In the early morning of the day that fills Ulysses, as they stand outside the Martello tower at Sandycove, Haines, the sentimental English celtophile with eyes sea-cold and imperial, tells Stephen Dedalus: “We feel in England that we have treated you rather unfairly. It seems history is to blame.” Stephen replies only with a wary silence, but history is much upon his own mind that day, like God and Shakespeare and his father. History in the large, universal sense, but more particularly the messy, contingent history of his own island. Later that morning, talking with an Ulster Protestant schoolmaster for whom that history has a very different meaning and color, he says, in words that would become memorable: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
And with those words, he set down an agenda for the succeeding century of Irish literature. At times it has been difficult to decide which has been the more nightmarish, the history or the struggle to awake from it. The world beyond—we readers—has attended to it, held in place, very much like Coleridge’s Wedding Guest, by the power of the tale told and by those special gifts of eloquence and verbal magic which it would be trite to comment upon, but which are surely aspects of that literature and products of its complicated history.
The three books here under consideration, two of them novels and one a memoir of sorts by a distinguished poet, offer variations on Stephen’s theme. Although all three have been written in the shadow of Northern Ireland’s recent three decades of violent history, they deal with it either by an almost theatrical obliqueness or else by a charged near silence. All three, although in very different ways, make use of this narrative strategy to point us to a central thematic concern—the shaping presence of history. Like Sherlock Holmes’s dog that did not howl in the night, we are directed to this concern by its silence upon the page.
Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto is partly spoken and partly written by young Paddy “Puss” Braden, a transvestite prostitute, as he negotiates, or blunders, his way through a world of corrupt and sexually ambiguous politicians, queasily lustful parish priests, gunmen, and bombers, protected only by his cheekiness and his Candide-like innocence, and expressing himself either through his own demotic speech or through his improbable gifts of ventriloquism and pastiche. The narrative unfolds first in rural Ireland and then in a lurid London lit by strobe lights in discos and, on occasion, by IRAbombs. In either setting, Puss pays little attention to history of that sort, wrapped as he is in a cocoon of pink boas, dance hall chatter, and rock lyrics.
McCabe leaves us free to infer, if we are so inclined, that Puss’s psyche has been shaped in good part by the extremity of his circumstances; he is a bastard conceived by the frantic fumblings of a parish priest upon a young servant girl and then raised in a baby farm managed by a slovenly shrew. McCabe offers us a new Ireland of the imagination—a landscape of bloody slapstick and gender-entangled grotesques. Joyce gave us something like that in the brothel episode of Ulysses, but his other episodes opened up other vistas. Poor Puss is trapped forever within his world of cheap (and carefully specified) perfume and frustrated maternal instinct, with a craving for true love as ludicrous and as affecting as that of Chaplin’s Tramp. Beyond him, as he knows but will not admit to himself save through parody, is a grudging, savage world. Small wonder then that his one image of lasting happiness is that of infinite space, as expressed in a hit song of 1969, which happens to have been the first year of the present Troubles:
Living within all the dreams you can spin
There is so much to see
We’ll visit the stars and journey to Mars
Finding our breakfast on Pluto.
The voices which Puss finds to express the near inexpressibility of violence are made available to him when a prison psychiatrist gives him notebook and paper. (Arather clumsy device, but never mind.) Here is Puss in a London disco, when the British soldier with whom he has been flirting is destroyed, along with most of the disco, by an IRA bomb:
Puss coughing a little to summon up the courage to whisper, squeaky-voiced: “Oh, yes!” and look into his eyes when one part of his head went to the left, the other part to the right and the brains which were inside to the floor pouring like scrambled egg—or so it seemed to Puss.
