Mª Elena Jaime de Pablos
University of Almería, Spain | Published: 17 March, 2024
ISSUE 19 | Pages: 57-71 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2024-12810

Creative Commons 4.0 2024 by Mª Elena Jaime de Pablos | 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.

This article aims at examining how systemic violence is connected with social stigma and structural vulnerability in the social novel The Spinning Heart, which was published by the Irish writer Donal Ryan in 2012. This much lauded work describes the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and its devastating effects in a small rural town in Ireland from multiple viewpoints. Although there are twenty-one first-person narrators, one per chapter, Bobby Mahon stands out among them. In fact, the story of this construction foreman connects with the trajectories presented by the other characters. Through all of them, Ryan denounces the practices and procedures that powerful and privileged institutions, groups and individuals resort to in contemporary Ireland in order to assert control or authority over other less favoured members of society, thus fostering a climate of violence. Attention is drawn in this article to the nature of the patterns of aggression and hostility developed by the main characters in the novel but also to the adverse impact these unjust, oppressive and stigmatising patterns have on vulnerable subjects by burdening them physically, psychologically, culturally and financially. Michael Staudigl’s theories on systemic violence in Phenomenologies of Violence (2014), Imogen Tyler’s notions on social stigma in Stigma. The Machinery of Inequality (2020), Judith Butler’s ideas on structural vulnerability in Vulnerability in Resistance (2016) and Pierre Bourdieu’s views on patriarchy in Masculine Domination (2001) inform this work.

El objetivo de este artículo es examinar cómo se representa la conexión entre violencia sistémica, estigma social y vulnerabilidad estructural en la novela social The Spinning Heart, publicada por el escritor irlandés Donal Ryan en 2012. Esta obra, ampliamente premiada, describe el colapso del denominado “Celtic Tiger” (“Tigre Celta”) y sus devastadores efectos en un pequeño pueblo rural de Irlanda desde múltiples puntos de vista. Aunque hay veintiún narradores en primera persona, uno por capítulo, Bobby Mahon destaca entre todos ellos. De hecho, la historia de este capataz de la construcción conecta con las presentadas por los demás personajes. A través de todos ellos, Ryan denuncia las prácticas y procedimientos a los que instituciones, grupos e individuos poderosos y privilegiados recurren en la Irlanda contemporánea para ejercer su control o autoridad sobre los más desfavorecidos, fomentando así un clima de violencia. En este artículo se presta especial atención a la naturaleza de los patrones de agresión y hostilidad desarrollados por los protagonistas de la novela, pero también al impacto adverso que estos patrones inicuos, opresivos y estigmatizadores tienen sobre sujetos vulnerables al sobrecargarlos física, psicológica, cultural y económicamente. Para el análisis de la obra, se emplearán las teorías sobre violencia sistémica que Michael Staudigl expone en Phenomenologies of Violence (2014), las nociones sobre estigma social que Imogen Tyler’s presenta en Stigma. The Machinery of Inequality (2020), los planteamientos en torno a la vulnerabilidad estructural que Judith Butler propone en Vulnerability in Resistance (2016) y la visión del patriarcado que Pierre Bourdieu ofrece en Masculine Domination (2001).

Literatura irlandesa; violencia; estigma; vulnerabilidad; Donald Ryan; El corazón que gira.


The Irish author – and lecturer of creative writing at the University of Limerick – Donal Ryan (1976-), although relatively new on the literary scene, is already considered a “writer of the very first order” (Hughes 2012) or “the king of the new wave of Irish writers” (Barry 2016). In his works, he explores “the darker issues and emotions of Irish society” (O’Neill 2017: 172) and deciphers through his “protagonists the most subtle intricacies of the human condition, by deploying the most radical crises an individual can experience” (Estévez-Saá 2018: 199).

All his works, which include six novels – The Spinning Heart (2012), The Thing About December (2013), All We Shall Know (2016), From a Low and Quiet Sea (2018), Strange Flowers (2020), The Queen of Dirt Island (2022) – and a collection of short stories – A Slanting of the Sun: Stories (2015) – have earned him a number of national and international awards. His debut novel, The Spinning Heart, on which this paper centres, was first published in 2012 and gained enormous popularity and several prestigious prizes, among them: the Irish Book Awards, Newcomer of the Year in 2012, The Guardian First Book Award in 2013 or The European Union Prize for Literature in 2015. It was also voted Irish Book of the Decade in a poll run by Dublin Book Festival.

