The Irish Literary society was founded in 1892 by W B Yeats and Douglas Hyde. It recently gave pride of place to Booker Prize winning novelist Roddy Doyle to one of its gatherings at the Bloomsbury Hotel, writes Michael McDonagh.
Roddy Doyle first became widely known following the remarkable success of the film The Commitments, based on his first novel, which he wrote while working as an English and Geography teacher in Killbarack in Dublin.
Since then he has twice won the Booker Prize and many other awards. His prolific output can be deeply moving, hilariously funny or dark and disturbing. Much of the humour in his work comes from his skill in capturing the mainly working class dialogue, slang, local idioms and intemperate language of his colourful Dublin characters both on the written page and on the screen.
He is no stranger to London, which is where he first began to write. The manuscript of his first efforts, now in the National Library Dublin, was written in London.
“Well I was familiar with London when I was student. I worked as a road sweeper here and for summer vacations I spent a lot of time here as a nineteen year old and twenty year old. When I started teaching I would come back in the summer break to try to get into the habit of writing more seriously, rather than just doing a bit of writing here and there I got a bedsit in Wood Green and would go down to the local library most days till lunch time, or after lunch, then go to the pictures or the pub and I would watch the football as it was 1982 with the World Cup, so I got into the habit of writing.”
By 1991 Roddy had a spectacular start for any young writer from a first novel but in the early days there were many knock backs and rejections, all of which Roddy now takes philosophically.
“Well rejection is all part of the job and it is no harm to be reminded that that you can’t always assume that it will automatically be. It happens a lot, particularly with scripts, they often come to nothing and it leaves you a bit distraught and sometimes a bit angry and at other times just deflated. But that’s no harm.
“In the early years nobody was interested in what I was doing and I was barely interested in it myself. Very early on I hit a style and I knew that this is what I wanted to do and then I became more driven.”
By the summer of 1990 film director Alan Parker brought with him about $12 million of Hollywood money to make the movie of The Commitments. It was filmed on location in Dublin with a mostly unknown cast and was a huge success when it came out the next year, earning an Oscar nomination and four BAFTA awards and almost $15 million box office dollars in America. It is now revered by its many fans as one of the best Irish films ever made, and has begat albums, tours and even a West End musical.
But it not until 1993 that Roddy was able to give up his teaching to concentrate on his literary career.
“The first three novels were quite linear but by the fourth I wanted to do something new, so I thought I’d try to capture the voice of a ten year old boy by writing in the first person, which I had not done before and then I had no idea about structure. I had just become a father for the first time and so some of the time when I used to write was gone. I was now grabbing time to write where I could, getting moments here and there. Even doing a chapter on Christmas morning, as by some freak of nature baby and mother just happened to fall l asleep at the same time.
“I reached a point that was unimaginable, the amount of work I got done whilst continuing to be a full time teacher. I found that with all the work and between having children and my school responsibilities it was hard. I’d turn up for school in September and look at the timetable and one year I’d be an English teacher with Geography and another year I’d be a Geography Teacher with English, so I was the putty in the time-table, increasingly with Geography more than English. I went to the principal and said I don’t want to complain but I’ve published three novels, there is another one on the way and one of them is short listed for the Booker Prize and I’m teaching f…ing Geography.
“The thing about English is it is never the same and it often depends on the kids that are in the room and I enjoyed teaching English… but the Geography syllabus back then. You know the Shannon always flows in the one direction and you can’t really f…k around with it and even if you draw it on the board from Limerick up it is still going to be flowing down. Geography was not there for me anymore.”
He must have been an inspiring teacher as a couple of years ago he and one of his ex pupils at Greendale Community School, Enda Walsh had stage-musicals (The Commitments and Once) running opposite each other in London’s West End.
The Commitments movie and subsequent stage show were based on some pretty classic soul music: “The decision to go for soul music with The Commitments was not because I wanted to write about soul music, although I love soul music, but it was a practical one as I wanted a big band. I wanted a bigger band and I wanted women in the band, which was very rare back then.
“There were two Ska bands, The Beat and The Specials and they had older men in them, which I thought was terrific, like Rico Rodriguez in The Specials, who played the trombone and he was so much older than the lads in the band. I found this really interesting.
“I don’t plan a novel meticulously in advance I have no master plan I make it up as I go along. All I knew was that the band were going to break up as that’s what happens with bands so with the soul band it was more a practical reason to allow me to get as many people into the novel as possible.”
From that gem of an idea a remarkable success came and a remarkable literary career was launched.
Roddy’s Henry Smart Trilogy is a wonderful fictional social history of Ireland in the 20th century with some of the best and most exciting opening lines of any book in the last thirty years, and even features a one legged gangster being chased through the underground rivers of Dublin.
“That book came from a bit of luck really as if a librarian in Dublin had not been nice enough to me and had not given me a book on the Rivers of Dublin I might not have been inspired to write it.
“It’s about a young lad too young to be the GPO in 1916 as part of the Rising. So aged 14 he is in the GPO and becomes part of the War of Independence but gets out of Ireland. He is forced to leave and he goes to America in the middle volume, Play That Thing. I’m exploring what it is like to be Irish in America the Twenties and Thirties, which is a lot different to what it is like now. What it is to be Irish is often dictated by who is in power at the time.