But here, presumably composed by Puss, but with an entirely different voice, is an account, worthy of early Hemingway, of the growing political violence back in his native Tyreelin:
Laurence, being Down’s syndrome, couldn’t pronounce his words right—which is why I called him Laurence Lebrity. No matter how he tried he just couldn’t get it right, the name of his favorite program—Celebrity Squares. I used to meet him every day and say: “I suppose you’ll be watching it tonight, will you, Laurence?”, and he’d start clapping his hands and jumping up and down. Quite what he must have made of two completely strange men standing in his living room while he was watching Bob Monkhouse reading from his cue cards, all you can say is God only knows. Nothing, I suppose. Too busy clapping his hands and going: “Lebrity Kwares! Lebrity Kwares!”
When they started asking him the questions, most likely he thought it was his own sort of private Celebrity Squares. And why, probably, he raced up the stairs so enthusiastically to get his rosary beads when they leaned in close and asked him, smiling: “What religion are you?”
Which they were happy to accept as an answer, and why, after they had raped his mother, they put the beads around his neck as a garland and said: “Clap your hands for Celebrity Squares!” which he did, as enthusiastically as ever.
He was the first Down’s syndrome boy shot in the Northern Ireland war. The first in Tyreelin, anyway.
This swatch of prose, a little chapter of its own, depends for its effect upon a skillful use of the laconic; it would seem well beyond Puss’s natural language, of which he is proud. This leans toward the jazzy and flamboyant, and would be unlikely to tuck away a rape in an uninflected subordinate clause. What might be called the book’s running style is a joining of two distinct dialects—a rural Irish version of international Youthspeak, demotic and fizzy, and, for purposes of parodic mockery, the language of Catholic Ireland’s official sensibility—sentimental, saccharine, and hypocritical. Between them, they contrive to express his own wretched yet appealing self.
Tyreelin, a stand-in for McCabe’s own town of Clones, a mile or so south of the border, was in the Seventies to acquire a reputation as “bandit country,” a staging area for conflict. Such matters do not intrude deeply into Puss’s rock’n’roll consciousness. A chum of his becomes a hopelessly inept rebel and is bumped off by his comrades. One of his married lovers, a free-spending politician who runs guns, perhaps for both sides, is executed by explosion. The IRA and its adversaries have the unimportance of the white legs of the drowning Icarus in Breughel’s painting. Even landmark events—the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry by British paratroops—float at the edges of his memory, helping him with dates.
Not that Puss lacks passion: he hates his father, the frightened lecher who helped bring him into the world. And he longs for the mother whom he imagines to resemble Mitzi Gaynor with her bubble-cut. He dreams, when his sanity is at its farthest stretch, of his own coming motherhood. He half understands that his makeup and his feminine finery, his fan magazines from the Fifties, the loud music which releases the most true of his responses, all serve to insulate him from the awful actualities of his life. So too does his tone and attitude: wide stretches of the novel are genuinely hilarious.
His story opens with an account of the distressing circumstances of his conception, in the rectory of the church:
It was a beautiful crisp Christmas morning. All across the little village which lay nestled on the southern side of the Irish border, one could sense an air of tense but pleasurable expectancy. Already the small birdies, as if conscious of the coming mood of celebration and acceptable self-indulgence which was so much a part of the much-loved season, had begun their carefully co-ordinated invasions, their industrious beaks like so many arrowheads stiletto-jabbing the frosted gold-tops of the early-morning milk bottles. Even at this early hour, there are one or two children playing—cork guns being proudly displayed and nurses’ uniforms flaunted in so many minx-like parades…. Already, the beloved pastor of this parish, Father Bernard McIvor, will be busying himself inside his sacristy.
It is not easy to write this badly. “Small birdies”pushes the envelope, but “acceptable self-indulgence” is masterly, capturing the precise tone of unctuous inanity used in the Catholic magazines which Puss, for the moment, is parodying. But the tone shifts with the next sentence: “Donning the starched vestments which, it would later be the contention of an ill-informed psychiatrist, were partly responsible for his son’s attraction to the airy apparel of the opposite sex.”And we are informed within the paragraph that it was on a Christmas morning and in this sacristy that Father Bernard “inserted his excitable pee pee into the vagina of a woman who was so beautiful she looked not unlike Mitzi Gaynor the well-known film star.” It was at that moment that the priest made possible Puss’s existence while simultaneously sentencing him to Christmases not of popguns and festive song but of “Ma Whiskers” at the baby farm shouting: “Come over here and pull this fucking cracker till we get this fucking Christmas finished with!”
