That is all
Thoughts on Contemporary Irish Fiction
"It was stated that while the novel and the play were both pleasing
intellectual exercises, the novel was inferior to the play inasmuch as
it lacked the outward accidents of illusion, frequently inducing the reader
to be outwitted in a shabby fashion and caused to experience a real concern
for the fortunes of illusory characters. The play was consumed in wholesome
fashion by large masses in places of public resort; the novel was self
administered in private. The novel, in the hands of an unscrupulous writer,
could be despotic. In reply to an inquiry, it was explained that a satisfactory
novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate
at will the degree of his credulity. It was undemocratic to compel characters
to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a
private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living. This
would make for self-respect, contentment and better service. It would
be incorrect to say that it would lead to chaos. Characters should be
interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of
existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning
authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they
failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be
largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what
has been said before - usually said much better. A wealth of references
to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature
of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively
preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior
education from an understanding of contemporary literature. Conclusion
of explanation. That is all my bum, said Brinsley."
At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O'Brien
One: In relation to the works of Joyce, Yeats and Beckett the obsessive,
petty and often futile Literary Criticism Industry, which has grown to
surround these writers with so many theses from academics makes some folk
sick to the point of brain fever and hospitalisation for the nervous disorder
of paranoid exasperation. However, only the truly simple-minded would
reject all history as useless.
Two: The Southern Tiger and the Peace Process. Revisionist Criticism and
the All Male School of Macho Celtic Writing. The economic and political
developments taking place in the 32 counties are deeply significant. They
change so much of the ideological and social landscape. All kinds of hope
and ways of thinking are possible. The position of women, the influence
of the Catholic church, whithersoever Unionism? all manner of historically
entrenched positions are open to question. This is why contemporary Irish
fiction has an extra dimension of interest in addition to the purely artistic/
aesthetic considerations of novel writing.
Three: Fluctuations concerning the sense of identity of the inhabitants
of the Island of Ireland. There is the theory of multiplicity of identity,
that people have layers of it, the auld onion simile would indeed be a
handy illustrator, aye. "I am a Glaswegian and a Scot." "I
am an Ulsterman and British." Of course the onion falls to pieces
with the "Citizen of the World." Only to reassert itself in
astronomical terms. Suffice to say there are shifts and differences in
sense of identity from place to place, and varying within one place according
to social status, historical tradition, systems of religion, political
beliefs and so on. Not unconnected to this is the language question on
the Island with reference to the status of Gaelic. Is Irish writing in
English really Irish writing?1
The African-American novelist Alice Walker uses the metaphor of quilt
making to describe the relationships between the characters in her novel
The Colour Purple. This metaphor can be extended usefully to Ireland with
regard to the patchwork of existing Irish identities; it could be argued
that there are differences in the practice of literary art corresponding
to the sense of identity of individual authors. "Autobiographical
angles on history seem as inescapable in Irish criticism as in Irish literature."2
Four: The problem of gender. This is highlighted in no uncertain terms
by the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, edited by Seamus Deane, published
Derry 1991. This one hell of a book. Three volumes covering centuries
of literary output. All kinds of stuff; religious, political, poetic,
dramatic, novelistic. Mammoth is its range but it contains not one single,
solitary, poor auld cunt of a hoor's daughter of womanhood. Not one
single wee lassie or mammy. Ah the boys would never be so patronising
as to add a token girlie. In this regard Edna Longley's The Living
Stream, provides some excellent insights. Ms Longley travels a hard critical
road, particularly in relation to Seamus Deane and the Field Day project.
She is somewhat soft on Unionism and hard on unreconstructed republicans.
There are interesting ideas in there though, and folk really ought to
wonder in amazement how and why the Field Day Anthology forgot about the
existence of women.
One might say that Flann O'Brien was taking the piss (somewhat ironically)
out of ideas in literary theory which would later come to the foreground
in the work of Jacques Derrida and other post-modernists. While literary
theory is enlightening and informs us greatly about the theory of theory,
there is much to be said for taking a step back from this position; which
is largely academic and institutional, and engaging straight-forwardly
with the text. "Irish literature presents an inter-disciplinary challenge
to which vulgar theory can be insensitive."3
Indeed, the character Brinsley in O'Brien's novel has a good
point with his utterance "That is all my bum." At the same time
it is important to be aware that there are deeper levels and ways of looking
at things imbedded in a text which may not be placed there intentionally
by the author.
