Wednesday 26 October 2016

Eoghan Harris: Keep Provo confessors away from professors

Published 15/07/2012 | 05:00

This week I'm writing about writers. Don't reach for the remote. I promise not to get precious. And I will not abstain absolutely from the national question.

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Mostly I want to mention three writers who are on my mind: Tom McCarthy, John Banville and Sean O Riordain. But first let me mount my hobby horse; the politically correct neglect of plot promoted by Lit Crits.

By plot, I do not mean Agatha Christie conundrums. I mean a notion of necessity and choice that drives the story. The ghost in Hamlet gets right down to it from the start: "Avenge me Hamlet." After that we can't wait to see what Hamlet will do.

* * * * *

The plot's the thing, says Shakespeare. So does Aristotle in the Poetics. So does Elizabeth Bowen. So do the customers of Xtra-vision.

But the Lit Crits know better. The Guardian ran a series last year on writing novels and screenplays. No mention of plot. Character alone would carry the can.

In fact the main function of character is to produce the plot. That's not my notion. It's a direct quote from the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen.

In homage to her I will be doing two sessions on plot at the Bowen/Trevor Festival in Mitchelstown next weekend. These will supplement the main creative-writing workshops conducted by Mary O'Donnell and John MacKenna.

My purpose is to show why Aristotle thinks that plot, what he calls "the arrangement of the incidents", is primary; why he thinks the power to do it properly only comes with age; and why Hollywood agrees.

* * * * *

Thomas McCarthy, the novelist and poet, gives the main talk at Mitchelstown. His title, "De Valera and the Neutrality of the Dead", shows he knows how to hook his audience. But McCarthy can make any subject exciting.

Even Irish party politics. McCarthy's two novels about Deputy Paudie Glenville, Without Power and Asya and Christine tell us more about modern Ireland, from the Civil War through the Emergency to the aftermath of the Arms Trial, than any academic history.

* * * * *

John Banville was Shane Coleman and Chris Donoghue's mellow guest on Newstalk's Breakfast. Mellow is not a word that would have sprung to mind about Banville five years ago. He could be a forbidding figure to those who did not know him personally, and possibly to some who did.

But ever since Niamh Horan recently revealed Banville's sweet side in the Sunday Independent, interviewers have been trying to extract extra honey. Luckily he seems reluctant to take on the role of national treasure just yet. So the Newstalk chat was a compelling mixture of oil and sand.

Banville told Newstalk he never reads critics. So I can safely say something I long wanted to say. Although an admirer of John Banville's novels, I wish he would stop writing these watery and writery crime novels under the name Benjamin Black.

Paradoxically his new novel Ancient Light begins like a thriller: "Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother." By contrast, Benjamin Black's new crime novel, Vengeance, starts with a sleepy introspection about David Clancy's feelings about sailing.

Banville clearly likes writing crime fiction. But speaking as a lifelong reader of thrillers, I don't think he really gets the genre. If he did he would not rate Richard Stark's pretentiously under-written "Parker" series so highly.

Shane Coleman prefers Banville's The Untouchable to his other novels. Me too. Like Tom McCarthy, Banville has a feel for ideals gone sour. But I am not surprised that he fancies himself as a crime writer.

All writers are a bit weird when it comes to the merits of their own work. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hated writing "Sherlock Holmes" stories. He much preferred the "Brigadier Gerard" series. But, to confuse you a bit, so do I.

* * * * *

Chris Donoghue pressed Banville a bit about the age gap between the characters in his new novel, a 15-year-old boy and an older woman. But the author was ready to repel boarders. Now, here comes the national question.

Donoghue did not do any pressing the following day. His guest, the actress and republican supporter Fionnula Flanagan, was given a free run to air her antiquated Irish-American views on everything from H blocks to the Handshake.

Flanagan mostly regaled Donoghue with anecdotes about her acting career in Hollywood. But just before the end, she suddenly struck hard, and went into full flow about her admiration for "Gerry and Martin".

She thought the media missed the real significance of "Martin's" handshake. It was that "the commander in chief of the Irish Republican Army" was shaking hands with the commander in chief of the British Armed Forces. Donoghue did not say boo.

No presenter wants to challenge a guest who is giving good radio. But the willingness to wipe a self-indulgent smile from a guest's face -- even a face as beautiful as Fionnula Flanagan's -- is the first requirement of a really great interviewer.

* * * * *

Keelin Shanley, of Prime Time, discussing the Boston College tapes with Ed Moloney, should have been sharper too. She gave too much time to alleged academic rights and too little time to the right of Jean McConville's family. It never seemed to strike her that police and priests, not professors, should be the first to hear Provo confessions.

Shanley is no sympathiser with Sinn Fein. But like most RTE and BBC reporters she subscribes to a cosy media culture that gets precious about the alleged rights of academics and reporters to protect sources. But most people watching at home would put the rights of the McConville family first.

Luckily there were two people in the report who reflected public opinion outside RTE. Professor Eunan O'Halpin accorded no special status to academic rights. And he was admirably angry on behalf of the McConville family.

Nuala O'Loan lifted the discussion on to its proper moral plane. She spoke of murder. She had no time for Moloney's moaning or media hand-wringing. Justice for Jean McConville came first and last.

Her moral clarity should be noted by Kevin Bakhurst, the former BBC man who is the new head of RTE Current Affairs. Outside of RTE, most Irish people are bored stiff by English reporters and academics who think the most important thing is to "understand" why members of the IRA could torture and murder a mother of 10 children.

There is nothing to understand. Evil exists. The writer Joan Didion, speaking of those who wonder why Iago is so evil, says: "I never wonder." Me neither.

* * * * *

Sadly, most of you will only know the name of Sean O Riordain as the poet who wrote Cul an Ti. O Riordain reflects the best and worst of the Catholic Gaelic Gulag: the best being his poetic response to sexual and social repression, the worst being the dead hand of Daniel Corkery which he never quite lifted from his politics.

O Riordain's heroic achievement in writing great poetry as he suffocated from TB is the subject of Sean O Flaithearta's terrifying black-and-white drawings at the Dublin Writers Museum. Brace yourself to share the suffering which forged the art of the man Liam O Muirthile calls "an file mioruilteach seo" -- this miraculous poet.

For details of the Bowen/ Trevor Festival just email: or call either (025) 84969 or (086) 8248736 or online at

Sunday Independent

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