by Anne Simpson

Bloomin’ Ireland

May 13, 2010 | by Anne Simpson

A nation which had historically hated absentee landlords had become that very thing, the newly rich surging to scoop up luxury apartment in Croatia, Bulgaria and Prague.

Wedged between the chic cafes at the top of West-land Row, the narrowest shop doorway in Dublin opened beneath a sign announcing Sweny, pharmacist and druggist. Inside regiments of apothecary bottles lined old, dark shelves. At one counter manicure implements were displayed under glass. On another a dish held little bars of lemon soap wrapped in brown paper tied with string.

It was an unexpected setting for a literary shrine, unexpected, unless you had a copy of Ulysses to hand and there on Page 80 (depending on your edition), you would find yourself in the company of James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom who, on June 16, 1904, walked into this very shop with its “dusty, dry aroma of sponges and loofah”, to purchase an orange flower skin lotion for Molly Bloom.

That sequence in Joyce’s labyrinthine novel was drawn from his own experience of Sweny’s that day. Rather than wait for the prescription to be made up, he agreed to call back for its collection. In the meantime he would take one of those tiny parcels of soap as a gift for Nora Barnacle whom he was starting to woo, and who worked around the corner at Finn’s Hotel in Leinster Street.

Costing four pennies, the soap was to be added to the lotion bill which Joyce would settle on his return. But, like Bloom in the novel, he never did go back to Sweny’s on June 16, leaving the pharmacist out of pocket by three shillings and one penny. Still, the Joycean faithful had since made handsome recompense. Those tiny lemon soaps had become a Bloomsday relic selling to tourists at two euro 50 cents a bar. And, less sentimentally, they might yet serve as a symbolic remedy for modern Ire-land striving to cleanse itself of calamitous arrears.

Sweny’s was established in 1853 and in the 106 years since Joyce was its nippy customer, the city of Bloom, his Ulyssean wanderer, had vanished. But even if the Celtic Tiger was mocked now as a creature of myth, today’s Dubliners still possesses more cosmopolitan gusto and élan than Joyce could ever have imagined. And although it might have been too soon for the emergence of the great, post-Boom Irish novel, one thing has not altered: those whose currency is words remain vividly loquacious in discussing that fluid, contradictory thing, the Irish psyche.

In a recent Radio 4 broadcast Roddy Doyle remarked that the Irish had gone through torture in the past year, with more to come. Bankers had behaved badly, politicians were beyond useless, but the arts, he said, hadn’t let the nation down. Yet on reflection it was funny how things had turned out because during Boomtime writers, comics and grassroot dramatists had been loudly scorned as the party poopers at Ireland’s spectacular dance with excess. But in examining why a brilliantly transformed, small country was now stuttering to a halt, there were those who counselled against too much self-flagellation.

Among the sanguine Declan Kiberd, the distinguished critic and professor of Anglo-Irish literature at University College Dublin, had also taken to Radio 4 to announce that “for the umpteenth time we are facing our disappearance… and we will turn it into a good story and come clear.” However, on the same programme, the satirist Barry Murphy had anticipated a different fate for Ireland, hoodwinked by its own pretensions, floating off on an ocean of latte.

My stravaig around the ruins of the Celtic Tiger began by meeting Dermot Bolger, novelist, playwright, co-founder of New Island Books, and widely admired as an inspirational figure behind the Axis arts centre in Ballymun. Formerly the North Dublin postcode for deprivation and official neglect, Ballymun had been transformed by EU money, Bauhausian architecture and vernacular theatre to become a multi-starred example of urban renewal.

In 1990 Bolger gained his own big breakthrough with The Journey Home, a remarkably prescient work described by the New York Times as “fiercely beautiful” in its depiction of young people grappling with the fact that they didn’t know what being Irish meant anymore. “We came from nowhere,” observed one character, “and found we belonged nowhere else.” That book followed Bolger’s The Lament for Arthur Cleary, winner of the Samuel Beckett Award for Best First Play at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1989, and also a winner at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Like The Journey Home, it was set in North Dublin’s tribal territory when two other features were wrecking the soul of the city: violence fuelled by a drug problem of grievous proportions, and rampant materialism in the guise of a social crusade.

