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The Furies of Irish Fiction

An essay by Julia O’Faolain











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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 it:

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 for gaol.

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 identified."

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 past.

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, seem disingenuous.

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 mind.

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 children learn

– 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 <davidm@rcwlitagency.demon.co.uk>.

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

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