I saw Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk and it haunts me. It was so unbelievably fun, so incredibly funny, very contemporary, and very dark. I loved it. Reviews seem to approach it as a re-writing of Waiting for Godot–claiming that this play represents what happens when Godot shows up–and it does do that. But it’s not just that–it captures how in a room, alone, separate from all the smallness of smalltown life, two characters recreate this very smallness as they imagine, perform, and give life to the characters of Ballyturk. One character (Cillian Murphy) becomes the Irish shop woman who refuses to sell lemons so nothing in the store can out-bitter her, and questions the audacity of a yellow jumper (is black and brown not good enough for you, Cody?), while the other character (Mikel Murphi) becomes various members of the community, bravely facing her wrath. The tone is so spot on, but it is also so sad. That in creating life to fill our lonely little rooms, we recreate its smallness. We can’t even dream beyond the limits that so visibly limit each of the fictional characters of Ballyturk.
Looking through Irish newspapers, I can’t get over how important Charles Kickham was, and for how long. His 1879 novel, Knocknagow, was a best-seller in 1978 (and now is completely out of print, and nearly impossible to find). In the 20th century, there were frequent reprints of his novels, usually accompanied by a lament that the younger generation was not reading him. My favorite of these laments:
“Do people still read Kickham’s novels as they did in our younger days? I put myself the question with a feeling of uneasiness. We live in an age of tabloid fiction, sex problems, and slum realism” (“Patriotism and Authorship”, Irish Independent 8/30/1928, 5).
So, beginning in 1928, Kickham’s novels became a way of measuring the well-being of the Irish youth. Priests alluded to him in support of the GAA, and parents used his novels as a litmus test for English curriculum (the schools always failed this test: Kickham was not taught).
His novels also became a way of institutionalizing Irish Christmas, people noted how fortuitous it was that Kickham’s Knocknagow was published the year that Dickens–the inventor of English Christmas–died. At last–Ireland could secure its own sentimental structure and replace the Christmas cards featuring English homes and Dickensian scenes! People performed the play version of his novel at official meetings, and Tipperary men and women who died made the newspapers if they had a connection to the bright, shining star, Charles Kickham. This fenian, so opposed to state institutions, became an important instrument of Irish state power.
I’m interested in two things: 1) when (and why) did Kickham’s novel disappear from circulation 2) what would Kickham make of it all? Dying relatively young helped sanitize him, as did his physical disabilities (he advocated violence, but was too weak to ever perform it). But maybe, just maybe, he’d have more in common with slum realism than people might suspect.
I spent yesterday on Inishmore, which only made me dislike Emily Lawless’s Grania all the more. Heather Edwards has a great article about this novel as New Woman fiction, but I find the novel too frustrating to even be willing to grapple with it. Partly my disappointment stems from wanting to read it for so long–it could never meet my expectations–but partly it’s because the novel is so explicitly anti-Irish. Grania’s an amazing character, for sure, and it works to challenge stereotypes of the Irish, but the whole thing is that the people of Inishmaan are mere reflections (and further embodiments of) the landscape. (I remember this from Hurrish, too, Lawless’s take on the landwars). And, when I was in Inishmaan a long while ago, I have never been so cold in my life (it was July, naturally). But yesterday on Inishmore I got sunburnt. Which is all to say that the defining feature of an Island landscape is its changeability, but Lawless’s representation of the Irish is anything but. Obviously, I don’t need novels to be pro-Irish (or pro-Irish nationalism) to be interesting and to be willing to engage with them, but if you are going to root an entire group of people in the land (nature not culture) at least do a better job talking about nature.