Here is a threat from a poem published almost sixty years ago:
"Be Jases, before ye inter me / I’ll show ye all up! /…
I’ll write one terrible book!" The threat is ironic. In yesterday’
s Ireland no such book could have gone on sale. There was official
censorship and prudent self-censorship, especially in small towns
where even a literary magazine like the one my father edited in
the 1940s was often sold from under the counter like hoarded cigarettes
or black-market butter. Official censorship lasted from 1929 to
1967, but repressive practises carried on into the 1980s when
ads for abortion clinics and condoms were still being removed
from Irish editions of English magazines.
So, now that readers can read freely, Irish bookish angers carry
a different charge. There are still angers. Indeed, Irish
verse and fiction is often incandescent with them. Here are some
lines from a long narrative poem, billed as having been "the
number one best-selling book in Ireland" in 1991. The author
is Professor Brendan Kennelly of Trinity College, Dublin.
… Heaven and Hell had one child,
A boy called Navv, that’s the Irish for Heaven.
The pair went to court to contest custody.
The judge, who knew both parties well, said
It was in the boy’s best interests to go to Hell.
Navv, the young Irish heaven, is presumably the Republic, so implications
are intriguing. Is Kennelly reminding us of how Satan, in Milton’s
poem, chose to reign in Hell rather than serve in Heaven? And,
if so, are we also meant to remember Stephen Dedalus’s complaint
that he served two masters, an English one and an Italian – as
Irishmen did while their country belonged to the British and Roman
Catholic empires? Irish readers would certainly make these connections.
Equating young Navv’s escape from the two imperial "heavens"
with going to hell implies some disillusion with the state of
affairs in today’s Ireland. But then, disillusion is the mainspring
of Kennelly’s book whose dedication is: "For all good dreams
twisted, exploited and betrayed." Here’s another quote from
Are you surprised at the infant in the bag
Floating down the river in moonlight or daylight?
It was a servant-girl, you see, born in the bog,
Sent out at thirteen to work for a farmer…
No need to flesh out that doom: abuse followed by infanticide.
"In the bog" and "in the bag" ! Indignation
at the fate of both mother and child chars the page. Many of Kennelly’s
pages gleam blackly with a similar graffiti-type wit and with
an anger which might seem pathological if the book were less popular.
I am intrigued by these Irish angers: by those which make people
write and by those they use as motor power in their fictions.
The two are probably inextricable. To quote the novelist, Patrick
McCabe: "Each novel written, each play completed is another
step on the road to silencing the furies within."
In the last decade or so, Irish literary furies have been developing
mutant strains. Interestingly, their precise targets are hard
to pin down. In the past all ills could be blamed on England’s
colonial legacy and, until fairly recently, Irish group identity
could still be reinforced by yelling "Up the rebels".
Not now. After all, what rebels can the Southern Irish now cheer
on? The aims of Northern ones are less widely shared than is sometimes
pretended. To quote Fintan 0’Toole, writing last December in the
Irish Times: "though it is not considered polite to say so,
Northern Ireland, with its declining British-style industrial
base, is of little use to the high-tech multinational economy
of the Republic."
The Republic of Ireland, you see, is in many ways rich. Its economic
growth was 8% in 1995 and 6% in 1996 when, more startlingly still,
its Gross Domestic Product was higher than that of the United
Kingdom. To be sure, there is something anomalous about this success,
if only because over half Ireland’s agricultural income last year
came from Brussels. But leaving that aside, one thing is clear:
anger in the Republic is a domestic matter. Recovering the six
Northern counties would neither help close its poverty gap, bring
down long-term unemployment, nor assuage other social ills. Moral
discomfort about these must sometimes be compounded by doubt as
to whether a modern competitive society shouldn’t take such things
in its stride anyway. But what, then, about the infant in the
bag? And what of the 35% of the population found to be living
below the poverty line in affluent Ireland in 1996? Irish ideology
is in flux – which may be why rage in Irish fiction has developed
ways of wavering off target.
