Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Broderick, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Broderick, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Pilgrimage’ by John Broderick


Fiction – paperback; Lilliput Press; 130 pages; 2004.

Upon publication in 1961 The Pilgrimage, like so many Irish novels that dealt with sex and the Church at the time, was banned by the Censorship Board. Four years later it was retitled The Chameleons and sold more than 100,000 copies in the US.

It was John Broderick’s first novel. He went on to write 11 more — most of which are out of print — and an autobiography, but he got his start as a journalist and book reviewer. He died in 1989.

A dark book about sex

While the scandalous element of this novel may have lost its potency — so much about Ireland has changed since then and the Church is no longer a dominant force — there’s no doubt that this is a very dark book, and the depiction of sex within it still has the power to shock. I’ve not read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I suspect there’s a particular scene in The Pilgrimage that even EL James would not even think to write.

Set during the 1950s, this is very much a story about the hidden Ireland, about what goes on behind closed doors. It is also a disturbing portrait of what happens to ordinary men and women when the Church tries to control sex and sexuality. And it peels back the facade to show how women and gay men were particularly affected by the hypocrisy at the heart of its religious doctrine.

An upstanding woman with a secret life

The story is largely told through the eyes of Julia Glynn, a fine upstanding Church-going woman, who has a secret life. Married to a rich bedridden man, who can no longer fulfill her sexual needs, she seeks out casual encounters with strange men and rekindles her affair with her husband’s handsome young nephew and personal doctor, Jim Glynn.

But when Julia receives a malicious note from an anonymous correspondent detailing her relationship with Jim, she fears that this secret life may become exposed. Not that it puts her off too much — she later instigates a sordid night-time relationship with the household’s butler, a cold man called Stephen Lydon, who may or may not be her husband’s former lover.

As you can see by this brief description, the relationships in this novel are rather complicated and twisted — all the more so when you begin to realise that Julia’s marriage is merely one of convenience. Nothing is spelt out, but if you read between the lines it is clear that her husband is gay and that even on their honeymoon in France, when they “struck up a friendship with a young German who accompanied them everywhere and waved them a sentimental farewell at the airport”, he was having an affair right under her nose.

Restrained prose

Like the best Irish novels, the prose here is restrained, stripped back, bare. Every word counts. Much of the plot moves forward by dialogue, and it is this dialogue which reveals so much about his well-drawn, believable characters — it’s like every time they open their mouths, they reveal their souls.

And despite the lack of any superfluous words, Broderick manages to convey feelings and whole atmospheres — usually of malice and foreboding — so that they resonate off the page. A recurring theme is the claustrophobia of small town life, where everyone knows everyone’s business — or thinks they do — something that Julia finds particularly difficult to live with.

She was glad she had brought the car: to walk through the narrow, claustrophobic streets of this town with its almost indecent sense of intimacy would, at that moment, have been more than she could bear. She was too accurately attuned to the tempo of the place not to know that the tiniest change of mood, or worried preoccupation, was as accurately registered as an earthquake on a seismograph. These people did not lay bare their petty secrets by any logical system, but by an instinct which was almost entirely physical; and, therefore to Julia most terrifying, since her own reactions were largely of the blood. For that reason, like many others who live in those closed communities, she had developed a natural gift for dissimulation to an uncanny pitch of perfection. The city dweller who passes through a country town, and imagines it sleepy and apathetic is very far from the truth: it is as watchful as a jungle.

Two kinds of pilgrimage

The main plot, which involves Julia’s husband planning a trip to Lourdes in the hope he may be cured, gives the book its title. But it could also be argued that the way Julia uses her “smooth-skinned marble body” is a form of pilgrimage, too.

I loved this book for its insights into human nature, its political and social commentary, its spotlight on hypocrisy in the Church and people’s spiritual obsessions — all told in such a simple, crisp prose style and at a surprisingly gripping pace. The ending, which is abrupt and does not feel in keeping with the rest of the novel, has meant more to me with the passing of time.

I haven’t been as excited by an Irish author since I discovered the late, great John McGahern in 2005. This was the first novel I have read by John Broderick; it won’t be the last.