The success of The Journey Home earned Bolger a £40,000 advance for his next novel. But in retrospect that sum was a mere crumb to the Celtic Tiger. “It seemed like a huge amount of money to me,” he said, “but suddenly it meant nothing because you would see houses selling at auction for well over a hundred thousand of the asking price.” During the crazy years of plenty Bolger himself sought to move from the little, redbrick terrace in Drumcondra where he has always lived, but on at least half a dozen occasions he was massively outbid. We met around the corner at the Skylon Hotel on a day of precious sunshine. Nearby the Tolka, a tributary of the Liffey was on its own journey to Dublin Bay.

Bolger reflected that in the 1990s the majority of the Irish did not make loads of money. Most, like his family, just got on with surviving. Okay, the Celtic Tiger had given opportunities Ireland had never enjoyed before: full employment and impressive career paths for a new confident generation. But three words would destroy the Boom – reckless property speculation – the very mention of which now left a bilious taste in the mouth, not least because embedded in them was an acutely disconcerting irony:

A nation which had historically hated absentee landlords had become that very thing, the newly rich surging to scoop up luxury apartments in Croatia, Bulgaria and Prague. “There was a feeling,” said Bolger, “that unless you got a foot on the property ladder you’d be the last monk left outside the round tower before that ladder was whipped up when the Vikings arrived.” So it wasn’t just abroad that appealed. People were buying houses 50 miles from Dublin and never setting foot in them, but selling them after three or four years and doubling, even trebling their money.

Look around today. There are incomplete estates designed for 40 houses but only 20 built, and just three occupied, with the roads leading to them unfinished. A recent survey showed that one in five new houses in Ireland was uninhabited, the ghosts of speculative disasters. “For writers,” Bolger mused, “these are thwarted dreams waiting to be told.”

Chris Binchy, one of a new generation of Irish novelists, had already used fiction to chronicle the social rupture beneath the profligacy and money-laundered gloss. In the view of fellow writer, Joseph O’Connor, Binchy’s thriller, Open-Handed, published in 2008, is “the best novel about the Celtic Tiger yet published.” His sharply observed cast of characters, whether Irish or immigrant, are all on the make in diverse ways which intersected with corrupt and sometimes lethal consequences.

As in his earlier novel, The Very Man, Binchy’s piercingly recognisable portrayals were often inspired by his surrealist encounters as a hotel manager and a chef at the first sushi bar in Dublin. Standing at the centre of his counter, chopping vegetables and moulding rice, he felt he had become invisible to the shiny clientelethrowing 50 euro notes in the air. And with his novelist’s ear primed for eavesdropping, Binchy, nephew of Maeve Binchy, and married to Scottish photographer Siobhan Ogilvy, heard people flagrantly setting up alibis for the night, or just so boastful that he sometimes wondered if he were still living in Ireland at all.

He’d hear a girl excitedly telling someone that her wedding the following weekend had become a logistical nightmare because: “Oh God, the hairdresser’s in Foxrock, the dress is in Paris and the ceremony’s in Cannes.” And there would be sushi bar man on his mobile, pretending to his wife that he was at the airport and she needn’t wait up because he had to catch a flight for an emergency meeting. But underlying the glitzkrieg, there always was the suspicion that everything would cave in. For all the fun of Boomtime, Binchy shared with many a sense that “ this was not who we really were.” It was as if some bizarre lining up of the stars had taken Ire-land to another planet. “Suddenly the way we were presenting ourselves was not our true character.”

Even now, years on from his catering career, Binchy seemed to attract intriguing vignettes. We had hardly begun our conversation in the lounge of the Davenport Hotel – a former nineteenth century church in the Italian classical style – when a man, imposingly tweeded, arrived at our side and urgently requested that we move our chairs so he could reach into the tiny drawer of a cabinet beside the coffee table. Stretching in to the back of the drawer he retrieved a scrunched-up piece of white paper, then with muttered thanks to the Almighty, he turned on his brogues and fled. What could that hidden, crumpled paper have contained? Narcotic traces? A death threat to a property shark? A tip for a horse?

When Open-Handed was published critics praised Binchy for catching the zeitgeist of the Celtic Tiger’s dying days, but, as the pall of negative equity and punishing budget cuts now covered the land, he was cautious of turning “the zeitgeist” into literary capital once again. It was too soon for the big break-out novel about how everything has changed, he said, because Ireland was still in flux, holding its breath, and it was difficult to take shots at a target that was still moving.

