I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized At Least Two Irelands

At Least Two Irelands

Michael O’Loughlin
The Cruelty Men, by Emer Martin, Lilliput, 368 pp, €16, ISBN: 978-1843517399 When the Russo-Finnish war broke out some months after the publication of Finnegans Wake, Joyce commented: “The Finn again wakes.” Such rhymes of history with literature are unusual – and yet it seems apt that The Cruelty Men was published weeks after the successful vote for repeal of the eighth amendment, which finally ended the reign of the cruelty men. But the postwar can be just as difficult. Ireland’s historical consciousness is riddled with lacunae, evasion and institutional lies. It seems hard for us to actually own what we know. Knowledge of the Magdalene laundries and the other institutions which made up Ireland’s gulag was long in the public domain, before the sheer scale of its evil finally got through to us. It’s as if we instinctively turn away from the trauma. Nothing could typify this more than when Emer Martin was interviewed recently by a well-known radio presenter who professed ignorance of who and what the “cruelty men” were, despite the fact that they had scarred the lives of so many Irish women and children and, particularly in the Traveller community, still rank alongside Oliver Cromwell as children’s bedtime bogeymen. There are always at least two Irelands. Literature, storytelling, is one way to confront these historical traumas and put some kind of shape on them. There is a welcome explosion in recent years of novels by young Irish women, but they often seem strangely conventional in both form and content. Emer Martin cannot be accused of that. It is her unconventionality, perhaps, that has led to her curious invisibility at the forefront of Irish literature. She burst onto the scene with her first, Listowel Prize-winning novel, Breakfast in Babylon, which told the often shocking story of her generation of young Irish people plunged into a maelstrom of sex and drugs both at home and abroad. Baby Zero, published in 2007, was an extraordinary meditation on the lives of women and children, set in a dystopian Taliban or Isis-like regime, but seemed to fly beneath the radar of Irish literary criticism. Her peripatetic lifestyle, interrupted by long sojourns in the depths of Meath, which has now led her to Southern California, cannot have helped either. In this novel, she sets herself the herculean task of following the workings of the cruelty men over many generations. Confronted by a mountain of such radioactive material,…

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