Joseph O’Connor’s eighth novel is also his most accomplished. In Ghost Light, the Dublin-born writer vividly re-imagines the controversial love affair between Irish playwright J.M. Synge and his much younger leading lady, Molly Allgood. Their secret affair once scandalized Dublin, which explains its enduring fascination. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to the best-selling author about writing what he himself happily calls his favorite book.
HISTORY records the bare facts of the love affair between Irish playwright J.M. Synge and his fiancé Molly Allgood -- it was brief, heartfelt and it ended badly.
Controversy dogged their dalliance from the start – judgmental Dubliners sniffed at the Anglo-Irish playwright in hot pursuit of a young actress from the Liberties. No good would come of it they predicted, and they were right.
The intensity of the public’s disapproval, which was as Protestant as it was Catholic, almost wiped the affair from the history books. But doomed love affairs have a way of capturing the imagination of others long after even the main players have quit the stage.
As a boy growing in Dun Laoghaire, a suburb in south Dublin where Synge lived and wrote his most famous play The Playboy of the Western World, novelist Joseph O’Connor fell under the spell of this ancient affair and the two headstrong protagonists who had once lived it.
Every day O’Connor passed the run down house where Synge had lived -- and loved -- before dying at the age of 37 of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was such a sad story, no matter how you looked at it.
O’Connor found he couldn’t let it go and we, the readers, are the beneficiaries -- Ghost Light (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is the most interesting and distinctive novel by an Irish writer in years.
It’s not hard to understand the story’s appeal. Almost everyone has experienced a romance that soured and haunted your footsteps for years after.
But in fact, as O’Connor points out, it doesn’t even have to involve a lover at all -- relationships between peers, siblings or even colleagues can become so toxic and damaging it can take years (if ever) to undo the harm they cause. So there’s no question that dramatic entanglements have their own fascination.
“It’s a story that’s been with me since I was a child growing up in Dun Laoghaire,” O’Connor tells the Irish Voice. “My late mother, who died in 1985, was a great lover of books and the Irish inheritance in literature. She used to tell us as we passed the crumbling, slightly decrepit house where Synge has once lived with his mother, ‘That’s the room where he wrote The Playboy of the Western World.’ She told us Synge knew these streets that we were walking down.
“He walked on the same seafront where we’re going this morning and sometimes he would look out his window and see Dalkey quarry in the moonlight like we sometimes can.”
She knew, O’Connor says, that Synge had a secret love story in the last years of his life.
“He’d had this very tempestuous love affair with a young wan from the inner city of Dublin. That’s how they would have heard of it,” said O’Connor.
“My own parents came from Francis Street in Dublin. My grandparents would have known the world of Synge and Molly Allgood very well because they lived in it themselves. So the story has been with me for years.”
What has also been with O’Connor, and every Irish writer who has picked up a pen since Synge’s heyday, is the specter of the great Irish writers looking over his shoulder. In that sense Ghost Light acknowledges and ultimately leaves behind the mighty beauties of the Irish literary tradition.
Reading the book you get the sense of an imagination taking an inventory, for good and bad, before clearing the ground to move on. Ghost Light was written against the background of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, and in a way it’s also a record of the collapse of the Ireland once given to us by the Celtic Twilight.
We’re in new territory now, after all, so you can easily forgive O’Connor for taking liberties.
“The relationship between Synge and Molly illustrated so much about Ireland and England and Catholics and Protestants. But also about relationships between people of different social classes in Ireland,” O’Connor says.
“I wrote it against the background of the downturn in Ireland. I was writing about people who were inventing the kind of place that Ireland would be. And I think we have to do that again now, so in some ways it’s quite a contemporary book as well as being an historical one.”
But you don’t have to know anything about Synge or Molly or the famous people in their circle like Yeats and Lady Gregory to love the book.
“I think it’s really about the nature of love,” says O’Connor. “There’s this fantastic infatuation you feel when you fall in love with someone inappropriate. How great that is, but it’s also full of folly.
“And when you process your memories as you begin to age it becomes clear to you that maybe your mother was right that you wouldn’t end up with that person. So it’s about how we carry our ghosts too.”
In the same way that Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon are descendants of Synge’s tramp-on-the-make Christy Mahon, O’Connor’s Molly is another near vagrant with a name and a namesake in Irish literature. But harkening back to these characters gives O’Connor’s book a texture that clearly connects it to Irish tradition even as it moves beyond it.
Young Molly emerges as proud, spirited and beautiful -- but she’s also terrifically funny. She doesn’t care who anyone is.
“I like that about her,” says O’Connor. “She’s a rebel. I admire people who live by their own lights, and this is a woman who decided to live on her own terms.
“It was a real pleasure to write her and that’s why readers have found her so convincing. I worked very hard to get to her voice. Any time this irreverent, tempestuous, flirtatious young woman from Dublin walked into a scene there’s a crackle of electricity. It’s her book, and once I allowed her to speak it came quite quickly.”
But if much of Irish writing involves artists picking at the nation’s many historical wounds -- either to heal or keep them fresh -- O’Connor is among the least interested in such insular pursuits. In fact, he did the opposite.
“Every novelist is writing the book he’d love to read, and this one was a joy for me. It’s become the favorite of my own works. I rediscovered the joy of writing creating it,” O’Connor says.
Although nowadays he is no longer immediately liked to his famous sister, the singer Sinead O’Connor, there’s no doubt that the theme of rupture and breakdown in relationships (the two are estranged) is something he’s given years of thought to.
“I think a lot of us have one person in our life who isn’t in our life anymore,” says O’Connor, without clarifying who he’s speaking of.
“Somebody with whom it didn’t work out. It could be a lover or a parent or a sibling. A lot of us have one fractured broken relationship that we’ve just had to move on from.
“But at the same time it conditions every other relationship that you’re ever going to have. You bring that person into your life with your spouse and your friends and colleagues and they’ll always be with you and influence you perhaps far more than the people you see every day.
“I think a lot of us have that particular ghost, as Molly does. For her there was always somebody else. And I think there often is.”