Monday 19 August 2019

Pat McCabe and a 'ridiculously entertaining afternoon of profound insight, alt-charm and out-of-kilter chat'

Barry Egan has lunch in Carrick-on-Shannon with Breakfast on Pluto author Pat McCabe - and hears tales of the carousel of donkeys in his head, meeting his wife at a dance in Longford when he was 20, the Virgin Mary, Bracken, Bat McGaw, Brecht, boarding school and wanting to be a fireman

Author Pat McCabe pictured in his Carrick on Shannon home. Photo: Brian Farrell
Author Pat McCabe pictured in his Carrick on Shannon home. Photo: Brian Farrell
Cillian Murphy with Ruth Negga and Stephen Rea
Cillian Murphy in Breakfast On Pluto
Eamonn Owens in The Butcher Boy
Sinead O'Connor in The Butcher Boy
Christy Moore
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

'People often say I look like Benny Hill," says Pat McCabe. Be that as it may, he was once mistaken in America for CW Moss, the tattooed half-wit gas pump attendant in the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, played by Michael J Pollard. "I think it was the spud-type cheeks."

The summer sunshine is "lobstering" Spud Cheeks and I as we walk along a road by the train tracks in Carrick-on-Shannon looking for a place to have a coffee "and a bun".

Please log in or register with for free access to this article.

Log In

The enigmatic author can talk the hind legs off a donkey.

Make that two donkeys.

Cillian Murphy with Ruth Negga and Stephen Rea
Cillian Murphy with Ruth Negga and Stephen Rea

Strolling along, Pat displays his uniquely encyclopedic knowledge of culture and whatever you're having yourself. His favourite Irish TV show ever was Bracken which, he says, "still stands up today as a kind of Irish Rio Bravo", while the most memorable play he ever saw was The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, by Bertolt Brecht at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1973.

His favourite character from his books is Bat McGaw from Emerald Germs of Ireland from 2001. (Bat is "a Co Cavan braggart of a rancher in a giant stetson, brilliantly realised onstage by the great Aaron Monaghan"), while he name-checks off the top of his glorious head Klaus Wunderlich's Greatest Organ Hits ("Sometimes there's a carousel of donkeys in my head and this is the sound they make") as the sort of music he likes. There is also a mention of Songs of Innocence by U2. "Dylan Thomas excavated his diaries of adolescence for some of his best work," Pat says, "as do Bono and company here. Iris is as raw as it gets, better even than Hank Williams."

The heat rising off the road in Carrick-on-Shannon, Pat saves his best mention for his favourite Irish singer, Jack L "with whom I shall be showcasing some of these tunes on July 24 in Monroe's Bar in Galway. If it's Paul Robeson you want, or maybe a jag of Tiny Tim, then look no further than the man from Kildare," the man from Co Monaghan says of Jack and their upcoming joint performance as part of the Galway Film Festival.

If it is a ridiculously entertaining afternoon of profound insight, alt-charm and out-of-kilter chat from one of the greatest minds of his generation - one of Ireland's foremost contemporary writers - you want, then look no further than Pat McCabe in a cafe in Co Leitrim.

"McCabe is a true original," John Banville told The Guardian a few years ago. "Like Roddy Doyle writing about life in working-class Dublin suburbs, McCabe has used stuff the rest of us didn't bother with and made a peculiar kind of rough poetry out of it."

He was born on March 27, 1955; his earliest memory was when he was three or four and looking at a lake outside Belturbet. "It was just a lake. Nothing much was happening on it."

Sinead O'Connor in The Butcher Boy
Sinead O'Connor in The Butcher Boy

This was the polar opposite of what went on in grown-up Pat McCabe's books, where the tormentors get their fatal comeuppance in the borderlands courtesy of the butcher's bolt gun. "An insidious, funny, breathtakingly horrific novel," wrote The Observer of The Butcher Boy in 1992 and of its unhinged anti-hero Francie Brady, "switching from mischief to madness as an adolescent obsession turns Dennis the Menace into Jack the Ripper."

In 2003, The Guardian crowned McCabe King of Bog Gothic. Is he?

"Truly I am the king of nothing, certainly not 'Bog Gothic' or 'Borderlands'," he says. "As far as 'Bog Gothic' is concerned, it's a term that means little or nothing to me. It was coined as a convenient label."