Journalism, in and out in twenty-four hours, could be effective at nailing a mood, Binchy thought, but even if a novelist’s writing was going well, it might take two or more years to complete a good book, by which time Ireland, as subject matter, might have turned into something else again. Bolger and Binchy likened “the race into madness” to the aberrant behaviour of teenagers . “Before this, we were a country of children who had to be consoled by people coming in, patting us on the head and telling us how charming and humorous we were,” said Binchy, adding: “well, if that’s your expected role, you step up to it.” But when all that money sloshed into the economy, the Irish became adolescents, very self-regarding. “And a certain harshness entered people’s way of going on.”

At 64 John Banville remains unrivalled as Ireland’s contemporary literary stylist, whose eighteen novels include The Book of Evidence, Doctor Copernicus, The Sea (the 2005 Man-Booker winner) and, most recently, The Infinities. On the day we met at Ormond Quay by the Liffey, he spoke sternly of his native land, noting that he would be criticised for saying that the problem with Ireland was that it possessed no sense of social responsibility. That was a terrible indictment, he acknowledged, but it didn’t make the Irish feel guilty because there had always been someone to blame. It used to be the English. Now it was Brussels.

Elegy for April, Banville’s latest thriller under his pseudonym, Benjamin Black, which will be published in October, again features the irascible pathologist, Quirke. Though Banville insisted he had no interest in writing about social or political issues, either as Black or himself, Quirke was raised in one of those “Irish gulags” where vulnerable children were often abused by paedophile clerics, and the first Quirke story, Christine Falls, published in 2006, resonated terribly with the real-life scandal capsizing the moral authority of Ireland’s Catholic hierarchy.

Can a novel teach us about ourselves? Banville was sceptical and quoted his favourite motto which was from Kafka’s diary: “The artist is a man who has nothing to say.” He insisted he had no message either. As a citizen he voted. He had opinions, he paid his taxes. But when he sat down to write all he wanted to do was to put beautiful sentences in the world. “The artist has nothing to tell you that you do not know already,” he said. “The rest is nuance.” Banville’s purpose was to give his prose the same denseness and weight of poetry. “You cannot read a poem and do your knitting at the same time, or think about sex, or what you’re going to have for dinner. You have to read a poem or not read a poem. I want my books to be the same. You read them, or you don’t. If you don’t, that’s fine.”

That pocket master class was also an example of why some criticise Banville for being mannered and elitist. In response he pointed out that he had received wonderful reviews from Britain over the years, but certain English reviewers made the mistake of seeing Irish novels as failed English novels, ignoring that the Irish novel was born of a different language, one that was very ornate, rhetorical and oblique. “We glory in its ambiguity,” he declared. “Orwell believed that prose should be a pane of glass through which you look at what is being said. But for the Irish, prose is a lens which requires you to admire the polish on the surface.”

By the banks of the Liffey: When will such building be completed?

Claire Kilroy’s three novels – All Summer, Tenderwire and, most recently, All Names Have Been Changed – place her in the vanguard of Ireland’s young prose lyricists. Already a familiar visitor at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, she graduated from the creative writing course at Trinity College, Dublin. Before becoming a full time writer Kilroy, who is 37, worked as a film editor on the television soap, Ballykissangel, a job which taught her to be surgical with the superfluous. Sometimes you had to write chapters one and two in order to throw them away, she said. Otherwise you might hinder the narrative flow.

We talked in one of the little booths in Bewley’s Oriental Café on Grafton Street. Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Sean O’Casey once haunted it, and Bewley aficionados like to think they are still around. Now, however, there was an added international zing to the clientele and to the menu but the décor was the same dark red and black, inspired by Chinese lacquerwork, and shafts of light still streamed through Harry Clarke’s luscious stained glass windows.

Kilroy remembered John McGahern talking about “the tuning fork moments” when a writer found precisely the right mood for the inner core of a novel. Published last year, All Names Have Been Changed had presented Dublin’s literati with something of a guessing game: just who among them was the inspiration for Kilroy’s central character, the elusive, troubled and sozzled lecher, Professor P.J. Glynn, whose creative writing students were obsessed with his past brilliance? The author, of course, was not telling, but her novel’s stinging excursion through the high elation and torment of the creative life suggested first hand experience of the lonely terrors of writer’s block, and egotism warring with self-doubt.

