Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Casey, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘The Sinners’ Bell’ by Kevin Casey

The Sinners' Bell by Kevin Casey

Fiction – paperback; Lilliput Press; 228 pages; 2017.

A few years back I read Kevin Casey’s A State of Mind, a memorable novel about a struggling writer living in Co. Wicklow, whose life is under threat from the IRA. Loosely based on British author Frederick Forsyth’s experiences as a tax exile living in Ireland in the 1970s, it was part political thriller, part romance. I thoroughly enjoyed it but was disappointed to find that the rest of Casey’s work (three earlier novels from the 60s and 70s) was out of print.

So imagine my delight to find that his debut novel, first published by Faber and Faber in 1968, sitting on the table in Hodges Figgis Bookshop on a recent trip to Dublin. Reprinted by Lilliput Press, The Sinners’ Bell comes with a short introduction by the author, who says his original intention was to write about the small Irish town in which he was born and raised to show how societal changes impacted the young people living there.

What ensues is not only a credible portrait of a town undergoing change, it’s a melancholy portrait of a miserable marriage between a young woman and the local publican’s moody son. It’s incredibly atmospheric and captures the loneliness, despair and isolation of the new bride so perfectly I feel my heart aching with each turn of the page.

A doomed wedding

From the book’s opening on the day of Helen and Frank’s wedding in a small town in Ireland, we know the marriage is not going to be a charmed one. It’s raining, Frank drinks too much, the piano is out of tune and played badly, and Keenan, the father of the groom, vomits at the reception. Later, safely arrived at their honeymoon destination — a seedy hotel in London’s Paddington — Helen hopes things will improve. They don’t.

She had borrowed a travel book from the library and read of the Tower and the Palace and Madame Tussaud’s. London meant excitement to her. […] Frank had spent two years there but seldom spoke about them.

Frank’s lack of talking about his time in London should be a warning to her: what is he trying to hide? But she’s just 20 years old and is rather naive. Raised by her father after the untimely death of her mother, she’s not exactly worldly-wise. She’s a good daughter, kind-hearted and optimistic about the future, but the first few days of her marriage are a major disappointment: there’s nary a word of romance or tenderness between the newlyweds (the wedding night itself is a shock to her), nor is there any chance to go sightseeing. Instead, Frank drags Helen to a succession of sordid pubs, so he can go drinking with his old mate, Tom.

When the couple return to Ireland, living in a provincial backwater town, it’s not much better. They move into rooms above the pub that Frank’s parents own and where Helen does shifts behind the bar. It’s a lonely, joyless existence. Frank is volatile, manipulative, childish. His parents offer no support: his mother is cold and indifferent to Helen; his father is an alcoholic prone to grotesque displays of drunkenness, which often requires medical intervention.

Her own father, with whom she has always had a close relationship, keeps his distance, not wanting to meddle in his daughter’s affairs now that she is married and no longer in his care. And strangely, she does not seek comfort from him, preferring to just get on with her lot, even if she’s desperately unhappy and doesn’t know where to turn.

A claustrophobic read

Largely told from Helen’s point of view, The Sinners’ Bell could be seen as a dreary, domestic novel, but Casey’s ability to get inside a woman’s head and to articulate her thoughts so well is a minor triumph. There is sadness, disappointment, betrayal and moroseness here, a dutiful daughter and wife whose passivity slowly gives way to a mounting anger and desire to take control of her own destiny — even if it’s too late.

I read this book with a sense of dread. But I loved it’s beautifully evoked sense of claustrophobia, where everyone in a small town knows everyone else’s business, and where the Church controls every facet of a person’s life. It reminded me very much of  John Broderick’s The Pilgrimage, which is also about small town life in 1960s Ireland, and Elizabeth Harrower’s Down in the City, which is a portrait of a dysfunctional marriage between polar opposites that is doomed to failure.

The Sinners’ Bell isn’t a cheery read. But it’s bold and atmospheric, an unflinching examination of a way of life long since over. Thank goodness.

I read this as part of Reading Ireland Month, which is hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging.

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, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, William King

‘Is That All There Is?’ by William King


Fiction – paperback; Lilliput Press; 222 pages; 2013.

