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The Past, Revisited

In July 2020, Colm Tóibín wrote a feature article for The Wall Street Journal. Entitled “Welcome to the Summer of Young Irish Love”, it applauded the emergence of a new set of Irish writers ‑ among them Sally Rooney, Colin Barrett, Nicole Flattery, Naoise Dolan, Belinda McKeon and Rob Doyle. What united these new writers’ works, Tóibín explained, apart from their apparent temporal and thematic alignments, was their lack of interest in the past. “They are not examples of a new Ireland or a post Catholic Ireland,” wrote Tóibín. “Instead they stand alone, independent, un-haunted, free to act without any burdens that we might associate with Ireland.”

Tóibín’s review did not mention Niamh Campbell, whose perfectly scalloped first novel, This Happy, came out in June of this year. This is perhaps just as well, for it would be preposterous to collapse Campbell’s luminous writing and sparkling mind into the fold of six others ‑ indeed, this approach does not seem to do much justice to any of the aforementioned writers. Moreover, Tóibín’s assessment on Irish literature’s present-day obliviousness to the past would not stand up against consideration of an early scene from This Happy. Here, Campbell’s protagonist, Alannah, sits staring at the head of Oliver Plunkett. “The head was alive in some sense,” Campbell writes. “The head had suffered much. The expression on its face was a continuing suffering.” Ghostly and troubling, the spectre of Irish history, specifically the history of class belittlement, perforates each page of This Happy, explored through the fraught romantic relationships of Alannah, whose childhood unfolded in the prosaic gloom of a half-built housing estate in North Dublin. “As a child I was thrilled by the head,” Campbell writes. “I convinced myself that the bloodied rags of setting sun were the wrappings of the head of Saint Oliver Plunkett and that, soon, I would see the head itself screaming into being like a new planet.” Prophetic in its formulation, it is an early indication of Campbell’s cyclical vision of history, of her sense of its weighty and bloody reverberation into the present day. One of the many pleasures of Campbell’s writing is an evident belief in her reader’s intellectual range, her insistence on carrying us across diverse repertoires without any conceptual scaffolding. And so, she doesn’t digress to explain the precise past that Oliver Plunkett represented. Plunkett was hanged, drawn and quartered in London, convicted by a jaundiced jury of high treason.

Back in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Tóibín’s article listed some determinants underpinning, as he saw it, the success of the aforementioned writers. First off was this generation’s unprecedented access to elite education institutions previously cut off to them – namely to Trinity College. “Until 50 years ago,” wrote Tóibín, “Trinity was considered a bastion of Protestant privilege … At the time there was a fear that the arrival of Catholic students would lower the posh tone of the university. What happened instead is more interesting: the new students entered the life of Trinity as though they were entitled to be there.”

It is not altogether surprising that the talents of today’s new Irish writers are being attributed to a Trinityesque education. If the dramatisation of Normal People did anything, it was to perpetuate the idea of the redeeming effect of the Irish elite, and its institutions, on those resilient enough to survive their withering gaze. Conall, the working class boy from Sligo, silently struggled with Trinity’s hierarchies but ultimately he conformed to and solidified them, besting the others at their own game with a Schols grant and editorship of the college magazine. Conall didn’t drop out, switch universities or fail his exams and so the TV show ended with a quiet celebration of his class mobility ‑ with no accounting for why, precisely, this college experience necessitated such psychological torment, estrangement and alienation. After the airing of Normal People, Trinity reported a record high number of CAO applications ‑ a chilling measure of how narrowly young Irish students (and perhaps their families) had engaged with the show, how tragically they had failed to grasp the nuances in Rooney’s original work.

Niamh Campbell’s This Happy will tolerate no such misapprehension. And this, quite apart from its intense enjoyability, its literary grace, is what marks the novel out as urgent reading. As though predicting Trinity’s increased enrolments as well as Tóibín’s reduction of new talent to the civilising effect of an elite institution, Campbell cuts through class politeness and conservatism, deploying no-nonsense McGahernesque prose to call it like it is. And so, the landscape of This Happy is not the leafy southside suburbs but the gritty streets of north inner city Dublin, where she eats from the buffets on Moore Street and goes for dates in Glasnevin cemetery. Her character does not comment on the homeless because to do so would be self-serving and pious – “I did not comment on the homeless because it was so obvious”, Campbell writes, with devastating irony. Likewise, though she weaves Alannah in and out of Trinity’s campus, she is careful to always position her outside of it: an unwelcome observer, a distanced critic. At one point, Alannah attends an evening lecture in Trinity. There she is frowned upon by a tweed-wearing professor who asks, doubtfully, did you go here? “The kind of people who went to night lectures at Trinity,” writes Campbell, “were old and rich, smelling of steeping damp native to sash windowed villas in Blackrock Bay, windows with protection orders – smelling of that halitotic aristocratic world, a world of retired judges and government aides.”

With prose like this, Campbell’s writing of course runs the risk of sounding peevish. Her genius, however, is the mobilisation of plot to acknowledge the enmeshed and contradictory nature of Irish class politics, the maddening coexistence of upper-class hatred and aspiration. Campbell’s book opens with Alannah at thirty, newly married to a middle class husband: a man whose parents own multiple properties and who had been schooled at Clongowes and Trinity. “He came from the Castle Catholic Class,” writes Campbell ‑ “Those who were doing well always, even under occupation and even after recession; slumlords and tightwads with occasional ersatz knighthoods, that kind of thing. And although I was vaguely rough trade in my roots and spiritedness, he liked the glaze of grandeur education gave to me. In theory, at least.”

