Tuesday 20 March 2018

Books: 'Citizens' paints two portraits of Ireland - in 1916 and 100 years on

Fiction: Citizens, Kevin Curran, Liberties Press; pbk; 315 pages; €13.99

Refreshing view: author Kevin Curran
Refreshing view: author Kevin Curran
Citizens by Kevin Curran

Ruth Gilligan

The centenary has finally arrived; the year of memorials and celebrations and commemorations, some deeply important, some steeped in nostalgia, all inviting us to consider the profound significance of those Easter events, 100 years ago.

But Neil, the protagonist of Kevin Curran's second novel Citizens, doesn't do significance. Neil does booze and drugs and counting the days 'til he can join his girlfriend Kathy over in Canada. He has lost his job, so spends his days "playing FIFA, GTA, getting stoned and being a waster". The most active we see him is at the gym, "clearing out the weekend's excess", repeating the mantra he has devised to get him through: "Achieve. Believe. Repeat. Canada. Kathy. A new life. A new him."

So when Neil's ailing grandmother entrusts him with the memoirs of her father, Harry Casey - a cameraman and volunteer who took part in the Rising - Neil couldn't care less: "He is bored. Reading is a last resort. He doesn't have an interest in revolution, or war." And although Neil's ignorance may sometimes grate, there is also something refreshing about it; a deliberate refusal to fawn over or prostrate before a mythologised past.

Despite Neil's indifference, we are offered various excerpts of Harry's writings. Here, he discusses how, with his cinemachine, he was "[e]ager to capture all elements of the drama and how the fight would play out on all aspects of Dublin life". And even though some of his peers fail to recognise his role in the conflict - "This is war. Not the theatre" - Harry remains dedicated to the "importance of legacy", to documenting their efforts, thinking always of "future generations" and the stories that will survive.

The future generations, however, remain full of contempt for this '"idealistic fool changing the world with his poxy camera". Neil also complains that "Harry's voice is Irish. Old Irish. Too parochial, too open. Not one Neil can really embrace, hear himself in." And yet, despite the stark tonal contrast between the two narrative strands, we begin to notice more and more overlaps between them. For one, Harry's commitment to capturing images on camera resonates with Neil living his life through a screen - from his long-distance Skype calls with Kathy, to the video clips of Dublin he uploads onto "their YouTube channel, their relationship, their collective experience".

Furthermore, just as Harry endeavours to paint a portrait of Ireland at a crucial moment, so too does Curran, through his millennial protagonist, offer a portrait of the nation, this time in 2011 - a time when disillusionment swept the country; when greed and corruption still loomed large; when for the young, there seemed "only one thing for it" - to emigrate.

Yeats once termed Ireland "no country for old men". For Neil and his fellow youths, they hear only: "[t]his is no country for you."

Citizens is not the first time Curran has succeeded in capturing the cynicism and uncertainty of his generation. His wonderful debut, Beatsploitation, likewise offered an unflattering though thoroughly refreshing view on a changing Ireland. Fittingly, Curran's work has also appeared in the Young Irelanders anthology, while he currently has a story in Stinging Fly's latest issue 'In the Wake of the Rising', which serves as 'an alternative space for writers to re-read and respond to the events of that Easter Monday'.

So, as Neil struggles to come to terms with what being a citizen of Ireland really means - what 'legacy' his country has to offer beyond disappointment and greed - so too are Curran and his peers pointing their lenses at the past, in the hope of finding a new way to envisage our future.

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