The Dead Republic, by Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Cape, 329 pp, £13.99, ISBN: 978-0224090100
In the first part of Roddy Doyle’s The Dead Republic, the plot turns on an important choice which appears to be confronting the Hollywood director John Ford about a film he is struggling to make. It is the late 1940s, and Ford, in Doyle’s telling of these events, has to choose between two sources of material for this film – that “Irish project” which is a longstanding passion of his but which the Hollywood studio system is reluctant to back. He can work with the imaginary, fictionalised version of Ireland contained in Maurice Walsh’s short story “The Quiet Man”. Or he can reveal the grimly violent reality of Ireland’s struggle for independence by making the film about the role of Henry Smart as a foot soldier in that struggle. Inevitably, Henry is betrayed by Ford, who elects to create the lush Technicolor fantasia of rural Ireland that is now more famous than the story from which it takes its title.
Doyle’s joke is, of course, that Henry is the narrator of The Dead Republic and the story he hopes Ford will tell is no less fictional than Walsh’s short story. It is, in fact, the plot of A Star called Henry (1996), the first part of Doyle’s The Last Roundup trilogy. Arguably, this turn in the plot – a choice between fiction and reality that is revealed as a choice between two fictions – encapsulates the larger paradox underpinning the trilogy as a whole. On the one hand, Doyle’s historical fiction is motivated by an almost fetishistic belief in the power of literary realism to reveal an authentic historical reality that lies behind the mystifications placed over that reality by various ideologies – most notably, in the Irish case, nationalism and the “religion”, as Henry and the other characters repeatedly describe it, of republicanism. On the other hand, the style, plot and emotional force of these novels depend entirely on the idea that historical reality is always a chimera, always unknowable and impossible to grasp. This is politically a work of revisionist fiction that aesthetically undermines the foundations of revisionism.
What are the indicators of authenticity in these novels – how are we assured that this account of the Irish twentieth century is the real deal, unvarnished by ideology? The most obvious indicator is Doyle’s prose style. Here we would note those generally terse, declarative sentences; the preference for description and action over reflection and ideas; the recurring use of dialogue and the generally furious pace at which everything moves along (an accelerated tempo that can, most particularly in the final third of The Dead Republic, become quite dissatisfying and which suggests a certain slackness or sloppiness – as if the author himself was starting to be bored). Thus that deadpan, world-weary and knowing tone of Henry’s narrative voice is woven into the style of the prose as forcibly as it is enunciated in the content.
For the character of Henry is clearly the other indispensible guarantor of historical verisimilitude. In The Dead Republic, Henry reminds us that there is no evidence of his involvement in the 1916 Rising fifty years before, since his image had been deliberately removed from the surviving photographs of the event after he had been sentenced to death by the IRA in the run-up to the Civil War. In many respects, this is the governing trope of Doyle’s trilogy – inserting back into the national historical narrative those who have been forcibly removed from it, namely the urban working class and the poor. This impetus is strongest in the first novel. The story of Henry’s childhood dwells viscerally on the intolerable, inhuman conditions of Dublin’s slums at the turn of the twentieth century, establishing the motivation for Henry’s subsequent involvement with Connolly and the Citizen Army; of the numerous historical characters that appear in the trilogy, Connolly is the only one accorded any political or moral integrity. Thus Doyle evidently believes that there was a strongly socialist dimension to nationalist politics and an urgent, material impetus for revolutionary action. In short, the earlier novel appears to counter the prevailing late twentieth century orthodoxy which, as Seamus Deane puts it, “downplays the oppression the Rising sought to overthrow and upgrades the oppression the Rising itself inaugurated in the name of freedom”.