One of these is to make fictional protagonists discredit their
viewpoint by going mad. Readers are thus drawn into the bafflement.
Here are two examples. In each of two major novels, The
Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe published in 1992, and The
Life and Times of a Teaboy by Michael Collins, published in
1994, we are immersed in the consciousness of an articulate lunatic
and in the story of how he came to be confined to an asylum. The
similarity of what the two have to tell brings us back to the
Irish poverty gap. Both grow up poor, hope, see their hope crushed,
then sink into insanity. Here the stories diverge. McCabe’ s butcher
boy is sent to a reform school where he is sexually abused by
a priest, comes out, then murders the mother of a schoolmate whom
he envies. His is a more violent, though not necessarily a more
disturbing, tale. What most disturbs us in both books is their
plausibility and the ordinariness of the pressures to which their
characters succumb. As children, each was devoted to a mother
who failed him. In McCabe’s novel, this happens when the boy’s
mother goes mad and kills herself. Collins’s protagonist, Ambrose,
is manipulated by his mother into taking a civil service
job and sending her most of his pay. Early on, when his father
rewards him with money for passing an exam, she wheedles it from
him, allegedly as a thanks-offering to St. Philomena. Later, "She
never asked him directly for money. It was always under the guise
of lighting candles for him or having a mass said in his honour."
So why does he send it? His job is in a light-house – a symbol
surely of isolation and alienation – far from home, so he does
not discover for some time that she is using his money to send
his younger brother to the university to which he had once hoped
to go himself. This abuse of his trust tips him into madness.
There are, of course, other factors: among them the sense of dislocation
suffered by members of Ireland’s mobile work force. Ambrose doesn’t
quite emigrate, just lives on the end of a pier – which may figure
the umbilical cord since the Oedipal theme figures here too. A
Mammy’s boy from childhood,"Ambrose took on the name ‘Teaboy’,
a name he’d seen in a reader where an African boy served a fat
white woman "…How sublime," he thinks, "to be
a servant to a good woman, to live in the claustrophobia of the
house…" Imperial servitude is thus re-enacted within the
family – abetted by a misuse of religion. At the end Ambrose,
raging in the madhouse, learns that St. Philomena has been struck
from the list of saints, and sends his mother the news. "He’d
never felt more liberated in his life."
A counter-insight, though, is that the erosion of sustaining values
can put intolerable strains on individuals. When he is dying,
Ambrose’s father, an ex-IRA man who fought in the Civil War, asks
to be buried with his medals and reveals that he is tormented
by memories. "Terrible things were done for this country,"
he tells his son. "Terrible things had to be done."
Is he remembering atrocities? We never learn. The son sees that
his father’s anguish is due to the fear that "his suffering
meant nothing…" He clings to his medals as to a way of
thinking which justified those terrible memories. Meanwhile he
has failed to help Ambrose. The father’ s failures as a father
are linked to a more general collapse of meaning. By the novel’s
end, belief in mother-love, family, nationalism and religion have
all been undermined.
This happens in other novels too. In Patrick McCabe’ s The
Dead School (1995), we are in the minds of two schoolteachers
locked in a generational struggle who destroy each other, then
go mad. The older man saw his father killed by a Black and Tan
when he was a child, and clings ever after to a value-system which
gives this event a heroic meaning. He can’t relinquish it, and
when the permissive society undermines it, he begins his descent
into madness. His adversary, Malachy, represents a younger generation,
but he too is a damaged specimen who never recovered from being
tormented in childhood by yobs who used to jeer about what his
mother and a randy cowman got up to in a boatshed, or from his
father’s subsequent – and related – suicide. The yob chorus takes
charge of large chunks of the narrative, and its reductive tone
is a linguistic equivalent of the confines which hedge in the
lives of the two main characters."
