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.
A gifted actor himself, Molloy’s father has a satirist’s eye for character, and soon she’s watching him mercilessly lampooning her Trinity friends (and herself) on stage to a cheering Dublin audience.
They become an item, and soon they’ve moved from pocket-sized theaters to the Olympia and the Gate (two of the most celebrated theaters in the city).
Molly’s mother was charmed at her father’s gift for finding and embodying Dublin’s raft of eccentrics on stage. Often they were riotously funny, sometimes they were heartbreaking, and the one thing they had in common was that they had never been seen on the Dublin stage before.
He became a star doing it. It led to him being offered a role on Ireland’s first major televised soap opera Tolka Row. That made him a household name.
“My mother says his decline started after he had a show that failed on Broadway in 1963,” says Molloy. “His long slide into depression and destruction to mania followed that. He was driven to destroy himself. I think it was all of the s*** that had happened to him in his Dublin childhood.”
Molloy’s father had the kind of working class upbringing Frank McCourt would have remembered. Physical violence at home, then more physical violence at school, which he wrote about in his own memoir Alive, Alive- oh!
“He talks about being groped by the Christian Brothers, but he makes a joke about it, he’s being sexually abused at the age of 14. But for me the worst thing to happen to him was the TB (tuberculosis) hospital. First there was the shame of poverty, then the shame of disease, and then the religious people coming in there everyday and shaming you for being there.
“There was rampant sex and abuse in those hospitals too. The ward nurses were little orphan girls who were taken into closets by the guys who were recuperating there. They were only children really these girls. I think that experience really killed him. What happens to a mind that gets smashed and crashed over and over?”
That kind of brutal Irish childhood maimed a generation of Irish men and women, the majority of them working class. “In the middle of it all he just kept joking to amuse other people. Then he struggles with his own depression and hatred of himself. He became an atheist very early on.”
It can take a long time to put a fractured tale like that together, or to make sense of the fallout and where it has led. “I didn’t put this book together for years,” says Molloy. “I took it into me and lived with it like an actor. I started seriously writing about all this in 1985 so that’s 27 years.”
The richness of the telling and the lessons of it can be weighed in every line. Many Irish books will be released this year, but few will be this candid or this complete.
Honor Molloy will read from Smarty Girl at Barnes and Noble on 86th and Lexington Avenue on Monday, April 23 at 7 p.m.