Monday 21 October 2019

Over the Backyard Wall: Thomas Kilroy's honesty, scepticism and ability to love shine through in 'memory book'

Autobiography: Over the Backyard Wall: A Memory Book, Thomas Kilroy, Lilliput Press, paperback, 240 pages, €15

Memory lane: Thomas Kilroy
Memory lane: Thomas Kilroy
Thomas Kilroy Over the Backyard Wall

Richard Pine

When asked several years ago why he had not been more interested in experimental theatre, playwright Thomas Kilroy replied: "I would watch two mice crossing a stage, provided they were well lit and showed some sense of purpose." The reply indicates a strict adherence to professional standards but also an interest in the unconventional, the curious. This double-bind probably comes from Kilroy's father, a Garda sergeant who gave him a sense of "law and authority", and his mother, from whom he derives his rebelliousness.

Kilroy's 'memory book' is a series of snapshots of his childhood in Kilkenny, his student years at University College Dublin, and his later work as university lecturer and playwright. This is not a book for the prurient: there are no anecdotes of sexual or thespian misbehavings and only one episode of a drunken Brendan Behan.

The title refers to Kilroy's regular way of escaping from the crowded family home into the fields and wider horizons of the village. It was his route to a reading of both landscape and character and also hints at the boundary-breaking which he shared with fellow playwrights Brian Friel and Tom Murphy.

As an almost entirely cerebral public figure, Kilroy has a hidden side: as a schoolboy hurler (he was captain of St Kieran's senior team), he saw hurling as a "highly disciplined focus upon action", choreographed almost as an art form. This may contribute to his feeling for drama, but another factor is his childhood view of the Mass as "a piece of consummate, highly effective theatre based upon control and fear".

This early recognition probably liberated, rather than imprisoned, him, since it gave Kilroy the courage to refuse to play to the expectations of his audience. Instead, the playwright encourages them to think outside the box of religion, social conventions and sexual mores and gives voice to unspoken fears and anxieties.

His early experience of the "clenched presence" of religion, politics, sexual prejudice and censorship convinced him that thinking in straight lines was impossible for a writer. From a conservative hinterland which convinced him as a child that he wanted to become a Franciscan monk, to the short-lived headmastership of Stratford College, Dublin's Jewish school, was a journey in which he encountered the unacceptable claims of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths to "exclusive access to a divinity" which is "tragic and immensely destructive".

Like Brian Friel before him, Kilroy insists that a "memory book" will inevitably involve fictions, since he has to "invent as well as remember" in order to make the past "usable in writing". Kilroy has always been fascinated with "the gaps in history" which can be filled with imaginative substitutes. This book has two such infills, a conversation between two boys in Kilkenny at the time of Cromwell, and a similar episode in the time of Hitler - reminders that the past is always present, within us.

One of the most poignant moments is his childhood realisation that there is "a necessary, coded language of human secrets that I had to learn before I could become a writer". This sheds light on Double Cross (1986), where much depends on what is not said - the drama of silence. Kilroy's 1968 play The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche addressed the then taboo subject of homosexuality, enabling him to "emerge from underneath the soutane", while my favourite, Double Cross (recently revived in Belfast and Dublin), explores the nature of loyalty and betrayal.

A possible reason for Kilroy's reticence as a playwright is his need to find "the mind at the centre". This drives plays like Mr Roche, Double Cross, The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde (1997), The Shape of Metal (2003) and the as yet unproduced Blake. When that mind eludes him, the plays remains unwritten.

Kilroy is nothing if not unrelentingly honest in his work and in his person. He doesn't boast about this in the book, but it emphasises the deep quality of his observations, in which the eye is a vital element. He is neither a spectacular nor a demonstrative writer. The lack of dazzle is in fact one of the book's main attractions, because Kilroy's level tone enables him to put cogent arguments slowly and persuasively, where a more pyrotechnic confession might fizzle unconvincingly. Shining through are his honesty, scepticism and ability to love. This love is illuminated by affectionate pen-portraits of painter Tony O'Malley, essayist Hubert Butler, short-story writers Mary Lavin and John Jordan and academic Roger McHugh.

The dryness of Kilroy's wit is evident when, in a lavatory in TCD, Saul Bellow tells him that he and John Fowles had been outvoted in proposing Kilroy's novel The Big Chapel for the Booker Prize. "I've never had a comparable experience in a men's toilet before or since".

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