Tuesday 17 September 2019

The stubborn wounds inflicted by godly baggage

Fiction: Future Popes of Ireland, Darragh Martin, HarperCollins, hardback, 448 pages, €17.99

Saga: Darragh Martin's book focuses on four siblings who diverge after being raised by their devout grandmother
Saga: Darragh Martin's book focuses on four siblings who diverge after being raised by their devout grandmother
Future Popes of Ireland by Darragh Martin

Hilary a white

Darragh Martin's novel switches from a nostalgic snapshot of John Paul II's visit in 1979 to wryly charting the fallout of four siblings struggling to deal with their grandmother's pious papal ambition for them.

The age of self-examination continues apace. Royal visits, revolutionary centenaries and dogma-smashing referenda are now the punctuation of modern Ireland, a metre by which the rhythms of change will be measured by historians. A nation once destined to continually look beyond its shores for answers now looks inwards and seeks to disentangle what it finds.

Next weekend is the latest of these pause buttons to prise open the Irish condition. Pope Francis is for many a much-needed antidote to the pomp and corruption of former incumbents, and even many outside his flock grudgingly admire the feathers he's ruffled with his reformist pen strokes and frugality.

Rightful rather than righteous indignation will greet him, too, perhaps more loudly than we can guess, as all eyes wait to see if meaningful gestures are made to acknowledge a staggering litany of crimes. On the other hand, there is bound to be nostalgia for JPII and ham sandwiches and grainy family snapshots in Phoenix Park.

On the face of it, you assume Darragh Martin's adult debut (a family saga timed for this papal visit) has its feet planted in this latter camp, and this is the case for its opening chunk. Brisk, chirpy and wryly perceptive, our narrator tells us that the 1979 visit "brought sex to Ireland", quietly prodding a generation into procreating an army of the blessed to offset the impending evils of divorce, abortion and contraception. Telling of four siblings who diverge on different paths after being raised by their devout grandmother, there is a homeliness and rear-mirror charm in the way Martin - a successful playwright and children's author - lends everything the tone of a sun-bleached holiday Polaroid.

But fears that this is about to become a 400-page wade through rosary beads and salt-of-the-earth god-bothering are gradually dispelled. Five-year-old Peg and infant triplets Rosie, Damien and John Paul lose their mother in tragic circumstances and are brought into the care of Granny Doyle, a woman who ends up casting a long shadow on their lives. We know this because Martin bounds back and forth through the years, closing in on what broke the siblings' bond and made Peg relocate to New York (you can probably guess the reason - "Irish women disappeared from time to time and that was how it went," our narrator reminds us). Back in 7 Dunluce Crescent, Granny Doyle's pious hopes that pontiff material will emerge from somewhere among this litter never get off the ground.

Martin's characters are roundly drawn and tangibly messy. John Paul is the devil-may-care cad who could charm the birds down from the trees. Inside Rosie, a fire burns in response to injustices befalling the planet, her conviction leading her to the Glen of the Downs and Shell To Sea campaigns. Damien is a more tempered version of the environmental activist, affiliating himself with the Green Party and its Celtic Tiger electoral gains to try and improve the world. He is unable, however, to confront the matriarch and tell her he is gay, despite there never being a better time to do so.

The "elastic band" that binds the three is snapped. Something happens around the time of Peg's sudden departure that changes things. The triplets come together years later in a confluence to confront their relationship with the estranged Peg and apply a balm to wounds stubborn to heal.

Martin's ambitious saga zig-zags through time, stopping by where formative experiences take place and memories are burnt into being. The scrolling backdrop to the characters runs like a Reeling in the Years omnibus, ticking all the major boxes you'd expect - from the Health and Family Planning Amendment Act, Contraceptive Train and the X Case, to Riverdance, Galway tents and the Crash.

We've come a long way, Martin is saying, much of the progress made in bounding leaps bunched together in a short space. Having lived in both New York and London, Martin has witnessed these changes with the perspective of distance, taking in "the joke of the world", as he calls it, where his homeland is given what it wants but not in the way it wanted.

When the zealous restrictions are worn away and no longer there to prevent people being who they need to be, what is left? In Future Popes of Ireland, the answer is an untidy and achingly human mixture of shame, love, and apologies that don't need to be uttered aloud. A meander through loves and lives and consequences brings us to this realisation. Stylish verve - short chapters (some abruptly so), structural playfulness - and astute characterisation piled on over decades, complete the effect. Martin's novel never sits still. Things are always changing and always the same, much like the nation that plays a starring role in it. Some patience is required.

In some ways, it is the more optimistic younger sibling of Emer Martin's recent The Cruelty Men. That book began a dark historical discussion that Future Popes of Ireland brings into the sunlight of the modern age. Both deal with families that never asked to be lumped with godly baggage, and both suggest that baggage can be tricky to shake off. As one character remarks here: "Catholicism is there, a pea at the bottom of a stack of mattresses, shaping our thoughts, even as we claim not to feel its presence". The moral here is that it can be done, though, and that there is plenty to cherish in its wake.

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