With his groundbreaking books like The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, novelist, screenwriter and playwright Patrick McCabe has become one of Ireland’s most successful and widely admired authors. On October 11 he releases the final book in his “small town” series, titled The Stray Sod Country. It may be his greatest work to date. He talks to CAHIR O’DOHERTY about Ireland and people who have inspired him.
It's dead and gone, romantic Ireland, if it ever existed. The land of friendly neighbors, grand soft days, brown soda bread and lively wee dogs and the whole shebang has been consigned, wholesale, to history’s scrapheap.
It’s what’s coming in its place that’s the question now.
With his usual impeccable timing, Irish author Patrick McCabe has returned with a likely answer. McCabe’s dazzling and elegiac new novel The Stray Sod Country (Bloomsbury), the final in his “small town” series, explores all of the familiar tensions between the past and the present that grip the little border town of Cullymore, and through that the nation, and they often turn out to be explosive.
The most brilliant and seemingly effortless novelist Ireland has produced in decades, McCabe, 55, who’s teaching Irish literature at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana this fall, could easily afford to sit back on his achievements to date (The Butcher Boy, Winterwood, Breakfast on Pluto among others).
Thankfully, though, he’s been prolific in his explorations, and it’s hard to point to a contemporary Irish novelist that combines his virtuosity, his sense of place and his modernity.
Born in Clones, Co. Monaghan in 1955, McCabe grew up in a little border town that seemed to be bordering on everything (including insanity, hysteria and civilization).
It was, he recalls, a town full of dark secrets and unforgettable characters, and like everyone else there he talked to everyone else there. Going “up the town” to him meant stepping out to blather away with everyone you encountered, be they eight or 80.
It was enviable training for a man who’s made small town Irish life one of his most accomplished subjects. And, he freely admits, it’s a way of life that has all but disappeared now.
But like James Joyce, the illustrious predecessor that McCabe’s work most resembles in terms of its sheer invention, he has recorded that vanished world note for note in his own imagination and he gives it back to us, transformed, in his books.
The first thing to ask about his latest novel is what is the “stray sod” it takes its title from?
“What it really means is if you take a wrong turn you could be in trouble,” McCabe tells the Irish Voice during a phone interview on Monday.
“I first heard it in London in a restaurant when an Irish woman in her forties came bursting in with an umbrella and stated to her friend, ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph I’m really sorry I’m late. I fell into the stray sod back there near McDonald’s.’
“It’s a bit of the folk memory leaping out at you. When people are in a state of extremis their true nature comes out. I just lassoed the phrase.”
The tension between Irish traditions and modern life is a recurring theme in The Stray Sod Country.
“It’s probably the major subject of the book. If you look at Ireland now you see the chickens are coming home to roost in many ways. The consequences of our actions are now visible,” he says.
“I’m not making any moral comments on the wildness or excesses of the people because it’s in me too. If there is a certain lack of rigor it will have consequences. I’m not saying its wrong to behave in that way, but if you admire the man who builds the big lump of a house on the hill and no one knows where he got the money for it -- and they don’t really care -- well, when the banks go bust there’s no point in whining because you’re complicit in it as well.”
Timely as ever, in The Stray Sod Country McCabe explores what happens to a small community as it dies. It will reconstitute itself, he shows us, but the community it was will be transformed into something else. The implications of that are unavoidable.
“I’m not a nostalgic freak. Things always change and we’re caught in the pincer jaws of change, especially right now,” McCabe says.
“But for the Irish some things are consistent wherever you meet them. They want to know where you’re from. The want to know the town, then the town land, then the lane or street. It’s not what class you’re from, it’s where about you’re from.
“The sense of place seems particularly pronounced in the Irish psyche. And I think that’s what the stray sod is -- a kind of tipping into a new field you don’t know.”
Another Irish writer McCabe’s work echoes is Brian Friel. He agrees that there are resemblances and doesn’t bristle at the comparison.
“He grew up in a village, so did I, and the stereotypes and archetypes he knew would be the same as mine. It’s a matter of how we treat them.”
This is an understatement. No other contemporary Irish writer even comes close to McCabe in terms of his modernity.
Rock and roll and sex and madness and religiosity and hypocrisy and more besides are always threatening to rip every community he writes about wide open, usually from the inside, and usually from the first paragraph.
“I’ve been at pains to suggest the modernity of the work without overstating it. While my books deal with Irish archetypes of the 1940s and 1950s the manner in which they’re dealt with is very modern,” offers McCabe.
“There are flash forwards and flash backs and the whole notion of time is questioned, even what it means. It’s like when you look in your mirror you see your father looking back at you and he’s your ghost, and you’re his.”
Critics have heaped praise but haven’t always grasped just how inventive McCabe’s efforts are.
“With The Butcher Boy they wrote things like, ‘McCabe exposes the marginalized, sad people of his little town,’ and that’s not the way I saw it at all. I saw a lot of color in that book and a lot of fierce internal thinking going on.”
The surprise was that a book as modern as The Butcher Boy found an audience right away in Ireland. But McCabe puts it down to changes that were already present in Irish society.
“It was all ready to go when I started writing about it, the shoots were already there in the culture. Things were changing,” he says.
“You know it was always extraordinary to me, for example, that in Irish fiction you could read every work and never come across a transvestite. I thought there was something seriously wrong there.
“People had either been too stupid, too blind or too afraid when it’s part of human nature. Also, it was just an excuse to put a whole load of color into a book.”
Lunatics, lovers and cross dressers all line up for a hearing in McCabe’s books, a cast of characters that are rarely if ever heard from anywhere else in Irish fiction. It comes, he says, from his experiences growing up.
“When I was a boy we used to do something called ‘going up the town.’ You’d step out and always meet different people like an 80-year-old farmer and a 90-year-old woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, and then someone your own age,” he says.
“I developed a facility very early on of dexterity of flipping from one to the other and enjoying every minute of it. Nowadays they won’t be there. They’ll be stuck at home watching a god-awful plasma because they can’t drive into town with drink taken. They’re not there for my entertainment.”
The characters he once knew have been pushed even further into the margins, and what replaced them were men in suits with cell phones making quick fix term deals and putting the country’s future in peril over the demands of the moment. It’s those people who have led us toward the stray sod country we’re in now.
“There’s no long-term thinking or planning in Ireland. There’s a lack of rigor,” McCabe feels.
“How many times in your life have you heard someone say, ‘Ah, sure it’s only a bit of craic.’ I remember a friend saying to me, when I’d had a novel I’d spent three years on rejected, ‘Ah, sure what odds, it’s only a bit of craic at the end of the day.’
“I thought, this is the problem, we don’t take ourselves seriously enough. We have half a million unemployed and it will be f***ing grand in my eyeball if something isn’t done soon. We could be doing now with a leader who’s a combination of W.B. Yeats and Sean Lemass.
“It’s a turning point now for the Republic. It’s an element of the title of the book too. The stray sod looks the same, it feels the same but it is not the same. It hit the society bang on time again.”