George O’Brien
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Thomas Kilroy

Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2018. 238 pp.

ISBN 978-1-84351-749-8

Written in an affable tone and straightforward style, Over the Backyard Wall will perhaps strike many readers as a thoroughly agreeable account of the early life and times of arguably the least well-known of that generation of Irish playwrights – with Brian Friel, Thomas Murphy, Hugh Leonard in the forefront – whose works comprise what might be called ‘the silver age’ of Irish drama which had its heyday in the 1980s and ‘90s. The book covers his intellectual journey from boyhood in the small town (or, because these distinctions matter down the country, what Kilroy calls the “market town”) of Callan, County Kilkenny, to his breakthrough as a playwright with the production of The Death and Resurrection of Mr. Roche at the 1968 Dublin Theatre Festival. The result is an engaging, informative, unassuming, record of the making of an eminent career in a changing Ireland, illuminated by the attentive intelligence characteristic of all the author’s work.

So far, so good. But the record is not quite the whole story. Discernible within it, or emerging from it, is an account of a culturally significant and historically suggestive moment in post-war Irish writing. Admittedly, the author’s primary focus on names and places, on memories of family, community and friendship could indicate that this secondary narrative, so to speak, may not be just a by-blow. Still, though he modestly calls his book “a mixed bag”, it’s a more artful memoir than this description suggests. Its subtitle alerts us to that – rather than containing memories for their own sake, Over the Backyard Wall is a book in which the act of remembering is not one of recovery but of view-finding and reflection. Further, ensuring Over the Backyard Wall is no commonplace set of recollections, it is interrupted on two occasions by fictional material, the first dealing with the taking of Callan by Cromwell, the second with the impact on two local children of a family of Nazis who settled near the town in the aftermath of the Second World War. Both of these episodes ensure that the scales fall from the eyes of the two young boys through whose perspectives the events in question are rendered.

Such an interleaving of discourses is not as strange as may first appear, being a version of the familiar, essential and inevitable memoir mix of memory and imagination. As Kilroy notes in an opening chapter which serves as an effective preamble to, not only his material, but to his interest in setting it down: “Historical fiction is another avenue of retrieval and is intimately related to memory. It is, in fact, an imaginative imitation of the process of memory. It can also provide a corrective to memory when the two are laid alongside one another as they are here”. The subject in history and the subject in memory both need each other so that a necessarily complex encounter with, and adequate acknowledgment of, the past may take place. The relevance of such an outlook to fitful Irish efforts to cleanse those doors of perception that lead to personal and national history hardly needs to be underlined. As a child, Kilroy suffered from “lazy eye” (amblyopia), a condition in which the sight of one eye develops at the cost of that in the other, is still all too telling a metaphor for how Irish history and culture are regarded (not that the weakness is confined to Ireland).

Rather than expatiating on such impossibly large categories as history and culture, however, Kilroy focuses on the very personal faculty of sight as the primary means of how one encounters the world. This focus may seem unexceptional, based as it is on a physiological fact. In this case, however, there is more than physiology at work. Sight initially makes it appearance on the memoir’s opening page as the inadvertent prompt (in the form of a cataract operation) for what follows. Not only did the operation improve Kilroy’s sight to an entirely unexpected degree, but he now “began to see memories as something directly in front of me”. Arising unbidden, these sights of the past, for all that they were no more than “vivid shards, splinters”, were something to grasp, in the same manner as the scenes of childhood were when first encountered – thus the “often highly tactile” quality attributed to memories.

Both the transient scenes of boyhood’s physical reality and their return in memory as incomplete though pregnant vestiges were not just occurrences. Rather, in both forms they are pathways to knowledge, prompts to feeling, instigators of appetites for the world. The physical act of seeing is complemented by the affirmative intellectual rewards of doing so. Childhood’s “spots of time” (to use the Wordsworth model of youthful apprehension) are here consolidated by the awareness, balance and ability to contextualise acquired in later years. The swimming holes in Callan’s King’s River known as “Little Paupers” and “Big Paupers” were places in which to have memorable summer fun. But they attain what might be termed the full measure of their reality when it is learned that they were so named on account of having been used as baths by the big and little inmates of the local workhouse. The beauty of nearby Slievenamon coexists with the horrific burning of Bridget Cleary that took place in that mountain’s shadow. Play in the open spaces around Callan takes place on the same ground on which Cromwell’s siege of the town happened.

