Beyond the Glitter: a Look at Some Current Irish Writers

Good writers reveal the insides of situations. They may even, refreshingly or disturbingly, turn things and people inside out for us. But how much ‘Inside’ is there beyond the glitter and the PR spin of Ireland’s recent successes? It‚s true that Irish music, films and theme pubs are all the rage around the world. Drop in to The Happy Dubliner in Bucharest or Kelly's Bar in Shanghai and you may be convinced that Irishness is as portable and exportable as rock‑n‑roll. That which lies beyond the glitter is what engages the attention of writers like Patrick McCabe, Sebastian Barry and Conor McPherson and indeed any writer worth his or her salt. McPherson’s work, on the strength of The Weir, may seem the least ambitious of the three, but his artistry lies in the deceptive ordinariness of setting. McPherson may appear the most optimistic of these writers, but The Weir reveals a darkly chilling interior under the surface charm of its language and locale.

here can be few novels in recent decades as monumentally chilling as Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy.

The story centres on the young Francey, a virtual derelict from a dysfunctional family. Yet despite his desperate situation, we feel that Francey is a witty and creative being surrounded by hypocrisy and brutish indifference.

Throughout the book McCabe demolishes with coldly deft precision all the myths about dear old Ireland he can lay pen to: cosy small‑town Ireland; the family as a just and viable unit; the Catholic Church from the priesthood to the more trendily visionary espousal of Marianism – even ‘The Beautiful Things Of The World’ are brought low.

The Butcher Boy is a classic; for with visionary brio McCabe renders a vividly disturbing Ireland as uniquely haunting as the deep south of Faulkner or Tennessee Williams. Also this is a terribly angry book, Swiftian in its dimension of outrage. McCabe’s future work may never match his achievement here.

Francey is a casualty of the drink and drugs milieu of a dysfunctional present; and as church, state and family lose their grip upon the individual in Ireland, something of a prognosis of the future. The protagonists of Barry’s plays The Steward of Christendom and Our Lady of Sligo are more accountably victims of their own past.

We piece together the stories of these plays in kaleidoscopic flashbacks. In The Steward of Christendom ex-DMP chief Thomas Dunne spends his time locked in a private room of a mental hospital in the 1930s. Dunne’s principal carers (and tormentors) are Mrs O’D and Black Jim. His senile ramblings reveal a paranoid personality that undergoes severe disintegration following the partition of Ireland and his consequent loss of authority:

Black Jim: Raise him.

Dunne: The blackthorn stick hurts poor Tommy Tom sugar lump sugar lumps:

Mrs O’D: Take off your long‑johns and be easy in yourself its only a sponging:

Black Jim: I’d a mind once to join my brother on the Hudson river. He has a whale‑flensing business there – flourishing. Would that I had joined Jack, I say, when I have to wash down an old bugger like you. I would rather flense whales, and that’s a stinking task I’m told∑

Mrs O’D: My my that’s a fine chest you have on you, Mr Dunne. What was your work formerly? I know, you’ve told me often enough.

Black Jim: Dublin Metropolitan Police, weren’t you boyo – in your braid – ! The DMP that are no more – la di dah!

Dunne: La di dah!

Black Jim: Castle Catholic bugger that you were! but you’re just an old bugger in here with none to sponge you down but Smith:

Dunne: Black Jim no like Tommy Tom no like Tommy Tom:

Black Jim: Chief Superintendent this big gobshite was, Mrs O’D, that killed four good men and true in O’Connell Street in the days of the lockout. Larkin! Ha! His men it was struck down the strikers – baton‑charging a big, loyal Catholic gobshite killing poor, hungry Irishmen if you weren’t an old madman we’d flay you:

Mrs O'D: That’s enough Mr Smith – leave him be – can’t you see you terrorise him.

