Tuesday 23 July 2019

CJ, Terry and Nell – It's the shocking '70s

The 1970s in Ireland were intriguing – and it's all revealed in Gerry Stembridge's new novel, says John Boland

Charles Haughey with Terry Keane.
Charles Haughey with Terry Keane.
Women on the platfrom of Connolly Station, Dublin in 1971 prior to bording the Belfast Train to buy contraceptives, which were illegal in the Republic in the 1970s and 1980s. Photo: The Irish Times

John Boland

Set in 1960s Ireland, Gerard Stembridge's last novel, Unspoken, had considerable fun with the character of Dom, a jack-the-lad Fianna Fáil politician who was clearly based on the late Education Minister Donogh O'Malley.

O'Malley died in 1968 and so has no place in Stembridge's new novel, which spans the 1970s. Instead, we get CJ, who was mentioned in the earlier book as "the lizard son-in-law" but who becomes a major character here as he battles for control of Fianna Fáil while having all sorts of high jinks with newly acquired mistress Terry.

Indeed, in the back-cover blurb for the new novel, John Banville asserts that Stembridge's portrait of CJ "alone is worth the purchase price", though diehard Haughey devotees may prefer the merciless lampooning of their hero's nemesis, Garret FitzGerald, who's depicted as a self-regarding fool.

In fact, it's hard not to wonder why the author has reserved such venomous scorn for the often bumbling but essentially decent Fine Gael leader, who's the only identifiable character in the book to be given his full actual name – derisively referred to throughout as "Dr Garret FitzGerald", just in case we weren't certain how vain and pompous the author considers him to be.

By contrast, CJ gets off fairly lightly – a man of all-devouring ambition and monstrous wiles, to be sure, but almost endearingly transparent in his rogueishness – his "flawed pedigree" and "whiff of sulphur" lending him a fascination that has its own allure.

Other public figures of the decade flit through the narrative: Nell McCafferty, June Levine and Mary Kenny on the 1971 Belfast-Dublin contraceptive train; recently deceased restaurateur Seán Kinsella hosting lavish dinners for CJ in his Sandycove eatery; and various other political and social movers and shakers of the time.

Then there are the decade's events, ranging from a 1971 Late Late Show on women's issues, through the following year's Bloody Sunday and the 1975 kidnapping of Dutch industrialist Tiede Herrema to the 1976 resignation of President ó Dálaigh on being called a "thundering disgrace", the travails of Independent TD Jim Kemmy in Limerick and Haughey's contentious Family Planning Bill.

And the cultural attractions of the time are adroitly evoked. Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch is compulsory reading for the newly feminised, while the politically committed are ploughing through Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle and wannabe heads are trying to make sense of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – all to the backdrop of Bowie, Blondie and other troubadours of the time.

At the book's heart, though, are its fictional characters, some of them carried over from Unspoken – notably Limerick schoolboy Francis, who here moves through secondary school and into university as the narrative proceeds and whose cultural, social and sexual development becomes one of its most engrossing themes.

But the book's principal concerns, as can be inferred from its title, are enshrined in its women characters, who in their differing ways are trying to make sense of life in an Ireland that's in a state of flux – the desires and attitudes of its more forward-looking people changing in ways for which antiquated laws and hierarchies don't make allowance, and with a craven political establishment unwilling to challenge old orthodoxies.

There's journalist Mags, who fled a disastrous marriage in England and who embarks on an uneasy relationship with CJ's saturnine hatchet man Michael (also encountered in Unspoken).

There's Francis's sister, Marian, who opts, happily as it turns out, for a conventional marriage; her cousin Eva, who has frightening reason to wish she hadn't chosen the same destiny; and Grainne, in search of her own fulfilment as she leaves small-town life for the promises offered by university in Dublin.

All of these characters, and a good many others, are portrayed with such vividness and sympathy that you genuinely care about what life has in store for them.

Indeed, the author has such fondness for them that his satirical sideswipes at real figures sometimes seems to belong to a different, and more heartless, novel.

Yet the writing is often at its most pointed here – CJ scanning a crowded room like "an eagle surveying prey"; Sean Kinsella "truffling for compliments" in CJ's presence; Terry proud that after many years in the wilderness, "her bowsie had become the boss"; and CJ's hatchet man musing that his leader's timid contraception proposals would mean that "the lesbians in the Irish Times would flay him alive".

Mostly, though, the prose is serviceable rather than arresting, while the book fails to provide the sense of an ending for most of its characters, leaving the reader to surmise that some of them will be reappearing in a fictional account of life in the 1980s, followed perhaps by others on the 1990s and Noughties.

If that's the plan, Stembridge is to be wished well because there's certainly a real sense of the 1970s to be found in the current book.

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