The abrupt down-tumble of the diction exemplifies one of the novel’s central devices—the clash between one or another of Ireland’s constricting gentilities and the sordid actuality which it conceals. Or rather, which it used to conceal. The present public scandals of fornicating bishops and pedophile priests suggest not an increase of clerical libido but rather a readiness to publicize such matters within a culture belatedly undergoing a process of secularization. McCabe’s casual readiness to mock such tribal taboos is itself a part of that process and one which he shares with most of the large and growing company of contemporary Irish writers. His own well-earned critical success however (twice a Booker Prize finalist and a winner of the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literature Prize) is a consequence of a ferocious moral vision joined with dazzling technical skills.
His books are skillful exercises in the macabre and the horrific, as may be judged from the instances quoted here, although in fact Puss Braden is a fairly normal McCabe character, flighty it may be thought, but quick-witted and socially observant. The central characters in those books by which he gained a popular following, The Butcher Boy (1992) and The Dead School (1995), are not reading for the delicate. In the earlier of these, we observe the transformation of the narrator from the impoverished and outcast child in the Ireland of the Sixties into obsessed killer, while remaining fairly cheerful. It is as though Stephen King had learned how to write.
McCabe’s mode is that which we have agreed to call black humor, and reviewers have employed the vocabulary appropriate to it: “so very funny as well as being heartbreakingly sad,” “horrific and hilarious.” But the effects described by such an oxymoron are not all that difficult to achieve. What makes McCabe’s works so impressive is the use to which they are put, the genuine and traditional target of satire, the distortions worked upon a society by the manifold powers of hypocrisy and self-deception.
The spiritual crises generated in Ireland in the Eighties and Nineties were not consequences, or at least not direct consequences, of the war in the North. The Ireland which emerged out of its first period of at least partial independence (1922-1969) ran smack against the powers of cultural modernization. For this all of the usual suspects (or saviors, depending on point of view) were rounded up, including television from Britain and cheap holiday flights to the topless beaches of Mallorca. What has happened is the partial erosion of the breathtaking authority once wielded in Ireland by the Catholic Church and the even deeper erosion suffered by the apparatus of cultural nationalism, which since the days of rebellion had provided the country with what passed as political ideology.It was a heady mix of martyr-worship, a passionate love of the Irish West (most often indulged with a reluctance to live there), traditional music, and the Irish language, and, above all else, the certainty that Catholicism and Irish patriotism were indissolubly wedded. Protestants were admitted with a cheerful warmth; their allegiance to the state offered evidence of the magnetic powers of Irish nationalism. But that very nationalism, like much else, is destined to go the way of the tooth fairy. It is in a new Ireland, torn between nostalgia and a contempt for nostalgia, that novelists like Patrick McCabe work.
If Puss Braden seems likely to survive only as “a silly old hopeless Norman Bates of history,” then the protagonist of Sebastian Barry’s The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty would seem to bear the weight, shadowy but heavy, of a far more ancient lineage. It is never made clear to him how he acquired so portentous a name as that of Virgil’s purposeful wanderer, but two other legends, specifically Irish, he accepted as truth during his childhood in Sligo, a rain-battered commercial town on the western coast. He and his father stand by the window of their John Street house, looking out toward the ruins of the Lungey House, where, the father tells him, the family had once lived, prosperous merchants who shipped butter to the continent. By a more powerful legend, beneath their present hearthstone, upon which the mother likes to dance, lies buried gold from one of the Armada ships shattered upon their coast. The family does not believe such stories, not really, but they are pleasant fables. In truth, the father, although he has a passion for music, is a tailor who stitches suits for the inmates of the lunatic asylum, as the mother once did for the women there.
