With his groundbreaking books like The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, novelist, screenwriter and playwright Patrick McCabe has become one of Ireland’s most successful and widely admired authors. On October 11 he releases the final book in his “small town” series, titled The Stray Sod Country. It may be his greatest work to date. He talks to CAHIR O’DOHERTY about Ireland and people who have inspired him.
It's dead and gone, romantic Ireland, if it ever existed. The land of friendly neighbors, grand soft days, brown soda bread and lively wee dogs and the whole shebang has been consigned, wholesale, to history’s scrapheap.
It’s what’s coming in its place that’s the question now.
With his usual impeccable timing, Irish author Patrick McCabe has returned with a likely answer. McCabe’s dazzling and elegiac new novel The Stray Sod Country (Bloomsbury), the final in his “small town” series, explores all of the familiar tensions between the past and the present that grip the little border town of Cullymore, and through that the nation, and they often turn out to be explosive.
The most brilliant and seemingly effortless novelist Ireland has produced in decades, McCabe, 55, who’s teaching Irish literature at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana this fall, could easily afford to sit back on his achievements to date (The Butcher Boy, Winterwood, Breakfast on Pluto among others).
Thankfully, though, he’s been prolific in his explorations, and it’s hard to point to a contemporary Irish novelist that combines his virtuosity, his sense of place and his modernity.
Born in Clones, Co. Monaghan in 1955, McCabe grew up in a little border town that seemed to be bordering on everything (including insanity, hysteria and civilization).
It was, he recalls, a town full of dark secrets and unforgettable characters, and like everyone else there he talked to everyone else there. Going “up the town” to him meant stepping out to blather away with everyone you encountered, be they eight or 80.
It was enviable training for a man who’s made small town Irish life one of his most accomplished subjects. And, he freely admits, it’s a way of life that has all but disappeared now.
But like James Joyce, the illustrious predecessor that McCabe’s work most resembles in terms of its sheer invention, he has recorded that vanished world note for note in his own imagination and he gives it back to us, transformed, in his books.
The first thing to ask about his latest novel is what is the “stray sod” it takes its title from?
“What it really means is if you take a wrong turn you could be in trouble,” McCabe tells the Irish Voice during a phone interview on Monday.
“I first heard it in London in a restaurant when an Irish woman in her forties came bursting in with an umbrella and stated to her friend, ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph I’m really sorry I’m late. I fell into the stray sod back there near McDonald’s.’
“It’s a bit of the folk memory leaping out at you. When people are in a state of extremis their true nature comes out. I just lassoed the phrase.”
The tension between Irish traditions and modern life is a recurring theme in The Stray Sod Country.
“It’s probably the major subject of the book. If you look at Ireland now you see the chickens are coming home to roost in many ways. The consequences of our actions are now visible,” he says.
“I’m not making any moral comments on the wildness or excesses of the people because it’s in me too. If there is a certain lack of rigor it will have consequences. I’m not saying its wrong to behave in that way, but if you admire the man who builds the big lump of a house on the hill and no one knows where he got the money for it -- and they don’t really care -- well, when the banks go bust there’s no point in whining because you’re complicit in it as well.”
Timely as ever, in The Stray Sod Country McCabe explores what happens to a small community as it dies. It will reconstitute itself, he shows us, but the community it was will be transformed into something else. The implications of that are unavoidable.
“I’m not a nostalgic freak. Things always change and we’re caught in the pincer jaws of change, especially right now,” McCabe says.
“But for the Irish some things are consistent wherever you meet them. They want to know where you’re from. The want to know the town, then the town land, then the lane or street. It’s not what class you’re from, it’s where about you’re from.
“The sense of place seems particularly pronounced in the Irish psyche. And I think that’s what the stray sod is -- a kind of tipping into a new field you don’t know.”
Another Irish writer McCabe’s work echoes is Brian Friel. He agrees that there are resemblances and doesn’t bristle at the comparison.
“He grew up in a village, so did I, and the stereotypes and archetypes he knew would be the same as mine. It’s a matter of how we treat them.”