On St. Patrick’s Day, 1943, Éamon de Valera, Ireland’s prime minister and founding father, gave what his biographer Diarmaid Ferriter has uncontroversially called “the most famous broadcast of any Irish politician of the twentieth century.” “The ideal Ireland,” de Valera began,
would be…a land whose countryside would be bright with cozy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry…and the laughter of happy maidens…. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live…. It was the idea of such an Ireland—happy, vigorous, spiritual—that…made successive generations of patriotic men give their lives to win religious and political liberty.
Thirty years into Roddy Doyle’s career, it doesn’t feel much of an exaggeration to suggest that his fiction represents—consciously or otherwise—a systematic, almost clause-by-clause dismantling of de Valera’s vision.
For one thing, de Valera’s Ireland apparently consisted only of countryside, fields, and villages, with no mention of such un-Gaelic monstrosities as cities. Yet Doyle has always been, very deliberately, a Dublin writer. “I think Dublin is more significant to me than my country,” he once said. “If a Dublin passport existed, I’d want one of them, really.” Early in his first novel, The Commitments (1987), the lead character made the bracing, if now slightly awkward, declaration that “the Irish are the niggers of Europe…. An’ Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland. The culchies [derogatory slang for rural people] have fuckin’ everythin’.”
The Commitments, together with the two novels that followed, The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991), all feature the cheerfully foulmouthed Rabbitte family; all were made into films; and they quickly established Doyle as a writer who combined wide popular appeal with enough critical respect for The Van to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. They also established the ability of his seemingly (but only seemingly) unvarnished prose—with its preference for short sentences, its heavy reliance on dialogue, and all that swearing—to provide rich and sympathetic character studies.
Despite occasional hints of the darker themes to come, these books were essentially celebrations of working-class Dublin life. They even contained plenty of the laughter of happy maidens—if possibly not the kind of maidens that de Valera had in mind. In The Snapper, for example, one young woman provokes female hilarity by remarking of her ex, “I’d shag the Elephant Man before I’d let him go near me again, the prick.” In its own way, too, the Rabbittes’ homestead was distinctly cozy—although the family’s expressions of love might not necessarily have met with de Valera’s approval either. “I think you’re fuckin’ great,” Jimmy Sr. tells his twenty-five-year-old son at one particularly tender moment in The Van. “You’re not a bad oul’ cunt yourself,” Jimmy Jr. replies.
But as it turned out, Doyle’s homesteads wouldn’t stay cozy for long. In 1993 came Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, set in 1968 and narrated by a…
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