A jeering chorus also features in Dorothy Nelson’s novel, Tar
and Feathers. Published in 1987, this has three narrative
voices, belonging to Da, Ma and their son Benjee. The three are
unhinged but, paradoxically, being unhinged comforts them. Although
appalling things happen, the effects are subsumed and defused
in a freewheeling dream habit. In this novel too, social change
and the characters’ inability to exploit its possibilities are
a source of torment. Voices hector, as Benjee imagines that Da,
who has lost his job, is himself imagining a salesman’ s taunting
chorus. "I hear the voices multiplying, come in and buy food
… come in and buy trousers… Come in and buy a TV set… the
voices were like fists pounding his ears in… The whole town
was laughing at him… people walked up and down the pavements
goading him. Goading him, goading him, goading him." And
so forth. Da’s own monologue, though, does not dwell on the consumer-goods
which Benjee imagines him to be craving. Instead, Da, who claims
to be a Socialist, likes to go flashing in the woods, and believes
that the children to whom he shows his pecker enjoy peeking at
it. "I look upon myself as a social worker," he decides.
When caught and gaoled, he is happy. "I had no worries. I
had no money. Money’s a curse." In gaol he meets other Socialists.
"We shared what we had. The five year men had to get a bit
extra… I understood all this." When released, he feels
he has lost his freedom. "I regretted I’d ever got a taste
for it. I craved it the way the next man craves drink. "
Gaol was Utopia compared to the anarchic world in which Da, Ma
and Benjee have to live.
The high incidence of lunacy in recent Irish fiction does seem
to be indicative of a loss of bearings outside the narratives
as well as within. If the fiction has a message, it is to beware
of messages. Though Da’s Socialist yearnings are coherent, his
reliability is undercut when he commits a gruesome murder, possibly
at the behest of the IRA, though, as he admits, "They disowned
me in public because I have a prison record." Da is an outsider
except when he’s "inside".
To quote Michael Collins’s self-reflective Ambrose, who is writing
a novel while in the madhouse, "Ambrose saw himself as a
metaphor of a backward nation which had to forego the spectacle
of World War Two… A nation which did not participate in the
great wars, fighting with itself… His national destiny was just
plain madness…" He concludes that he "could not write
the sociological novel of his dreams."
Yet the novels I’ve been discussing, do have a sociological thrust.
They reflect social strains, but are not social protest novels
since the powers whose repressions they might have challenged
– Catholicism, nationalism and indeed the family – are in retreat.
What they focus on is the void left behind into which rush anarchy,
consumerism and yob-rule. In this they seem closer to the Dostoevsky
of Crime and Punishment than to Zola. And there may even
be an implicit nostalgia here for the old order – like Da’s nostalgia
This brings me back to the subject of anger. These writers feel
it, but against whom? They portray victims but no villains – unless
Ambrose’s mother is one? Or the butcher boy or Da? But these lack
the free will and understanding of true villains, and they are
themselves victims of some vague, malign force. In Nelson’s work,
criteria for assigning blame are consciously dismissed. Listen
to Ma reflecting on unemployment: "The other government said
if we vote for them next time they’ll make a quarter of a million
jobs in one year. The other government said that’s nonsense you
can’t do that. The other government said that what’s wrong is
this government doesn’t know how to run the country. The other
government said…" And so on.
Who’s speaking? Who is to blame? A native Establishment which
has held power for seventy-five years? The new, uncaring urban
society? Or the dusty heritage of earlier generations? And – still
more tricky.- how to invoke new values anyway?
Neil Jordan’s inventive film, The Crying Game, focused
the dilemma when he located political and gender divisions in
a black English transsexual’s body – and made an IRA man fall
in love with it. Shifting attention from external to internal
struggles and away from a backward-looking macho code, the film
celebrates what Louis MacNeice famously called "the drunkenness
of things being various", but probably trod on old pieties.
Openness can be unnerving.
To quote the anthropologist, Mary Douglas, "Each type of
culture is based on a distinctive attitude towards knowledge.
