Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Booker Prize last year. Set on the north side of Dublin in 1966, it is the story of a ten-year-old boy, Paddy Clarke, told entirely in his voice. The events he speaks of are external. He doesn’t keep a diary or express feelings as they occur to him. Everything in the book has happened in school or at home, on the dreary streets of “Barrytown” or in the fields near the Clarkes’ house. Paddy tells of these episodes shortly after they have happened, with a few references to earlier ones. Mainly he reports his daily life, ordinary things. We soon come to know him through his care for father and mother, his cruelty toward his young brother Francis (“Sinbad”), bouts of mischief-making for the thrill of it, petty thefts from local shops, spurts of vandalism, soccer on the street, games, fights. We also come to sense his resilience, the freshness of his small life, the unabashed timbre of his voice. Mostly his story amounts to loss. He wants to stop his father from fighting with his mother. He tries to anticipate his father’s bad moods and to divert them by telling him a story or a joke. But it is no good. In the end, his father leaves home. The schoolboys jeer at Paddy:
Has no da.
Ha Ha Ha!
For no reason, Paddy rejects his best friend Kevin and beats him so savagely that the other lads at school boycott him. In the course of a year of losses, Sinbad becomes independent or indifferent and Paddy is left with the need of him Barrytown is another loss: once it was mostly fields, building sites, and open sewerage pipes, good for games and devilment, but much of this space is gone, the Corporation has built houses on it:
There were fields past the Corporation houses but they were too far away now. Past the Corporation houses. Somewhere else…. There were no farms left. Our pitch was gone, first sliced in half for pipes, then made into eight houses. The field behind the shops was still ours and we went there more often. Over at the Corporation houses, that end, wasn’t ours any more. There was another tribe there now, tougher than us, though none of us said it. Our territory was being taken from us but we were fighting back. We played Indians and Cowboys now, not Cowboys and Indians.
The book tells of the time in which everything went wrong for Paddy. Mainly what went wrong was his father, a warmhearted man to begin with, thirty-three years old, with a wife, four children, and a job of some kind in Dublin. The Clarkes are not poor; they have regular meals and a car. But there is something wrong. Paddy’s father becomes sullen, takes to drink, discontent, and violence. What does not go wrong is Paddy’s mother, lovable and endlessly loving. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes the father, to give the car an outing, brings wife and children for a picnic to Dollymount Strand; it is a wet, gloomy day darkened further by his dour silence toward his wife.
Roddy Doyle was born in Dublin in 1958. In 1980 he became a teacher and got a job teaching English and Geography at Greendale Community School, Kilbarrack, one of the northern suburbs of Dublin. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is his fourth novel, preceded by The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990), and The Van (1991). Doyle has also written two plays, Brown-bread (1987) and War (1989).* Two of the novels have become deservedly popular films, The Commitments directed by Alan Parker in 1991, and The Snapper, which is still better, directed by Stephen Frears in 1993. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is not autobiographical. For one thing, Doyle’s parents are still cordially married. He comes not from the working class but from the middle class. He knows the place he writes about mainly by teaching there. He has now become a full-time writer.
Contemporary Irish writers have a particular problem of style, how to prevent Yeats, Joyce, or Beckett from taking over their minds and drowning out their voices. Writers older than Doyle—Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, John Banville, Eavan Boland, William Trevor, Nuala ni Dhomhnaill—have tried to circumvent these masters by turning toward less peremptory writers: Hopkins, Hardy, Auden, Louis MacNeice, Patrick Kavanagh, Ivy Compton-Burnett. Or by reading foreign writers in translation: Dante, Zbigniew Herbert, Sorley MacLean, Calvino, Akhmatova. Or by going to foreign films. Or by writing in Irish. Doyle’s method has been to listen to his pupils in Greendale and to their fathers in the local public houses. He has a remarkable ear. On the strength of it, he imagines what an even more thoroughgoing demotic English would sound like. Starting from Greendale and Kilbarrack he has invented Barrytown, a place impervious to the idioms of Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett.
