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.”
This, then, was the world in which Rory’s son set his novels, a world in which there was no mention of the struggle for independence or its legacy, and no mention of the conflict in Northern Ireland, at its most intense in the years the novels were published, and no mention of the Catholic Church. It was a world stripped of the props which readers most associated with Ireland, and filled instead with rock ‘n’ roll, much wit and shouting, and sex and swearing and soccer. It could have been Liverpool or Birmingham or Manchester, except for something absolutely central to it, which was the spirit of the city which everyone who knew Dublin recognized. Making this image of the city popular, almost official, as Doyle did in these years, was a seriously political project in a country whose self-image was rural and Catholic and conservative and nationalist. In doing this, Doyle came in a distinguished line of Irish novelists who sought to reinvent Ireland, from Joyce, who placed a Jewish hero in his irreverent capital city in Ulysses in 1922, to John Banville, who made Irish history into a great burlesque and a set of comic sequences in Birchwood fifty years later. The novelists sought to reassemble the nation.
In 1999, in his novel A Star Called Henry, Roddy Doyle came to deal for the first time with the nationalism of his grandparents and the heritage and history which provide the background to Rory & Ita; he made an effort to apply his comic skills to the lives of his grandparents. Henry, his hero, who plays a crucial part in most events in Irish history, is also a Dubliner who comes in contact with the members of the nationalist movement:
They hated anyone or anything from Dublin. Dublin was too close to England; it was where the orders and cruelty came from…. Ireland was everywhere west of Dublin, the real people were west, west, west, as far west as possible, on the islands, the rocks off the islands, speaking Irish and eating wool…they were more Irish than I was; they were nearer to being the pure thing.
Rory & Ita quietly and subtly dramatizes the lure of this Dublin life and its softening effect on the nationalists who settled in the city after independence. Rory did not join the Fianna Fáil party because of his nationalist sympathies; he said he
became involved in Fianna Fáil because I was born into Fianna Fáil. I never joined; I was born into it. I never joined and I never left. My father was one of the Republicans who followed de Valera when he founded the party in 1926…. Anyone who belongs to Fianna Fáil, just look at them; they don’t need a card—they are who they are.
Fianna Fáil has managed since 1926 to be many things to many people. It soaked up nationalist energies, diverted the old brigade from fighting wars into fighting elections. In theory, it sought to restore Gaelic as the national language, to reunify Ireland, and to represent the lower middle class and the small farmers, but slowly it put most of its energy into staying in power. It began to represent big business and corruption. Nowadays, as the main party in a coalition government, it supports both the United Nations and the American war effort at the same time; it manages to offer allegiance to both Brussels and Boston. My father, who was a staunch member, having also been “born into it,” always said that if you voted for the opposition, your right hand would wither away. He too believed that you could tell a Fianna Fáil person by looking at them. He, like Rory, put enormous energy into election campaigns and derived great pleasure from winning them. “Election campaigns are highly emotional—soaring adrenaline and non-stop hard work,” Rory says. In 1977, Rory set about organizing the campaign to replace Conor Cruise O’Brien, who was a Labour member of the Irish parliament, with a Fianna Fáil candidate. “I’m sure he was a charming man to meet, but I never did meet him, and we took his seat,” he says.
Rory manages to be charming also, and mild-mannered and funny. Like many other ordinary members of Fianna Fáil, he embodies a certain low-key decency, excited by local rivalry as much as large ideologies, lacking zealotry. These are the very qualities which make the party very difficult to unseat. Even those of us who, despite being “born into the party,” loathe its politics, find it hard to dislike its actual members. This makes killing your Fianna Fáil father a rather onerous task; Roddy Doyle has been wise, perhaps, to try to do it to his with kindness.
Despite Fianna Fáil’s interest in restoring Gaelic as the national language, neither Rory nor Ita took the matter too seriously. When Rory bought a new suit of Donegal tweed he wondered if he might be mistaken “for one of those Gaelic League people who went around talking Irish out loud. I wasn’t talking Irish out loud but I was going around in this lovely suit, and enjoying myself.” So too Ita and her friends, when they were ignored at an Irish traditional dance, “ended up dancing with each other and more or less jeering and sneering at the Irish zealots around us.”
