It seemed beyond belief that our neighbor Seamus Doyle, who tended roses, and his wife, Gretta, who went to Mass every day, had once led a revolution, that he had been sentenced to death by the British, and that she had, with two other women, raised the Tricolour, the Irish flag, over one of the main buildings of the southern town of Enniscorthy in the 1916 Rebellion. It seemed even more astonishing that Marion Stokes had been one of the other flag-raisers; she came to our house every evening during Easter Week 1966 to watch a drama on television about the events of fifty years earlier.
She was the least likely ex-terrorist you could imagine, polite and sedate and distantly smiling. My uncle, who fought in the subsequent War of Independence and went on a hunger strike in prison during the Irish Civil War, also gave not a hint in his manners and his attitudes that he had, when he was young, taken on the might of the British Empire in pursuit of a dream which those around him viewed as foolish and fanatical.
The third woman who put up the flag in the town in 1916, Una Bolger, was married to Robert Brennan, one of the leaders of the Rebellion; he later became Irish ambassador to Washington and a close associate of Eamon de Valera. (Their daughter was the novelist and short-story writer Maeve Brennan, who wrote for The New Yorker for many years.) Una’s brother Jim Bolger, also involved in the struggle against the British, was Roddy Doyle’s grandfather, the father of Ita, who tells her story and that of her family in Rory & Ita, which Doyle edited for his parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary.
The story of the revolutionary generation in Ireland remains complex and powerful and difficult to tell. My uncle, who died eight years ago, confined himself to chance remarks and jokes on these matters; I have no memory of our neighbors, who took part in the Rebellion, discussing their years as revolutionaries in private conversations. They were quiet and conservative people; their years of living dangerously made them grumpy, it seemed to me, rather than garrulous. But since the IRA cease-fires of the late 1990s, the commemoration of what happened has become easier now that the events are not reenacted in Northern Ireland on a daily basis. Last year, when The Enniscorthy Echo, the local newspaper, celebrated its centenary, it produced a supplement with articles proudly stating that it was “once a hive of nationalists,” printing a photograph of Robert Brennan in paramilitary uniform, his wife standing behind him, and articles about Jim Bolger’s arrest for sedition in 1915 and my uncle’s hunger strike. All three worked for the newspaper, which, its centenary edition stated proudly, “assumed a notorious reputation with the authorities” in the decade before the creation of the Irish Free State.
In the 1940s, the Irish government asked those involved in the Rebellion and the War of Independence to write down their memories, which would be locked away until an indeterminate time in the future. More than seventeen hundred obliged, including Seamus Doyle and Robert Brennan. In March of this year, the archive was opened for the first time to scholars and researchers. Having read a sample of the accounts from Enniscorthy, including the memoirs of Doyle and Brennan, full of flat statement and unadorned prose, I found it fascinating to imagine the conditions under which the statements were written. These men sat down to record their memories in the relative comfort of neutral Ireland, in domestic harmony, in a world about which no one will ever, it seems, need to take further statements to lock away. Seamus Doyle must have walked in from his rose garden and sat quietly at a table in the front room of his semidetached house to describe a meeting in prison with Patrick Pearse, who had led the 1916 Rebellion, shortly before Pearse’s execution. “He rose quickly when the door was opened and came forward to meet us and shook hands with us. He appeared to be physically exhausted but spiritually exultant…. When the soldier was out of the cell Pearse whispered to us, ‘Hide the arms, they will be wanted later.’ We then bid him goodbye.”
“On the inception of the new state,” Roddy Doyle writes in Rory & Ita, “Jim Bolger became a civil servant, at the Department of External Affairs…. His first task was to sit outside a room with a gun while the new Minister, Gavan Duffy, was inside the room.” Ita, Roddy’s mother, remembers that her father “never lost the idea of what he had fought for, but he wasn’t a diehard.” By the time she was born in 1925, three years after the foundation of the state, her father was working by day and studying accountancy at night. Roddy Doyle’s father was born in 1923 and was called Rory, the Irish for Roderick, after the patriot Rory O’Connor. O’Connor was one of four leaders, one from each province, taken out and shot a year earlier by the Irish Free State forces in the beginning of a series of reprisals in the Civil War. These executions caused immense bitterness among the opponents, led by Eamon de Valera, of the 1921 treaty with the British, which left the North behind under British control. In 1936, the poet Austin Clarke wrote:
They are the spit of virtue now,
Prating of law and honour
But we remember how they shot
Rory Doyle’s own father, as a member of the IRA, was involved in burning down the Customs House in Dublin in 1921, but did not take part in the Civil War, although two of his brothers fought on opposite sides, one being killed in the war. “He couldn’t face up to fighting the men he’d been with; he just couldn’t do it,” Rory remembers, “but he was still close to the Republican fellows who were causing the trouble.” In 1926, his father joined Fianna Fáil, the party founded by de Valera which has held power in Ireland for much of the time since 1932.