Hierarchy, both as a system of governance and a type of culture,
assumes that… itself, the hierarchy, is organized according
to the principles which run the universe. Its… political effort
goes into protecting the system of knowledge with which it is
Yes. And societies emerging from such a system may become suspicious
of all officially endorsed values – possibly of all values. In
the Ireland where I grew up, the word "hierarchy" actually
meant the Catholic bishops. "What will the hierarchy say?"
people worried when any change was contemplated. Self-protectively,
it always said "no". So we knew where we were. Now,
by freeing the Irish media, change has so weakened that
hierarchy that it felt obliged, not long ago, to apologize publicly
for shielding paedophiliac priests: an unthinkable thing in the
A bulwark has collapsed, and this is disconcerting in Ireland,
where Catholics, relying on the Church for their ethics, failed
to develop a secular code of conduct based on some kind of civic
ideal. But there’s no turning back. As the economic base changed,
the old culture gave way. Solidarity and stability suffered as
people moved to the cities, the rural world shrank, and those
unable to adapt lost out.
Novels with a wider social frame register this more directly.
Some have villains as nasty as anything in Dickens and, like his
fiction – written too in a time of flux – show orphans adrift
in an urban jungle. Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home (1990)
is set in a Dublin suburb full of displaced country people, a
moral vacuum lorded over by three villains called Plunkett. One
is the junior Minister for Justice, another smuggles drugs, and
a third is a homosexual moneylender who rapes the main character.
This image of a new oligarchy presumably means that the oligarchy
is raping the country. One of the junior minister’s speeches parodies
official rhetoric, including the admission, "We know we cannot
all live in this one island. But we are not ashamed of that. Because
young people are to Ireland what champagne is to France! Our finest
crop. . . For export. . . " Bolger blends realism with fable.
Here and in a later novel, A Second Life (1994), he sends
orphans on quests into the rural hinterland to seek memories of
lost parents. The one in A Second Life was given up for
adoption by an unmarried mother in the fifties, so his search
for her is also a search into the ways of the old, repressive
Ireland. Some impatience with Bolger has been expressed by the
Irish critic Declan Kiberd who argues that his sordid images of
Dublin "may have unintentionally ratified the old pastoral
notion of rural Ireland as real Ireland" and that "His
attacks on the clergy furthered the illusion that they were still
a force to be reckoned with." Kiberd prefers the "relaxed,
even humorous approach to Irish pieties" of Roddy Doyle.
So, doubtless, do the clergy, who must still be a force of some
sort, since, as recently as three years ago, an over-relaxed approach
to the extradition of a paedophiliac priest led indirectly to
the fall of the last Fianna Fail government. Doyle’s now famous
joke in The Commitments about northside Dubliners being
fit to tackle soul music because "the Irish are the niggers
of Europe, and the Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland and the
Northside Dubliners are the niggers of Dublin" pleased Kiberd.
Well, it is a winning joke and useful too since, to quote Fintan
0’Toole again, "the notion of Ireland as an oppressed and
impoverished nation has had its rewards. There has been money
in poverty: £2 billion a year in EU social and regional funds…"
Claims to membership in the 3rd world can, in the light of that,
Irish fiction’s relations to fact keep having to be sorted out.
Americans faced a similar challenge some decades ago when Philip
Roth noted that fiction grew harder to write, as life began to
compete with it. Cheeringly, the opposite turned out to be the
case when hybrid conjunctions between fact and fantasy produced
JFK’ s murder, then Watergate and Irangate followed by a crop
of fictions and factions – novels and films – about these events
which aimed to reach through the complexities towards an understanding
of new, shifting realities. Acknowledgment of the covert and dubious
side of themselves enriched American writers’ work no end.