The father of the writer Hugo Hamilton also went around in the same streets and attended the same dances during the same years as Rory and Ita. But he did so, his son tells us in The Speckled People, “talking Irish out loud” and becoming one of the “Irish zealots” sneered at by Ita. Unlike the Doyles, who brought merely their deep affections and modest ambitions into the domestic sphere, Hugo Hamilton’s father in The Speckled People carried his politics into the house, burdened his family with his fierce views on Ireland, and made the home into a state under siege.
Hugo Hamilton, who was born in 1953, published his first three novels in the early 1990s. They were set in Germany, where his mother came from, and dealt with the large subjects of history and treachery and memory. The tone was stylish and restrained and ironic, the drama subtle. It was as though his own upbringing in the Dublin middle-class suburbs in the years when nothing happened did not seem in itself worthy of his attention, being too quiet and settled, too contented perhaps to be useful to a novelist interested in large historical and political subjects. His two subsequent novels, set in the Dublin underworld, served to confirm that his own comfortable background did not offer him material for fiction.
A happy childhood may make good citizens, but it is not a help for those of us facing a blank page. In 1996, Hamilton published a story, seven pages long, called “Nazi Christmas” in a collection called Dublin Where the Palm Trees Grow. It told a story that was so unbelievable that it could not have been made up. The three Dublin children in the story with a German mother are harassed by their neighbors. “It began with the man in the fish shop saying ‘Achtung!’ and all the customers turning around to look at us.” As the family in the story appear in public: “There was something about us that made people laugh, or whisper, or stop along the street quite openly to ask the most bizarre questions; something that stuck to us like an electronic tag.” Soon the children are attacked and beaten up.
The story was written in that distant style which Hamilton used in his first three novels, where all judgment is withheld and the emotion, coiled and ready to spring, is buried in the coolness of the tone. His memoir The Speckled People, which has been a best seller in Ireland, has that same masterfully suppressed rage. It is as artful and deliberate in its textured use of voice as Roddy Doyle’s book is intentionally artless. The world here is viewed through the eyes of a child who does not judge, merely details and describes. But each detail and each description convey enormous and carefully measured levels of buried emotion and blocked-out pain.
Language itself has been the ground of the child’s suffering, not only the language of his mother, which causes the events of “Nazi Christmas” to be retold here as memoir, but the English language itself, which the father has decided his children should not speak or listen to, even though it is the only language spoken in their Dublin suburb. The father wishes his children to speak and hear Irish, and in order to fulfill these wishes he will need to keep them away from the outside world, from radio and television and popular music and playmates. He will also need to mold them according to the ideology which he has decided to bring home, unsoftened by the atmosphere all around him, by the city of Dublin in all its diversity, but also by the spirit of compromise which took over from the revolutionary spirit in Ireland as soon as the British departed.
The debate between Hamilton and his father is the same debate as occurs between Gabriel Conroy and Miss Ivors in James Joyce’s story “The Dead.” When Miss Ivors encourages Gabriel to go to the west of Ireland on his holidays, Gabriel tells her that he wishes to go to the European continent instead, “partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.” When she challenges him with “And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with—Irish?” he replies, “Well, if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language.” Finally, she accuses him of being a “West Briton.”
In his memoir, Hamilton adopts the style of Stephen Dedalus in the early pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which the world is described through the eyes of a child: “When you’re small you’re like a piece of white paper with nothing written on it,” he writes.
My father writes down his name in Irish and my mother writes down her name in German and there’s a blank space left over for all the people outside who speak English…. My father says your language is your home and your country is your language and your language is your flag.
The Hamiltons, an island of non-English speakers in a West British city, imported Aine, a servant from the west of Ireland, whose tasks included the speaking of Irish, which is her first language, to the children. “What good is that to them?” Aine asked when Hamilton’s mother insisted that she speak only Irish to them. That is the question which haunts any account of the slow decline in the use of the Irish language over the past two centuries. “Irish doesn’t sell the cow,” is the reason advanced why the language was simply abandoned in favor of English by family after family until it was spoken as a first language by a small number of people along the west coast of Ireland.