The fashionable side of Dublin is the south, taking the high roads from Foxrock to Dalkey and Killiney. North Dublin has two upper-class addresses: on the east coast, the Hill of Howth, Sutton to Malahide; on the west side, the newly rich Castleknock. Taking the coast road to Howth, if you turn left-before Sutton, you come to one of the seedier parts of Dublin, the working-class housing estates of Kilbarrack, Greendale, and Darndale. Parts of that area are rough, increasingly drug-ridden, but not yet especially dangerous. This is Doyle’s place, real to begin with and then further imagined. Not a place I’d like to live in. Forty years ago, as a young married couple with very little money, my wife and I had to choose between a dreary little house in Kilbarrack and a small bungalow in Merville Estate, Stillorgan on the south side. We made the right choice, Stillorgan, a more salubrious district with better schools and a higher tone. But Stillorgan hasn’t inspired any writers. There are allusions to the south side in Beckett and Flann O’Brien. The railway station in Beckett’s All That Fall is Foxrock, but not as recognizably as Barrytown is Kilbarrack.
The social lineaments of Barrytown are clear. It is a place of families: normally, each of them has several children, an out-of-work father, and a put-upon mother. There are few jobs. In The Van Jimmy Rabbitte Sr., an unemployed plasterer, goes into brief partnership with his friend Bimbo to run a fish-and-chips van. They set up shop mostly outside a favorite public house in Barrytown. The year is 1990, during the soccer World Cup in which Ireland drew with England before being beaten by Italy. Closing time brings out the customers, excited, hungry, and drunk. Before and after the fish-and-chips venture, Jimmy does his poor best to support his family on the dole. In The Snapper his daughter Sharon gets pregnant after a boozy party and refuses to name the man in the case. She does not consider having an abortion:
—There’s no way I’d have an abortion, said Sharon.
—Good. You’re right.
—It is o’course.
In an average year three or four thousand Irish women go to England to have an abortion. Most of these, I gather, are middle-class town women or else country women from any class. The Dublin working class don’t seem to resort to abortions. Besides, the Single Mother’s Allowance is just as good as the wage the girl would earn in a boring, poorly paid job at the checkout in a local supermarket. The out-of-wedlock child is simply added to the family, there is one more mouth to feed, but otherwise the addition doesn’t make much difference.
Families may break up, as in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, but no other social institution in Barrytown has replaced the family. Not even the pub, the likeliest contender. Young people and their fathers go to the pub, drink, talk, laugh, and quarrel till closing time and in the intervals keep an eye on the TV set high in the corner. Making a night of it, the young ones go to the disco. Parents who stay at home watch TV, but if there’s nothing good on, they read books. In The Van the mother, Veronica, is taking night classes and studying for the Leaving Certificate. Jimmy borrows from the local library The Man in the Iron Mask and swaps it with Veronica for Lord of the Flies. In Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha Paddy’s father reads The Naked and the Dead; he brings Paddy to the lending library at Baldoyle and quotes in appreciation of his son a passage from Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village”: “And still they gazed and still their wonder grew/that one small head could carry all it knew.”
But mainly the people of Barrytown get their sense of reality from TV and the lore of rock bands. War is based on the custom of having quiz competitions in the pub, most of the questions having to do with soccer and rock, both purveyed by TV. Who won the Football Association Cup in 1958? Bolton. “Wha’ soccer team did the world famous singer from Spain, Julio Iglesias, play goalie for?” I don’t know. For about a year, Doyle himself took part in such quizzes on Monday nights in the Foxhound Inn in Kilbarrack and the Cedar Lounge in Raheny.