As with multiplicity of identity, a multiplicity of readings of a text
may also exist. There lies the quandary and the space for argument. Such
a space is a good one; it is the space between the empirical data (in
the case of literary criticism this data being the text) and talking about
the text discursively. Who knows exactly what this space is? possibly
the moment of cognition; possibly the moment of imagining; possibly the
moment of realising the possibilities of what a text suggests as you read
it; possibly the pleasure in the process of discovery; all of what the
human imagination is capable of must be considered. And yet, such is an
impossibility for any one individual, and this is what I think Flann O'Brien
was driving at in the above quote.
Nevertheless, the ability of literature itself to create such a space
cannot be denied. This is the space where art lives. Where the emotions
are stirred, where the language is made to connect with feeling, with
being alive; where it reveals both its social and individual nature, its
ability to transform and stimulate, to give pleasure, annoyance and pain,
to shock and pacify. This, my friend, is the nature of the fucker. That
which cannot be precisely pinned down but leaves a gap for important question
about the way people live on the ball of atoms called planet Earth.
The foregoing outpouring came into being as a result of thinking about
three novels written by Irish men in the 1990s. Seamus Deane's Reading
in the Dark, Dermot Healy's Sudden Times and Roddy Doyle's A
Star Called Henry.
Seamus Deane: born Derry 1940. Educated at Queen's University, Belfast
and at Cambridge. He is the author of Celtic Revivals: Essays In Modern
Irish Literature 1880-1980, A Short History Of Irish Literature and The
French Revolution and Enlightenment In English Literature 1789-1832. He
has also published four collections of poetry.
Dermot Healy: Born Finea 1947, currently living by the sea in Co. Sligo,
is a playwright, poet and prose-writer. Published work includes, Fighting
with Shadows, A Goat's Song, The Bend for Home and two collections
of poetry. He has worked on building sites in England and this experience
partly informs the fiction of Sudden Times.
Roddy Doyle: Born 1958, Dublin. Educated at University College, Dublin.
Former school teacher, his six novels have been noted for their wit, honesty
and lack of sentimentality.
Doyle's A Star Called Henry: Volume One of The Last Roundup is the
first person narrative of Henry Smart, born at the turn of the century
and brought up in the slums of Dublin. The story is related from the perspective
of an elderly man looking back on his childhood. Doyle uses real historical
events and characters as he sees fit to give voice to the character. James
Connolly and Michael Collins appear as large as life. The 1916 Easter
rising and subsequent civil war are the backdrop to much of the action.
However, History, or historical accuracy, is not the question here. Henry
is the "Glowing Baby pink and cream; every little movement [of his]
adorable fists or face seemed to predict a bright future.4
It is the life of Henry Smart that is the centre of the novel.
Henry's father is a one-legged, poorly-paid bouncer and assassin
working for a brothel owner. His mother is ground down by ill-health,
poverty, childbirth and miscarriages. His Granny is the only adult character
he keeps in touch with over the course of the novel. Henry and his young
brother Victor live as "Street Arabs" always on the look our
for ways to scam money and food. They are at the arse end of society and
the only thing that appears worse than life on the street is to end up
in the orphanage. Victor dies of TB and this helps foster a rage in Henry
which burns brightly until, in the end, he can do no more fighting:
"It was too late. I'd taken men up to the mountains over Dublin
and shot them. I'd gone into their homes - because I'd been
told to. I'd killed more men than I could account for and I'd
trained other men to do the same. I'd been given names on pieces
of paper and I'd sought them out them out and killed them. Just like
my father, except he'd been paid for it."5
One of the most interesting characters in the book is Miss O'Shea,
also known as "Our Lady of the Machine Gun." She is a women
prepared to pursue her own agenda, not satisfied with making the tea and
griddle cakes while the boys get on with the action.
Doyle cleverly draws out the political and religious forces at work and
the concomitant differences in perspective within the nationalist movement.
He not afraid to show brutality, bravery and compassion. On the down side
there is a certain cartoonish quality to some of the writing. One cannot
help but smile wryly at Henry's precocious sexual talents, irresistible
good looks, charm and superhuman strength; this makes for good entertainment
but little of real impact. However, the depictions of poverty, work on
the docks and the 1916 rising are enough to make up for these moments
of weakness on the part of the author. Then again, Henry is narrating
his own story and perhaps he likes to think of his youth as containing
some romantic power to mitigate the brutality. In that sense it is difficult
to be certain about the positioning of the narrative voice. How much is
Henry Smart and how much is Roddy Doyle?