Henry embodies Doyle’s ideal hero – a model agent of revolutionary historical change. A child of the slums, he retains a hard-edged materialist political perspective, in contrast to the idealising but hypocritical effusions of the lower middle class leadership of the national movement. Unlike the political and religious piety of Pearse, de Valera and their acolytes, Henry is thoroughly pragmatic, secular and sceptical. That he is so is largely due to his urban – specifically Dublin – origins; in the first novel there is much comic emphasis on the ineptitude and ignorance of the rural volunteers who have to be knocked into shape by Henry and, in the more recent novel, the real sting of Ford’s betrayal was that he chose a rural, Western idealisation of Ireland over the authenticity of the urbanised East. That this urban-rural distinction takes on a certain luridly comic dimension in the novels suggests that Doyle may be becoming aware that this one is getting a bit tired, since it is nearly thirty years now since he, Dermot Bolger and the other “New Dublin Writers” began playing that tune. And, as Conor McCarthy has argued, the great irony of their adherence to this trope was that these writers were rehearsing an identical notion of geographical and cultural authenticity – though now situated in the urban East – to that rural, Western-oriented notion deployed by the earlier generations of writers, most notably the Revivalists, against whom they identified themselves.
Henry also embodies the ideal hero in a more literal sense. The early novel places much emphasis on his physical size, strength and fantastical sexual allure. Inevitably, his relentlessly exuberant sexuality – “I was just doing what came natural; I was fucking women who wanted to fuck me.” – serves by contrast to reiterate the anaemic, repressed and thoroughly dysfunctional sexuality of the other volunteers. Indeed, the characterisation of Ivan Reynolds, Henry’s nemesis among the other republicans, goes further than this to suggest that the real motivation of his devotion to political violence is not politics but sexual sadism. Again, we might notice a certain irony here. The imaginative creation of an ideal revolutionary hero fit for our more liberal, progressive times depends on a quite retrograde notion of hyperbolic, heterosexual machismo; one that requires a misogynistic characterisation of women as so many occasions for Henry’s sexual adventures, along with the distinctly homophobic edge to the brief description of Pearse as both physically weak and intellectually effete.
However, this reading assumes that Henry is a hero and that the trilogy is a conventional work of realism. Neither is true. The thrust of the plot in each novel is the gradual revelation to Henry of the reality of what has actually been taking place in his life, namely that he has been a powerless pawn and an unwitting dupe in the machinations of others. Thus, in the final part of the trilogy, the now aged Henry is carted around public meetings by the Provisionals at the time of the Hunger Strikes, functioning as a talisman of legitimacy as only one of two living links to the first Dáil. This is an act of fakery, of course, since Henry was only seventeen in 1919 and too young to have been elected; the other living link is equally dubious since he had voted for the Treaty and initially been on the Free State side in the Civil War. In Doyle’s telling, the spuriousness of the claims made for the old men is insignificant to all concerned since republicanism is evidently less about politics than an irrational, religious obsession with relics and pure origins. Far from being strongly committed to the Provos, Henry only participates in the movement because he fears for his wife and daughter. However, he doesn’t just fear the paramilitaries, but also the Irish state, in the form of the Special Branch, for whom he acts as a mole. In a further twist, it transpires that both sides are aware that he is an informer and are actually using him as a secret medium of communication. The effect, in short, is one of history as a tangled, conspiratorial web of dark forces that may appear to be opposites but are ultimately identical – a web in which the individual is trapped and powerless. Formally, this rather disabling sense of history as conspiracy is an inevitable effect of the splicing together of two genres – the historical novel and the noir thriller – in the trilogy. The richly complex dialectical struggle of classes and ideologies is reduced to the search for those to blame for everything that went wrong – who killed the “dead republic”?
The idea of family as the ultimate motive for political actions is a motif repeated from the first novel, where the plot culminates with Henry’s realisation that he has merely fulfilled the same function for the IRA as his father had for Dublin’s gangsters, that of a hired killer. In other words, behind the chimera of politics, rational action and human agency lies the “truth” of human emotions; what Fredric Jameson, in another context, has described as “a reduction and a rewriting of the whole rich and random multiple realities of concrete everyday experience into the contained, strategically prelimited terms of the family narrative”.
