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Ciaran Collins' debut novel “The Gamal” exposes the dark heart of the Irish small town

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With determination like that it’s no wonder he was attracted to storylines about Irish outsiders and the challenges they face. In 'The Gamal' Charlie’s own little narrative pushes back aggressively against the bigger narrative of his tribe, and his imagination refuses to be constrained by the narrow claims of his community.

“I probably am guilty of dreaming big myself,” says Collins, considering if there’s any similarity between himself and Charlie.

“As a 16-year-old I assumed that I’d at least be a rock star. That said, I never felt to be an outsider, but as a writer and an artist you do step back from the social world.”

Collins admits he still has great friends from Inishshannon, most from the secondary school there.

“They’re probably amused to hear I’ve written a book. I wouldn’t have told them I was writing it, I just did it,” he says.

Like most compelling novels about small town Irish life, bullying, depression, suicide and erotic obsession make early and unforgettable appearances in 'The Gamal.' But it’s the depth of Charlie’s passion for emerging young singer Sinead that most impresses the reader. With its sincerity and heartache it’s the kind of adoration that’s rare in literature now, which makes it all the more memorable.

“It’s an unrequited love. Charlie has the pleasure of Sinead’s company, but he knows that he will always be the third wheel, the fly on the wall, as opposed to his friend James who Sinead does fall for.

“It was interesting to write about the jealousies that arise between them. Charlie’s obsessed with her in really unhealthy ways too, of course.”

Crucially, Collins writes about the intensity of teenage passions in 'The Gamal' without patronizing them. In fact, he believes they become central to our identities as adults later on.

“Our teenage experiences inform and shape us for our whole lives, regardless of where you were at the time,” Collins says.

“The jealousies and disappointments and coming to terms with the adult world. The way that you carve out your own corner. I think these things are universal.”

Along the way the book also lifts the lid on contemporary Irish life, particularly when it comes to teenagers in the post-Tiger era.

“I love the fact that it reflects a truth about small town Irish life,” says Collins. “The portrayal of hopelessness of Irish young people is something people have mentioned. This book was started before the recession came about. But there is a kind of hopelessness around now.”

As a schoolteacher and a novelist Collins writes and speaks about what he calls the disaffection of Irish youth, which he can experience first hand in his own class room.

With the collapse of the Irish financial industry and the exposure of the Catholic Church for the decades of abuse it covered up, it can be hard to see the silver lining some days he says.

“Irish teenagers live in total disappointment with what the adult world has provided for them. You hope that through sport and creative pastimes that they’ll go on to be fulfilled. Part of that disaffection is the normal teenage attitude to life but I think it’s prevalent,” he says.

“We’re hearing stories of young Irish people in Australia getting drunk from one week to another. It isn’t a happy drunk; it’s an angry kind of drinking. The insular nature of the Ireland of the past 60 years hasn’t helped us.”

A sign of the times for Collins, who is an avid sports fan, is that he found he could not field a Junior B hurling team for his local GAA club. Too many kids had emigrated to make the numbers work.

“That pervasive sense of crisis and collapse finds expression in lots of ways,” says Collins, not needing to add that they aren’t always positive.

“In small Irish towns you see humanity up close. Almost in a fishbowl in a village like that. That’s probably why they’re so attractive for writers. In big cities people aren’t really thrown together in the same way.”

A tragicomic awareness has shaped Collins’ hilarious and terrifying new novel, the first truly accomplished work of post-collapse Ireland. In 'The Gamal' he holds up a bright polished mirror and shows us our own faces.

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