And there are many other instances of this type of doubling, which is to be expected from a writer for whom “[a]lmost everything I have written in fiction and for theatre has had a basis in history”. The addition of an historical lens to what is visible in the immediate sense points out one way in which seeing can be believing, or at least is affirming. The possibility of such affirmation may also suggest the appeal to Kilroy of the theatre, a medium which combines a physical, three-dimensional representation of a vivid present surrounded by darkness, one effect of which is to give an audience (the public) a unique opportunity to see, to apprehend and to focus, all of which are preconditions for comprehending, or for coming to terms with the world that is not theirs, the world on stage.

Of those many instances Callan provides of past and present being interwoven, one seems particularly notable. It concerns Kilroy’s parents, his pious, steely Republican mother, and his police-sergeant father, who very nearly went once too often to the dogs (he gambled compulsively on greyhounds). Both came from the west of Ireland, and “a return to the tribe” was part of Kilroy’s childhood summers. Some of the most eloquent and insightful writing in Across the Backyard Wall is about the “uncanny pull” of the west in Irish writing, and the ways the appeal was answered. But the west also came to Norman Callan, making Kilroy’s parents “outsiders all their lives” and ensuring that he and his siblings “had one foot in another Ireland that was very different to that of Callan”. The ghost of a Gaelic heritage coexists with the actuality of a Pale-inflected birthplace. As Kilroy says, “It is … little wonder that I grew so preoccupied with the divided self”, though rather than explore in much detail the challenge of engaging with such divisions, Kilroy instead turns to two culturally esteemed figures who have each represented one of the cultural landscapes in question.

On the one hand, there is the painter Tony O’Malley, himself of western stock and reared in Callan, whose output, in part, celebrates the town’s Gaelic stonemasons, whose work resembles “ghosts from the West of Ireland” (see note below). On the other hand, from nearby Bennetsbridge, there is the intellectual, critic, secularist and dedicated European Hubert Butler, bearing the name of one of the most prominent of all Anglo-Irish families. It is tempting to regard Kilroy as, in effect, accommodating both these distinct sources of cultural and intellectual endowment: indeed his career is noteworthy for both its imaginative palette and its critical acuity. But any idea of equilibrium that such a confluence of cultural sources might suggest is facile. Besides, “[w]hile I came to love the older Ireland, I knew that I also had to face the life of a small Irish town with its alternative history of conquest and anglicization, its awkward collisions with the modern”.

That facing into small town life constitutes the essential story of Over the Backyard Wall, although the process is disguised, to an extent, by the homely, disarming connotations of the title that signals the standard narrative of boyhood – Huck Finn lighting out for the new territory, and all that. Not that Kilroy crossed the wall to escape Aunt Sallies. He was running towards the basically conventional freedoms of open space and friends to play with, a swim in the river and a tour of inspection through the town, rather than away from discouragements, strictures and narrow minds. In his family experience there is no misery, no repression, no loss. The state of the family union remained strong, even when the man of the house continued to throw money at bookies. This basic stability enabled Kilroy to make a successful transition to boarding school at St. Kieran’s College, where among his many accomplishments, he became something of a “hair-oil hurler”, a phrase begrudgers applied to the polished Kilkenny style of hurling. More importantly, secondary school proved eye-opening, not only for giving hints of humanist learning but for its of codes, hierarchies, rituals, boundaries and related aspects of a deliberately coordinated structure. The theatrical, or at least performative, quality of these enacted ideas of order made an impression in their own right and also, perhaps, by being antithetical to the formative freedom found by the younger Kilroy beyond the backyard wall. He thrived at school, his career there culminating in winning what at the time was a much sought after county scholarship to go on to university.