Vanity, pride and self‑reproach thread the turmoil of Dunne’s memory throughout the play in a Joycean stream of internal monologue‑linking scenes from his life. Yet for all its strengths – the powerful feel for language, character and setting – The Steward of Christendom seems simply to peter out in a disappointingly weak ending. One of its climactic moments towards the close, however, is when Black Jim is reading a letter from Dunne’s son who was killed in the First World War. Barry sensitively conveys the shock of reverence and sympathy that strikes Black Jim: even DMP men are human.

With a strongly organic sense of an ending, Our Lady of Sligo is more powerfully tragic. But beginning and end are all of a piece as we focus chiefly on the last days of fifty‑three‑year‑old May O’Hara who is dying of cancer. Like her husband Jack – perhaps like Ireland itself in many respects – May is talented and beautiful but not without a powerful penchant for self’destruction. Alcohol masters both Jack and May through the best part of thirty years as they drink away time, money, houses and most of the possibilities of love.

We see May from the outset as a spirited exotic, stifled by the manners and mores of Irish life. Yet this couple are of a generation of 1920s high-hopers who felt that Ireland and the world in general was capable of a great renewal after so much catastrophe. By the next decade, however, the rot of bitter disillusion had set hard in the lives of the O’Haras. Lying and dying in a morphine‑induced stupor to kill the pain of the cancer, May meanders through the mixed blessing of that beautiful and painful, time honoured surrogate for love memory:

May: ...and I was not disposed to move because I was thinking of Jack in the twenties when he’d wear the beautiful fedora and the lovely coat he had with the stiff leather collar upright like an officer’s jacket and his red hair all darkened with oil and with a light and confident smile on his face because he knew he looked the part of a film star at least by Sligo standards and maybe even further afield and I was almost delighting in that vision though I knew that by sitting there I was bringing catastrophe on my head and grief also I am sure of course it was the aftermath of the drinking the strange sobriety the little leaking time of strangeness that comes after the hangover I would never normally have thought of such a thing when normal times themselves were far in the past visions were the order of the day unbidden peculiar out of the way Jack's good looks what a thing to be thinking of

I can’t escape the spell of the sunlight the ease of it shining picture icon almost of my peculiar husband in the flush of his youth and mine and around t he kernel of that vision lay the desiccated broken shell of our days together and indeed to see me sitting there in chaos when he arrived would stick that dry burnt mask of horror and disappointment back on his face...

The long quotations from this play demonstrate the catharsis of Barry’s technique. This is the moment in 1945 when Jack returns from the war. The domestic hell of the O’Hara’s particular war is far from resolution. “We’re like veterans she and I, and what wars we’ve seen”, Jack confesses to the nurse. And as he pours out his feelings to her we see that Jack's memories are also a tumultuous amalgam of admiration, frustration, loathing and love:

Jack:...myself I was all round the world in the British Merchant Navy before I was seventeen and saw everywhere – every harbour of Christendom and Mohamed’s land too and Buddha’s well, I never saw one to match her. No, not even the beauties of Zanzibar... we've been tearing into each other for decades... and it wasn’t just the drink got her the sheer boredom of Ireland, the sheer... provincial death‑grip that lies upon the land. You see, Sister, there was a moment in this country’s history – you’d be too young to remember it – but de Valera, you see – the spirit of a man like that deadening – deficient you see – isolate us – as if we weren’t enough of an island already – fear the foreign book and the native book if it had thinking in it. The muling, puling grip – grip of de Valera and his lousy crew... and she a woman like her with ideas and notions – what to sustain her and put in the gob for food of a kind? Nothing! Nothing! And yet, even now when she has reduced me to a glorified builder, hating me to rise in the world because she was sinking herself, even now there's love.

And Barry convinces us that sparks and shreds of love do indeed survive the squalor and the drink. Right throughout the play we admire as much as we pity the O’Hara family. In this way Barry achieves a classic pitch of tragedy with Our Lady of Sligo.

Confession as catharsis in the healing power of story‑telling is the basis of Conor McPherson’s The Weir, which had its first performance at The Royal Court Theatre last year. Here we are bang up to date in late‑nineties Ireland, though not in the New Ireland sense of current glittering spin‑doctory.