William King is a parish priest and author from Ireland who first came to my attention with his brilliant novel Leaving Ardglass, which was one of my favourite reads from 2011. That book told a heartbreaking story of two Irish brothers working on building sites in London in the 1960s, one of whom turned into a corrupt property magnate and the other who returned to Ireland to escape it all and become a priest. It was a compelling morality tale of what happens to those who put money before all else.

King’s new book (which I promptly ordered direct from the publisher the day it was released) covers similar themes but this time the setting is modern day Dublin during the bubble-and-burst of the Celtic Tiger.

Ambition and greed

The story follows three main characters — middle-aged husband and wife Philip and Samantha Lalor, and Philip’s bull-headed boss, Aengus Sharkey, the powerful CEO of a (fictional) bank, Nat Am. All three are ambitious and hungry for success.

When Is That All There Is? opens (the title, by the way, is from a song made popular by Peggy Lee in the 1960s) we meet Philip and Sam moving into their new glitzy home — a renovated monastery with all the mod cons. But the couple, who have two teenage children, rarely have time to enjoy it.

Sam has a high-powered job in an advertising agency, which takes her across the globe — to New York, to London — to help direct TV commercials. And Philip is an executive banker, working all the hours god sends him to keep the family leading the glamorous lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed.

But in the background there are rumours of an impending crisis — there’s been a run at Northern Rock, the British bank; Merrill Lynch, a subsidiary of the Bank of America, is in trouble; and the American investment bank Bear Stearns has collapsed. “No matter what rumours you hear, continue to lend,” Sharkey tells his lending managers at an impromptu meeting, a mantra which eventually leaves him — and everyone else — high and dry.

Boom and bust

There’s been a recent influx of  excellent Irish novels set during the Irish boom and bust — Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, Tana French’s Broken Harbour, Claire Kilroy’s The Devil You Know and Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart — but this is the first one I’ve read that really looks at the last few months before the crash and examines the moral culpability of those in the thick of it. To what extent did they know what was coming? And what could they have done (if anything) to prevent it?

While King doesn’t cast judgement, his portrait of Ireland’s boom — the easy credit, the ostentatious wealth, the corporate greed — and the emptiness of people’s lives is not a flattering one.

And while the narrative is somewhat predictable — these people will surely get their comeuppance — King’s ear for dialogue is superb, particularly the bawdy boardroom banter and the way in which Sharkey hoodwinks everyone by telling lies and half-truths to get what he wants. His motto, “you are what you have” could almost be the epitaph on Ireland’s economic tombstone.

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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Casey, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘A State of Mind’ by Kevin Casey


Fiction – Kindle edition; Lilliput Press; 296 pages; 2011.

Lilliput Press, which is based in Dublin, is increasingly becoming my Irish publisher of choice. I’ve only read a handful of their books but I am yet to find a dud one. Kevin Casey’s State of Mind, first published in 2009, is no exception.

Set in rural Ireland

The story is set in Co. Wicklow in the 1970s and is loosely based on British author Frederick Forsyth’s experiences as a tax exile living in Ireland. Apparently Mr Forsyth upped sticks and moved back to the UK in 1980, because of kidnap fears.

In A State of Mind, the Forsyth character is played by Bill Cromer, a wealthy, best-selling author from England, who moves to Wicklow to take advantage of Ireland’s then tax-free concessions for those working in the creative industries. He brings his much younger German girlfriend, Ingrid, with him.

The story is not so much about Bill and Ingrid but about their neighbour, John Hughes, a former newspaper reporter, who turned his back on journalism to write novels — several of which were hugely successful and enabled him to buy a nice five-bedroom, two-bathroom house in the Wicklow countryside.

A serious case of writer’s block

But now John, who is the first person narrator of the story, is suffering a severe case of writer’s block. His wife Laura, who is an English-born radiographer, and his teenage daughter Rachael, don’t seem to mind that he now lives a life of “rural leisure and private desperation”.

It is the arrival of Bill and Ingrid into their rather sheltered community that unwittingly provides John with new material. The book opens with these fateful first lines: “This is an attempt to record the events of last summer. I want to understand what happened.”