The boarding-school years are also an important part of the story, however, because they tacitly point to the idea that Over the Backyard Wall, in addition to its autobiographical appeal, is also the story of a generation. This becomes clear in its account of student days (and nights) at University College, Dublin, during which Kilroy meets and mingles with many young people with the same background, and energies, and who shared his interest in pushing the envelope of what may be thought and said. This interest, predictably enough, did not find favour with the authorities, and the various clashes recorded here are snapshots from a prolonged kulturkampf, in which the immovable objects of seasoned reaction try to hold out against the irresistible youthful forces of enlightenment lurching towards modernity. Kilroy’s literary interests landed him inevitably in the front lines. But these interests also led him over college walls, so to speak, and into literary Dublin, where he enjoyed the company and support of other writers. Most notably, Mary Lavin’s generosity as a hostess was an important resource for many of the emerging generation of Irish writers in the early 1960s, more so, arguably, than her work in the short story. (Regarding the latter, Kilroy pauses just long enough to pay eloquent, if conventional, tribute to “The Becker Wives”). Encounters with other writers – Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien, Benedict Kiely – also illuminate the scene. And, with generations in mind, an afternoon with Seán O’Faoláin is recounted which features a bumptious young Kilroy taking the older writer to task for spending so much time outside the country, a performance which, among other things, mortified his partner in literary adventure, the rather unfairly unsung Tom MacIntyre, whose death occurred as this review was submitted.

All heady stuff. Yet, before long, “I became conscious of the need to get away from Ireland”. There still were other walls to scale. Kilroy’s various trips in that golden age of hitch-hiking brought him to Greece, via Yugoslavia (where one of the sights that disabused him of his positive view of Tito was that of women doing heavy manual), to Spain, France and elsewhere. Of these, the visits to Greece and Spain seem to be have been the most significant; the former illuminating and enlarging those humanist sympathies initially stimulated at St. Kieran’s, and the latter confirming his liberal outlook as a result of a run-in with a right-winger. Yet here too, personal experience, its novelty, excitement, risk, wonder and sunshine, does not seem to be entirely the whole story. What is also being implicitly articulated is the emblematic character of those experiences, their sense of being unconstrained, the cultural and imaginative nourishment they provide, the connections they afford to histories and traditions which are valuable for other than narrowly national or sectarian reasons. Kilroy acknowledges the value of the first-hand touch of Europe’s sheer diversity and plenitude, its manners, modes of representation, ways of playing and historical semiosis. To fund these summer getaways, Kilroy worked in England, a country which hardly registers on his ultra-receptive consciousness and which seems to have had nothing to offer him at the time other than, as with many another (here unmentioned) Irish person, a pragmatic means to an economic end.

The European dimension was important for the generation, including Seán O’Faoláin, that preceded Kilroy’s, too, of course. For younger writers, however, there was a greater need to lessen the gap between what Europe stood for and what Ireland stood in need of. The choices were not a simple binary between staying put and exile (or in O’Faoláin’s case, travel and travel-writing). Instead, a European awareness became an active resource for that younger generation, laying out a pathway which the generation following Kilroy’s has helped to expand, even if the relationship between Irish and European writing (as distinct from writers) still seems more tenuous than exchanges between the two might lead one to believe. In looking towards Europe, as he points out, Kilroy identified with a more general Irish orientation in that direction: “In fact it was possible, in the Dublin of the 1950s to see more professional productions of European and American plays, than perhaps is true of today”. A list of playwrights follows, thus underlining the point, and this state of theatrical affairs also caught Kilroy’s imagination, leading to involvement with the notorious, censor-provoking production of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo at the Pike Theatre. Not that matters European were confined to aesthetic or dramatic considerations. In the early ‘60s, Kilroy was appointed headmaster of Stratford College, a Jewish school in Dublin whose pupils included some whose parents were Holocaust survivors (the shock of having one of those parents pull up her sleeve to reveal her camp number is another formative European encounter and obviously has a bearing on the fictional “interlude”, “The Coming of Hitler”). Such arresting experiences also contribute to a Kilroy’s still evolving understanding of the kind of Ireland that would be worth living and working for.

The Stratford College period was not to last, however, as prior to taking the position Kilroy had arranged for a year teaching at the University of Notre Dame, which might be considered the Vatican City of Irish-America. But Irish-America did not appeal: “it took me some time to recover from … close-up experience[s] of ethnic aggression”. This was not a charge laid against his colleagues in the English Department, among whom there were some first-rate minds. The intellectual highlight of the year, however, was a lecture by Lionel Trilling, not exactly a Notre Dame type. The appointment at Notre Dame was followed by another post at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee a few years later. Here, a different set of influences and connections were available, presenting attractions and challenges of their own. Among the connections was one with Flannery O’Connor, who considered him to be, as a letter of hers recalls, “the real thing” – Irish, that is – and goes on to say that, “Thos. Kilroy said the South more than any other part of this country reminded him of Ireland”. Whether there were intellectual and cultural similarities between the South and Ireland, however, remains moot.