Likewise, the realism of the novels – those visceral, naturalistic accounts of the horrors of slum life with all its deprivations and humiliations, for instance – sits in an uneasy alliance with the bawdy, fantastical and picaresque flow of Henry’s sexual and political adventures on both sides of the Atlantic. The three plots, moreover, depend on stretching credulity and coincidence to snapping point, so that Henry assumes the qualities of Woody Allen’s Zelig. From the GPO in 1916 and the Bloody Sunday assassinations in 1920 to the Dublin bombings in 1974 and the Hunger Strike funerals in 1981 – not to mention Depression-era Chicago and 1940s Hollywood in between – Henry, unlike Macavity, is always there. Occasionally he even leaves an anonymous historical mark, as in Connolly’s inclusion of the clause on children in the proclamation at Henry’s suggestion. Hence the stream of historical figures with whom he has contact: Connolly, Pearse, Collins, de Valera, Louis Armstrong, Ford, Maureen O’Hara, and so on. This culminates in The Dead Republic with a knowing wink to the readers when Henry meets a bearded Provo leader and we are told: “You think it was Adams. But it wasn’t. It was a different man. Adams was in Long Kesh, in Cage 11, becoming Gerry Adams. He’d be in there for another three years.”
Evidently, the point here is not to chide Doyle for the failure of his realism, his playful lack of respect for historical facts. Nor is it to express disappointment at his formal caution, his refusal to produce a full-blown postmodernist extravaganza. It is rather to note a poignant paradox in this work. The trilogy is shaped by an unresolved tension between the ironic subversion of all heroic or idealistic historical possibilities and a simultaneous desire for some source of authentic, meaningful historical action – a tragic desire that appears to be central to Doyle’s project and yet must be constantly disavowed in the work. The uneasy oscillation we have noted in the trilogy’s form between a mode of traditional realism and the novels’ self-conscious postmodernism also finds expression in the rhythm of idealism and disillusion in the plot. Initially, the contrast is between the high-flown, romantic idealism of Pearse, and of his followers in subsequent generations, and the pragmatic, even cynical, realism of the street-smart young Henry. But the unfolding of the plot reveals the patriots and politicians, of whatever variety of nationalism or republicanism, to be the real cynics; willing to resort to any type of reprehensible, violent, treacherous stratagem in their pursuit of power. Henry, it transpires, was the only true idealist. Except that the gradual revelation of the ruthless machinations in which he has been a hapless pawn, the slow, convoluted, uncertain revelation of what has been “really” going on, robs him of any vestige of his idealism. Thus, by the end any space for such idealism has vanished and all that remains is cynicism and disillusionment.
Doyle’s fusion of realism and ironic playfulness in the novels produces an attempt at counterfactual history in which we still end up where we are. The possibilities offered by fiction are used to imaginatively restore those obscured currents – revolutionary socialism, the working class – to Irish history, only to finally demonstrate that it doesn’t make any difference. Crucially, this conclusion does not just shape our understanding of the past since it also determines our orientation towards the future; namely, as something over which we cannot exercise any control and which we can no longer imagine as being in any way different from the present. There is a further irony here. One of the main charges which Doyle brings against nationalism and republicanism in the trilogy is that it is essentially a religious rather than a political worldview. And yet the conception of history which unfolds in his fiction is ultimately far removed from any recognisably materialist, leftist, or even liberal model of history; it is essentially a religious notion of history as an inexorable force to which we must fatally submit.
This is not to indict Doyle for some failure of imagination or political will. On the contrary, it means that his novel is particularly instructive about the intellectually and politically atrophied condition of the Irish liberal left, to whose orthodoxies he and most of our leading writers owe allegiance. Even the epochal scale of the current crisis appears to have done little, so far at any rate, to rejuvenate or reorientate their vision (here one thinks with painful embarrassment of Colm Tóibín’s public support for the disgraced banker Michael Fingelton). As ever, historical fiction has more to say to us about its present than it does about the past.
Michael G Cronin teaches in the School of English, Media and Theatre Studies at NUI Maynooth. His primary research interests are the Irish Catholic bildungsroman in the twentieth century, sexuality and Irish writing and contemporary Irish gay fiction.