As generations of Irish writers have warned us, nasty things can happen to you if you don’t fit the mold in small town Ireland. Ciaran Collins’ remarkable debut novel 'The Gamal' tells the story of one such misfit, exposing the dark heart of the Irish town he lives in along the way. Collins talks to Cahir O'Doherty about the critical hosannas that have greeted the book’s arrival and what inspired him to tell this dark tale.
Once in a while a novel from Ireland appears that has the power to make you reassess how you think and feel about the country. This year that head turning distinction belongs to Ciaran Collins, 35, the working school teacher whose debut novel 'The Gamal' has garnered more praise in six months that most authors hear in a lifetime.
Charlie, the 25-year-old gamal of the title (from the Irish word for fool) is a weird kid. He’s usually on his own, he’s awkward in public, he makes people feel uncomfortable. Even his parents think he’s a bit thick.
There’s more than a hint of The Catcher in the Rye at work in this absorbing tale, but Collins has the skill to make you welcome the comparison. The fact is 'The Gamal' describes Irish rural life and manners so evocatively that you’ll be spellbound from the first to last page.
Unlike most people in his Northern Irish village of Ballyronan, misfit Charlie genuinely doesn’t care if you don’t like him. But his attitude is a form of sacrilege in his rural community, where being liked or at least admired is usually central to a sense of self worth.
Not Charlie though. “You won’t like me,” he confidently tells the reader. “Mainly because you know I don't care whether you like me or not.”
But the thing is, for someone who spends so much time assuring us he doesn’t care, Charlie spends an awful lot of time trying to convince us he’s telling the truth.
People don’t rate Charlie, so they let their guard down around him, saying things they may later come to regret. Because they pay no attention to him they rarely ever notice how much attention he’s been paying to them, until it’s too late.
“I have always been attracted to literature that always has an element of the outsider in it,” Collins tells the Irish Voice. “From writers who try and develop a character who’s telling the story from the outsiders perspective, you know?”
Collins’ own Cork accent is strong and clear on the telephone line.
“I’m from a village called Inishshannon in West Cork. It’s a typical rural village within half an hour of Cork City,” he says. “It’s the countryside really. I’m looking out the window of my back kitchen here at open fields.”
No wonder he can write about rural Ireland so convincingly. In person Collins looks like he’s played GAA games for most of his life because he actually has.
His to-the-point speaking voice sounds distinctly level headed and smart, and the impression he gives is of a modest, decent skin. That impression is further solidified by the realization that he doesn’t know another living Irish novelist on a first name basis.
“I don’t really know any writers except those I’ve come into contact with through my publisher Bloomsbury and the publishing world,” Collins explains.
“My father is a retired schoolmaster. There would have been books and music in my home growing up. My mother was very interested in music and my father was interested in books and sport. I’m one of eight children. I grew up reading, although I’ve always loved sports and the outdoors life as well.”
With a writing style that at times faintly echoes Roddy Doyle’s and Pat McCabe’s, Collins is still very much his own man, an immensely assured writer confident of his narrative gifts and in his ability to beguile the reader, making 'The Gamal' one of the best debuts I have read in a decade.
Collins studied English at University College Cork, where he also got his master’s. “That gave me the time to read up on stuff that I was interested in myself,” he says.
That included works by Eugene O’Neill, John McGahern and Cormac McCarthy, all of whom he lists as influences. But his own efforts found him an agent and a publisher – he simply sent out excerpts from the new book until he got a bite.
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.