‘The Waking of Willie Ryan’ by John Broderick

The Waking of Willie Ryan by John Broderick

Fiction – paperback; Lilliput; 240 pages; 2004.

Back in 2012 I read John Broderick’s The Pilgrimage, an astonishing and shocking novel about sexual repression in 1950s Ireland, which has remained with me to this day.

Broderick’s later novel, The Waking of Willie Ryan, which was originally published in 1963, is just as memorable.

This story — of a man who escapes an asylum to confront the people who put him there — is a damning indictment of how easy it once was to remove troublesome people from society by merely labelling them “insane”. It’s also a horrifying expose of the Church’s cruelty towards homosexuals and the way in which it refuses to accept responsibility for past actions.

On the run 

When the book opens we meet Willie Ryan, an unmarried man in his 60s, who is fleeing the asylum in which he’s been living for the past 25 years. His story, which gently unfolds over the course of the novel, is one of great pain and anguish, of hidden abuse and thwarted love affairs, of being hugely wronged by others and then having to pay a high price.

Now, aware that he hasn’t much longer to live, Willie wants to come home to die. But his brother and sister-in-law, well-to-do people in small town Ireland, don’t want anything to do with him, and it is their son, Chris, who shows compassion and takes him in. It soon becomes clears that Willie is not insane and probably never has been. But he has dark secrets, about his childhood, about his love for another man, about the real reason he was incarcerated in a mental institution all those years ago.

While the story introduces subsidiary characters, all confronting their own demons — Chris is battling his own tortured love life; the asylum nurse Halloran is coming to terms with Willie’s motivations; Willie’s brother Mike is grappling with his own grief and remorse; his snobby sister-in-law is continuing to sweep unpalatable truths under the carpet — the central focus of this rather extraordinarily dark novel is the epistemological battle between Willie and the Catholic priest who helped put him away.

Beautiful prose

Like The Pilgrimage before it, The Waking of Willie Ryan deals with oppressive and often shocking subject matter, but it’s written in such beautifully evocative prose, often with an eye towards the witty, that it rarely feels heavy. Here, for instance, is Broderick’s wonderfully scandalous way of describing two women with a penchant for gossip:

They were both hothouse plants: products of years of rich foods, over-heated houses, soft beds, fine linen, and financial security, privileges which had branded them more particularly because they were intensely aware of them. Scented, over-dressed, over-jewelled, they might both have been expensive blooms forced for the same market. The one, slim, sinuous, waxy — a black orchid; the other, fleshly rounded, florid — a prize begonia.

But on the whole there’s a melancholy ache to much of the text as Willie comes to the end of his life knowing that his happiness — and his potential — has been sabotaged by religion and the petty small mindedness of those around him.

The Waking of Willie Ryan is a wonderfully poignant, often bittersweet, tale about refusing to conform and then seeking your own form of retribution at a time when the Church held sway over almost every facet of people’s lives. David Norris, in the foreword to this edition, calls the novel a “masterpiece”. I think he might be right.

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12 thoughts on “‘The Waking of Willie Ryan’ by John Broderick

    • Yes, he was a bit of a rabble rouser by the sound of things. His first novel, The Pilgrimage, was banned in Ireland when it came out 1961. He wasn’t afraid to highlight the Church’s hypocrisy and its treatment of women and gay men.

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  1. This made me think of the NZ writer Janet Frame: a different kind of difference, but the horror of incarceration and primitive ‘treatments’ too.

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    • Yes, I should read some Frame, shouldn’t I? But this novel doesn’t dwell on treatment — in fact you find out nothing of Willie’s life in the asylum (only that he quite liked the peace and quiet). It’s more about him wanting to put the frighteners on those who were complicit in sending him there and to highlight the Church’s role in making it acceptable for people to be labelled “insane” and then sent away. It’s a really damning portrayal of life in Ireland at that time.

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