Roddy Doyle’s parents, then, being born in the short time after the struggle for independence ended and before the revolutionaries began to grow roses, are Irish versions of midnight’s children. Doyle has attempted to write a book about a most elusive subject, using their two voices; he has attempted to evoke ordinary life in peacetime amounting in its modest way to happiness. He has kept the revolution and its spirit in the background, placing instead his parents’ courtship, marriage, the raising of their children, their domestic life in the foreground. He has also attempted to capture their particular tone, interrupting merely to explain a small matter or move the story on, but never to argue with them. He is interested in the detail of things; the book is full of proper names, brand names, precise memories, simple anecdotes.
He is concerned to dramatize a number of subjects uncommon in Irish writing, including his own previous work—niceness, decency, love, harmony, gentleness, kindness, prosperity, gentility. Thus cooking and going to work in the morning, acquiring a first refrigerator or a first washing machine, the buying of a dress or a suit, the going to a dance or visiting friends, in all their mundane detail, are central events in the book, are allowed the space normally reserved for bitterness and violence in Irish books. This move into sweetness may arise partly from the genuine affection that Doyle feels for his parents, but it also comes from the sort of politics that has been central to his work from the beginning.
In November 1979, two months after the Pope’s visit to Ireland, Roddy Doyle, aged twenty, first came to public attention. He wrote an article for the magazine In Dublin stating that the Virgin Mary, who had appeared at Knock in the west of Ireland one hundred years earlier, had thereafter traveled to Dublin where she had, he was sure, given birth to Patrick Pearse, whose centenary we were also celebrating. The delay of two months between the two events, Doyle explained, was due only to the bad state of the roads at the time. Doyle’s remarks, funny and bitterly irreverent in a time of great piety, made him something of a hero for those of us who worked for the magazine. His status was much enhanced when he was denounced soon afterward by the Irish-language magazine Inniu, which pointed out that that there were countries in the world who knew how to deal with such blasphemies. Clearly they meant Iran, since the Ayatollah and his punishments were in the news every day. Doyle had taken a cheeky swipe at Knock, the very shrine the Pope had visited, and at one of the martyred icons of Irish nationalism at the same time.
A year or two later, when the IRA hunger strikes were causing an immense upsurge of sympathy for the movement and its martyrs, someone told me that Roddy Doyle was writing a comic novel called Your Granny Is a Hunger Striker. Although brought up in the bosom of the Fianna Fáil party and the Catholic Church, I looked forward to the novel. Like many of our generation, I had had my fill of Irish piety and wished only for jokes on these matters. This was, perhaps, one of the rights for which the earlier generation had fought, and one of the inevitable consequences of their struggle, even if it did not seem like that at the time.
Your Granny Is a Hunger Striker was never published, but in 1987 Doyle’s first novel, The Commitments, appeared, followed by The Snapper (1990), The Van (1991), Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993), and The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996). The novels, and the movies that were made from some of them, were original in their tone, fast-moving, sharp, irreverent. They also became, in the images they created of Dublin, immensely influential.
The city of Dublin has always stood apart from the Irish nation. When Roddy Doyle’s great-uncle, Robert Brennan, heard in prison about the extent of the 1916 Rebellion in Dublin, his informant told him: “Dublin was grand. No longer shall we hear [the] jibe about the city of ‘bellowing slaves and genteel dastards.’” By the time Rory, Roddy Doyle’s father, began his apprenticeship as a printer twenty-five years later, working with men from Dublin city, however, the city seemed to have returned to its old self. “It was an eye-opener for me, like being in a different country. The philosophy was profoundly anti-Republican, anti-Gaelic, almost anti-Irish. As far as they were concerned, they were Dublin men, not Irish. They bought and read English newspapers…. They spoke of nothing but soccer, all the Dublin and English teams.”