Tuesday 23 January 2018

The father, the sons and Dermot's spirit

Dermot Bolger's rollicking new novel tells of wartime heroism by ordinary Irish sailors such as his father. Our reporter meets the punk-turned-national treasure.

Author and poet Dermot Bolger says his latest novel The Lonely Sea and Sky is not as dark as previous work, and is for his father's generation
Author and poet Dermot Bolger says his latest novel The Lonely Sea and Sky is not as dark as previous work, and is for his father's generation
Neil Jordan.

Hilary A White

Picture the scene: A young, idealistic man is passed a box of revolutionary pamphlets through a slit in a barbed wire fence. He passes an envelope of cash back through to the print workers, who look over their shoulders to make sure they are not being watched.

No, this is not some act of valour from Leninist Russia. Nor is it a plot from the days of the French resistance. Yet, while the men were from Finglas and the factory that of "one of Ireland's leading businessmen", the printed material was still revolutionary in its own way.

As bright and fresh as the very morning we meet in Collins Barracks, Dermot Bolger can only chuckle at those days, saying: "I was like Don Corleone afterwards running the rackets on the mean streets of New York, because we had no money. But now I'm like him at the end of The Godfather series - I'm sitting in the sun, and they only phone me when they need permission to shoot somebody!"

The poet, playwright, novelist and all-round Irish literary institution does not bear the piercings and army-surplus attire associated with the movement, but his adherence to DIY ethics and the unshakeable desire to change minds through art make him arguably Ireland's greatest-ever punk.

Forty odd years ago, the 18-year-old Bolger founded Raven Arts Press, running an ad in Books Ireland that even read: 'Never mind the bollocks - here's the Raven Arts Press'. The mission was to be a distribution hub for a rising wave of bold and brilliant new Irish writers, a philosophy carried into New Island Books - the publishing house Bolger helped set up after the dissolution of Raven in 1992.

"We began with nothing, knowing nothing - selling books and photocopied poems around pubs," he says. "It was coming out of that time. There were lots of things happening. Hot Press started. I remember going into John S Doyle's new In Dublin magazine over Bewley's in Westmoreland Street to put a listing for the first Raven event. He was actually in a sleeping bag under his desk.

"A guy who came to one of the first readings was doing sound for these two bands called The Virgin Prunes and U2. Neil Jordan [below]had just started the Irish Writers' Co-operative in 1974. The Sheridan brothers were starting to get involved in theatre.

PL Neil Jordan.jpg
Neil Jordan.

"There was a sense, almost, of the workers having to seize the means of production. And I think that was because it was the first generation to go through free second-level education and who were now asking questions."

Even Bolger himself gasps today at how he got away with it. "When we launched Michael O'Loughlin's first book, we tried to kidnap the literature director of the Arts Council with nylon stockings over our face. It was crazy, because it was in the middle of the Troubles and there were armed guards at Dail Eireann 100 yards away! Another time, we were laying out a book in a house in Dolphin's Barn, and for some reason the locals thought we were dealing drugs and were trying to kick the door down.

"There was a Swedish poet who'd joined us giggling on the stairs and who had no idea of the danger we were in, because he'd discovered Irish whiskey. I remember thinking: 'This probably isn't how Faber & Faber began!'"

Heady days, indeed, and if Bolger seems to have nailed the essence of the times, it is a knack he has carried throughout his career. Last year, he released a novel called Tanglewood, his eleventh. A slew of books had sought to turn a mirror on post-Celtic Tiger Ireland but none with the razor-edged precision of Bolger's saga of "middle-aged angst" on the property ladder. He seems like the perfect person to ask how Ireland is doing right now.

"It's fascinating," he answers in a voice that fluctuates in pace and clarity. "So little actually changes in Ireland. There is no 'new politics' here, only the old politics in variations. It's depressing to see the same political faces and families coming around again. What I liked about the Marriage Referendum was that it didn't happen by chance. In Ireland, retrospectively, we take great credit for things that almost happened by fluke.

"We're very proud we elected Mary Robinson as president, but we almost didn't. We almost elected Brian Lenihan. It's the same with Michael D Higgins, who has been an excellent president and has spoken very articulately, but we came within inches of having Sean Gallagher, but for Sinn Fein doing what Sinn Fein are very good at doing. But the Marriage Referendum didn't happen because of something else's shortcomings. There was a sense of genuine euphoria. It was a story of hidden Ireland. People began to come out, the most interesting people, as being gay, and said: 'This is what I am'. It wasn't a protest vote against anybody."

It makes sense that his latest novel, The Lonely Sea and Sky, should be released while Ireland is having a much-needed re-examination of itself under the glow of the 1916 centenary. The story tells a fictionalised and rollicking take on the fortunes of the Kerlogue, an Irish merchant vessel that was at the centre of an extraordinary act of heroism and humanitarianism during WWII. In 1943, the small crew risked their lives when they pulled 168 drowning German navy crewmen aboard.

Everything takes place through the eyes of Jack, a Wexford cabin boy who lands a berth aboard the Lisbon-bound ship. Jack's seafaring father never returned from a voyage and may have succumbed to a torpedo attack. There is an almost 'boy's own' coming-of-age frequency to the tale, but it is also rich in themes of honour, romance, neutrality and fledgling Ireland, and war in general.