This happens in Ireland too. Colm Toibin’s, The Heather Blazing
(1992), focuses on the highminded duplicity of a judge who secretly
"helped to shape government policy on security throughout
the 1970s." Leery of the inflammatory nationalism which wins
his party votes, he secretly takes advice from British and French
security experts who worked in Israel and Algeria: a case, some
might say, of asking foxes how to guard the henhouse. Yes, but
since 1922, nationalism for Irish governments has been a risky
resource. Though indispensable, it took cool handling, and de
Valera gave a lead early on by interning men who had taken his
rhetoric literally – which explains why the indignant man
in the poem I quoted to you earlier wanted to write "wan
terrible" and revelatory book. It is interesting too that
the speaker plans to do this "before ye inter me". "Inter"
is an oddly literary word for such a man to use. It is as though
the word "intern" were lingering rancorously in his
For writers, realism can be the perfect instrument for dealing
with a reality so corrupted by myth. Toibin’s, in its way, is
a perfect novel. But myths themselves can be turned to account
often by turning them around.
Mary Morrissy does this in a story from her collection, A Lazy
Eye, (1993). Confronting the consumerist uses to which we
put the Christmas legend, her story shows a girl taking the politically
correct black baby-Jesus doll from a department store crib, then
leaving an unwanted new-born infant in its place to freeze and
die overnight. Subsequently, the girl’s conniving family end their
Christmas dinner, by singing an old song about infanticide. (
It has been noted that women, in the past, sometimes used oblique
narrative modes to vent socially unacceptable feeling. Morrissy’s
chill story has the obscurely sinister impact of some of the grimmer
old folk tales.)
Another example is Briege Duffaud’s rewriting of the Ugly Duckling
story in terms of the Irish diaspora. It reminds us that not all
emigrants were driven out by poverty. Some needed to breath freer
air. Tired of being tormented, Duffaud’s duckling, which is really,
of course, a young swan, tells the barnyard that she plans to
go away to seek her own people, but the barnyard takes offence.
"Away!" she is derided. "There is no away!"
And, with this, recognizably Irish ducks fall on her and break
her wings. Just then, "three magnificent swans" fly
overhead. They don’t look down. What, one wonders, if this had
happened to Joyce or Shaw or to the ancestors of JFK?
Anne Haverty’s One Day as a Tiger came out just last month.
A crisp, darkly witty novel set in today’s rural Ireland, it evokes
this setting with hallucinative exactitude, but on a more oblique
level reads like one of Aesop’s fables: a modern one which, rather
than pack its perceptions into an epigram, conveys them through
resonances which float, like lingering queries, in the reader’s
mind. The tigerish figure here is Marty, an academic who gives
up the university to return to his father’ s farm where he destroys
four victims. One is a genetically engineered sheep which, being
part-human, is a misfit. Marty calls her Missy, adopts her and,
when she falls in love with him, encourages her for a while, then
destroys her. His second victim, Etty, his sister-in-law, a dim,
"childish but keenly sentient" girl whom he fancies,
is another sacrificial lamb. Other victims are his brother, who
is a prosperous farmer, and Delany, a more modest one, whose farming
methods are archaic and who depends on the brother’s bounty.
Themes here are so lightly sketched that picking them out is like
interpreting a Rorschach ink blot. The humanoid Missy evokes a
tradition of pastoral fable going back to the Greeks, as well
as current concern with animal rights. Etty’s mention of "the
lamb of God" even brings to mind the hypostatic union, or
union of the divine and human nature in Christ, about which Irish
– or used to learn – in catechism class. Sacrifice looms. The
themes are protean. All have their dark side but the clearest
theme is metamorphosis and most specifically the metamorphosis
of rural life. In this connection, it is interesting to compare
the slow disintegration of a strongly bonded rural patriarchal
family in John McGahern’s novel, Among Women, with
the disorderly absence of moral or indeed biological distinctions
in this new writer’s rural world. (Missy, I would remind you,
is part human and Etty a bit of a sheep.) By the end of McGahern’s
novel, the patriarch dies and the family has lost cohesion. In
Haverty’s, self-lacerating furies are already rife.
