Interview with Roddy Doyle about the Dead Republic, where there's no love for Irish words
By: Brendan Patrick Keane | Published Thursday, June 17, 2010, 6:56 PM | Updated Friday, September 9, 2011, 9:41 PM
My brief interview with Roddy Doyle on the occassion of his book launch for The Dead Republic:
Roddy Doyle's brief address and reading at NYU, sponsored by Ireland House:
My question to Roddy Doyle about Irish American romanticism and its anaolgy, Irish assimilation into the norms of popular American media (he answers only the first part):
Sheila Fee's question to Doyle about the Irish language:
EVERYTIME RODDY DOYLE comes to New York, he breaks my heart. The last time he was here five years ago, I was over the moon with anticipation, and admittedly a bit raptured by lunar impulses. Doyle was talking on a panel at NYU with Frank McCourt and Colm McCann about James Joyce.
This event was supposed to sum it up for me, and converge many paths of my imagination. By the end of it, however, I was standing in the middle of a crowd of Joyceans calling Doyle's attack on the "middle class Joyce" an unfair cliché and one of many he was making that night. I was blunt, and my brief oration had a touch of the theatrical to it, but I was respectful and sincerely possessed with the need to talk back. It was spiritually akin to Doyle's attitude that night, where Joyce and the Irish language had become things he would slay for our amusement.
I was protesting the cavalier transmission of disinformation amidst all the jest.
Doyle was in rare form on all fronts romantic and Irish. The zinger that turned my stomach was when he decided to tell the auditorium full of Joyceans (of all people) "there's no word for love in the Irish language." Joyce scholars are already a pretty anti-Gaelic crew, despite Ó hEhir's monumental A Gaelic lexicon for Finnegans wake, and glossary for Joyce's other works, and so this particular Doyle slander on the Irish language satisfied just the wrong type of Irish hater.
Despite my passions, I am no Roddy Doyle hater. Eileen Jameson can confirm that my first real date, with flowers and the whole bit, was to see The Commitments with her when I was freshman in high school. Just as I was becoming a teenager, my dad's city--Dublin--was hitting popular culture with Doyle's ingenius vision of Irish life that was hip and Black and funny and urban, and ever since, his books have been important to me.
This past week, he was back in New York, and spoke at NYU again, but had to begin with a disclaimer--the whole audio from the night is embedded above. "The last time I was here," he said...going on to decribe the fallout from what happened during question and answers at the Joyce panel.
It still kills me that some of New York's most influential literary types left that damn panel five years ago, thinking Irish is somehow a loveless language. It's unbelievable I was the only one who said anything back to him.
Following the stink at the Joyce panel, I dared show my face at the cocktail reception at Ireland House afterwards. It was a very nice bourgeoise society tradition replete with wine and cheese, and I was very happy to enjoy it. Frank McCourt gave me the wink. We didn't talk as I wasn't as sure of myself then. I missed Roddy Doyle, but I would have avoided him as it was overwhelming. I did see Pádraig Ó Cearúill, Irish language lecturer at NYU, however.
He reminded a little crowd of us gathered in our cúigear, that the Irish convey love in their language in many ways: "mo croí i d'istigh" "my heart inside you" for example. In fact the Irish word for love, "grá," implies onomatopoeiacally, the guts, at least in how it feels to say the word, which comes from deep in the back of a full open throat, with just a hint of a growl, like an animal aching for another. Something like that anyway.
The word "love" incidentally is not a magic utterance that bespeaks an English soul more pure and human than ugly old Irish. "Love" comes from Anglo Saxon "lufu" and had more the meaning of friend, as in the expression "how are ya, love." As anyone who loves American pop music knows, Irish has countless expressions for love in this sense of pal, sweetheart or darling. The earliest and sappiest romantic love songs, a hundred years before Beyoncé, come from New York's Tin Pan Alley and had titles like "a cushla" and "mavourneen" and "macree" and "a stór" and on and on.
If I had been just starting to learn Irish, I would have given up after Doyle's contemptuous assessment, learning from it, that English is superior to loveless Irish. His comments were in that way, mean-spirited and dismissive, or at least potentially effective because I would otherwise have hung on everything he said. Had he been talking about Cherokee or Tibetan, he would have been called prejudice. His demeanor was different on this visit, and his good nature is impossible not to appreciate.