“By the late 1970s,” the historian J.J. Lee writes in Ireland, 1912–1985: Politics and Society, “the population of the real Gaeltacht [the area in the west where Irish was spoken]…was calculated to be only 32,000, compared with more than ten times that number at the foundation of the state.” The official Gaeltacht was, during all these years, much larger than the real one. In the late 1980s, when a friend of mine made a journey through the parts of Ireland officially designated Irish-speaking, he found that the most mountainous regions of County Kerry, completely uninhabited, were marked as Irish-speaking by the government. He supposed that the rain came down in Irish and the wind blew in that language, and when snow began to descend it changed its name to sneachta as it hit the ground. But there was no one listening.
No historian of the language’s decline has managed to explain why those who wished to sell cows did not simply become bilingual, why so many abandoned the language utterly and completely. The economic argument, Joe Lee has written, would
strictly speaking…explain the acquisition of English, but not the loss of Irish, unless it be assumed that Irish brains were too small to accommodate two languages, or that the Irish were simply too lazy, or too utilitarian, to be bothered with the less materially useful one…. The burden of the small language did not suffice to prevent Sweden, or Norway, or the Netherlands, or Flanders, from exporting successfully to Britain, from growing more rapidly than Britain since the late nineteenth century, and from overtaking British living standards in the course of the twentieth century.
Lee suggests that one reason why Ireland adopted English with such zeal had to do with the sheer intensity of emigration to both Britain and the United States from the time of the Great Famine. Parents needed to do something radical to prepare their children for separation. It is also possible that the levels and grades of poverty were so enormously varied and so minutely structured—and knowledge of Irish was associated with poverty—that abandoning the language was a way of moving upward, however strangely and imperceptively.
In the years after independence, while Irish remained associated with poverty in the west, in the rest of the country it became associated with school, with long hours of a grammar badly taught and only half-understood by some of the teachers, with politicians beginning and ending their dull speeches with a few words of the language. “The children,” Joe Lee writes, “were given no incentive to master Irish as a living language, only as a dead one. The charade of Irish language tests for public employment, when everyone knew the language would hardly ever be used again…inevitably left its mark.” Irish, for those who knew it and loved it, was, in the words of Arland Ussher,
the great language of conversation, of quips, hyperboles, cajoleries, lamentations, blessings, cursings, endearments, tirades. Its unsuspected rhythm had even given an intimate and personal quality to the great Irish writers of English. It was the winged word in its flight that was beautiful. Stuffed and mounted on the page of a school book, it stank.
Thus when Roddy Doyle’s father wanted to be made permanent in his state job as a teacher, finding himself “the only man in Ireland qualified” for a vacancy to teach printing, having both the experience as a printer and the technical knowledge, he had to do an Irish test, although all his teaching would be done in English. When it came to the oral part and he was not doing too well, the examiner said to him, “‘What is this at all? Sure, any of the labouring men down in Connemara can speak Irish.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t you get them to teach printing?’ At that, he hit the table a belt of his fist, nearly broke it, and I was thrown out.” Rory got the job only on the insistence of a trade unionist who said: “The apprentices are sent to the school by their employers to learn printing, not fuckin’ Irish. My man is fully qualified to teach printing, and if that man isn’t reinstated, you won’t have any apprentices next Monday.” Such were the battles fought for strange freedoms by the first generation to be born in the Irish Free State.
At more or less the same time in another part of the city, Hugo Hamilton’s brother Franz had learned some words of English and was innocently singing them to himself as their father was digging in the garden. The father “hit him on the back of the head so that Franz fell off the wall and his face went down on the bricks. When he got up, there was blood all around on his nose and mouth.” His nose was broken.
My father said he was very sorry, but the rules had to be obeyed. He said that Franz was speaking English again and that had to stop. Then my mother and father had no language at all. My father went outside again and my mother brought Franz upstairs. Even when the blood stopped, he was still crying for a long time and my mother was afraid that he would never start talking again.