Without giving away crucial plot spoilers, John begins an affair with Ingrid that has serious repercussions. As he jumps in and out of bed with her — taking advantage of his wife’s long commute to Dublin, his daughter’s absence at boarding school and Cromer’s trips back to the UK — there is more going on than meets the eye. Yes, he’s gathering material for his new book and finding out some painful truths about himself and his marriage, but he is also getting mired in something more dangerous: the local republicans have already marked Cromer as a target for blackmail and possible kidnap.

An understated, sexy thriller

A State of Mind is one of those rare books that defies classification, because it’s part sexy romance, part political thriller. It’s told in a very gentle, understated way, almost to the point of being flat, yet there’s something about the prose style — and the narrator’s limpid voice — that weaves a certain kind of spell. I found myself completely caught up in the story, wanting to know what was going to happen next. Was John going to get caught by his wife? Were the IRA going to bump him off as a case of mistaken identity? Would Ingrid call it quits?

There’s a lovely 1970s feel to the story too — it’s all cosy dinner parties, gin and tonics, and endless telephone calls on the landline — and setting it in Wicklow, among a small enclave of foreign writers, makes it even more intriguing. Lunch time visits to the pub will never be the same again!

Kevin Casey was once the Abbey Theatre’s youngest playwright. His novels include The Sinner’s Bell (1968), A Sense of Survival (1974) and Dreams of Revenge (1977). A State of Mind is his first book in more than 20 years.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, Michael Harding, Publisher, Setting

‘Bird in the Snow’ by Michael Harding


Fiction – Kindle edition; The Lilliput Press; 220 pages; 2008.

The Lilliput Press, which is based in Dublin, has been canny enough to publish much of its back catalogue in eBook format and to sell those books at competitive prices. This is how I came to discover — and purchase — Michael Harding’s Bird in the Snow.

Irish widow recalling her life

The story is highly reminiscent of Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side in that it tells the story of an old Irish woman, newly bereaved, looking back on her life.

In this case, 81-year-old “Birdie”, as she is known, mourns the death of her only child, Gussie, a lost soul with psychiatric problems, who has just killed himself. On the day before his funeral, she sits in her house alone, thinking about Gussie — “Gussie was jobless and witless and mired in a confusion of his own making. Wandering around the beaches of Connemara. Locked up in a mental hospital” — and where it all went wrong for him.

As she sifts through her memories and old photographs, she also reminisces about wonderful times with her beloved late husband, Alex, and his best friend Hughie Donoghue, a mischievous flute player.

An extraordinary portrait

What emerges is an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary woman. It’s about a plain life richly lived, where nothing much seems to happen, although everything does. Birdie’s life is marked by tragedy and other family dramas, but she has also experienced great happiness, joy and love.

She’s a terrific character. Strong and fiercely independent, the kind of woman who has spent her whole life getting by without fuss or favour, and who rails at the very idea of living in a nursing home:

The nursing home was a prison. They were all old people in it. What would she be doing with a gang of old people? She was only eighty-one. And the place smelled of lavender. She’d never be able to get rid of that. The perfumes of Arabia couldn’t hide what it was: a glorified henhouse for old birds. And what about the grief of walking in and out of each room in her own house for the last time and choosing what to bring with her? She couldn’t bear that. They might as well give her the shovel and tell her to dig her own grave. That’s what she said. That’s what she thought. And Birdie vowed to herself the last big vow of her life. They’ll carry me out of here in a box, she whispered at the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the wall.

But there’s a wicked side to Birdie, too. She makes no bones of the fact that in the early days of her marriage she was a bit of a bitch, not to her husband, but to other women in the community, because she’d snared a vet, someone above her station — and “grew a forest of enemies” for it.

It’s so easy now to look back and admit that she was stuck up. To admit that she was too full of herself living in her splendidly detached mansion, with a perfect child on the back of the bike as she wheeled it into town to rub everyone’s noses in the triumphs they all thought she’d never achieve. And even then, she was fooling nobody only herself. Put a beggar on horseback, they said, and she would ride to hell. Whoosh! Whoosh! That’s how her life went betimes. In a whoosh!