Still, Doyle does not respect Irish civilization enough to know anything about the older literature and culture, that works right alongside him today in Ireland, like the mutant relative you keep locked in the basement, except to take out for ridicule before an audience in majority ignorant of conditions. Ireland is a tiny population. Irish language literature is a major cultural movement that is outright ignored by the Anglophonic literati who should be engaging it with at least the respect of acknowldgement.
Projects of Irish renaissance are rather for mocking and scuttling in Doyle's fictional assessments--knocking down to build new atop.
Doyle is nation-building, like Joyce, like Pearse, like Yeats, like Heaney, like all the heavies. Make no mistake about it, Doyle is participant in an old genre of Irish nation conception. This is a genre that allows the author to recognize in Ireland what the British recognized in it, a sort of concentrated population for experimentation. Great Irish writers have shaped Irish destiny like statesman--often from a distance just as afar.
I had the chance to interview Roddy Doyle briefly about his third book, and the first question I got to ask him was about the title. It had struck me as odd that while he was being interviewed in Ireland about the book, he never mentioned the title, nor did the host of the program.
Pat Kenny called the book "the highly anticipated third installment of the Henry Smart trilogy." And then when Doyle's segment actually started, they went right into it, and not once called the book--The Dead Republic--by name. Each of the eight times it was mentioned, it was called after the main character's name or "the current book" or "the book" or "the new book" or "the last book." There seemed to be a kibosh (caipín báis, "cap of death") on actually saying "The Dead Republic."
The book in question was written pre-economic collapse, and comes from the same spirit in which Frank McCourt editted the gimmickyYeats is Dead during Celtic Tiger triumphantalism over old Ireland. The life of the mind is superior to that of the body, because it can perpetuate and blossom post-mortem, and the only way to stop it is to produce better ideas than it. "The guy who thought that is dead" is not sufficient rebuttal. It is why Frank McCourt's legacy will remain so strong a thing in this life, as with Yeats.
The Dead Republic has an ominous ring to it. Ireland's citizens owe the banking empire 100 billion euro. Ireland now borrows 100 million euro a day to stay afloat. Ireland is in an existential crisis that is being blamed on Irish qualities, as in the days of Victoria's empire when the Irish were said incapable of managing a country. Irish consciousness is either awakened by its artists, or lulled as the status quo prefers. When Doyle speaks of "getting on with it" or "no one to blame but ourselves," he's assisting in shifting blame away from the financial empire that routinely sacks small countries with debt, so that natural resources may be extracted as legal payment. Casement's 1916 ideals would preserve the Irish state, and Doyle's would only help us accept its ruination with a laugh.
Sheila Fee asked Doyle about the Irish language. Fee is an Irish events promoter in the city, and comes from a family of Irish learners, including her sister Éibhlín Zurrell born in Queens, now a gifted teacher of the language. Do you speak Gaelic? she asked.
In response, "I studied Irish every week for years," Doyle said, "so no."
Following the big laugh he had many more Irish language jokes besides. Making fun of the shrinking numbers of native Irish speakers is funny to people, because humans kick people when they're down.
But that wasn't the viciousness really. Doyle isn't vicious, he's just careless, as when he told the story about his daughter taking Irish at school, only to have her second teacher come from Donegal, speaking a Donegal dialect.
"I thought we were over those days," was Doyle's comment. He made the comment to a room at NYU with what might seem like an unusually high Donegal contingent.
Dr. Art Hughes was in the audience. The man is like Doyle, an Irish writer, who just published a funny book, The Big Drum, translated into English from Seosamh MacGrianna who wrote in Irish informed by a Donegal dialect. The book is more rich and as funny as The Van or any of Doyle's blockbusters--but not on the radar of someone like Doyle who might have talked to Hughes about finding a movie agent for his great book, but instead, Doyle merely insulted the man's passion for Irish literature in its fuller bi-lingual manifestation.
Five years ago Roddy Doyle comes to NYU and tells a room full of Joyceans that Irish speakers don't love, and then comes back a couple of weeks ago, and tells NYU, for all intents and purposes that Irish dialects should go away and die.
His attitude towards Irish dialect is ironic to hypocritical degrees. One, he writes stories that make the world scream with laughter in Dublin English. Two, the middle class view in the Irish renaissance exalted a standard caighdeánach version of Irish over the dirtier Gaeilge of the living dialects on the streets.