Savage Dublin - Honor Molloy’s ‘Smarty Girl’ memoir


Smarty Girl, Honor Molloy’s autobiographical account of her tumultuous Irish childhood in 1960s Dublin, tells the story of her parents’ troubled marriage, her father’s epic destructiveness and her mother’s determination to save her family at any cost. Cahir O'Doherty talks to the Brooklyn based writer about overcoming the reflexive Irish reluctance to embroider the past and tell it straight, and how writing the new book has helped rescue her. 

Stories make a straight path through the confusion of what happens. They clear the way. And in life the way usually needs to be cleared for us, before we can see the world for it is and what it has made us.

Irish people are good at telling stories. The trouble starts for us when we decide that there’s a right and wrong way to tell them.

We don’t have a big appetite for unvarnished reality, it turns out. Most of the horrors of our recent history could have been confronted and tackled decades earlier if we’d shared James Joyce’s impulse to have a good long look at ourselves.

Thank God for Ireland’s writers then. Since the foundation of the state they have shouldered the often unenviable task of holding a mirror up to the realities of Irish life and we’re indebted to them.

Though she might hesitate to see herself as part of that tradition, writer Honor Molloy’s candid and blistering memoir of a 1960s Dublin childhood, Smarty Girl, takes up the challenge of inviting us back to the tumult of her 1960s Dublin childhood with a lighthouse intelligence that doesn’t miss a stitch.

Molloy clears the way by making Smarty Girl fiction. Allowing herself the remove of making what happened in reality become a story happening to an invented character, she finds enough space to look her past in the eye.

That’s also why the language of Smarty Girl sings with the big eye wonder of childhood itself, because reading the book you’ll slowly understand that something is being released and what it turns out to be Molloy’s own captive spirit.

“I thought by writing fiction I could write a more true story than by writing a memoir,” she tells the Irish Voice, shrugging at the paradox.

“I think the impulse comes from the way I make theater (Molloy is an award winning playwright) every time it is always autobiographical. I had to add the parents and adult’s perspectives as a way to approach the serious themes of the book. I also ransacked my mother’s personal journals from that period and in that way you can actually hear the screams from the inside of the war zone of that house.”

Families that have experienced a massive disruptive crisis are not always intelligible to families that have not. They can begin to speak a different language, the language of despair and loss. They can begin to live like victims in the aftermath of an explosion, fated to wander around the edges of the smoking crater where their former selves had once lived peacefully, tasked with trying to make sense of what happened to them, and why.

Molly’s family was one of those families in crisis. A local schoolteacher saw the first unmistakable signal that something was wrong in the Molloy house when she set them an assignment to write their life story. Molloy’s then 13-year-old sister handed in a 20-eight page handwritten essay, something the teacher had never seen before.

“She wrote an account of my father beating my mother. It was an accurate account and I kept the language she wrote it in as much as possible throughout the book. I was like a magpie, I took all the elements and I wove it all together,” says Molloy with a dispassion that belies the cost of those matter of fact words.

As an American woman in Ireland, Molloy’s mother was often mystified by the familiar strangeness of the Irish. They spoke the same language but they did not usually mean the same things in it.

It was their remarkable distaste for anything confrontational or unpleasant that struck her most. They’d cross the street and even the city to avoid a potential reckoning.

Any American woman is going to have a hard time in Ireland, sooner or later, because directness isn’t valued there.  It’s avoided, and any attempt to make people account for themselves is seen as impermissibly gauche.

“Shut up you stupid big Yank,” they told her. “You and your feelings,” they added, for good measure.

Reading Smarty Girl can give you a sensation of vertigo as you realize what the young and all too innocent narrator cannot -- that her situation is broken beyond repair and whatever her future holds her present is blighted.

It had all begun so promisingly. In the early 1950s her mother had come to Ireland from the U.S. to study at Trinity College to write her thesis on the plays of J.M. Synge and get her PhD. One day she met a young actor who had heard about her actor training classes and he invited himself along.