During the 1920 and ’30s, Vanderbilt was home to a group of poets and intellectuals called the Fugitives whose cultural thought tended towards anti-modernism and in some instances seemed a genteel, high-minded version of blood-and-soil cultural politics. Kilroy came to know some of the group’s members, but their appeal to him doesn’t come across. He mentions only their manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand (1930), and his meeting with one of the most die-hard of the group, Donald Davidson, hardly amounts to more than a photo of a relic. An encounter with another, Robert Penn Warren (arguably not a true Fugitive), is enlivened by the American’s enthusiastic desire to know all about the Anglo-Irish, not one of Kilroy’s strong suits, as he concedes. The contrast between these encounters and the kind of modernist initiation prompted by his European experiences is never directly drawn. And though, needless to say, Kilroy did meet some wonderfully hospitable and cultured Southerners, one gets the impression that he would feel more at home with Lionel Trilling – or, indeed, William Faulkner, who rises with a certain grandeur out of the generally flat surrounding cultural landscape.

His appreciation of Faulkner, a writer who also saw what living in history could do to a place, a community, or a person, unfortunately does not lead to a consideration of the historical events that were beginning to change, not only the South, but the whole country during Kilroy’s time there – the events of the Civil Rights Movement. It was “my own ignorance about race” which prevented experiencing what was going on “in any direct way”. But the same seems broadly true of the entirety of his American experience. Both the country and its culture seem far from his work. And the parting gift of a peacock feather that Flannery O’Connor gave him? He lost it. Whatever his view of America might be, his name has not been associated with the blossoming of Irish-American literary relations in the 1960s. Further, any resemblance Kilroy may have perceived between the American Civil Rights Movement and the Northern Irish one is not mentioned. The story returns to Dublin, with the concluding chapter focusing on theatre there in the 1950s and ‘60s and ending with the author’s first dramatic production. (It was not his first play, which was The O’Neill, not produced in 1973).

The concluding note is one of triumph, which no one would begrudge, and of transformation, as that first night of The Death and Resurrection of Mr. Roche marked Kilroy’s graduation to the role and status of author. This is an office to be taken seriously, a complicated mixture of personal integrity and public trust, and Kilroy is obviously not happy that “I have lived through a time of careerism and the spectacle of writers who became extremely skillful in the management of their careers in the marketplace. You wondered where the value system of the artist resided”. Such a statement opens a whole other debate about the course of literature in an Ireland of boom and bust which is outside the scope of a mere review. More to the point, the statement is also a tribute to Kilroy’s own generation, one, as his well-knit assemblage of “shards, splinters” makes plain, did take on a reactionary university clerisy and its sponsors; did take drama over a backyard wall which, hitherto, had merely propped up kitchen comedies; did seek out Europe’s humanistic lineage and its literary exemplars; and did venture towards the modern (or at least towards the renovatory) in thought and, not infrequently, in technique. A thoroughgoing Irish intellectual history would provide a fuller appreciation – and critique – of these attainments, and would conceivably place Kilroy in the forefront of the artist-intellectuals of his time (with his range of reference from John Berger to Leszek Kolakowski). But perhaps it is a more characteristically Irish approach to history to eschew systems and ideas and to dwell instead on the intimacies and particularities of communal spheres of experience. That is work for another day. For now, it is good to have the types of testimony which Over the Backyard Wall contains, to appreciate the unified and composed presence of the author in his world, and to see a personal story heightened and broadened by acknowledging its existence within greater and more far-reaching contexts of time and change.

Note

O’Malley’s essay, “Inscape – Life and Landscape in Callan and Country Kilkenny”, in William Nolan and Kevin Whelan, eds., Kilkenny: History and Society (Dublin: Geography Publications, 1989), is well a noteworthy expression of the painter’s vision of his subject matter.