The boy grows up pleasantly enough, a dreamy home-loving boy, until his one close friend, Jonno Lynch, a wild outcast lad put out to fosterage, shows him how to steal apples from the trim garden of the Presbyterian minister, and how to get sexual satisfaction from precocious girls. A child of the century, when the war breaks out he is fourteen, and when he is old enough he sets out to take part in it. “There is a frightful, some would say a peculiar love among the men of Sligo for the land of France, it is an old feeling that has survived.” He feels nothing, when he hears of it, toward those Irish who in 1916 have rebelled in Dublin, or toward the English, although he feels an odd loyalty, which will prove calamitous, toward the English king, who is king also of Ireland. In the event, it is the British Merchant Navy that he joins, having traveled to an English port through “the privacy and ease of the Protestant counties” of the North. He does not get to France, not then, and he spends his war carrying machine parts out of Galveston.
He returns home to an Ireland where jobs for ex-seamen are scarce, and where the countryside is preparing for guerrilla warfare against the forces of the Crown; in the first instance, against the Royal Irish Constabulary. For lack of anything better, he joins the RIC, and is plunged into dangers and moral ambiguities unknown on the Galveston run. The decision is fatal, both in the present and in the future. The RIChas been, for almost a century, the British first line of defense. An armed force, stationed throughout the island, its ranks are heavily Catholic, so that the coming conflict will have aspects of a civil war. And certainly a dirty war, of ambushes and killings on lonely roads. Eventually, the RIC ranks are whittled down, and partially replaced by tough but undisciplined veterans from England, nicknamed the Black and Tans, who are about to earn a reputation for savagery, rape, and torture.
Eneas, by a combination of luck and simple decency, manages to escape the ugliness—of which both sides are guilty—but in Sligo he is marked down for retribution. A shadow rebel government, there as elsewhere, has come into existence, with his boyhood chum Jonno Lynch as one of its gunmen, and a long-headed businessman named Stephen O’Dowd as its local commandant. When “peace” breaks out, it is followed by a vicious civil war which pits recent rebel comrades against each other. Eneas, with a death sentence hanging over him, flees to England, and spends the next twenty years with the herring boats there. Nothing much happens to him, we assume, because we hear little of those years. But the autumn of 1939 finds Eneas at loose ends and France soon to become again a battlefield.
This summary of half the novel says nothing about why it is so brilliant and so strange a book. Like all good historical novels, it is less about historical events than about history itself, working upon time. The theme has found Barry his style. It licenses him to employ a curious voice, one which commands an elegance which at times comes close to inflation, but wedded to the cadences of ordinary Irish country speech. And one which allows him to approach Irish history from an odd angle of vision.
Frank McCourt tells us on the jacket: “Sebastian Barry is a minstrel of a novelist. He could stand at any street corner in the English-speaking world and chant his book, and his hat would overflow in no time with dollars, punts, pounds…. His novel is about history, Irish history, the history that never lets you off the hook. But it’s that language that seduces you—elegant, comical, tragical, musical. It’s a symphony of a novel and you’ll sing along and wander with Eneas into the next century.” It is a judgment generous in intention but misleading in its effect. The image conjured up is that of an early Jack Yeats print—a ballad singer in frieze jacket and raveled scarf, leaning against a rainy rustic street corner. And at odds therefore with Barry’s art, which does indeed employ such icons of Irish romanticism, but casts upon them a wary and sardonic eye.
Fintan O’Toole is far closer to the mark, although he is writing not about this first novel by Barry, but rather of the plays by which Barry established his Dublin and London reputation:
Sebastian Barry’s plays are about history, but not history in any obvious or familiar sense…. The sense of both time and place in these plays is very much that of the late twentieth century. Sebastian Barry writes from a perspective in which both the grand narrative of history and the stability of Ireland as a place are falling apart.
The novel carries forward historical themes developed in Barry’s plays. In The Steward of Christendom (1995),* a man of seventy-five, Thomas Dunne, is in his long johns in a county home, awaiting the stitching of his final suit. As he lies on his cot, he drifts in and out of sanity, and is visited by scenes and people from his past. His warders are decent enough, although ready when needed with club and straitjacket.