The Spinning Heart is set in an unnamed rural Irish town in post-Celtic Tiger times. Through this novel, Donal Ryan – in tune with other authors writing fictional works after the financial crash such as Kevin Power, Anne Enright, Paul Murray, Tana French or Claire Kilroy, to mention but a few – shows a great interest in portraying “the real effects[1] of the Celtic Tiger economy and its aftermath on the lives, finances, and psyches of Irish citizens” (Kelly 2020: 195-96). The novel is narrated, in the first person, by twenty-one inhab­itants of this mainly working-class town: “[o]ld and young people, immigrants and future emigrants, men and women, children even, […who] form a chorus of voices giving shape to the still new multicultural face of Ireland in the years after 2008” (Mianowski 2017: 62). They offer “a mosaic of perspectives and reactions to a post-Celtic Tiger rural discourse” (Altuna-García de Salazar 2019: 98). The internal monologue of these twenty-one narrators, one per chapter, let readers know their real thoughts and feelings. As their stories are interrelated, it can be noticed that there are both visible and invisible interdependencies between them, which, as Justine Jordan says, allows us to “gain a new angle of perspective on the other characters” (Jordan 2013). This way, their realities “might be acknowledged, without falling into the risk of simplified literary portrayals or limited, one-sided perspectives” (Villar-Argáiz 2022: 185).

All these characters have something in common: they all “are trying to come to terms with the sudden economic downfall; [and] most are despairing and melancholic” (Slavin 2017: 6) because “they are compelled to come to terms with the discrepancy between past affluence and present distress” (Huang 2022: 79). Triona Mahon, one of these narrators, summarises the economic worries that burden people in the community: “their pensions and medical cards and wages and profits and welfare payments and what they haven’t that their neighbours have and who’s claiming what and how many foreigners were allowed in to the country” (Ryan 2012: 154). As Asier Altuna-García de Salazar comments in this respect: “Ryan portrays a rural community striving to recover its former roots and social order, but to no avail, as the rules of community and society have changed forever because of the collapse of the booming Celtic Tiger” (2019: 92) and he does so through twenty-one different narrators to “show these individuals’ inability to react to the demise of the Celtic Tiger as a community” (Altuna-García de Salazar 2023a: 176).

The economic crisis in this small rural town is connected to the financial collapse of a building firm, which is one of the primary sources of employment in the area. The developer, Pokey Burke, flees the town leaving his workers unpaid and unemployed and this “triggers gossip, generational hatred, depression, resentment and ingrained violence” (Altuna-García de Salazar 2023a: 175). Due to its content, we can consider The Spinning Heart a social novel, defined by August Nemo as “a work of fiction in which a social problem is dramatized through its effects on the characters” (2019: 1). By portraying a problem, very often, political and/or economic in nature, the author denounces the ideological patterns and the socio-economic structures that generate it, thus implying that a societal reform is needed to solve it. This is precisely what Donal Ryan does when he presents the societal constructions and conditions determining Irish people’s lives after the crash as suffocating and, consequently, as significant engines of violence. To examine the way this is connected to social stigma and structural vulnerability[2] in the novel is the purpose of this article.

All narrators in The Spinning Heart help Ryan to expose some of the practices and procedures that powerful and privileged institutions, groups and individuals resort to in contemporary Ireland in order to assert control or authority over other less favoured individuals, thus fostering a climate of violence. In this work, attention is drawn to the nature of the patterns of aggression and hostility developed by the main characters in the novel and to the adverse impact that these unjust, oppressive and stigmatising patterns have on vulnerable subjects by burdening them physically, psychologically, culturally and financially. This is examined mainly through a character, Bobby Mahon, “the central presence in the book […and] in the community” (Battersby 2012). The story of this construction foreman connects with the trajectories presented by the other characters. To carry out this analysis, Michael Staudigl’s theories on systemic violence in Phenomenologies of Violence (2014), those of Imogen Tyler on social stigma in Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality (2020), Judith Butler’s ideas on structural vulnerability in Vulnerability in Resistance (2016) and Pierre Bourdieu’s views on patriarchy in Masculine Domination (2001) will be applied.

Violence research, states Michael Staudigl, has undergone an immense boom in various disciplines since the 1980s. The widely held insight is that by making it visible, by understanding it, we can achieve “the dream of reducing” it (Staudigl 2014: 3-4). Violence, “a key factor in the production, maintenance and legitimisation of domination and subordination” (Aisha, Heathcote and Williamson 2016: 112), must be reduced because it makes victims vulnerable both physically, in relation to their embodied integrity, and psychologically, in terms of “self-reference (self-confidence, self-respect and self-esteem), […] constitutive for the development and self-preservation of a full personality” (Staudigl 2014: 7). They often experience multiple forms of violence that are interrelated, constitutive and mutually reinforcing, and that exist at state, institutional and individual levels” (Aisha, Heathcote and Williamson 2016: 112). From this definition, some conclusions can be drawn. Violence implies a hierarchical power relation of domination and subordination that can be personal – when it takes place at an individual level – or systemic – when it takes place at state or institutional level. Besides, different forms of violence may be interrelated.

