Patricia A. Lynch
University of Limerick, Ireland
ISSUE 9 | Pages: 178-207 | PDF | DOAJ | Published: 15 March, 2014

Creative Commons 4.0 2014 by Patricia A. Lynch. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Reflections on Irish Writing in 2013

Today in Ireland, we have moved from serious recession to what is hoped is the beginning of a new and better fiscal era.  Recently Ireland exited the World Bank bail-out which had caused it to lose its economic sovereignty.  Now the last of the rating agencies has updated Ireland’s bonds from Junk status to Investment Grade.  However, serious unemployment and lack of opportunities for young people mean that emigration, especially to Australia and Canada, is a strong feature of the lives of most Irish families.  This has led to an increased use of technology; people who never before used a computer now use Skype to keep in touch with their extended families abroad.  While there are some improvements in the situation at home, for example, an increased number of new jobs, there are still serious problems to be faced.  New forms of tax have been evolved, in the areas of property and water. The country is still racked by scandals over unusually high expenditure of public funds, of which the most prominent is the payment of €50 million to consultants in setting up the new company Uisce Éireann/Irish Water to regulate the national supply and billing of water.

Reasons for hope persist in the economy.  The nationwide promotion of an event called the Gathering has led to increased tourism, which was helped by the fine weather of a good summer, a happening that always helps morale. Literary, dramatic and film festivals still continue.  Limerick is the first Irish City of Culture for 2014 so there will be plays, concerts, festivals of all sorts, historical talks, exhibitions, museum projects, arts and antiquities.  Not only will the sports events be out of doors but there are to be lighting displays of architecture, the creation of a community garden, parades, and a play staged on a boat in the River Shannon.

Theatre will be a marked feature of Irish cultural life in the coming year.  The company Druid after forty years are still continuing to produce old and new plays; at present they are touring Dion Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn.  Druid is to stage a new play by Tom Murphy soon.  Not all theatre companies have had success: a special committee was tasked in the past year to review the quality of performances at the premier national theatre, the Abbey, to ascertain if its productions were “world class”, and the results were not favourable.  Articles in The Irish Times give details of the membership of the committee and the ratings which they gave the various productions, ranging from enthusiastic to not reaching “an acceptable standard for professional theatre presentation” (O’Toole 2014b).  One of these plays, a new Frank McGuinness work, The Hanging Gardens, received one of the higher ratings.  Though the reviewer did not consider it as one of McGuinness’ better works, the performance of Niall Buggy in the main role was praised in various newspaper reviews at the time of staging.  I had the good fortune to see this production, and what struck me was not so much its place in the McGuinness canon as its similarity to Brian Friel’s work.  Among other facets were the Donegal setting, the struggling writer, and a dysfunctional family which achieves some sort of redemption at the end.

In the field of fiction new books still come out.  Two by Donal Ryan, The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December,  have jumped from obscurity to fame. Appropriately for the coming year, Donal lives in Limerick, and is contributing well to the cultural scene.  Some recent books, fiction and non-fiction, which I wish to review for this issue of the journal are The Crocodile by the Door (Selina Guinness 2012), The Devil I Know (Claire Kilroy 2012), and Staring at Lakes (Michael Harding 2013).

To begin with The Crocodile by the Door, this book is many things.  First of all, though autobiographical, it represents an update on the theme of the Big House, bringing it up to 2012.  The subtitle claims that it is “the story of a house, a farm, and a family”.  Tibradden is a relict of a lost world which saw this area of parkland on hills sweeping down to the sea as one of a chain of similar parklands which in older times belonged to similar Ascendancy families. It is the property of a branch of the famous brewing family, Guinness.  The book is imbued with a very strong sense of tradition, with frequent references to something which a great-great-grandfather or other ancestor planted (1). In a style reminiscent of many Big House narratives, the house and property are in a semi-ruinous state, and the narrator and her family stagger from crisis to crisis in an effort to keep the ship afloat.  Over the decades, the Guinness family have had to sell off parts of the land to fund themselves.  The newer generations have to take over after bad administration which has run the property down, leading to back-breaking work on the farm and in the house, as well as having to face tough decisions about the future.  The hard work involved in this labour ties the young heiress and her husband even more to the place as she states that “sweat creates an attachment beyond talk of property and prices” (4).  They have strong ties to a local school, St Columba’s, which once catered solely for children of the landlord class, and it forms an outpost to the house and to their way of life.  Similar to the situation in Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, there is an interdependent family which is tied by service and loyalty to the landlord’s family.  The Kirwans have worked on the farm and lived in a listed but tumbledown cottage on the estate for many years, and their whole life is bound up with continuing to inhabit it, so much so that when they believe their tenancy is threatened it leads to tragedy for the father of the family.  Similarly to Thady Quirk in Edgeworth’s narrative, the Kirwans insist that what has been traditionally done must be continued.  The heavy burden of their expectations leads to even greater responsibilities for the young owner.