Hugo, too, brought English words into the house. When he repeated a line from a popular advertisement, his father picked out a stick from the greenhouse and prayed “that he was doing the right thing for Ireland. We kneeled down and asked God how many lashes he thought was fair and my father said fifteen.” Since the children could be punished for listening to English, even if spoken by neighboring children, then playmates had to be imported from the few like-minded families in the city:
Even they thought it was stupid to play in Irish and didn’t want to come back again, even for the biscuits. You couldn’t be cowboys in Irish. You couldn’t sneak up behind somebody or tie somebody up to a chair in Irish. It was no fun dying in Irish. And it was just too stupid altogether to hide behind something and say “Uuuggh” or “hands up” in Irish, because there were some things you could only do in English, like fighting and killing Indians.
Thus Stephen Dedalus’s famous musings on the relationship between Ireland and the English language are subverted and played with. When Stephen encounters the English dean of studies in Dublin, he notes:
His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.
By the end of the book, however, Stephen discovers that the disputed word “tunish,” which the Englishman had never heard in his life and knows only as “funnel,” is not an Irish word at all: “I looked it up and find it English and good old blunt English too. Damn the dean of studies and his funnel! What did he come here for to teach us his own language or to learn it from us. Damn him one way or the other.” And in Samuel Beckett’s play All That Fall, the questions surrounding Irish and English are offered further mocking glosses. When Mr. Rooney in the play says to his wife, “Sometimes one would think that you were struggling with a dead language,” Mrs. Rooney replies, “Well, you know, it will be dead in time, just like our own poor dear Gaelic, there is that to be said.”
“The relationship between language and national identity is notoriously complex,” Joe Lee writes:
Without language, only the most unusual historical circumstances suffice to develop a sense of identity. Those unusual circumstances existed in Ireland for perhaps two centuries. As that phase broadly characterized by the reality, or the memory, of an obtrusive imperial presence, of a national revival, of a struggle for independence, draws to a close, the importance of the lost language as a distinguishing mark becomes more rather than less evident. As circumstances normalize, only the husk of identity is left without the language.
Perhaps the importance of Roddy Doyle’s Rory & Ita, besides the efforts to revive domestic bliss as a lost subject for Irish writers, is to suggest that Irish identity in a time of normality is almost miraculously and unselfconsciously intact, so much so indeed that neither Rory nor Ita has occasion to mention it, nor the reader to notice either its significant absence or its obvious presence. It is simply there in how they think and speak, how they remember, how they live. It is part of Roddy Doyle’s tact that he does not draw any attention to this, but he is too political a writer not to having deliberately left it like that.
“It is,” Joe Lee continues, “unusual for descendants of a destroyed culture to join in the disparagement of a lost language. It smacks of a parricidal impulse.” It does indeed. It offers Hugo Hamilton a whole new way to kill his father, not only by telling the story of his own persecution in the name of the destroyed culture, and his telling of his discovery of anti-Semitic articles, written by his father in 1946, in the bottom of a wardrobe, but by doing so in an English sonorous and refined, perfectly modulated and molded. And in a final chapter he can struggle with language until he has it by the throat, and offer one more blow for Irish freedom: he can describe his father’s death with some of the same conjuror’s relish as the young Alexander pictures his stepfather’s death in Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander. Hamilton’s father was stung by bees, who reenact rather more violently what he has been doing subtly in his book:
Maybe my father was not meant to be a beekeeper. Maybe he wasn’t calm enough to be a father. Maybe the bees knew he was still fighting and thinking about the time when he was a boy and nobody liked him except for his mother. Maybe they could feel anger in the air from the time when Ireland was still under the British, or when Ireland was free but could remember nothing but being under the British. Maybe they could smell things like helpless anger, because they kept trying to kill him.
When the father ran out into the street, screaming in Irish, the “neighbors ran back into their houses because they were scared of bees and scared of the Irish language.” Soon afterward, he died of a heart attack. “People said there was nobody like my father left in Ireland now,” Hamilton comments. His tone is held so carefully in check that the reader is not sure whether to laugh or to cry. But, either way, it is clear that on his father’s death, one of the last and strangest vestiges of the Irish revolutionary spirit was laid to rest.
June 12, 2003