As this article substantially deals with the representation of systemic violence in The Spinning Heart, a more precise definition of this phenomenon is required before we examine it in the novel. Juanita Ross Epp and Ailsa M. Watkinson define systemic violence as:

Any institutionalized practice or procedure that adversely impacts on disadvantaged individuals or groups by burdening them psychologically, mentally, culturally, spiritually, economically, or physically. […] This may take the form of conventional policies and practices that foster a climate of violence, or policies and practices that appear to be neutral but result in discriminatory effects. (Epp and Watkinson 1997: xi)

Among the many theories that have appeared in the last decades on this matter, Michael Staudigl’s phenomenological approach, grounded in social and political philosophy, is particularly adequate for the analysis of violence, in general, and systemic violence, in particular, in Ryan’s novel. It is a useful tool to study how characters experience violence as agents, recipients and/or observers and to deal with their interplay of subjective, intersubjective, and trans-subjective registers of experience, which is relevant to understand the constitution of their selfhood. Staudigl’s phenomenological theory “takes violence as it is suffered, as it is done, or, as it is experienced (e.g., witnessed) from the perspective of a third party—for, in principle, it can only be taken from the perspective of its subjective experience” (Staudigl 2014: 12; original emphasis). It allows us to examine violence from the perspective of lived experience, that is, to place the subject at the centre of this analysis, taking into consideration “the constitutive interplay of the subjective capacity for sense-bestowal, inter-corporal (anonymous) processes of sense-formation, and the trans-subjective dynamic of symbolic institutions” (Staudigl 2014: 30; original emphasis). In relation to systemic violence, he indicates that “the different forms of structural violence and social suffering” are connected to “normative functions of ordering [the social world]” (Staudigl 2014: 28) and “making (or realizing) culture” (Staudigl 2014: 7).

A subject whose embodied and lived integrity is submitted to violence is a “weak subject” (Staudigl 2014: 30), a vulnerable one. “Vulnerability extends from the physical violability of our organic body (in, e.g., beatings, torture, rape), via the disrespect of its normative articulation (in the various forms of social and political exclusion), to the denigration of its practical cultural concretization (in the various forms of, e.g., racist discrimination)” (Staudigl 2014: 15). For Judith Butler, a leading theorist on vulnerability, this results from “a deliberate exposure to power” (2016: 22), it can be overcome through acts of resistance (2016: 12) and “negated when it is converted into agency” (2016: 23). This way Butler detaches herself from the traditional view of vulnerability, linked to victimization, passivity and inaction. Her innovative insights into vulnerability and resistance and into their inter-relationship are pertinent to the examination of The Spinning Heart characters’ acts of resistance when experiencing violence, abuse or exploitation.

Imogen Tyler explores the connection between vulnerability and stigma in a context of cultural violence in Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality, where stigma is defined as a “corrosive social force […] by which individuals and communities throughout history have been systematically dehumanised, scapegoated, oppressed and made to feel shame” (Tyler 2020: back cover). Her understanding of “stigma as a technique of social classification, a governmental strategy of social sorting, a mechanism through which inequalities are inscribed and materialised” (Tyler 2020: 89) is of particular value to analyse the processes of de-subjectification that are narrated in Ryan’s novel.

Since violence is “culturally constituted” (Staudigl 2014: 1), there is a need to reveal the nature of the culture in which it is fostered. Donal Ryan depicts Ireland’s culture as deeply male-chauvinist, offering numerous examples in which violence is perpetrated to preserve the patriarchal social order. Pierre Bourdieu’s insights into male domination as a paradigmatic form of symbolic violence that is perpetuated by social institutions – family, school, church and state (Bourdieu 2001: 34-35) – are useful in explaining how gender violence is exercised in the novel, not only against women as a whole, but also against those men who do not fit into the patriarchal stereotype of masculinity.