Film director Neil Jordan once said that reading some of McCabe's stuff is like "reading sections of Ulysses".

Can he see what Neil - who adapted The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto into movies in 1998 and 2006 respectively - was getting at?

"I can see what Neil was getting at in some parts of The Butcher Boy and maybe Breakfast on Pluto. I have always admired the sensuousness of Joyce's language and there was any amount of language for me in Monaghan and Cavan to inhabit, should I so desire. And I did."

Eamonn Owens in The Butcher Boy
Eamonn Owens in The Butcher Boy

His mother, Dymphna, was born in the village of Trillick, Co Tyrone; father Bernard "was born in 1916 in Belfast." Pat says he inherited "a sense of humour from both". He had two brothers and two sisters to draw inspiration from too.

He was raised in Clones, "a little town of about 2,000 people at that time. It was idyllic, I'd say". He can remember writing his first essay as a young child, Robbing an Orchard. His sister Mary once described Pat when he was a young child as a "very lively fella, with great interests," chief among them being Biggles and the Dandy comic. "I was an average, happy-go-lucky young child," Pat says now, "with a fondness for books and magazines and music influenced, in equal measure, by Anglo-American and Irish culture and ideas."

Pat was dispatched to boarding school, St Macartan's, "15 miles outside" where he grew up. Boarding school, he says, was "OK, but if you are not a sports person, that kind of world doesn't suit you. You do develop skills when you are in a place with 180 other boys. You know that life is not going to be easy, and you better sharpen up."

Pat was 17 when his father died. Can he remember the last conversation with him? "I didn't have a conversation with him. I was in boarding school at this time. He died in hospital. So I didn't have any conversation with him. I loved him."

In 1974, having qualified as a teacher, Pat got a job teaching at St Michael's Boys' National School in Longford. It was at the Longford Junior Chamber dinner dance one night that Pat, then only 20, met Margot Quinn, then 19, from Longford town. Fate intervened and brought them together to the sound of, remembers Pat, "Y Viva Espana by Sylvia, followed by (Everybody was) Kung Fu Fighting by Carl Douglas". Their first conversation was like a line from one of his novels.

Pat: Did you hear about the dog from Aughnacliffe who was put down for worrying sheep?

Margot: No. What about that dog?

Pat: He kept repeating 'mint sauce, mint sauce' over the fence.

"That's a true story," says Pat, 44 years later.

Of the night in the ballroom of romance that he met Margot, Pat smiles that they had been giving out "some old stew on a paper plate. I was sloshing it."

Did they actually dance?

"Nobody in the 1970s in Ireland danced. You slouched," he says, before reflecting: "She was a good dancer, so she probably danced but I didn't. I was too busy sloshing this muck down my f**king velvet jacket and coming up with something I thought might be interesting. I was an unreconstructed progressive hippy. I probably said something like 'the electricity howls around your bones' or 'If you see her in Tangier, say hello', and hoped the eagle landed."

And did it? "It didn't, no," he says inaccurately. "She really liked The Beatles. I asked what particular album did she like. She said The White Album, which was very unusual for a girl," and presumably fascinated young Pat. "She said she loved Happiness Is a Warm Gun. She had uncles in London. They were very special uncles. She used to go over and visit them." One of her uncles used to look like Michelangelo Antonioni, another looked like John Lennon in the white suit. "These were a new class of Irishmen."

In 1978, Margot moved to Dublin for a job in the civil service. "I followed her. So there's a good blow for feminism. I followed her! Not the other way around!" In 1981, they made their love official. "I got married at 26."

Did Pat's parents marry young too? Was the tradition passed down? "It's interesting that you ask that, because I think our generation did have a lot more in common with tradition than they realised. We have two grandchildren now. The thing was, Margot and I got on very well together. We were very easy in each other's company, which counts for more than anything. It kind of stood to us. Now, it was up and down like it is for everybody. And, you know, there was a sense in those years - expectations have risen exponentially now - but back then our expectations weren't as high."

What were Pat's expectations of marriage?