Often things appear to be what they are not. The use of a first person
fictional narrator enhances this sense of uncertainty and engenders in
the reader the sense of a life really being lived.
Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark comes from a similar narrative
stand-point, that of an adult looking back on childhood and trying to
understand how things come to happen the way they do. The setting is Derry's
Bogside and the time span is from 1945 to 1971, though the novel is chiefly
concerned with the '40s and '50s. Again there is the same element
of uncertainty, of somehow not knowing why the world is the way it is.
The struggle of a child to grow into and understand the world. There is
also a mixture of mythology and 'real life' but Deane's
young Catholic boy is rooted in the reality of his community and his family.
Family ties and family life being investigated more deeply than in A Star
Called Henry. The boy relates to his father and mother, to aunts and uncles,
his brother and sister. Yet the book is haunted by characters who aren't
there - "My father's mother, long dead, came to our house
The most important of these absentee characters is uncle Eddie; the circumstances
surrounding his mysterious disappearance in 1922 still haunt the adults
of the family as well as the boy himself, firing his curiosity to separate
fact from myth. There is a prevailing sense of sadness, death and being
possessed by history; haunted by the past, both real and imagined. The
memories of the family's IRA connections, stretching back to before
the civil war, are impossible to escape. In some way the political conflict
has scarred each generation of the family.
Deane does hit some lighter notes, especially in the section called "Maths
Class" where the pupils are at the mercy of a tyrannical bam-pot
Reading in the Dark comes from a male perspective, the woman characters
have less of importance to say. The mother is defined by her silences.
Only aunt Katie has much to say, "Because Katie had no children to
look after..."7 implying that women
only have anything worth uttering where the matter concerns children.
Nevertheless, Katie has a fine repertoire of stories to entertain the
boy and his siblings. In particular the story of two changeling children
is right out there in the world of the occult. This story within the story
is set "away down in the southern part of Donegal where they still
[speak] Irish, but an Irish that [is] so old that many other Irish speakers
couldn't follow it."8 The Gaelic
language itself is like one of the missing characters. The language question
still being part of an unsettled historical score.
This is a story of betrayal in a family, wrapped in a society in which
history itself appears as a betrayal. Yet Seamus Deane faces this situation
with clear-sighted compassion. In the end neither fact nor myth appear
satisfactory: myth is not fact, fact itself is grim. And the reality of
the beginning of the 'Troubles', where the novel ends, brings
with it the need for such clear-sighted compassion, if ever the cycle
of conflict and grievous suffering is to be broken.
Stylistically, Deane has a gentle, lyrical touch, his prose is both direct
and beautiful. He also has amazing brevity which strengthens the novels
In Sudden Times it appears Dermot Healy is in about a whole different
bag. Again though, there is the first person narrative stand-point giving
a feeling of dislocation; of things not being what they appear to be on
the surface. The concern with family, with identity and where one comes
from is also important.
Ollie Ewing, Healy's narrator, is labouring under post-traumatic
stress, trying like fuck to hang on to reality. To the everyday. Ollie
would really like for things to make sense. For everything to be awright.
For his father to love him. For his brother Redmond to be...
The novel is set in Sligo and London. London from Ollie's perspective
is a very weird place. Folk are up to strange acts of violence and corruption.
Reading this book is entering into somebody's dream Everything is
like... like being drugged without your knowledge. The sense of rattled,
raw nerves, the atmosphere of... ...the paranoia, but: Is it?
"After London it was serious.
I lay low.
I stayed with the mother a while, pottering in the garden, walking the
beach with all these images in my wake. I dropped into Gerties pub the
odd time, but people were wary of me at the beginning Then I suppose they
got used to me again. But in my mind's eye I kept seeing Redmond
serving behind the bar. And I found it hard to talk to anyone with that
constant argument in my head. Argument with the father.
Then would start the lament: if I had done this, none of that would have
happened. If I hadn't. If I hadn't. If I had. It went on till
I was sick of my own consciousness.
The guilt was stalking me.
I could not get by the first dream." 9
The world is strange and surreal with few adjectives. It is there and
not there. Ollie's head? Funny things with time and place?
"The top part of me was death. The bottom of me was life. My head
was deathly cold. The upper part of my trunk had come free. And my groin
was warm. If I could fit the two together I'd save myself. And if
I didn't do it sudden I was dead." 10
"I'll start again. I had been living in the hostel since myself
and this lady Sara broke up, sharing rooms with travellers from all over
the world, and that was fine.