But her proudest achievement was becoming a mother. When Gussie was a child her love for him was reflected in her fierce urge “to smother him with kisses like a thousand petals falling off the wild rose bushes on the avenue”. And then, later, this “urge” was only matched by her disappointment in the way his life had turned out and by her inability to understand him.

Tender and funny

The book is very touching in places, bathed as it is in pathos, but there’s little room for sentimentality here, and Harding gives Birdie a very black sense of humour:

And there was a common room down the hall where she could play cards and bingo, and listen to local musicians who came in every Tuesday night. Do you dance? she asked Birdie. Did she think Birdie was a complete fucken idiot? Of course she didn’t dance. She was eighty-one years of age.

I loved reading Bird in the Snow. It’s a wise, heartfelt book about what it is like to grow old, and in its series of vignettes it perfectly captures those fleeting moments that comprise all our lives between cradle and grave.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, William King

‘Leaving Ardglass’ by William King


Fiction – paperback; Lilliput Press; 272 pages; 2008.

Sometimes you pick up a book and before you’ve even finished the first page you immediately know there’s something very special about it. That’s exactly how I felt when I began reading William King‘s Leaving Ardglass, a saga that spans 40 years and follows the lives of two Irish brothers.

What I didn’t know when I began reading the book was the way in which the fates of both MJ Galvin, a building constructor turned property magnate, and his younger sibling, Tom, would mirror the fate of Ireland itself.

Consumerism and the Celtic Tiger

Just as Ireland broke free of its Catholic stronghold, adopted consumerism and enjoyed the booming Celtic tiger years before cracks began appearing in the facade, the two Galvin brothers follow a similar trajectory. Although they come from opposite ends of the moral compass, as it were, both become successful in their chosen fields — construction and property development for MJ, the priesthood for Tom — and yet they also succumb to temptations in one form or another, leaving them bitter and downtrodden older men.

The story is narrated by Tom, a parish priest, looking back on his life. Much of the initial focus is on a “summer in London which had changed me”. He was one of thousands of Irish who went to “John Bull” (England) in search of a job at a time when there was little work at home. It’s 1961 and his older brother MJ is already running a successful construction business in north London, where he employs dozens of down-at-heel Irish workers.

It’s a tough, knockabout life. Workers are taken advantage of, subject to brutality, paid a pittance and put in dangerous life-or-death situations. What Tom witnesses that first summer challenges his value system and the ways in which he views his brother. But it also opens his eyes to the ways of the world — the joy of Saturday night dances in the Galtymore, the camaraderie of men in the pub (before the alcohol-fuelled brawls), gambling and women.

But most of all it adds to his sense of dislocation, as his sacristan sums up perfectly 40 years down the line:

‘We were neither fish nor flesh. Branded as letting down this ould country by going across to John Bull. Sure we’d have starved to death if we’d stayed.’ He flings another log on the pile. ‘And not wanted there because we were the drunken Irish.’

It is this dislocation, this feeling of never belonging and of realising that MJ’s behaviour, professionally and personally, is morally bankrupt that makes Tom reconsider his future. Instead of joining MJ’s firm, where he would effectively become second-in-charge and be set for life, he decides to enter the priesthood.

The Catholic Church

There are religious elements to the book — it may be useful to know that the author himself is a practising priest in Drumcondra, Ireland — but it does not shy away from the issues that have damaged the Church in recent times. Indeed, it raises many talking points — about celibacy, about the ways in which suspected pedophiles within the priesthood should be dealt with and about the role of the Church in the 21st century.

It’s also a fascinating account of life lived within the Church, of what one must do — and give up — to become a priest and how, even among those pious men, lives can be scarred by thwarted ambition, political rivalries and bitter in-fighting.

But what I particularly enjoyed was the portrait of north London — Cricklewood, Camden Town, Kilburn, the Holloway Road — during the 1960s that King paints. He has a special talent for bringing the building sites to life, of describing the back-breaking toil thousands of Irish emigrants undertook through necessity, not choice.

And the way in which he writes about the workers, queuing up each morning on Mornington Crescent, waiting to be selected as part of the construction crews to be trucked to individual sites, is especially vivid. You can practically smell the sense of desperation from the labourers and the little Hitler mentality of the bosses.