Once he had been a splendidly uniformed Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, the highest rank which a Catholic could then attain. And, on a fateful day in 1922, he was required to turn over Dublin Castle to Michael Collins, the victorious general of the underground army, thus in fact ending his own career, and, in symbol, British rule in Ireland.
We come to know what had been his life with extraordinary fullness when its pieces are put together out of his mind-rambling visions. A country lad out to seek pensionable respectability in the city, and retaining to the end, as the richest of his memories, images of hillside and farm, barn and barnyard. Apprenticeship into the police as into a chivalric order, swearing his fealty to the City of Dublin, which he guards, and to his Empire and its Queen, later his King.
The play creates a haunting and resonant image of a man stripped first of his authority, then of his identity, finally of his clothes. Playwrights of an earlier generation might have given him at best a chilly sympathy as a peasant bamboozled by the colonizer into policing his own people. Dunne is shaped with greater complexity, a man who earns both our admiration and our pity, without Barry’s ever losing sight of his limitations of vision, his willed blindness to the ways in which his people are discriminated against, patronized, kept away from full power. His role, as he sees it, has been to serve his King by keeping order in the streets of the city, sweeping lawbreakers from these streets, whether they be pimps or hooligans or James Larkin’s rioting workers. As O’Toole well says: “The country in Thomas Dunne’s disordered head is a lost land, somewhere between Dublin and London, an English Ireland that has disappeared beneath the waves of revolution.”
More than one Ireland has disappeared beneath those or earlier waves. Lost cities and drowned warriors were subjects in Irish verse of an earlier century. But Barry’s special time is the nineteenth century and onward into the present. His enterprise has been the imaginative rediscovery of lost or alternative possibilities. In The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty he has broadened his canvas in ways unavailable in the theater. Or so one assumes; he is a writer of great resourcefulness. In the novel, he is bound by time—Eneas is exactly the age of the century. But language widens his field of reference.
Eneas seems a kind of antitype to the Virgilian Aeneas, lacking all of that hero’s sense, despite reluctance, of destiny and mission. But the novel’s music—it is a lyrical book—has its own tones and its own tears, derived, as with Virgil, not from the hero’s character, but from what the text says about him and what it implies. Eneas himself is a cheerful fellow, open to experience and occasionally even hoping for the best, but dat ole debbil History is after him, relentless and purposeless.
The novel’s use of imagery, and even of color, especially contrasts of sunlight and darkness, seems mannered at times, but at last we see its purpose. I only began underlining the word “dark” when Ibecame aware of the purposes it was serving. Some of the veterans serving with the Black and Tans are elegant men, with shining accents, but some are “terrible dark boys from the worst back-alleys of England,” and the most murderous and sadistic of them “comes from the dark north of England and killed seven Germans in a bomb hold somewhere in the muddy wastes of the Somme.” But the word is used with political impartiality. Eneas, in the RIC, encounters equally murderous IRA gunmen, “some of the bould men themselves, some of the heroes of Athlone the dark men of freedom.” One of them takes a gun from his “coat of darkness.” Much later, after the British disaster at Dunkirk, Eneas is at last in France, but on the run and in hiding. “Oftentimes in dreams he sees dark men of Sligo, dark fellows in black coats, O’Dowd and his cronies, following him, looking for him across the terrain of dreams.” Clearly, darkness and dark men foretell or carry with them a fatality, whether for himself or for his circumstances. The strangest instance is a time in the Thirties when Eneas, at sea with the herring fleet, sees a great ship taking an unlikely course, and at its railings, hundreds of people, looking out silently on every side, port and starboard. And they seem to him “dark-clothed and infinitely sober, like prisoners beyond reprieve, like children being ferried far from hearth and happiness.”
