This is an understatement. No other contemporary Irish writer even comes close to McCabe in terms of his modernity.
Rock and roll and sex and madness and religiosity and hypocrisy and more besides are always threatening to rip every community he writes about wide open, usually from the inside, and usually from the first paragraph.
“I’ve been at pains to suggest the modernity of the work without overstating it. While my books deal with Irish archetypes of the 1940s and 1950s the manner in which they’re dealt with is very modern,” offers McCabe.
“There are flash forwards and flash backs and the whole notion of time is questioned, even what it means. It’s like when you look in your mirror you see your father looking back at you and he’s your ghost, and you’re his.”
Critics have heaped praise but haven’t always grasped just how inventive McCabe’s efforts are.
“With The Butcher Boy they wrote things like, ‘McCabe exposes the marginalized, sad people of his little town,’ and that’s not the way I saw it at all. I saw a lot of color in that book and a lot of fierce internal thinking going on.”
The surprise was that a book as modern as The Butcher Boy found an audience right away in Ireland. But McCabe puts it down to changes that were already present in Irish society.
“It was all ready to go when I started writing about it, the shoots were already there in the culture. Things were changing,” he says.
“You know it was always extraordinary to me, for example, that in Irish fiction you could read every work and never come across a transvestite. I thought there was something seriously wrong there.
“People had either been too stupid, too blind or too afraid when it’s part of human nature. Also, it was just an excuse to put a whole load of color into a book.”
Lunatics, lovers and cross dressers all line up for a hearing in McCabe’s books, a cast of characters that are rarely if ever heard from anywhere else in Irish fiction. It comes, he says, from his experiences growing up.
“When I was a boy we used to do something called ‘going up the town.’ You’d step out and always meet different people like an 80-year-old farmer and a 90-year-old woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, and then someone your own age,” he says.
“I developed a facility very early on of dexterity of flipping from one to the other and enjoying every minute of it. Nowadays they won’t be there. They’ll be stuck at home watching a god-awful plasma because they can’t drive into town with drink taken. They’re not there for my entertainment.”
The characters he once knew have been pushed even further into the margins, and what replaced them were men in suits with cell phones making quick fix term deals and putting the country’s future in peril over the demands of the moment. It’s those people who have led us toward the stray sod country we’re in now.
“There’s no long-term thinking or planning in Ireland. There’s a lack of rigor,” McCabe feels.
“How many times in your life have you heard someone say, ‘Ah, sure it’s only a bit of craic.’ I remember a friend saying to me, when I’d had a novel I’d spent three years on rejected, ‘Ah, sure what odds, it’s only a bit of craic at the end of the day.’
“I thought, this is the problem, we don’t take ourselves seriously enough. We have half a million unemployed and it will be f***ing grand in my eyeball if something isn’t done soon. We could be doing now with a leader who’s a combination of W.B. Yeats and Sean Lemass.
“It’s a turning point now for the Republic. It’s an element of the title of the book too. The stray sod looks the same, it feels the same but it is not the same. It hit the society bang on time again.”