One or two, wearing creased shirts and loose ties, shout to get into the fucken trucks, that they have to go out to Leighton Buzzard. The men have a ruffled look: dried clay on their turned-down wellingtons or hobnailed boots. A thickset man is walking up and down inspecting a queue of men; he looks mostly at their shoes; every now and then, he lifts his cap and wipes his bald crown with a piece of navy cloth. […] Down the road, boys are jumping in the air and kicking around a paper football, jostling each other for possession.
‘Come on here,’ MJ shouts, ‘I’ll give you plenty to tire you out behind the mixer.’
They desert the ball like schoolboys and climb into one of the trucks. Above the thud of their boots, a big red-faced man with a head of black hair shouts abuse at them. Did they think they had all the fucken day? Such a crowd of lazy fuckers he’d never met in all his life.

And Tom, despite his flaws and his occasional lack of backbone (he never stands up to his elder brother, despite seeing some horrendous things), is hugely likable. I love that he spends his first few days in London trawling the bookshops on Charing Cross Road looking for “books that are banned at home: Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Catcher in the Rye“.

Shocking expose of Irish life in London

The story is shocking in places — there’s at least one death on a building site that hammers home the point that life was cheap — and there are endless examples of racism against the Irish (“Another Paddy. Filthy lot. I should never ‘ave taken them in,” Tom overhears a landlady say at one point). Mostly, there’s an all-pervasive sense of wasted lives, that these men will spend their lives “digging and drinking, and finish up at the doss-house”.

But the book does not make excuses for behaviours or decisions or the moral cowardice that lies at its heart. What it does, through evocative detail, a cleverly paced narrative and a lightness of touch, is showcase the human condition, with all its tensions and foibles and flaws. If anything Leaving Ardglass is about human greed — and how we can all be corrupted by it if we are not careful.

I loved this book so much it’s a genuine contender for my number one book of the year. And it’s encouraged me to source King’s previous novels — The Strangled Impulse (1997) and Swansong (2001) — both of which are out of print. Watch this space.

Author, Book review, Ireland, Lilliput Press, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Trevor White

‘The Dubliner Diaries’ by Trevor White


Non-fiction – paperback; Lilliput Press; 244 pages; 2010.

Trevor White was just 28 when he decided to set up his own magazine in his home town of Dublin, Ireland. He’d just spent two years “working in the publishing arm of the luxury goods industry” in New York and was keen to return home.

It was July 2000 when he came up with the following concept:

‘The Dubliner’ will be the definitive guide to life in Ireland’s capital. The cover price will be £2.50 and the average circulation will be 20,000 copies. The magazine will be read by urbane, well-educated men and women. Handsome design and sound advice will appeal to readers who have abandoned the search for a savvy take on life in Dublin. In short, the magazine will animate the city’s conversation.

This is where I confess that prior to picking up The Dubliner Diaries in a bookshop (it was the cover that drew me to it, how can one resist a moist-eyed baby tiger staring up at you from a display table?), I had never heard of (1) Trevor White and (2) The Dubliner magazine. But it seems that for a short time — well, seven years actually — Mr White and his monthly title were very well known, and much despised, in Dublin.

Initially it would appear that White wasn’t particularly popular, probably because he wasn’t a local boy made good, but because he was local rich boy — and a Jewish one at that — with upper-class connections and, dare one say it, pretensions. But later on it seems as if he could not put a foot right: circulation never increased beyond the first issue’s 8,312, opinion in the press wavered from scorn to downright hatred, and several legal wrangles mired White in difficulty — and embarrassment.

But having the audacity and courage to launch a magazine — he funded it by releasing €200,000 of equity from a house which had tripled in value since he purchased it in 1994 — is one thing, to keep hanging on in the face of adversity and mounting financial losses is another. (In the first year of trading, the magazine lost €264,306, which, according to the Sunday Business Post, White “admitted that he hadn’t expected these results when he launched the publication two years ago”.)

What makes The Dubliner Diaries such a great read is that White never shies away from being completely honest with himself — he uses a rather endearing self-deprecating tone throughout, as if he is very much aware of how pompous and narcissistic he might sound otherwise. But, to be fair, he never makes excuses and always acknowledges when he’s done wrong. He even goes so far as to say that publishing is one giant learning curve, where it’s vital to learn from your mistakes.