Kilroy is typical of writers who, despite literary success, are able only to write full time because of Ireland’s innovative tax policy for artists. Even so, she said, she had felt like an alien during the Boom, estranged from friends who felt embarrassed for her because she wasn’t reaping the obvious dividends. “It all seemed gross to me and I felt left behind by the entire country, so that I couldn’t bear to write about Ire-land anymore.”

The ceiling for tax exemption was set at 120,000 euros per annum, a sum most artists could only dream of, but one that now closed the loophole which had allowed billionaires like U2 to avail of the system. (In fact when the new ceiling was announced, the group moved its business HQ to Holland.) But government cuts to the arts in general had been brutal. More than 30 theatre companies reliant on Arts Council funding lost out altogether while others suffered up to 60 per cent reduction. The Association of Irish Composers had funding of 19,000 euros cut entirely. Ireland’s national theatre, The Abbey lost 1.1 million euros, and many outlets for cutting edge drama now faced extinction.

All this, needless to say, was raw material for those who saw the world as text. Bolger, who used to run the pioneering Raven Arts Press in the 1980s, recalled that the recession of that decade brought forth a slew of ground-breaking writers, Doyle, Sebastian Barry and Colm Toibin among others. Earlier hard times – when the Church, De Valerean ideology and Charles Haughey still had Ireland in their grip – inspired wrenching candour and savage heartache as recounted by Edna O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh and John McGahern. And long before that, there were Joyce and Beckett looking on with a merciless, ab-surdist eye; the exiles who never quite left home.

Had Ireland really altered? Mary Robinson’s presidency, and that of her successor, Mary McAleese, the current head of state, symbolised a huge emotional gear change with a young, highly educated generation racing ahead to knock sideways the old guard cronyism of the largest political party, Fianna Fail. The Irish were still emigrating but this time, making their mark in Europe as international lawyers, software manufacturers, linguists and bankers. As prosperity at home swelled into that unsustainable bubble, many returned to take on mighty mortgages without a care in the world. And, in a quirky reversal of history, Ireland itself became a nation of immigrants, Eastern European names and those of the southern hemisphere turning the school roll into something of a tongue twister, something exotic.

If the Boom also hastened the inevitable secularisation of “holy Catholic Ireland”, the revelations about the hierarchy’s denial and protection of sex-abusing priests accelerated many people’s break with Vatican orthodoxy. The “land of saints and scholars” still had its scholars but who, below the age of 30, cared any longer for its saints? In which case, what of Catholic guilt? Of the writers I met, only one mentioned that gnawing affliction, John Banville, and he referred to it with rueful glee. Benjamin Black’s creation, Quirke, was loaded with Catholic guilt, he said, “as, indeed, I am, which is a wonderful thing for a writer. Nothing better.”

In those make-believe years when the Celtic Tiger gave every appearance of strutting the global stage, it seemed in some respects to be outstepping its old colonial neighbour. But Dublin always had swagger and corners of grand style. The difference now was that Boom profits had been squandered and the innocent, as ever, were paying the heaviest price. The Church had lost its moral authority and there was scant sign of any civic morality to replace it.

But it was still a bookish place. Travelling on the Dart, the commuter train, from Blackrock to the city centre, I eavesdropped on two students: “Jasus! are you reading Ulysses, or what?” “I am, and I intend to stick with it to the very end to impress the women.” “Well, fair play to you, Ciaran, fair play.” That snatch of chat reminded me of something Bolger had said: if Sea-mus Heaney walked into a bar anywhere in Dublin, everyone would have recognised him. If Ted Hughes had walked into a Lon-don pub, would anyone have known who he was?

It was true that the talk in Dublin bars still flew off on hilarious philosophical tangents and anecdotal rolls, but there was also a fury simmering inside it about the disgrace brought on the country by the big shots who’d cooked the books. “And maybe we are at our best as writers when we have something to rebel against,” said Dermot Bolger. “Novels come about in unexpected ways, but perhaps we need this latest financial horror before another generation can direct its anger towards creating startling, new work.”

In the meantime the Joycean faithful would continue to pass in and out of Sweny’s for their Monday and Thursday Ulysses readings. The tourists would purchase the lemon soap, and elsewhere those writers taking their time to write the post-Boom novel, would hold fast to Ireland’s literary tradition, weighing and testing every word before buffing up the lens of their prose to show a more telling picture.

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