The Irish freedom questions at the heart of my novel
Éilis from the Flats
(‘Éilis from the Flats’ is an existential and psychological thriller.
It is volume one of ‘The Good Friday Sting’ hexalogy)
‘Éilis from the Flats’ is the opposite of a right-wing Catholic tract
The ancient idea of personal guilt (in ancient times ‘fate’), and therefore ‘sin’, has nothing to do with dark thoughts about sex, or what an inherently bad person you are. The concept of guilt is strongly tied to our basic urge to be selfish and turn our backs on ‘the Other’ … and then a counter, vertiginous, urge to go beyond ourselves … to reach out. We might call it the ‘vertigo syndrome’.
Of course, in the very act of that reaching out beyond yourself, you are not just embracing the Other, you are embracing existence itself with love, and getting love back. This tug of war between Bad and Good. The ancient human drama, which all of us write in our hearts, about trying to be good and failing, and then trying better, or giving up, is at the heart of ‘Éilis from the Flats’ and the ‘Good Friday Sting’ hexalogy (six novels). Then there is the question of how powerful forces can help or hinder that journey to the Good. How do we get the ‘Power’ to help us in our journeys and what types of power are available to us? I don’t have any ready answers to these questions, but I watch and write as my characters struggle toward some kind of answer. Some kind of redemption. For redemption there must be, if we are to have community. The opposite of selfishness.
‘Éilis’ – A tale of poverty. And a tale of resistance to poverty –
both economic and spiritual
An interesting thing happens in the otherwise excellent Irish Times review of my novel Éilis from the Flats late last year. The reviewer quite rightly states that in the novel a Catholic priest approaches the young Éilis’s bedroom at night and sprinkles her door with holy water. The priest, we are told, “lingers” outside her bedroom. This is the reviewer’s interpretation, who also asks why the close relationship between Éilis and the priest is portrayed as being unproblematic.
Éilis from the Flats, clearly features a real child abuser as a main character, but it is not this priest. Moreover, the reviewer doesn’t tell readers that Éilis is not alone back there in that bedroom. In fact, there is a young man in there with her. Another important factor with regard to this priest, Father McCartan, is that he has broken with the Catholic Church hierarchy, partly over the child abuse scandal, and is effectively married and in a long-term loving relationship with his housekeeper, Mrs O’ Grady. This is made clear fairly early in the novel and is called ‘nuance’.
Once the above points are foregrounded in the ‘holy water’ scene described above, it takes on an entirely different connotation to the dubious and ‘lingering’ kind suggested in the Irish Times review. The reviewer also states that the devout Catholicism of some of the characters belongs to an Ireland of 30 or 40 years ago. But not a single character in the novel is described as being a devout Catholic, or expresses such a position; not even the priest for the reasons already explained. So where did the reviewer get this impression? It is of course the hair trigger religious mote in the reviewer’s own eye. It seems to me that almost the whole of the Irish Commentariat has this same spontaneous anti-spiritual tick.
This blind spot aside, it should be stressed that, the Irish Times review is written with deep seriousness and acknowledges my writing skills and my ambition in the style and structure of the novel; a style and approach that has taken some of my well established group of readers somewhat by surprise. That is another reason for writing this backgrounder essay, now that sales of Éilis from the Flats have begun to take off.
People are continually at a crossroads. Life is not a ‘one off’ chance.
Image @ Phil Kelly
Part of the creative urge that has driven me to write Éilis from the Flats, and the Good Friday Sting series as a whole, comes from characters who feel real to me. They began calling to me long before I began writing them. Or are they writing me? These characters are asking questions about, amongst other things, what will happen to spirituality now that the authority of the Church hierarchy has, thankfully, collapsed. Or, say, how will we mark the change of seasons and the rites of passage of our children in this new time? How will we gather at weekends and other special days to acknowledge each other, remember our dead and ponder life’s mysteries? How will we in Ireland have wakes and bury people? These questions must not be left to right wing xenophobes who would drag us back to a Catholic Caliphate.