Of course, there’s plenty of shameless name-dropping, and in a small city like Dublin I suppose it’s hard not to run into — and hang out with — the likes of Bono, John Banville, Gavin Friday and media mogul Gavin O’Reilly. And there’s plenty of man-about-town shenanigans — launch parties, press bashes, celebrity dinners, lots of drinks in the Shelbourne — that provides a fascinating glimpse into a world few of us would ever get to experience.

But the book is much more than a memoir of one man’s attempts to keep a supposedly hip magazine afloat. Because it is set in boomtown Dublin, it is also a searing indictment of the Celtic Tiger years, where everyone was out to boost their social standing by acquiring anything they could lay their hands on. Or, as one of The Dubliner‘s writers put it:

Ownership of a mansion to a new mobile phone to the latest line in trainers will help to assign you a position in the pecking order. The city has become like an American goldrush town where whoever held the biggest lump of shiny metal suddenly found himself the most popular man in the bar; the fact that his language was crude, his education minimal and his face dirty counted for nothing.

I’m not sure The Dublin Diaries will attract much interest beyond Irish shores, but if you admire people gutsy enough to follow a dream or are fascinated by the inner workings of the magazine trade, an industry which is in terminal decline, then there’s plenty to like here. I found it an enjoyable read and got a few giggles out of it. I especially enjoyed the way in which he continually cut the over-inflated egos of so-called “celebrity chefs” down to size!

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, Mark Macauley, Publisher, Setting

‘The House of Slamming Doors’ by Mark Macauley


Fiction – paperback; Lilliput Press; 183 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Humorous, dysfunctional families don’t come much better than the one presented in first-time novelist Mark Macauley’s recently released The House of Slamming Doors.

The Montagues, an upper-class Anglo-Irish family, live in a grand manor house in County Kildare. The head of the family is Bobby, a Catholic born in Canada and educated in England, who has “a really weird accent” that he alters depending to whom he is speaking.

If he’s on the phone trying to be business-like or sucking his pipe thinking he’s wise, he’ll have a Canadian twang. If he’s trying to be funny and friendly with the locals he suddenly gets a terrible Irish accent, like he’s trying to be their best friend, saying stupid things like ‘bejesus’ or ‘begorragh’ or ‘fair play to ye’. If he’s in England he has an English accent just like ‘By the way, I went to Oxford, old chap.’

Mr Montague is married to Lady Helen, the daughter of an English earl, who loves French wine and “swanky Russian fags called Sobranie”, and has a rather distant, off-hand relationship with her three children: Emma, 17; Lucy, 15; and Justin, 13.

The story is told from Justin’s point of view in diary entries that begin with the arrival of JFK on Irish soil in June 1963 and finish with JFK’s assassination five months later in downtown Dallas. During this short period Justin — full name Justin Alexander Torquhil Edward Peregrine Montague “but my father calls me ‘you little bollocks”” — catalogues everything from the war waged between his fiery-tempered parents, to his growing attraction to the local farmhand’s daughter, the outspoken and beguiling Annie Cassidy.

Much of this is laugh-out-loud funny, but there’s an edge to it too, inviting comparisons to Molly Keane‘s novels. But like all dark comedy, the book works by deftly treading the line between tragedy and humour.

Macauley achieves this by ensuring that Justin’s observations lack crucial adult awareness — for instance, he seems oblivious to the fact that his mother is conducting an extra-marital affair — so that the reader genuinely feels for the protagonist’s situation because you know what’s coming even if he doesn’t. Indeed, I felt a moral sense of outrage, comparable to Justin’s, when his father forbids him from fraternising with Annie because he “will not have children of the staff in my house”.

The House of Slamming Doors is an effortless read, packed with funny incidents and peopled with deliciously eccentric characters (Donal Sheridan, the world’s slowest chauffeur, soon became my favourite). And while it’s essentially a coming of age story as Justin emerges from the shadow of his bullying father and learns to stand up for the things he believes in, it also has much to say about the class system and racism between the Irish and the English.