True, there are The Germans who flood the place in the summer. Landlord of the local pub Brendan is being urged by his sisters to turn his top field into a caravan park. But he will have none of the idea simply because it is A Grand Spot. We get the sense that change is being gracefully but steadfastly resisted by the village pub bachelor drinkers. But pub talk turns to tales of the supernatural. Finbarr, a local married man, enters with a young Dublin woman he is letting a house to. This particular house has been built over a Fairy Road.

Stories generate stories; and though accounts of fairy roads, knockings in walls, presences on stairs, premonitions of death, etc. are set up earnestly, they are quickly thrown down again with a laugh as just codology. Such tales die hard if they ever die at all, for we can’t help feeling that “There’s something in them”, as the young woman Valerie says.

Valerie’s tale strikes closer to home in being one of natural grief and loss, though with elements of the supernatural about it. It is a year since her six‑year‑old daughter Niamh drowned in an accident. (Niamh is curiously prefigured in the Niamh of Finbarr’s story). Valerie’s Niamh had premonitions of dread and loss. After Niamh’s death Valerie receives a phone call that she simultaneously believes and does not believe is from her dead daughter.

The men’s reaction to Valerie’s story is movingly genteel and compassionate, and as such it is the most impressive element in the play. The Weir may appear a small‑scale venture compared to Barry or McCabe’s work; the characters are so well drawn and the tensions between them so vividly realised that it is no less a triumph for that. Some of that triumph lies in the inherent optimism of the play -–the way in which, communally speaking, Jack, Jim, Brendan and Finbarr are so decently looking out for, looking after one another – and the stranger Valerie also. The weir itself, regulating the water and generating power, is perhaps a symbol for the forces of mystery and of balance regulating the lives of these roughish, decent and interesting people.

It is worth noting that The Weir, together with the two Barry plays, were adapted for radio, a medium in which language is clearly crucial. It is language which holds our interest in McPherson’s apparently uninteresting characters: they are so ordinary and run‑of‑the‑mill compared to Barry’s or McCabe’s. And it isn’t just the language of the stories which engages us he rhythms and sonorities of banter and small talk:

Jack: What’s with the Guinness?

Brendan: I don’t know it’s the power in the tap. It's a new barrel and everything.

Jack: Is the Harp one ok?

Brendan: Yep.

Jack: Well would you not switch them around, let a man have a pint of stout –no?

Brendan: What about the Harp drinkers?

Jack: The Harp drinkers!

Brendan: Yer man’s coming to do it in the morning – have a bottle.

Jack: I’m having a bottle. I’m not happy about it now mind right (laughs).

Brendan: Go on out of that!

Jack: What the hell – good for the worms – ey?

Brendan: I’d say you have a right couple of worms all right.

Right from this opening exchange, worms strikes an ominous note.

McCabe, Barry and McPherson are part and parcel of an Anglo‑Irish tradition of language forged by such figures as Joyce, Beckett, Synge and Flann O’Brien. But far from finishing off or exhausting that tradition these writers extended its literary possibilities: witness the work of John McGahern, Bernard McLaverty, Edna O’Brien, Roddy Doyle and many other poets and playwrights.

But literature apart, we only have to speak to Irish people to be reminded that most of them from whatever background seem capable of using English with the relish and gusto of the Elizabethans. The language of Middle England by contrast is a cold and dead thing shrunk to the size and physical flexibility of an Access card.

Fine poet though he is, Seamus Heaney is surely the tip of a glittering iceberg of Hiberno‑English literary talent. But beyond the glitter of the Nobel prize and the economic miracle of the Celtic Tiger there is a rich interior of history and society to defend, attack, examine, explore and uncover for writers like the ones briefly discussed here for years to come yet.

©: David Reid.

Published in The Green Dragon No 9, Winter 1999

Other articles by David Reid :

The picture of Dorian Gray

A word about George Steiner