The Representation of Systemic Violence in The Spinning Heart

The social world described in The Spinning Heart is seriously affected by Ireland’s transition from an economic boom to an economic recession. The novel points out that “everything that seemed solid and reliable suddenly became fragile and began to crumble” (Mianowski 2017: 61). This places characters in a position of vulnerability that provokes in them confusion and anxiety, since they no longer inhabit a reality that they can control. They are represented as: “halting and uncertain, puzzling out their place in a changed world: each heart is spinning” (Jordan 2013). Butler (2016) establishes a direct link between economic and social precariousness and violence that Ryan’s work clearly illustrates. Under pressure, all characters can commit verbal and physical violent acts. In this unsafe context, “[p]eople are scared” (Ryan 2012: 155) and their fear induces them to view each other with mistrust and to adopt reserved behaviour. Their isolation and lack of communication are meant to protect themselves from the others – whether relatives, neighbours or foreigners – who might be regarded as potential agents of violence, since this is “a thoroughly relational – […] intersubjective – phenomenon” (Staudigl 2014: 9). “[T]he fact that the characters talk about each other rather than to each other shows the legacy of distrust and disconnectedness of the community” (Mulrennan 2016). Patterns of aggression and hostility are connected not only to unfair socio-economic structures, but also to physical and emotional abuse, stereotypical prejudices or discriminatory cultural traditions. All through the novel, Ryan shows the adverse impact that these unjust, oppressive and damaging patterns have on vulnerable subjects by burdening them physically, psychologically, culturally and economically.

Bobby Mahon: a Victim of Systemic Violence

Among the twenty-one narrators, Bobby Mahon stands out. He is a hardworking construction foreman and a good-hearted husband – he is married to Triona – and father. “The author uses this character to show what a good man looks like; one that other characters are measured by” (Mulrennan 2016). In the town, he is much appreciated and respected for his fortitude, generosity, goodness and intelligence. Due to his centrality in the novel and his status as victim of structural violence, he is given focal attention in this article. It is significant that the opening chapter of The Spinning Heart is devoted to Bobby Mahon’s story. His is a story of someone who has faced systemic violence all through his life, at home and at school during childhood and adolescence, and at work in adulthood.

Domestic Violence and Stigmatisation

At home, Bobby Mahon’s father, Frank, devises different strategies to keep him – as a child and as an adolescent – and his mother in a situation of isolation, oppression, economic deprivation and psychological terror. He employs violent means to achieve the de-subjectification of his victims:

I can forgive him for turning piles of money into piss and to leaving my mother to her holy hell […]. I’ll never forgive him for the sulking, though, and the killing sting of his tongue. He ruined every day of our lives with it. Drunk, he was leering and silent and mostly asleep. Sober, he was a watcher, a horror of a man who missed nothing and commented on everything. […] We couldn’t breathe right in a room with him. We couldn’t talk freely or easily. We were mad about each other, my mother and me, but he made us afraid to look at each other for fear he’d want to know were we conspiring against him again. We stopped looking at each other for good for a finish and stopped talking to each other a few years later. (Ryan 2012: 18-19)

This form of verbal, psychic and physical violence has the purpose of injuring Bobby and his mother. Their forced lack of communication prevents mother and son from manifesting support and affection to each other in a situation of extreme vulnerability, which provokes in them a great deal of personal suffering. Frank, the family patriarch, tries to shape their life world by weakening their personality to the extent of transforming them into docile and commodified bodies and minds, deprived of personality. This traumatic experience of domestic violence, which has left an indelible imprint on Bobby’s mind, is reinforced on a daily basis, since Frank’s verbal abuse never ceases.

Bobby is a victim of personal violence, since the agent of violence is his own father, but also of structural violence, since Frank feels entitled to abuse his wife and son because the patriarchal system – which upholds the so-called “Law of the Father”, a Law that according to Judith Butler “dictates the ‘being’ and ‘having’ positions” within the symbolic order (1993: 139) – facilitates the submission of the wife and children to the patriarch, who is allowed to use any punitive means against those showing defiance. Bobby and his mother’s suffering is aggravated by the fact that the community makes them targets of social criticism. This is in part caused by their dysfunctional condition. Thus, for instance, the first time that Triona meets Bobby, a female friend of hers warns her not to get involved with him: “he’s from an awful family, they live in a hovel, the father is a weirdo and the mother never speaks” (Ryan 2012: 19). This discriminating social praxis and derogative discursive construction, which constitutes an illustrative case of symbolic violence, is meant to place Bobby’s family in a position of oppression, vulnerability and marginality that stigmatises them – stigma being here understood as “a technique of social classification” (Tyler 2020: 89); they become undesirable people.

Socially stigmatised and, as a consequence, ashamed and emotionally weakened, Bobby ends up assuming as true the general belief that he, given his family status, should accept a low position in the social ladder. He himself shows that he has internalised his sense of inferiority, not only in terms of social status, but also in terms of education and economic means, when comparing himself to the suitors that Triona could have married instead of him: “My lovely, lovely Triona, she fairly let herself down when she married me. She could have gone with any of them smart boys that got the real money out of the boom: the architects, solicitors, auctioneers. They were all after her. […] She saw more in me than I knew was there” (Ryan 2012: 12).