It can hardly be accidental that self-laceration in the form of
suicide, madness, murder, alcoholism and dysfunctional families
should recur in Irish fiction of the last decade, as do symbolic
venues such as slaughter houses and reform schools.
Dante, who put the wrathful in Styx, a dark part of hell where
self-laceration was the rule, and the condemned maimed their own
as well as each others’ flesh, was making the point that disorder
is destructive. His hell was partly a metaphor for Italy.
He yearned for the Emperor to march into it and restore order.
Do Irish writers yearn for order in that way? Would they welcome
a return of the old, ordering empires? I greatly doubt it. What
they are registering is the spiritual disarray which, if fiction
is any indicator of mood, would seem to be the legacy left by
the demise in Ireland of the Roman Catholic empire. Yeats’s famous
lines about anarchy being loosed upon the world describe an awareness
of the sort of jolting change which is probably cyclic in every
people’ s history. For Irish Catholics the jolt at leaving the
British Empire in 1921 – I am thinking of those who did not actively
welcome this – must have been softened by the sustaining networks
of family-solidarity, local community and the Church – all of
which were still strong. These correspond to what Erich Fromm
calls the "primary ties" whose collapse delivers newly
released and individuated men and women to that sense of isolation,
powerlessness and personal insignificance which Fromm sees as
the negative aspect of freedom. Evidence for such a collapse and
its aftermath having taken place in Ireland can be found not only
in the novels already mentioned but also in those of Dermot Healy,
Timothy 0’Grady, Desmond Hogan and Bernard McLaverty, while John
Banville’s murderer who changes names and personae throughout
the series which starts with The Book of Evidence could
have been created to Erich Fromm’s specifications. This character
talks of his boyhood shock on discovering nature’s indifference
to him. He, like Dorothy Nelson’s Da, feels "a kind of glee"
on being arrested and is almost soothed by the handcuffs. In his
case this is because "I had never in my life been so entirely
the centre of attention." Contradictorily and briefly, he
feels the loss of "the community of men". Clearly, he
found it hard to cope with the negative aspects of freedom. The
alienating process goes further still in Philip McCann’s story
collection, The Miracle Shed (1995), where some characters
so interiorize the chaos of their world of squats and drugs that
the very notion of causality evades them.
I am not, of course, claiming that Irish fiction writers are sending
us sociological reports. Their reactions are oblique. They are
neither pamphleteers nor satirists even to the extent that Joyce
was – or Myles na Gopaleen, under cover of Gaelic, in The Poor
Mouth. The objects of satire have gone. And anyway, storytellers,
in the interests of telling a story, inevitably distort what they
describe. (This is not a criticism. Distortion shakes up the lazy
reader; it is useful for rendering shift and multiplicity – but
it demands cautious interpreting.) What I, as reader, have been
trying to pick up on is a sense of recent Irish fiction’s disparate
findings and divinings about a protean and pluralist reality.
The one constant I find in it is an energising anger. I think
this anger is closer to Dante’ s and Dostoevsky’ s than to that
of, for example, Bertold Brecht – closer to but not the same as,
because Dante and Dostoevsky hoped for redemption through suffering,
and that panacea is as unrealistic now as is Da’s urge to return
to the security of gaol.
Irish writers were always free to write books showing everyone
up – though readers were not always free to read them. Now they
are, and what the books are showing up are the pains and dangers
of freedom. It is a surprising outcome.
Copyright © Julia O’Faolain 1997
This text may not be archived or distributed further without
the author’s express permission. Please read the license.
This electronic version of The Furies of Irish Fiction by Julia O’Faolain
is published by The Richmond
Review by arrangement with the author and her agents, Rogers, Coleridge & White/Literary Agency.
For rights information, email David Miller at
Julia O’Faolain is the author of several critically acclaimed novels including
The Judas Cloth (Minerva, 1993), No Country for Young Men
and The Irish Signorina