is it?’” [161], shame and humiliation, sexual desire, and a final defiant condemnation of the “Town of Liars” and a fierce defense of himself. “‘I’m not quare’” (16), he shouts. And indeed, he doesn’t seem so “quare” when he subsequently pursues “what might be called ‘The Fate of Dolly Tubridy’” (27) by putting a tundish down her throat and pouring in “a stupendous catalog of disparate brands: Johnnie Walker, Glenfiddich, Grouse, Bell’s, and Paddy of course! . . . to be followed by a liberal dispensation of the natural mineral H20” (28) from the garden hose. Far from condemning the murder, the reader finds herself humming the chapter’s theme song, “Whisky on a Sunday,” along with Pat.

If “Pat was no sociopath,” then, it is not because he’s not completely crazy, but because the provincial Ireland that he finds himself in is, itself, sociopathic. This is the savage, absurd underside of the pastoral world of John McGahern—closer, perhaps, to the stunted environment of 1950s Ireland imagined by O’Faolain and Tóibin—a world filled with the subtle menace of neighbors, the predatory sexuality of student nurses and emigrant aunts, the physical and sexual abuse of parents, the emotional brutalization of teachers and prospective girlfriends, the loneliness and isolation of middle-aged bachelorhood, and the persistent (homophobic) ridicule of everyone in town. Above it all, a sadistic Muzak of show tunes and folk songs plays in jaunty mockery of Pat’s desires. As McCabe has observed in a recent interview, “People tell me ‘you’re funny’ and I say, ‘I’m not. I don’t think there’s anything funny in this world.’ . . . I’m more interested in what hurts people. And what makes people laugh” (quoted by Jackson, 2). For all of its dazzling excess, the humor in Emerald Germrs of Ireland functions not to disperse but to intensify the pain of our response to Pat McNab’s hidden suffering.

And it is here McCabe’s brilliant ventriloquism gathers significance beyond simple parody. As part of his running confession to his mother, buried out beneath a laurel bush, Pat anguishes late in the novel of his campaign of hygienic homicide: “‘They’re all germs, Mammy. You know that, don’t you? That’s what they are, you know. Each and every one of them—germs who have to die!’” (244). But ironically, no matter how many individuals are exterminated, airborne pathogens continue to decimate the countryside, contained inside the most innocuous-seeming of spores—the romantic discourses of folk and pop music, movies and TV shows, and the pious stereotypes of traditional Irish rural culture. Like some Hibernian boy in the bubble, Pat’s cultural autoimmune system has broken down through years of social isolation, emotional retardation, alcoholism, and abuse, so that the “emerald germs of Ireland,” those evergreen clichés of sentimental culture, find in him their most vulnerable victim, and he continues to script his life according to the next sentimental ballad he hears:

Have you ever been in love, me boys, have you ever felt the pain
I’d rather be in jail, me boys, than be in love again.
For the girl I loved was beautiful and I want you all to know
That I met her in the garden where the praties grow!” (244)

Thus McCabe’s ironies resonate broadly, condemning the mind-numbing stereotypes of smug national self-imaginings even as he probes the internal pain and unacknowledged violence of hidden Ireland. And in one more devilish turn of the screw, the novel Emerald Germs of Ireland actually had its roots in an RTE-Radio I drama series, performed weekly on Saturday mornings in the summer of 2000 by its own house band (see Jackson, Waters). By broadcasting his savage, antiromantic vaccine all over the emerald isle, McCabe thus conscripted one of the media that helped to make Ireland sick in the first place to spread the cure.

In her sardonic and troubling tour of the new New Ireland, She Moves through the Boom (2000), Irish Sunday Tribune journalist Ann Marie Hourihane surveys a rapidly changing society. Networked to the globe through international call centers where you might make reservations for a central London parking garage by speaking to a woman in West Cork (as I did not long ago), enjoying relatively widespread prosperity for the first time in four hundred years (with the fastest growing economy, and Mercedes market, in Europe), Ireland seems for the first time young, hip, wired, suburban, and global. “Now we are going to live like everybody else” (18), Hourihane imagines shoppers declaring at the new Liffey Valley mall. Perhaps it is only in this brave new world, self-confident and autonomous after centuries of colonial and postcolonial struggle, that Irish writers like Tóibin, O’Faolain, Doyle and McCabe are at last free to critically interrogate the hidden wounds of the nation’s past and to think about moving on. Yet there remains a persistent anxiety, stated and unstated, about “What kind of people are we becoming” (Hourihan 39). Thus it may equally be the case that Irish novelists like McGahern and O’Neill are rushing to catalog the remnants of a rapidly dwindling cultural heritage before it is swept away forever in a tide of consumerism and mass culture homogeneity. In the mushrooming housing estates of West Dublin, £1.2 million prototypes are marketed under the brand names, the Beckett, Yeats, Shaw, and Swift, while the Joyce and Kavanaugh models sell for a modest £735 K (Hourihane 151). In the rush to develop the countryside, literary dissent is commodified; intellectual revolutions domesticated. Irish culture seems to be reeling in the boom. Thus, for all of their courageous self-scrutiny, fierce skepticism, and inexhaustible talent, these contemporary Irish novelists have their work cut out for them.
Works Cited
Boland, Eavan. The Lost Land: Poems. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

Boland, John. “Will Nuala be the next Frank?” Irish Times 18 April 1998, 18 July 2002.

Doyle, Roddy. A Star Called Henry. New York: Viking, 1999.

Eagleton, Terry. “Nationalism: Irony and Commitment.” Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990.

Hourihane, Anne Marie. She Moves through the Boom. Dublin: Sitric Books, 2000.

Jackson, Joe. “When Love Hurts.” Irish Times 1 June 2000, 18 July 2002.

“Loose Leaves.” Irish Times 1 September 2001, 8 July 2002.

McCabe, Patrick. Emerald Germs of Ireland. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

McGahem, John. That They May Face the Rising Sun. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.

O’Faolain, Nuala. My Dream of You. New York: Riverhead Books, 2001 (London: Michael Joseph, 2001).

O’Neill, Jamie. At Swim, Two Boys. New York: Scribner, 2001.

O’Toole, Fintan. “1916: The Failure of Failure.” Letters from the New Island. Ed. Dermot Bolger. Dublin: Raven Arts Press, 1991.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patiarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1984.

Riding, Alan. “The Arts Find Fertile Ground in a Flourishing Ireland.” New York Times 21 Dec. 1997, sec. 2: 1+.

Tóibin, Cohn. The Blackwater Lightship. New York: Scribner, 2000 (London: Picador, 1999).

Waters, John. “Disposing of the Irish Mammy.” Irish Times 8 July 2000, 18 July 2002.

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