As his father is the main source of the excruciating pain that he has experienced and still experiences, in order to put an end to it and overcome the trauma – the psychological wound – that it involves, Bobby imagines himself killing him. As a matter of fact, this counterviolence strategy – violence committed in retaliation for violence – becomes a recurrent idea. From a psychological point of view, he needs to kill the tyrannical person whose actions and discourse have constructed and still construct his identity in derogative terms so that he can have a chance to generate a new and more satisfactory subjectification. Bobby’s obsession with Frank’s use of language as a weapon to annihilate any sense of selfhood, self-esteem or dignity is a burden that paralyzes him,[3] even when imagining himself executing his father: “I wouldn’t like to see his eyes while I killed him; he’d be laughing at me, I know well he would. He’d still be telling me I’m only a useless prick, a streak of piss, a shame to him, even and he dying” (Ryan 2012: 16).

Coercive Violence and Vulnerability at School

Bobby Mahon’s experience of violence is also connected to his formal education. His recollections of school days put focal attention on the role of violence in the learning process, in identity formation and in socialisation within the educational framework. He remembers how some pupils, including himself, had to hide what they knew from others in order to protect themselves from collective hate speech and violent actions. In Ryan’s novel, average students’ envy turns those students who positively stand out into figures of antagonism or otherness, as these indicate that a higher educational accomplishment is possible. Perceived as disturbing elements by a more or less homogeneous group of students, because they do not fit into the ordinary pattern of ordinary educational performance, they are bullied. To avoid coercive violence, Bobby, who, being intelligent and motivated, could have done honours, on purpose simply passed his courses. Coercive violence, in this context, results in poor education from an intellectual point of view and fear from a psychological point of view, both detrimental to the construction of a satisfactory self-hood:

I WAS as smart as any of the posh lads in school. I was well able for the English and geography and history. All those equations in physics and maths made sense to me. I couldn’t ever let on I knew anything, though, that would have been suicide in my gang. I did pass maths even though I know I could have done honours. I never opened my mouth in English. (Ryan 2012: 14)

The school, thus described, is as a space where children are not safe, a place in which boys and girls are victims of different types of cruelty, which is not exclusively exercised by other kids. The teacher also resorts to instrumental violence as a manifestation of his power and authority, with the purpose of imposing obedience on vulnerable kids through fear: “the teacher started to break things down slowly for the thick lads: he was a stupid prick. He had it all and wanted more, he wanted the whole world to kiss his arse” (Ryan 2012: 14).

Gender Stereotyping as a Source of Social Stigma and Systemic Violence

Bobby Mahon lives in a small community that perpetuates patriarchal concepts of masculinity and femininity. Those who dare to defy them may be victims of systemic violence and objects of social stigmatisation in different ways. Pierre Bourdieu explains the link between masculine domination, stigmatisation and violence this way:

[…] manliness must be validated by other men, in its reality as actual or potential violence, and certified by recognition of membership of the group of ‘real men’. […They have to] prove before others their virility in its violent reality, in other words stripped of all the devirilizing tenderness and gentleness of love, […] Manliness, it can be seen, is an eminently relational notion, constructed in front of and for other men and against femininity, in a kind of fear of the female, firstly in oneself. (Bourdieu 2001: 52-53)

Since manliness is constructed against femininity in a patriarchal system, both human prototypes are defined in oppositional terms to avoid ambiguity. In the set of features that traditionally define masculinity, one stands out: men represent rationality, in contrast to women, who represent emotions. So, men who manifest emotions are classified as feminine and, therefore, subject to social stigmatisation. In light of this, “male privilege is also a trap, and it has its negative side in the permanent tension and contention, sometimes verging on the absurd, imposed on every man by the duty to assert his manliness in all circumstances” (Bourdieu 2001: 50). Bobby Mahon represents this trap perfectly well: “the resolutely physical masculine presence in The Spinning Heart”, he “is cast as the local embodiment of low-key heroism”, but he is also a man “beset with doubt and emotional fragility” (Flannery 2022: 93).

Gender prejudice limits not only men’s possibilities of expressing their “tenderness and gentleness of love”, but also the range of cultural products that they can consume. For instance, as drama is a scenic genre associated with the expression of emotions, plays – “soft thing[s]” – are not proper for men, who should not go to a theatre unless they accompany a female partner: “HAVING A WIFE is great. […]. We went to a play inside in town one time; I can’t remember the name of it. You couldn’t do that without a wife. Imagine it being found out, that you went to see a play, on your own! With a woman, you have an excuse for every kind of soft thing” (Ryan 2012: 20).