There is a very strong sense of place in this text, so much so that the reader can clearly envisage the estate rolling down almost to the sea, and gain a cartographic sense of the whole area, and its presence in relation to Dublin city.  Every field has a name (208).  This immediacy is even greater when it is juxtaposed with the maps and designs of the developers who wish to buy a section of the property.  The narrator not only has a continuing family attachment to her ancestral home, but it has become her Arcadia; as a child when she came here to her grandparents and uncle, she “always felt as if [she]’d come safely home at last” (21).  When she comes back 20 years later, it is to stay.

This is a woman’s autobiography, a love story of a man and a woman, and also the story of the love these two bear for the place.  The reader is struck with admiration for the narrator’s  frankness and especially her courage.  She has to handle at the same time being a committed academic, while taking on the new roles of wife, mother, stepmother, farmer, and business woman.  She becomes a carer also for the aged and disabled Kirwans, and does not shirk the    duty of going straight to the body of her hanged employee when she receives the news of his death.  In these early years as owner of the place, she has to deal also with developers and planners; these wish to acquire some of the property to extend a golf course which they intend to relocate from another area where their purpose is to build houses.  The “crocodile” of the title refers to the head of a crocodile shot by a great-granduncle, and turned into a confidential letterbox for the family.  The narrator sees it as “a guardian of the house, or a god to be propitiated” (7), but also a symbol of discretion, and respect for the privacy of individuals in the family.  The crocodile takes on another type of allegory when it comes to the narrator’s dealings with developers.  For a long time, there is to-and-fro diplomacy and legal issues played out between the parties. The family would be comparatively rich and could afford to renovate all of the property if they accept the offer.   Eventually the narrator feels “shocked and betrayed” when she finds out that the land may be going to build a housing estate, which has not been divulged to her, and a gagging clause is to be inserted which would prevent her from objecting to any further plans the developer may have for the site (227).  In the end, the narrator cuts off the deal.  In March 2009 that company goes into receivership.

There is a meeting at developers’ offices, described as being in a conference room which looks out over the reedy waters of the Grand Canal, where “the suits” glide in and introduce themselves “in the hushed tones of corporate etiquette” (214), and discuss the business while the owners are reduced to being on the sideline.  The locale and personages in this scene have a distinct similarity to another in a work of fiction, Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know (2012).  In Kilroy’s work,

[t]he boardroom occupied the penthouse suite of one of the glass towers. A panorama of cranes spanning the horizon was engaged in a courtly dance. One step, two step, swing to your partner, and part. Ten men were seated around the boardroom table and the most senior man stood at the top. (138).

The book combines Ireland of the noughties with its castles in the air of worldwide finance and eventual downfall, with a type of medieval morality play, where it gradually becomes apparent that the narrator is a pawn in the game of the devil as he speculates and negotiates.  It has Gothic elements all through: like the former work the narrator, too, is a titled member of a former Ascendancy family which has fallen on hard times, and his personal ruin is tied to that of his ancestral castle.  The castle contains a dungeon and a priest hole with a crucifix, and it starts to keen when Tristram’s hour of destruction approaches. There are strong elements of the undead; the narrator regularly encounters Larney, an old retainer with a fondness for pointed riddles, whom he later finds to be long dead.  Not only that, but Tristram himself is probably one of their number; he revives after being proclaimed dead in a hospital, he is very pale, his hands are always remarked on as being cold, “Death warmed up” as his associate Hickey says (288), and while he may drink, he never seems to eat. It is a strongly intertextual work, beginning with the opening quotation from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake which situates Howth and the St Lawrence family in both place and fiction.  Some of the other quotations used by the author are taken from real-life utterances of prominent politicians and financiers in recent Irish life. This controversial use ties with other ironical elements, such as the fact that Tristram’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor is actually the Devil, who is the “higher power” of the seven steps to recovery.  It has two timelines, that beginning in 2006 when the original events happened, and another in a time in the future;  March 2016 will be the centenary of the Easter Rising which began the movement for Ireland’s independence, when he appears before a court or tribunal to answer for his part in the misdeeds.  At this tribunal, the members do not want to know the names of all those in the Golden Circle which facilitated the financial downfall of the country, because “[t]wo of you, after all, were there” (153).

The next work is, like the first, autobiographical.  Michael Harding’s Staring at Lakes (2013) has won many prizes, for example, the Bord Gais Energy Book Club Awards gave it the title of Non-Fiction Book of the Year, it won the John Murray Show Listeners’ Choice Award, and the Irish Book Awards’ National Book Tokens’ Non-Fiction Book of the Year.

The work is compelling in many ways.  Chief of these is his use of description and his power to convey atmosphere and colour.  This applies to local detail such as the description of kittens killed by the tomcat as “lying like small wet gloves in the rain” (297), to his impressions of a trip in modern Mongolia; from the ancient Buddhist monasteries whose only inhabitants may be a troop of small boys in ragged robes, to the nomadic tribespeople living in yurts in the snow, to the effects of sun, snow and trees at a remote lake.  This applies also to his vivid evocation of the lives of old people living in isolation in various parts of Ireland, to whom he shows a remarkable kindness and empathy.