In the novels, mothers often stay at home to keep up with their favorite TV programs, The Fugitive, East-enders, or Thirtysomething. Fathers prefer reruns of Hawaii Five-O or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Grandmothers insist on liking The Virginian. Parents watch the news not because they want to know what’s happening outside Barrytown but because they like to ridicule newscasters and other experts. Languages get made that way. In The Van a sausage is called a dunphy because it looks like a prick and Eamon Dunphy, a soccer wiseacre on TV, is also a prick. In The Commitments Jimmy Rabbitte Jr. has the band study James Brown’s body language on video and learn what is entailed in bringing soul to Dublin:
—Where are yis from? (He answered the question himself.)—Dublin. (He asked another one.)—Wha’ part o’ Dublin? Barrytown. Wha’ class are yis? Workin’ class. Are yis proud of it? Yeah, yis are. (Then a practical question.)—Who buys the most records? The workin’ class. Are yis with me? (Not really.)—Your music should be abou’ where you’re from an’ the sort o’ people yeh come from.—Say it once, say it loud, I’m black an’ I’m proud.
They looked at him….
—The Irish are the niggers of Europe, lads….—An’ Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland…. An the northside Dubliners are the niggers o’ Dublin.—Say it loud, I’m black an’ I’m proud.
The most striking features of Barrytown in the years denoted by The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van are these: decline in the influence of the Catholic Church on working-class families; general indifference to modern Ireland and to the history of dissent and revolt from which the country slowly emerged; and incessant use of what my mother called bad language. In Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha the Clarkes still went to Mass and received Holy Communion. When a boy, Keith Simpson, was drowned in a pond, his funeral was a traditional Catholic event:
Da hugged Ma when he came home. He went up and shook hands with Keith Simpson’s ma and da at the funeral. I saw him. I was with the school; everyone in the school was there, in our good clothes. Henno made each of us say the first half of the Hail Mary and the rest joined in for the second half, and that took up the time before we were brought to the church. Ma stayed in her seat. There was a huge queue for shaking hands, down the side and around the back of the church, along the stations of the cross. The coffin was white. Some of the mass cards fell off during the Offertory. They slapped the floor. The sound was huge. The only other sounds were someone at the front sobbing and the priest’s stiff clothes, then the altar boy’s bell. And there was more sobbing.
Such a tragedy would still be marked by a Catholic funeral on the same scale, but in Doyle’s novels set in recent years, priests do not appear. Few parishioners go to Mass. The founder of Christianity is frequently invoked, but only as a residual expletive, Jaysis. Paddy Clarke thinks the best story he ever heard was the one about Father Damian and the lepers on Molokai, and he makes Sinbad play a leper, but even in 1966 it was only a game. According to The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van, there is no sense of sin in Barrytown. No one feels guilt or shame. Or even misgiving. Reality is never presented as a private experience, something to be mulled over or worried about; it is always a social situation to be negotiated at the top of one’s voice. Matters of concern to the rest of Ireland—the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force, murders in the North, Ireland’s dealings with the European Community, financial scandals in high places—are of little interest to Barrytown. The world beyond Jimmy Rabbitte’s house at 118 Chestnut Avenue, Dublin 21, has mainly televisual presence: life exists to end up on TV. There is no reason to leave Barrytown, unless you ardently want a job, since all human life comes there in a shining box. In The Van Jimmy Sr. and Bimbo break this pattern for one night. They blow their winnings on an expedition to Dublin City, visiting the smart lounges in Leeson Street, but all they discover is that the drink there is expensive and the women hard to get. They return, drunk, sad, poorer, and wise, to the Barrytown they should not have left.
Modern Ireland, its history and political life, is also a matter of indifference in Barrytown. In The Commitments Jimmy tries to raise the consciousness of his pals by telling them that rock an’ roll is about real sex and real politics:
—Rock an’ roll is all abou’ ridin’. That’s wha’ rock an’ roll means. Did yis know tha’? (They didn’t.)—Yeah, that’s wha’ the blackies in America used to call it. So the time has come to put the ridin’ back into rock an’ roll. Tongues, gooters, boxes, the works. The market’s huge.
—Wha’ abou’ this politics?
—Yeah, politics.—Not songs abou’ Fianna fuckin’ Fail or annythin’ like tha’. Real politics.
One of the quiz questions in War is: “Who said ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone. / It’s with O’Leary in the grave’?” Nobody gets it right. One contestant thinks that maybe Jack Charlton or George Hamilton said it to Jimmy Magee.