Bobby Mahon, who has liked plays since his childhood – when he had the chance to see King Lear performed at his school – and who believes that these enrich people’s experience of life and art, does not dare to go to the theatre on his own for fear of social censure in a small town where its inhabitants know each other. In his case, the risk of being subjected to stigmatisation prevents him from both improving his cultural background and enjoying himself.

In order to safeguard his masculinity, Bobby Mahon, a sensitive character, tries to hide his feelings all the time, most particularly those that are linked to his melancholic mood. When he needs to cry, he does so with what he calls “invisible tears”, since the visible ones denote vulnerability, sympathy or emotional dependence, all feminine traits. He only allows himself to cry with real tears in the sheltering presence of his wife, a sensible and sensitive woman who loves him the way he is. This is what he does at the end of his narration. After going to see a play that depicts family life ruined by patriarchal oppression, but which has a happy ending, the husband tenderly admits that he loves his wife, memories of his traumatic childhood and adolescence come to the surface and he cries:

The play was about a man and wife; […] Your man was like my father, only not as bad. The wife was lovely; she was dog-tired of your man’s auld selfish ways, but she persevered with him all the same. […] For a finish, they were both old and their lives were near spent, and at the very last, your man turned around and admitted he thought the world of her; he’d always loved her. He put his hand on her cheek and looked at her and cried. Christ, your man was some actor. On the way home in the car, tears spilled down my face. Triona just said oh love, oh love. (Ryan 2012: 20).

Bobby is not the only man who cries in the novel, as Seán Kennedy reveals: “The Spinning Heart is a moist book. The words ‘cry,’ ‘crying’ or ‘cried’ appear over 60 times. There are tears on almost every page” (Kennedy 2020: 395), which is significant because fourteen out of twenty-one narrators are male. These fourteen men who “assault women and each other” (Kennedy 2020: 395) also blush, cry and withdraw (Kennedy 2020: 395) when they see themselves as impotent “victims of societal expectations that failed as a whole” (Altuna-García de Salazar 2019: 91). They illustrate that traditional masculinity is in crisis.[4]

Unfair Socio-Economic Structures and Systemic Violence

Bobby Mahon, like “the whole parish” (Ryan 2012: 10), works for Pokey Burke, the owner of a building firm which prospers during the “Celtic Tiger”, but collapses when the financial crisis hits Ireland in 2008. To avoid facing his financial problems, Pokey Burke flees the town leaving behind his construction workers unpaid, unemployed and without the possibility of getting redundancy because he has failed to pay for his workers’ “stamps”. In connection with this, Catherine Taylor affirms that “[t]he book is a harangue against those who powered the crazy speculation of the boom years and got away with it” (Taylor 2013). Once redundant, Bobby realises that his employer, an elitist and a class-conscious person, always regarded him and the other workers of the building company as inferior, as people deserving neither respect nor rights. However, according to Bobby, apart from Pokey Burke, there are more “rat-faced little men who’ll use you all day and laugh at you all night and never pay in your stamps” (Ryan 2012: 18), thus indicating that these unequal and unfair power relations are a common phenomenon even in early twenty-first-century Ireland. In a similar manner, Eamon Maher observes that the novel “captures something of the Zeitgeist of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, particularly the anger and disappointment at the trauma inflicted on ordinary decent people, while those mainly responsible for the crash appeared to be escaping relatively unscathed” (Maher 2019: 283-84).

Bobby, who had believed during Ireland’s property bubble that he would work as a foreman for ever, since “houses would never stop going up” and that he would get “twenty fifties each week” (Ryan 2012: 10), finds himself unemployed and with no secure source of income. To get in contact with his employer to inquire about his stamps, his pension and his redundancy, he visits Pokey Burke’s father, Josie, who had owned the building company before his son did.

Josie not only does not feel any sense of solidarity or sympathy for Bobby, but verbally attacks him – from his position of superiority in terms of class, power and money – for voicing material claims. Looking down at him and in an irritated mood, Josie says to Bobby that he should be satisfied with Pokey’s management of the company, since he was well rewarded for his services. Josie induces his interlocutor to think that the generous amount of money that Bobby used to receive in terms of salary should compensate for his alienation and lack of labour rights in the past and for his precarious situation at present. Trying to get rid of him and sever any further connection between the construction foreman and his family, Josie compels Bobby to leave his house and go to the town dole office in the hope that the state might solve the problem that his self-centred son has generated:

Pokey Burke left his father and mother to mop up after him. The auld lad said he didn’t know where Pokey was, but I knew he was lying. He owes me money, Josie, I said. Does he now? Did he not pay you a fine wage? He was looking down at me from the third step before his front door. I might as well have had a cap in my hand and called him sir. My stamps. My pension. My redundancy. I could hear my own voice shaking. The state looks after all that when fellas goes bust, he said. Go in as far as town to the dole office. He said no more, only kept looking down at me, down along his nose. Right so. Right so, I will. I didn’t say I’d been there already, we all had, and it turned out Pokey had rowed us up the creek and left us there. I should have said I’d been on to the taxman and the welfare inspectors and the unions and they’d soon soften Pokey’s cough, but I hadn’t and I didn’t and I turned away with a pain in my heart for the man I’d thought I was. (Ryan 2012: 14-15)

Josie’s irritation is meant to show that he is not prepared to accept any claims on his family’s business. His verbal violence – indicating that he is in command of the situation – induces Bobby to play the role of the subordinate. This hierarchical interpellation explains why Josie’s last words are a command: “Go in as far as town to the dole office” and Bobby’s submissive reply: “Right so. Right so, I will” articulates his acceptance of his subordinate role. Josie’s behaviour is an example of what Tyler calls “stigma craft”, engaged in those who are powerful and dominant to “silence, constrain and misrepresent” (Tyler 2020: 104) others, whom they regard as human waste. Conceived in this way, stigma is a “dehumanising practice of subjugation” (Tyler 2020: 27) through devaluation.

Josie Burke’s attitude towards the construction foreman illustrates the way that powerful people may interact with those whom they consider underlings to secure their own selfish interests. In a commodity culture like the one represented in the novel, people can become mere waste material, a burden that requires straightforward elimination, when they represent no material value. Eventually Bobby realises that he, like the rest of the fellow workers at the building company, has been treated as a disposable commodity, that his dismissal from employment is seen as acceptable and normal since he is now valueless. As Gay Hawkins affirms, in commodity cultures, to get rid of waste “can be free of negative connotations” (Hawkins 2006: viii).

This statement that Triona addresses to her husband: “the Burkes were always users and crooks dressed up like the salt of the earth” (Ryan 2012: 15) also serves to denounce class culture with its implied social stratification. It leads readers to reflect on social injustice, on how “different individuals within a society enjoy unequal life chances” (Vorobej 2008: 88) and on how powerful people may feel entitled to exploit, harm and denigrate those who are less powerful or powerless with total impunity. Bobby reflects on this when imagining Pokey Burke’s life in his new place of residence: “[…] now he’s […] sunning himself in God only knows where, hiding from the bank and the taxman and probably trying to ride foreign wans. And here am I, like an orphaned child, bereft, filling up with fear like a boat filling with water” (Ryan 2012: 20).

His suffocating sense of being useless human waste that nobody cares for is aggravated when he and his fellow workers go to the dole office and are informed that the state will not offer them any support either, although they are in need, because they had no stamps paid in for any of them. According to the girl assisting them at the dole office, they could have discovered that their stamps were not paid, had they looked for a P60 from Pokey Burke. But the fact is that “[t]he overall atmosphere of success and affluence made no one care about the norms being respected” (Altuna-García de Salazar 2023b: 1257):

We all went in to draw our stamps and they only laughed at us. Stamps? What stamps? There wasn’t a stamp paid in for any of us, nor a screed to the Revenue, either. I showed the little blonde girl at the hatch my last payslip. You could clearly see what was taken out: PRSI, PAYE, Income levy, pension. She held it in front of her with her nose wrinkled up like I was after wiping my armpit with it. Well? I said. Well what? What’s the story? There’s no story sir. I wasn’t on the computer as an employee of Pokey Burke or anyone else. Did you never look for a P60 from your employer? A what, now? You’re some fool, she said with her eyes. I know I am, my red cheeks said back. I think she started to feel sorry for me then. But when she looked at the line of goms behind me — Seanie Shaper, innocent Timmy, fat Rory Slattery and the rest of the boys, all clutching their dirty payslips — she started to feel more sorry for herself. (Ryan 2012: 12)

As Eóin Flannery observes, “there is far more to the encounter at the social welfare office than a mere financial transaction. We are quickly apprised by the narrative that the anticipated financial support will never materialize and the entire ceremony is reduced to an exercise in humiliation” (2022: 89). At this office, Bobby and his fellow workers find themselves not only unemployed – the prefix “un” suggests anomaly (Bauman 2008: 10) and therefore stigma – but they are also taken for fools because they never happened to look for a P60 from their employer, whom they all had trusted. This way, they discover that the “network of social systems ideally founded upon trust, shared burdens and the notion of communality [… has been] sacrificed in the name of profit maximization by [… their] employer” (Flannery 2022: 89). Again, anger, frustration and impotence lead to disorder and violence, now oriented towards “the little blonde girl” who represents the state administration and tries to play the role of the uninvolved observer of injustice. In this case, violence – or rather counterviolence – is meant to achieve what they believe to be a right – jobseeker’s benefit – when they notice that the girl – who considers that they are to be blamed for the situation they are forced to face – does not or cannot help them to obtain it (124).