He is reluctant to agree outright at the suggestion the story is a memorial to his father, Roger, a lifelong seafarer whose life chimes loudly in places with Jack's. He does, however, concede that it is for his father and his father's generation, those seamen in neutral Ireland who set sail into remote marine territories where passing fighters or U-boats might think nothing of taking a pot-shot or two at an unidentified vessel - and all for lowly pay.

"I doubt my father ever read any of my novels," Bolger reasons, "as my novels are fairly 'black'. I wanted to write something old-fashioned, a simple story about these people who were just simply focused on survival. They were aware of a bigger picture but that wasn't their focus.

"The minute a torpedo went through the hull of your boat and you scrambled around in the darkness to find your way into a lifeboat, your wages were stopped by the shipping company. You were in the lifeboat on your own time.

"Merchant seamen weren't paid very well and weren't massively respected. They were undertaking these extraordinary voyages for danger money."

He agrees with Kevin Barry's assertion that all writers circle their parents from above for most of their careers before finally swooping down. He "never really knew" his mother, who died of a brain haemorrhage when he was 10. She "pops up" in his poems, he says, but not in his other writings. Her death, tragically, came just six months after his father - a fleeting presence during Bolger's youth - was granted more time at home from his job as a ship's cook and purser.

Men like his father, Bolger feels, who rarely spoke about the torpedoes and drowned colleagues they witnessed as part of their jobs, were "the frontline of Irish neutrality".

"My father was probably bombed four times by the Germans, but he never talked much about it," he recalls. "There was an extraordinary incident that happened in the war in Scapa Flow [Royal Navy base], Scotland, where a lot of the fleet was sunk after German submarines got in. I was discussing this one time with him and he says 'ah yeah, I was there. We were a little supply craft ferrying coal out to the ships'!

"My main sense of my father in my life when I was young would have been a registered letter coming on a Friday afternoon with crisp English bank notes sent to my mother from Liverpool, or wherever he got his wages. Then, suddenly, he had all this time off. My mother was overjoyed… and then she was dead six months later. At the end of my father's life, his heart just wouldn't give up.

"Some people live too short, some live too long. He was in a nursing home but thought he was on a ship. He'd say: 'will you go out and ask the skipper what's happening'. And he felt that his life had been wasted because he'd been at sea.

"In some ways, it was because he missed so much growing up. There was that sadness that, by the time he got home, his wife had died - and suddenly he had four children who he didn't really know. Everything had been filtered through my mother, and suddenly that interpreter was gone between those two worlds."

His own experience of fatherhood has been markedly different. His sons Donnacha (26) and Diarmuid (24) both share a fervent love of football and performance with their old man, who cannot hide his pride in both.

"The eldest lad has gone to England so we don't get together as much as we used to," Bolger says, wincing. "But they recorded an album of their own songs and were very good musicians. It's nice because they were expressing themselves artistically in a way different from their father. That's very important.

"If I was doing a gig down the country, the lads would come with me. We used to call ourselves 'A Fistful of Bolgers: Two Generations United by Talent, Divided by Hair'! And it used to work very well - I'd do a few poems and the lads would do a few songs. That was really, really nice and a lovely way to bond."

Like his mother, flecks of his children find their way into his poetry. They allowed him to see the world with fresh eyes and he sounds grateful to them for that.

"It's the greatest adventure imaginable," he beams. "The highlight of my life was probably when my youngest son was around two. We used to sit on Drumcondra Road on a Sunday afternoon and he'd watch trucks go by. When you're young you have that newness, and then you grow cynical. Children sort of allow you to experience the world again. And no, I don't have grandchildren - I just look that old!"

In May 2010, Bolger's wife Bernie died suddenly from an undiagnosed ruptured aortic aneurysm. The shock factor, along with his profile as a writer of note, meant that his grieving was a public one. For this reason, he feared afterwards that he might become defined by the tragedy.

"I got a lot of sympathy and attention, not that I was seeking any of that," he says. "I expressed it in a small sequence of poems called The Venice Suite (2012). And it has been humbling that a number of people have written to say that book has meant a lot to them. That has been very moving.

"But lots of people express it just as eloquently in the silence of their hearts. In the end, I think it was important that I acknowledged that as a very defining moment of my life and pay homage to the spirit of my wife - and then move on from it."

The Lonely Sea And Sky is an exceptional novel that will win hearts both young and old. But it is obvious listening to Bolger that poetry is the medium that resonates deepest and the one that has labelled his life's milestones.

Even now, during a chat about his occasional poetry workshops in schools, he is rhyming off lines from Among School Children, learned as a lad during extra-curricular Yeats workshops given by a teacher in Beneavin College ("… the children's eyes / In momentary wonder stare upon / A sixty-year-old smiling public man").

"A few months ago, I was passing through Ballylee and I suddenly realised I was 57," he laughs. "I'm not quite a 'public man' and I don't always smile. I still feel like I'm 18 doing Raven, so it's weird thinking I'm three years away from that age in the poem. My eldest says one of his first memories was me going out to play football on a Friday night and saying to him 'it's only for a few months more, I'm nearly 33'. On my 50th birthday, I played in three inches of ice and snow!"

His snorts melt into a gentle smile. "And my two sons were playing with me."

The Lonely Sea and Sky is published by New Island Books, price €13.95.

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