One night we were in Australia, another night in the forests of Maine.
I found it hard to sleep what with trying to put the pieces back together
The intimacy you once had with someone is hard to forget at the beginning.
It returns stronger than ever before.
I would say I was not right in the head.
That's right." 11
Ollie is constantly trying to piece things back together but they never
really fit right. The reader has to travel with him and let the thing
unfold. Time bends and shifts. Healy shows consummate narrative skill
in his handling of time, in his structuring, his ordering of events of
a disordered nature, keeping things in disordered order. It is reminiscent
of Spinoza's Ethics: somehow accumulative, somehow mathematical,
somehow a leap into proof.
Mister Healy has a wonderful black sense of humour. Ollie's experiences
at the hands of the police and in court are extremely funny. But what
about the evidence? The proof? The truth? Everything is so very slippery,
as soon as it appears to be known it changes.
Sudden Times, in common with the other two novels, is driven by the violent
death of people related to the main character. Driven by brutal trauma
and how that comes to haunt the survivors. The grief and suffering. How
to cope? How to hang on?
The reader is presented with an array of characters, some funny, some
sad, some frightening. And in the course of Ollie's conversation
with a German psychiatrist questions of religion and language pop up:
"Tell me this, I asked him, did your father ever surrender?
No. And you tell me this, Ollie. Vot is it like to speak in the language
of the conqueror? I had no answer to that." 12
"To be is to sin" 13
There is so much to be taking in in Sudden Times. It is the poetry of
Ollie Ewing's mind;
I don't know much about them. I'd say they were the dangerous
bastards in the blue jumpers."14
It is difficult to understand clearly the affect social and political
change may or may not have on individual literary artists. Some are more
politically aware than others. But each of these books could be interpreted
as being about something bigger than the story (or text) itself.
Each author presents a largely male world wherein certain aspects of maleness
are to be regretted, accompanied by some attempt to understand women.
Questions of sexuality, language and history are raised. In Sudden Times
the underlying assumption that young people have to emigrate to make good
is challenged: there is racism against Irish people in London and racism
within the Irish community itself.
These novels have both overt and subtle political messages. They look
for possible ways out of conflict and suffering at the individual and
family level. This in turn must kick on into the overarching habits, attitudes
and activities we call culture.
Quotes from recent critical essays concerning literature, Ireland et
"Time and place are central to all cultural experience. Regardless
of how humans choose to measure time or chart place, the consciousness
of the human perceives such things as being real. However or by whatever
theories any culture devises to understand the basics of space and time;
whether through myth or science or literature. This make western literature
peculiar in that it embraces both the mythical and the scientific."15
"a terrorist is no psychopathic aberration, but produced by the codes,
curriculum and pathology of a whole community."16
"Modernity in Ireland means a range of precious things like feminism,
pluralism, civic rights, secularisation. It can also mean being shamefaced
and sarcastic about one's historical culture Specific cultures in
Ireland are acceptable in the eyes of most liberal pluralists when they
are gay, but not when they are GAA." 17
"The UK and the Republic find themselves guarantors of communities
more Unionist and more Nationalist than themselves for whose neurotic
pathologies their own incoherence is much to blame." 18
"That is all my bum." 19
1. See Seamus Deane's Introduction to A Short History of Irish Literature
and Willy Maley's essay 'Varieties of nationalism: post revisionist
Irish Studies', in Reviewing Ireland.
2. Edna Longley, The Living Stream, Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 1994, p.10.
3. Ibid. p.66.
4. Roddy Doyle, A Star Called Henry, Jonathan Cape, London, 1999, p.22.
5. Ibid. p.318
6. Seamus Deane, Reading in the Dark, Vintage paperback, London, 1997,
7. Ibid. p.60.
8. Ibid. p.61.
9. Dermot Healy, Sudden Times, Harvill, London, 1999. P.3.
10. Ibid. p.48.
11. Ibid. p.46.
12. Ibid. p.37
14. Ibid. p.199
15. Terry Eagleton, 'Crazy John and the Bishop', Revisionism
Revisited, CUP/Field Day, Cork, 1998.
16. Edna Longley, The Living Stream, Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 1994, p.55.
17. Terry Eagleton, 'Crazy John and the Bishop', Revisionism
Revisited, CUP/Field Day, Cork, 1998. p.312
18. Edna Longley, The Living Stream, Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 1994, p.186.
19. Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds, Penguin Modern Classic Edition,