My characters are real live people and. just as with people outside of their pages, some of them don’t give a damn, or are even hostile, to thoughts of faith. Any sort of faith. Some of them even actively choose Evil, or at least the road to the Bad. However, most people would agree, I think, that humankind has an urge to the Good and to worship. Even that great hero of the anti-God squad, Friederich Nietzsche – the ‘Squad’ may be surprised to hear – wanted us to understand that human beings are an ‘animal’ that wishes to worship and that we need something to venerate in the absence of God.*
What then are we going to worship? Money? Property? Rich celebrities? Or Love? Nietzsche Plot spoiler here – Friedrich Nietzsche called for love, too. Or at least a ‘yea-saying’ to life and collective empathy. One of my favourite quotes from all of Nietzsche is: Das ‘Himmelreich’ ist ein Zustand des Herzens – Heaven is in the heart, (in my translation)**. And what is this metaphorical beating heart, only another word for Love? A Love that binds all people and all things in the Universe as the positive force that seeks to drag us away from personal destruction (a deadening conformity and loss of personal dignity and morals). If heaven is indeed in our hearts, then we are more Angel than animal.
The way things are at the moment, belief in Love (God if you like) is ridiculed, but belief in Evil remains intact. None of those who killed God have laid a finger on the Devil. Though you wouldn’t know it if you just listened to some of his English language commentators, Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw this problem and gave us an answer. This true Geist somehow moves through The Good Friday Sting.
Our need to come together and speak – image @Phil Kelly
Part of the need that Irish people feel to still attend Mass, despite everything, is linguistic. There is a basic human urge in people to come together and speak poetry and verbally mark our presence and community. This urge is as ancient as language itself. The rhythm and cadence, the rise and fall of sacred verse is rooted in an ancient verbal culture. What kind of Irish freedom is it to be bereft of these primordial things? This is especially the case with the oldest indigenous language in Ireland, An Ghaeilge – the Irish language – which is in crisis. The cultural elite and state system in Ireland have presided over the collapse of a precious linguistic treasure. It is also an environmental treasure. The characters in Éilis from the Flats, some of them anyway, struggle in this maelstrom to keep the language in their hearts in the face of this linguistic and environmental disaster and the worldwide tsunami of globally warming bad English.
What is Irish freedom without its language and the Gaeltacht areas in which Irish is spoken as a first language? In one scene, ‘our Éilis’ is in an ambulance after suffering some sort of fit and in her delirium speaks only Irish, the paramedic asks her to stop messing about and speak ‘the Queen’s’ (a reference to the English language). Can anyone say that this is an unlikely scene? Consciously and unconsciously, the characters push at this question of the freedom, or unfreedom, of speaking Irish in Ireland. There are also characters who hate the Irish language, or think it’s Polish. The ambulance scene is not anything that was planned by me. It came to me as a real event, unbidden.
In the Skin of a Lion, partly social protest
and partly a ‘challenged’ individual’s cry for community
I am not the first author to be inspired by Michael Ondaatje’s superb novel In the Skin of a Lion, which leaves its readers with the feel of moving through a shifting dreamscape, but then plunges us into the hammer of social realism, workplace death and political struggle. However, I am certainly one of the few who has been a merchant seaman and can read the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in his original language. It is impossible to describe exactly how these influences impact upon your own work as an author, but I was pleased that the Irish Times reviewer remarked on the ambitious nature of Éilis from the Flats. There is something there about having a range of competing voices and that some of these voices should come from the realm of the dispossessed. Dostoevsky would approve. It struck me forcefully that the hero of In the Skin of a Lion – Patrick Lewis – might be described as having mental health issues, because of his continued estrangement from society. A female character then began to talk to me about her estrangement and it seemed to me that these people are prophets, or at least sounding bells that ring the nature of our times.
This was the way that Éilis herself was born, I think, and she explodes into my consciousness in unpredictable ways, just as much as she does in the novel. I am aware that a number of the thousands of people who read my definitive book on collusion between the British state and unionist death squads, A Very British Jihad, were initially ambushed by the shifting narrative style of Éilis from the Flats. There are monologues, heightened language, jump cuts and some characters, or the narrator, address readers directly. Their names, meanwhile are often repeated, almost in a type of mantra. I suspect that this comes from this idea, or rather stereotype, of madness and how we deal with difficult or allegedly weird people, but who have a message, if only we would listen.
This set of narrative devices was not and is not deliberately planned by me, but they jump to me very readily as I compose fiction. To try and set down a series of dreams that continually occur to me in some sort of coherent but still fantastic and challenging way. Challenging to myself as the author and challenging for the novel’s readers also. Gradually, my readership has swung round to what I am doing with ‘Éilis’. I am also aware, because of my international influences and interests that news from abroad infuses my writing. It is by no means unusual for working class people to read Dostoevsky and Søren Kierkegaard but it is extremely rare to see them in the pages of fiction or drama. As with Nietzsche, they are crucially important figures where existentialism and human dignity are concerned and I am grateful to Danish academics Pia Søltoft and Mette Blok for clarifying my own thoughts on the question of ethics and the moral life, where Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, respectively. are concerned. Hopefully I can help bring more of their exciting research into the English speaking world. There is no doubt, this discourse has raised the polemical bar in this Good Friday Sting series.