But there is a charmingly archaic scene in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in which a teacher, Miss Watkins, brings into class a tea towel with the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on it “because it was fifty years after 1916”:
It had the writing part in the middle and the seven men who’d signed it around the sides. She stuck it up over the blackboard and let us up to see it one by one.
When Paddy sees that one of the signers was Thomas J. Clarke, he says to James O’Keefe, “Thomas Clarke is my granda. Pass it on.” Meanwhile Miss Watkins reads from the Proclamation:
Irishmen and Irishwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.
That’s the last we hear of the dead generations. In Barrytown, no quarrel about Charles Stuart Parnell thwarts the Christmas cheer, such as it is. In War Bertie complains to the barman Leo that “the smell in the jacks [men’s room] is Paraic Pearse [Padraic Pearse, hero of the Easter Rising]. It’s mucho fuckin’ terrible.”
As for communication in Barrytown: in the novels, as in Brownbread and War, Doyle’s instrument is speech, he rarely mentions anything that isn’t already verbal, he doesn’t deal in landscapes, cityscapes, backgrounds, or settings. His sole context is whatever is enforced by dialogue and a short communal memory. The present tense is the only one, and it is fulfilled by speech. A visitor might insist that the truth of Barrytown is economic and political, but Doyle’s novels present that truth only when it has become hearsay, lore, and babble. People take the words of reality out of one another’s mouths. Sex is never shown, but it gets talked about. Silence is rare. Reality is expressed as the babble of living room, pub, and the streets connecting them.
From Doyle’s version of these matters you would conclude that Barrytowners have learned English only to the extent of words beginning with “f.” Gaelic literature is often ribald, and the standard expletives turn up in Ulysses, mostly in the loud mouth of the British soldier Private Carr, but there is no precedent in modern Irish literature for the vernacular of Barrytown. Every third phrase is “fuckin’ eejit,” and of the remaining two, one of them is likely to be “ye bollix.” These expletives are not necessarily mouthed in anger: often they are as routinely used as “very” or “quite” in polite societies.
Doyle’s first three novels read like extended scripts for late-night TV. He had finished The Commitments before he thought of writing a play, but the novel sounds as if he made it up after having watched many showings of Top of the Pops and MTV and wondered how a soul band might come together for a while in Barrytown and then fall apart. In November 1985 a friend of Doyle’s, Paul Mercier, invited him to attend a rehearsal of his new play, Wasters. Later, Doyle saw another of Mercier’s plays, Studs, about a Sunday-morning soccer team. These were put on in the SFX Centre, formerly the Saint Francis Xavier Hall, in north Dublin, a venue for heavy-metal bands, bingo, talent shows, auctions, and civil service examinations. The theater company was Passion Machine, assembled by Mercier, John Sutton, and John Dunne. In September 1987 Doyle wrote Brownbread for Passion Machine; it’s about three fellows who kidnap an American-born bishop. A farce, and not a very good one. War is a much better play, but it is technically difficult, complex in its movements, and needs expert acting and direction.
In the novels, and only less often in the plays, there are problems of local reference. In Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha mickey means penis, gick is excrement, spa meaning spastic is an insult, a dead leg is a numbing kick to one’s calf, eccer means school homework, and the FCA means Forsa Cosanta Áituil or the local defense force in time of war. Bits of Irish in the book are translated, but readers will be bewildered if they don’t guess that Jervis Street refers to a hospital and that Charles Mitchell was a newscaster. When Paddy threatens to have Sinbad arrested and put into the Artane Boys Band, readers need to know that the Band is a famous attribute of the Artane Industrial School, a school for juvenile offenders. In a pub scene in The Snapper Jimmy Sr. urges Paddy, one of his cronies, to “do your Michael O’Hehir”:
—Ah, for fuck sake, said Paddy.
—Not again. All o’ them horses are fuckin’ dead.