“Anyway, by a chance meeting he gets to know John Ford, which is my excuse to get him back to Ireland for the third novel, when Ford wants him to be involved in the filming of , which is a film I love.
It would be a bit much for me to say I read Flann O’Brien and then become a writer but he was a huge influence…
“I remember watching the film The Rocky Road To Dublin, which was shot in about 1967 or 1968 and I was watching the boys coming out of school at the end. It was shot with such joy. Although it was not my school I was almost looking for myself in the shot as I found the optimism of those boys really moving. I had Henry moving back to Ireland but I had not really had it planned out so I made Henry a caretaker at a school. I had met a caretaker, who had a great affection for the children in the school and knew what was going on and caretakers are a great source of gossip, so I thought give Henry the job of caretaker and see how he gets on.”
On his literary influences and a flippant, off the cuff remark in New York that has haunted him for years.
“It would be a bit much for me to say I read Flann O’Brien and then become a writer but he was a huge influence.
“I did not read Maeve Binchey until years later so I was not aware of her sheer brilliance so I can’t really claim she had any influence on me except the noise of a typewriter.
“I was in New York and opened me mouth on a Monday night and I had to go into hiding. I made the remark that I thought (James Joyce’s) Ulysses could do with a good edit and all I said was taken out of context. I got hate mail. It was fourteen years ago and it is still going on. It was a bit of craic a remark that lasted three minutes, daft. Thank God there was no social media then or I’d be dead.”
Roddy Doyle’s latest novel is called SMILE.
“It is about a young boy going to a Christian Brothers school but I did not have a burning desire to write about the Christian Brothers, although I did go to a Christian Brothers school myself but it is not autobiographical in any sense. I have no doubt that other boys were abused but I wasn’t.
“At the time more and more of these stories were becoming public and you could not ignore them but I did not feel I needed to write about that, as these boys, these men and women were telling their own stories and it never occurred to me to write a novel.
“A novel is not an immediate thing and by and large that’s what I do, write novels. But if I was to respond to an issue of today and write a novel, by three years down the line to complete it, and another year before it was published, it would be nearly footnotes.
“The urge to write for me it is more about words and more about the story and when I started this particular novel I really did not know what I was going to write or where it was going to go.”
Eccentric and violent and mad
There is however one faint autobiographical spark.
The line “I can never resist your smile” was actually said to the young Roddy by one of the Christian Brothers at his school. Now fictionalised it is said to the main character, Victor Forde.
“I was in my first year, my primary school had been a state national school and my memories of the school are very happy. I was in the school recently and I liked walking in the door and there was a photograph of the class I was in when we left the school in 1971. There were 54 boys in the class so how the teachers managed, I have no idea. Amazing. It was a good school in Raheny on the North Side. I went to the Christian Brothers, where my father had gone. He had left school at 15 but had gone to James’s Street and had good times. A Christian Brother gave him books to read.
“Anyway I went to the local Christian Brothers School and it was a strange experience walking into this place. On one hand it was great as it was so mad and eccentric you’d be laughing at the back of the class, there was nothing like the quality of that laugh. My kids went to a school and they liked it, they called the teachers by their first names so we wondered had we sent them to the wrong school.
“The Brothers themselves, and the lay teachers, had licence to be eccentric and violent and mad.
“At times it was terrifying and at other times it was just hilarious, both at the same time. There was one teacher, who I won’t name, a Christian Brother who taught French. Sometime, when I was in the first year, maybe late 1971 or early 1972, and on a Friday afternoon, we were trying to get off early and he just said ‘Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile.’
“I knew this was just the worst thing that could have been said in a room full of 13 year olds with hormones flying all over the place. One lad had started to shave, it was the year of Skinheads and Bootboys and men were men, and this eejit said that to me.
“To clarify, he never touched me, he never asked me to stay back after class, so there was nothing fundamentally wrong about it. But Christ, for a man of forty-odd or something, to say that to me in front of forty boys, it was so wrong and for a split second I hoped the ground would swallow me up, or I hoped that I had misheard it, but there was total silence, which was something so rare, for the longest second of my life with just that possibility that I had not heard it. But I had.”
A feeling of stories untold
“Within a couple of years there was another Brother, who WOULD keep boys back after class and it was one of those schools. Men would be sitting around having a drink on Saturday and would be saying do you remember so and so who went to the Jesuits and he went on and is a TD now. But for our school there was never any reunions.
“Whenever any of us met up years later there was never any of that ‘Do you remember this or that?’ but there was always a feeling of stories untold. With this particular book when I got proofs from the publisher I gave out copies to ten of my friends to read and it is by no means a poll of any sort, but two of the ten told me they had been abused. One of them, who had not been to our school, was talking and a brother had been named and he said ‘him’ and it was obvious that they had shipped this brother from one school to another where he had done the same thing.
“I write slowly, then release it slowly then write too much, then take it away, (so) the chapter with the physical abuse is very brief and the verbs are blunt and it comes down to the words you choose from a lifetime’s experience. But it is a cold exercise and the consequences were incredible.
“Whether it is autobiographical or not – and it was not – is irrelevant as it is about the words. If I planned a book like Smile meticulously it would not work, as it is about the pondering of what words will I use as I write. It is all about choosing those words.”
You can get a copy of Roddy’s Doyle’s Smile on Amazon.