Here Campbell once again interlocks historical and contemporary experience, finding coordinates for today’s slumlords in Ireland’s colonial past. With this illusion to the dialogic entanglement of education and middle class aspiration, she also edges her readers to the idea that slices through the heart of This Happy ‑ namely, that the attempts of the socially dispossessed to transcend class belittlement through the corridors of education might in fact be an illusion ‑ a myth that may provide “a glaze of grandeur” but little in the way of meeting the rent.

This Happy is the fictional terrain upon which Campbell navigates this cultural entrapment. To do so, she marshals the subtleties of memory over the narratives of history, leading her protagonist through tricks of mnemonic parallax to understand her past. “Now I only walk into memories like cold spots or sensations, sometimes and accidentally,” writes Campbell evocatively, seductive.

And yet, history too has much to add to Campbell’s reckoning with the politics of Irish elite education, the lights and shades of which she navigates so intuitively through her novel. Take for instance the historical studies published by Mary Golden (1997) and Robert MacCarthy (1982), which explore the vast estates that were granted to Trinity College in the late sixteenth century by the British crown. The Trinity estates exceeded 2,000 acres, and much of them were occupied by the poorest of Ireland’s Catholic population. This was particularly true of estates in Donegal, North Kerry and the Iveragh peninsula. In 1822 a visitor to Iveragh wrote in horror of the conditions of the locals of Caherciveen, “who subsist on herbs and weeds”.

For four centuries, the provosts and fellows of Trinity college extracted rents from these tenants without ever deigning to improve their lands, nor to ameliorate their extraordinary suffering. Moreover, to avoid the “headache” of collecting rent from numerous tenants or of overseeing their frequent eviction the college spawned a new class of middlemen, the descendants of whom became the confident, entitled Catholics that Tóibín may have imagined in his WSJ article, and that Campbell in turn rendered in the character of Alannah’s husband. According to Mary Golden, “these middle men ‑ the college’s unofficial managements team ‑ allowed subletting to continue unheeded in the college lands. This was one of the main problems causing poverty in the Iveragh region. Two of the commissioners found that “the small tenants pay the highest rents and in general try to support their families on a piece of ground too small to yield them a good sustenance”.

History thus confirms what Campbell’s fiction suggests. Elite education provides a mask, a glaze of grandeur, behind which reside the naked interests of the property-owning middle-classes. More insidiously, as the Iveragh study shows, Ireland’s most elite education institution itself fostered the very systems of rental and middle-man exploitation that for centuries crippled Ireland’s poorest populations —and that continue to do so into the present day.

Frustration with this cultural duplicity is implicit in Campbell’s fiction and is explored more overtly in a personal essay she wrote for The Guardian, shortly after the publication of This Happy. The essay begins with a question: “How does a young writer pay the rent?” Despite graduating with a PhD from Kings College (she didn’t have the requisite 30,000 to register for Oxford) Campbell confesses that her educational and literary success was still not enough to escape the tentacles of the Irish landlord. “Speaking from Dublin,” she writes, “the biggest threat to artists’ survival is rack renting. A housing “crisis” created through a combination of opportunism and indifference means the post-crash atmosphere of reinvention and community is less and less viable. Those who remain face a mental health crisis … getting evicted, having rent jacked up, little to no privacy, the insidious shame of feeling somehow to blame.” At this, the past seems to momentarily eclipse the present. History, fiction and memory clink and chime off each other, creating elusive tonalities of experience that echo, disperse, then rise again, somewhere more distant.

In the same summer that This Happy was published, the Irish Department of Education faced a dilemma. Because of the pandemic, there was no possibility of holding the leaving certificate exams and it had to come up with a new way of calculating students’ performance. For many, these results would determine their future university trajectories. Thousands of teachers across the country readily acceded to the department’s demands, toiling away from their homes to provide estimated marks under tight deadlines. However, upon publication of the assessment strategy, an interesting clause was added by the state commissioning body. The teachers’ marks were to be readjusted, “to bring them into line with the expected distribution for the school”. “School sourced data” the educational circular stated “will be combined with historical data through a process called standardization”.

“There is power in a past, and liability too,” writes Campbell. This summer, that power will be deployed once again, subsidising anew the abilities of the middle-classes ‑ for they, after all, can afford the fee-paying schools that historically perform best. The past is similarly written on the futures of state school kids, and it will manifest in the discomfort they will inevitably feel in places like Trinity where, despite entering without any cultural leg-up, they’ll be made to feel inferior. “Fuck this,” Campbell writes in furious retort, in full revolt now, close to her novel’s end. “I had composed a list of things I was sick of, bored with … umbrella holders of bamboo … cut glass decanters … the border with Northern Ireland … the Celtic Tiger. Ghost estates. The Big House with its violent tympanum of armour and weapons, Latin mottos, baying dogs, my body strategically starved. You don’t know what I can do. Nobody knows.”

We know now. And it’s magnificent.


Sarah O’Brien is a cultural historian, and lecturer at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.



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