This will be clear only to readers who know that Micheál—not Michael—O’Hehir was a famous racing commentator on Radio Eireann and the BBC. When Veronica says to Jimmy Sr., “Do you think I stick St. Bernard tags and washing instructions on the jumpers when I’ve finished knitting them?” readers have to divine that St. Bernard is a trademark used by Dunne’s Stores. In War you have to know not only that Jack Charlton played with his brother Bobby for Manchester United but that he is now the occasionally triumphant manager of the Irish international team. Such obscurities don’t matter much in movies. Those who go to see The Commitments are unlikely to pick up every syllable of the dialogue, but gestures and the context make the gist of it clear enough. Opacity on the page is harder to cope with.
So far as literary origins are concerned, it is hard to say where Doyle’s novels and plays come from. Not from Yeats or Beckett. The first few pages of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha show that Doyle has learned from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man how a boy’s will appropriates reality by placing one deadpan sentence beside another:
Liam and Aidan turned down their cul-de-sac. We said nothing; they said nothing. Liam and Aidan had a dead mother. Missis O’Connell was her name.
—It’d be brilliant, wouldn’t it? I said.
—Yeah, said Kevin.—Cool.
We were talking about having a dead ma.
But Joyce’s example doesn’t otherwise bear upon Doyle’s writing. Sean O’Casey’s plays have a little more to do with them: the irreverence toward patriotism in The Plough and the Stars, for instance. But the correlation is slight. Brendan Behan’s plays are likelier precedents. The Hostage is a possible precursor of Doyle’s work; not his version in Irish, An Giall, but the music-hall knockabout show it became when Joan Littlewood put on a rough, expletive-added version of it as The Hostage in Wyndham’s Theatre, London in 1959. More recently we have had other adepts of rough verbal magic; Christy Brown’s My Left Foot, Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home, Carl Aidan Matthew’s Lipstick on the Host. Now everybody’s doing it.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is Doyle’s best novel, the one most a novel rather than an extended script for a play. It is also, for adults, the most readable. And the most touching. Tenderness keeps breaking in upon scenes otherwise grim. Paddy’s father is a slob but he is decent to the boy and when the boy comes second in his class, his father calls it “nearly first.” Mrs. Clarke tells the boy to say “television,” not “the telly,” but that admonition, too, comes with love. Clarke tries to teach Paddy a Hank Williams song:
I went down to the river
To watch the fish swim by-yy-
But I got to the river—
So lonesome I wanted to die-ee-ie
He also gives Paddy a present of the soccer star George Best’s A Pictorial History of Soccer with pictures of the greatest hits. For a while, Paddy thinks Best signed the book and that his father was in the great man’s company. In one picture Manchester United are in the European Cup Final. Pat Crerand, Frank McLintock, and Best go up for a ball. Paddy decides, on internal evidence, that it was Best who flicked the ball into the back of the net.
Paddy is growing up, learning more words, especially the bad ones. In one game Kevin plays Zentoga, high priest of the great god Ciúnas, meaning Silence, and he wallops his mates with a poker till each of them produces a satisfactorily bad word: shite, tits, diddies, and at last the big one:
Fuck was the best word. The most dangerous word. You couldn’t whisper it.
Fuck was always too loud, too late to stop it, it burst in the air above you and fell slowly right over your head. There was total silence, nothing but Fuck floating down. For a few seconds you were dead, waiting for Henno to look up and see Fuck landing on top of you. They were thrilling seconds—when he didn’t look up. It was the word you couldn’t say anywhere. It wouldn’t come out unless you pushed it. It made you feel caught and grabbed the minute you said it. When it escaped it was like an electric laugh, a soundless gasp followed by the kind of laughing that only forbidden things could make, an inside tickle that became a brilliant pain, bashing at your mouth to be let out. It was agony. We didn’t waste it.
Would a boy of ten think that, precisely? Would he think “soundless,” as elsewhere would he say “hillock”? Hardly: for once or twice, Doyle is putting words in Paddy’s mind. But nearly always the words are convincingly Paddy’s. Near the end, the fuck-words come out of him unless he pushes them back, and there is no reason to think he will push them back for long. There are fuckin’ eejits around the next corner. We are well on the way toward contemporary Ireland, or at least toward the Barrytown version of it.
February 3, 1994