"That somehow we would get through this, or not going mad. Writing is a very difficult occupation. When I was beginning to think I might do it seriously, I had read every biography there was, and the evidence is pretty strong that a lot of these people who chose writing as a way of life, it did not end good for them. And I didn't like the look of that, but I thought maybe in one way that it might if there was two rather than one. My wife was very into visual art and she is a full-time painter. So we kind of did that together."

What was it like for his wife to live with Pat the writer? Was it complicated?

"No. No. I wasn't a nutcase or anything like that. You see, you have to remember she is an artist herself. This is very important. I can't imagine what it must be like if people don't understand this; if they are stuck with someone who is going around spending a lot of time inside their heads. They might take this as some slight on them, when, in fact, it's not. But she understood that, and she understood it very early on as well."

In November 1985, their daughter Ellen arrived, followed by Katie two years later. The family lived in Balbriggan before they moved to London in 1987, where eventually his writing started to happen for him, not least when Picador published The Butcher Boy in 1992 and it was nominated for the Booker Prize (Breakfast on Pluto in 1998 was also nominated for the Booker).

"The man of those Balbriggan days is the same one as now, sans portly abdomen," says Pat over coffee and buns. "To be honest, I never think in terms of any 'writing thing' happening or not happening. Principally because it can just as readily 'un-happen', as it has to many before me and, presumably, after. I just like doing it - to be honest, indeed, must. Which is hardly a new story where the subject of art is concerned."

How did the characters and the stories from The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto et al come into his head? As a child in Clones? Stories he heard?

"This is why it is good to tell the truth about the way things happened. For example, when the Blessed Virgin Mary appears in The Butcher Boy in a field, that's a story my wife as a young girl told me. She said that when she went on her holidays down to the west of Ireland, her old uncle used to say the Blessed Virgin Mary was coming at six o'clock to give the power of speech, and she went down and waited by the swallow hole. The Blessed Virgin was going to zone in at six o'clock. She waited and waited, and at half-nine there was no sign of the Blessed Virgin. She said, 'F**k this' and went home. That's where that story came from. It's like osmosis. Some of them come in," he says meaning stories, "and some of them don't. The ones that do come in are the good ones; the ones that need to be released will be released."

It's like poetic cognitive Darwinism: only good stories survive.

"It is. It is at once the most depressing thing and the most exhilarating thing about writing, because you are not in control of that at all, and sometimes it doesn't work."

How does he know when it doesn't work? "Because the story's s**t and no one gets it. You feel bad emotionally that it is not there."

Pat is currently working on two novels. The first, he says, is based on Kitty the Hare (late of the Christian Brothers periodical Our Boys) meeting Jimi Hendrix in a haunted flat in London in the 1970s.

"Its working title is Jig-a-Jig, a hit long ago for the folk rock band East of Eden."

The second book is about "cleaning up a small mountain town in the company of an Orson Welles lookalike with a grudge.

"It's kind of Touch of Evil meets Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia." It's provisional title is Snake City Shakedown."

What's the funniest story Pat has ever heard about himself?

"Once a fellow told me he had seen them carrying a big photo of me out in RTE. They were heeling it into a skip..."

What did Pat want to be when he was 10? "A fireman. Something big. I still want to drive a digger."

Patrick McCabe and Jack Lukeman perform this Wednesday, July 24, at 8.30pm at Monroe's Live as part of Galway International Arts Festival, in a collaboration which might best be described "as old-style village hall vaudeville for the future."


Favourite  albums

* John Barry's Four in the Morning: "The first art movie I ever saw... mostly about lapping water scored by aching woodwind; London in the metaphysical dawn."

* Van Der Graaf Generator's The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other: "Tasty portentous lyrics, unfeasible quantities of feedback and no end of squiggly squeals."

* Larry Cunningham's Say Hello To Ireland: "A technicolour '60s snapshot of Rural Midwest Irish Americana."

* Pete Brown and Piblokto's Things May Come and Things May Go but the Art School Dance Goes on Forever: "Pete wrote the lyrics for Cream and was at the heart of the poetry/music underground scene at this time."

Christy Moore

* Christy Moore's Prosperous: "Christy leads a cultural revolution - it's 1972 and the Cliffs of Dooneen are going sky-high."

* Skidrow's Skid: "Brush Shiels, Nollaig Bridgeman and Gary Moore go mad-dog on the whole shebang."

Sunday Indo Living

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top