Neither Pokey Burke, the private employer, nor “the little blonde girl” representing the state administration will help Bobby and the rest of his fellow workers to have access to a legitimate source of income that would let their families preserve their usual way of life. This also constitutes an instance of systemic violence following Johan Galtung’s definition (1969: 168).[5] The workers’ anomalous status increases the distance between their potential situation – the one they believe themselves to be by right entitled to as recipients of jobseeker’s benefit, had they enough social insurance (PRSI) contributions – and their actual situation, the one they struggle to change as jobless people deprived of any payment from the social security. Their fragile situation evidences the existence of a structural vulnerability which is a consequence of the position of inferiority that they occupy in their community hierarchical social order – they are working class people whose social status is at risk because they are unemployed – and from the role of oppressed that they assume in the networks of power relationships in which they engage.

Subjected to different forms of violence that derive from inequity, injustice, stigma, labour exploitation, etc., Bobby is presented as a man who is so devastated, so afraid, so sure of being useless that he cannot stand himself. His thoughts and feelings of frustration and despair are so intense that he cannot express them with words. Melancholy leads to silence and introspection. He is reserved even with his wife, who is his only real and loyal ally, the person he most loves, respects and admires, a “Cordelia”, as he calls her – in reference to Shakespeare’s King Lear – because she is “true of heart” (Ryan 2012: 20): “I wish to God I could talk to her the way she wants me to, besides forever making her guess what I’m thinking. Why can’t I find the words?” (Ryan 2012: 15). This last question, which implies a need for self-expression, lets readers establish the connection between violence and selfhood and reflect upon the damage that systemic violence can cause to people’s psyche to the extent of erasing their self-confidence, self-respect and self-esteem or seriously diminishing their capacity for self-expression.


In The Spinning Heart, Donal Ryan shows the different ways in which structural vulnerability, social stigma and systemic violence are interrelated, and reveals the adverse personal, psychological, cultural and economic impact that these phenomena have on individuals. A central character in the novel, Bobby Mahon, a construction foreman unemployed as a result of the Celtic Tiger collapse, serves to illustrate how social stigma and systemic violence are generated, suffered and even witnessed from the perspective of a third party.

Ryan does not simply reveal the practices and procedures that powerful and privileged institutions – the state, the school, the patriarchal system, private companies, etc. – and individuals resort to in contemporary Ireland in order to assert control or authority over those who are less favoured and more vulnerable – exploited, denigrated and regarded as disposable commodities. He also shows the ways in which these practices and procedures give rise to a climate of violence. By drawing close attention to the damaging effects that this violence has on human physical and mental welfare, the author is inviting his readers to engage in a critical reappraisal of it.


[1] Donal Ryan himself says that he is interested in portraying these effects in a real way: “The effects of the recession in Spinning Heart, […] these are all things that happened to people in real life that I’ve pretty much appropriated to write books” (cited in Jordan 2018).

[2] Asier Altuna-García de Salazar’s article “Vulnerability in Post-Millennial Irish Fiction: The Case of Donal Ryan” published in the journal English Studies (2023) offers an insightful study on vulnerability in Ryan’s fiction, including The Spinning Heart, drawing on theoretical frameworks on vulnerability developed by Ganteau, Sabsay, Butler, and Kirby.

[3] Judith Butler explains in relation to linguistic vulnerability that “who we are, even our ability to survive, depends on the language that sustains us. One clear dimension of our vulnerability has to do with our exposure to name-calling and discursive categories in infancy and childhood – indeed, throughout the course of our life. All of us are called names, and this kind of name-calling demonstrates an important dimension of the speech act” (Butler 2016: 16).

[4] Seán Kennedy establishes a link between the crisis of masculinity, understood in patriarchal terms – toxic masculinity or “phallic masculinity” – and the crisis of Irish capitalism (Kennedy 2020: 394). According to him, in “neoliberal Ireland, the phallus has been financialized: man’s value rendered synonymous with his exchange value” (Kennedy 2020: 395).

[5] We refer to Galtung’s definition of violence as “the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is. Violence is that which increases the distance between the potential and the actual, and that which impedes the decrease of this distance. […] when the potential is higher than the actual is by definition avoidable and when it is avoidable, then violence is present” (Galtung 1969: 168).

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| Received: 31-10-2023 | Last Version: 14-02-2024 | Articles, Issue 19