Allied to this is his powerful use of symbols.  The most notable is that of lakes, as in the title; “when we look at a lake, our mind expands” (290).  He grew up in the lakelands of Co. Cavan, lived beside similar bodies of water in Co. Fermanagh, then near Mullingar, and finally went to live overlooking Lough Allen in Co. Leitrim.  They represent for him places of leisure in which to swim, fish and boat.  A more gloomy aspect is that of watery suicides, but they become for him ultimately places where he writes, and where he and his wife go to spend time together in silence like other older couples.  Allied to this is his use of bird symbols, especially that of swans on lakes, a symbol which he shares with the work of W. B. Yeats.  The swans symbolise the lifetime choice of a mate, in contrast to the more undignified ducks, but he uses also more threatening images of mythic birds which in his illness he envisages as coming to pluck out his insides.

The whole book is told in a natural speaking voice, which is very easy to follow, even where he is theoretical and philosophical.  There is a knowingness in this voice, and one can envisage some hearers becoming complicit with his expressed views and more questionable adventures.  Though the book deals with analyses of depression, the male menopause, and similar serious topics, it is also humorous and ironic.  Humour is a strong undercurrent in the work; the author can see the funny side of encounters such as that with a  lady of extreme right-wing views in a Roscommon library; the latter intersperses strong views about capital punishment, and restricted education for working class people, with complaints about the non–availability of cream buns, to which the author responds: “ You’re dead right there, Mrs E… ” (135).

This book reflects the progression of Irish life, its economics and politics, both as participant and observer.  This ranges from the dangerous sectarian disputes and killings in his parish in the North of Ireland, the seeming plenty of the turn of the century followed by the fall into serious recession, the scandal of clerical sexual abuse of children, and the influx of migrants attracted by the seeming prosperity who lend colour to his life, especially the girls.

There are darker sides to this book too.  The comedy is contrasted with other less humorous scenarios such as the domestic morning when his wife is still in bed, the child is whingeing, and the dishwasher is too full, while on a world scale a woman has been executed in Texas.  Here he says that there was no avoiding the world in all its ugliness; meanwhile he seems to do nothing to remedy either the little or the large in this situation.  The reader cannot help noticing that in all the situations where he has to make a choice, whether in leaving the priesthood, in leaving his marriage, or in moving to another home, he makes it completely in relation to himself, without consultation with others.  He understands the male menopause very well, and attributes his attempts to philander to the fact that he missed out on the chance to be a “hunter” when he was young.  His efforts to attract women often lead to humiliation and failure, and he is ruthlessly honest about such encounters.

The writer’s childhood helps to explain his coldness and isolation with regard to family members.  He was rejected emotionally at his birth by his mother who wanted a daughter, his father was a much older man, and his only sibling plays a part very late in the book.  A significant part in distancing him from human contact is played also by a male clerical teacher in stunting his emotional growth and self-image, and this memory surfaces every time he feels low.  To refer to his immediate family he uses the rather impersonal designations of “the wife” and “the daughter” with omission of their names.  This isolation contributes to his depression which is overpowering especially later in his life.  Consequently he has an infatuation with father figures (262), and a great desire to belong to groups.  The writing of his illness which leads to mental and physical collapse is moving and honest, and the misery is extremely well conveyed.  Not less impressive is the way in which he gradually comes to an acceptance of life which leads to healing.  In this however, he has a tendency to over-generalise, attributing his own conclusions to humankind in general, to “people” and to “we”:

Perhaps a brave new world is coming where people accept that life ends in the graveyard and that heaven is a poppycock of the unconscious mind (307). … When we abandon all our beliefs and dogmas that are spun in fear and when we release ourselves from anxiety … (310).

This memoir has its faults, for example, an uncertain structure in its division into four parts which fit uneasily with each other, but in general it is easy to see how it retains its bestseller status week after week.  It is very hard to put down, and repays multiple readings.

Works Cited

Guinness, Selina. 2012. The Crocodile by the Door. Dublin: Penguin Ireland.

Harding, Michael. 2012. Staring at Lakes: A Memoir of Love, Melancholy and Magical Thinking. Dublin: Hachete Books Ireland.

Kilroy, Claire. 2012. The Devil I Know. London: Faber and Faber.

McGuinness, Frank. 2013. The Hanging Gardens. Dublin: Abbey Theatre/Arts Council.

O’Toole, Fintan. 2014a.  “Experts query Abbey Theatre’s ‘world-class’ status”.  The Irish Times, January 18, p. 1.

________. 2014b. “Abbey confidential: outside experts unimpressed by our national theatre”, The Irish Times, January 18, p. 7.