Barry does not give the year—he has maddeningly few dates—or an exact location. But we know from the action, as it proceeds, that this is the Saint Louis, a passenger ship loaded with Jews which an indifferent and hypocritical world sent from country to country, looking for one that will accept them. Now they have been turned away from the port of Dublin, and are headed for Southampton. Eneas, who has been hunted once and will be hunted again, feels a bond with them, “dark men, dark women, dark children at the rails.” It is one of those moments when Barry widens his focus to include the wide world, or at least Europe, and if here it seems at once sorrowing and theatrical, it suggests the range of Barry’s imagination of “the huge silent racket of history.”
“Hearth” is, for both Eneas and the classical Aeneas, a sacred word; it keeps drawing him back to Sligo, although he knows the town will be his death, one way or another. When he does at last get home to his parents and his brothers—one of these is now Lord Mayor, and the other a major in the wartime British army—he falls afoul of his two old enemies, the near-ultimate “dark men,” O’Dowd and Jonno, and is sent again on his travels. He comes to rest, finally, back in England at the Isle of Dogs, where he buys with his British army pension a small lodging house for men like himself, mariners, old, homeless, stateless, nationless. There he settles in, as does an old friend from his days working in Lagos—a black man named Harcourt, who, like Eneas, has fallen afoul of his country’s liberators, who to Harcourt are “dark as lice, as secret as birds.”
Now the book’s pattern is revealed: it has been about Ireland, but also about the modern condition of being denied home and identity in the name of freedom and liberation. Other men may have other, happier fates, but this is theirs. As they tell each other their stories, it is difficult to tell which of them has endured the more. Harcourt has been forced to watch as his father is gutted and then stuffed with oatmeal. They grow old together, until at last Eneas and his century are seventy. The old trouble has broken out at home, in the North this time, but just across the border from Sligo. Eneas is expecting the dark men when they come for him in their dark suits.
It is wonderful and a wonderfully strange book by a fine writer—too ambitious, perhaps, at times too portentous about history and Ireland, but in these times ambition is too rare to require apology.
In The Star Factory, the Belfast poet Ciaran Carson, unlike Barry and McCabe, works with small details, seized seemingly at random and, so he would have us believe, a wandering mind, seizing upon this detail and then that. His subject is the city in which he grew up and the instruments with which he now reexamines it, old photographs, newspaper clippings, his father’s talk. His ultimate intention is to convey his affection for a city which had once been great, which once had been the world’s sixth largest industrial city but which, even in his childhood, was in its inevitable economic decline. It was in decline long before the present Troubles, although they have not helped, turning sections into battlegrounds for troopers and gunmen, blocking streets with burned-out motorcars. But the book is not about those Troubles, although they take their place in his design. Carson, as his “Christian name” would tell any Irishman, comes from the once-oppressed Catholic community, but his book is not about that either.
In intention, and perhaps even a small bit in method, it is closer to Proust than to Barry. Carson can take a detail as small as a chestnut or a ticket stub and evoke from it an existence larger than itself, linking it to another, and then another, seemingly forever. Not that Belfast does not have also its huge symbols, such as the Titanic, built entirely in that city and entirely by Protestant workers. Carson does not trouble to use so celebrated and perhaps portentous a fact (although my own grandmother, out of Northern Ireland and safe in America, was of the opinion that the iceberg was God’s way of giving fair warning). His details chosen from the mountainous dust heap of Titanic fact and legend are small and resonant. So, too, with his use of the Star Factory, an abandoned mill about which have accumulated legends that have been turned by time into portents. Carson speaks of the “wormhole of memory” and his imagination has become adept at moving down it.
It is inaccurate, perhaps, to speak of The Star Factory as engaging Joyce’s nightmare of history as directly as do the novels of Barry and McCabe. For one thing, it is not a novel and is in danger of being described as a memoir, a currently fashionable crossbreed with a sinister ability to debauch both fiction and fact simultaneously. Call it rather a meditation upon time, memory, and the city. Or perhaps it is the way Carson has found to combat history’s nightmare.
Since the Sixties, Ireland has had a thriving renaissance in poetry and theater. And now, in the Nineties, in prose as well. Perhaps Haines was right: perhaps history is to blame.
April 22, 1999