The personal is intensely private, but also political and communal –
the human riddle – image @Phil Kelly
What we begin with in our lives is, by definition, our own personal story and how we ‘write’ that personal story as we live through our lives. As a person who was reared in a slum, I can tell you that poor people have to struggle ten times harder to imagine life as an art form. I mean that they could ever imagine they are creating their lives day by day as artists. The separation between ‘art’ and working class people is a chasm. The separation between English language philosophers and ‘ordinary’ people, is just as daunting and unacceptable.
At the same time, good philosophers, or at least the philosophers, writers and poets who speak powerfully to me, continually call on us to live our lives as artists. Recently, the Guardian newspaper carried an interview with the UK/Trinidadian poet, Roger Robinson, who makes clear that the hardest thing of all for the dispossessed to overcome is low self-esteem and bravely declare to themselves that they have an artistic mission. “Commit to your identity as an artist,” Robinson concludes. The problem is that posh people and a willing media have removed art from life and turned it into a commodity, a very expensive commodity at that.
But all humans can do metaphor. How astonishing is that? Once you begin moving those metaphors that are precious to you, you begin to move out, to reach out, and embrace existence. This has nothing whatsoever to do with a 10 billion euro painting in the Louvre Museum, but everything to do with art. Once you are existing and conversing within your vocation, you are living life as art. Nietzsche said you must take power (of yourself), not only so as to live as an artist but also – endlich für Alles – in the end to help everybody else.*** Also, crucially, that there are teachers along the way to whom we must listen. Step forward then Hildegard of Bingen, Rosa Luxembourg and Elizabeth Girlie Flynn, to name but three. It’s a very scary place though, because you have to make a leap of faith. Did I mention that word faith again?
The cover of the author’s book on Britain’s Dirty War in Ireland
– A Very British Jihad (out of print)
Finally, my sensibilities, the characters in these novels, and the settings in which their lives unfold, cannot be told without eventually embracing the North of Ireland, which suffered the indignity, not to say grave injustice, of being forcibly partitioned when the rest of the country won a somewhat rough and ready independence from British rule in 1922. The very fact that the National television station in the Hexalogy – Empire Television – shapes its whole raison d’être around a back-turning to the North brings those six estranged counties – now in the transition of the Peace Process – centre stage. The young County Galway journalist James Tierney discovers certain things about the way the war in the North has corrupted journalism and public life right across Ireland and his broad trajectory, I feel, is to investigate how that happened. The fact that Tierney does this in the maelstrom of his own personal and spiritual journey and that of the other characters is probably the biggest difference between The Good Friday Sting and my book about Ireland’s Dirty War, A Very British Jihad.
With a current affairs book, the author can be forensic and prescriptive, can state what happened, what should have happened and ways to improve things. With fiction, however, there is no such safety net. The broad sweep of the narrative aside – and the necessary correction of a clearly erroneous perception on the part of some with regard to the underlying ethos of The Good Friday Sting – we will have to discover together what these characters are going to do and how they will react to pressure situations and each other.
I believe I have found my signature way of writing fiction. It may not appeal to everyone but every literary author has to find a way of writing that suits him or her. It is a style and set of scenarios that are as exciting as they are unpredictable. Welcome to this odyssey.
Co. Dún na nGall
(Any reader who wants a signed copy of Éilis from the Flats is welcome to contact this author personally, as my publisher Dalkey Archive Press kindly gave me most of the remaining stock due to the Covid-19 pandemic and my publicity events being cancelled. Contact: email@example.com with your delivery details and the number of copies required.)
* Die fröhliche Wissenschaft – The Joyful Wisdom, Friedrich Nietzsche
** Der Antichrist – The Anti—Christ, , Friedrich Nietzsche
*** Schopenhauer als Erzieher – Schopenhauer as Educator, Friedrich Nietzsche
NB I am extremely grateful to the late Phil Kelly for giving me permission many years ago to occasionally use his work in my promotional work. Suaimhneas síoraí dá anam – RIP