Roddy Doyle has always been something of a character himself. When he taught English at Greendale Community School in Kilbarrack, one of his pupils was the future playwright Enda Walsh. “He had a cabinet at the back of the classroom with the most exciting modern literature,” Walsh has recalled, “and he had an earring, a Specials badge and red Dr. Martens. Need I say more?”
Since Doyle’s nickname back then was ‘Punk’, it seems ironic that he first became famous for creating a spectacularly dysfunctional soul band. The Commitments, which he published himself under the imprint King Farouk (Dublin slang for book) in 1987, showcased his ability to write memorable characters who reveal themselves primarily through dialogue.
Its colourful cast list included hustling manager Jimmy Rabbitte Jr, veteran trumpet player Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan and sassy backing singer Imelda Quirke – all later immortalised on film by Alan Parker’s screen adaptation in 1991.
Doyle used the other two volumes in his celebrated Barrytown trilogy to flesh out the Rabbitte family. In The Snapper (1990), 20-year-old Sharon is impregnated by a neighbour but finds the household to be much more loving and supportive than expected. The Van’s (1991) main protagonist is Jimmy Sr, a hilariously sardonic patriarch who becomes unemployed but regains his self-respect while selling burgers during the 1990 World Cup.
Some literary critics dismissed Doyle as not “a proper writer”, a myth that was shattered when he won the Booker Prize for his 1993 novel Paddy Clarke Ha, Ha, Ha. It is told from the viewpoint of a mischievous ten-year-old Dublin boy in 1968, who finds himself forced to grow up fast after his parents’ marriage falls apart. “Paddy Clarke is not autobiographical, I’m glad to say” the author once said, “but his place and time are mine.”
Doyle’s next great creation turned him from national treasure into national punchbag. Charlo Spencer, superbly portrayed by Sean McGinley in the 1994 television series Family, is a superficially charming criminal who violently abuses his wife Paula. The visceral drama caused outrage in Ireland, with some conservative commentators claiming that such things simply did not happen here.
Although Doyle was shaken by the controversy, he still regards Family as possibly the best thing he has ever done. He went on to produce two novels about Charlo’s resilient victim, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors (1996) and Paula Spencer (2006). He has described Paula as his favourite character of all, partly because it was so difficult for him to write in a woman’s voice.
Doyle’s fictional heroes are not always strictly true to life. He wrote a hugely ambitious trilogy of novels (A Star Called Henry (1999), Oh, Play That Thing (2004) and The Dead Republic (2010)) about Henry Smart, a Zelig-like chancer whose life spans the entire 20th century. Amongst other adventures, he serves with Eamon de Valera in the Easter Rising, helps Louis Armstrong to escape the Mafia in Chicago and resists John Ford’s efforts to make a movie about him. These books, Doyle says, are about identity – “Who owns the decision to define what it is to be Irish?”
At other times, Doyle prefers to work on a small canvas. One of his biggest recent success is Two Pints, a series of sketches first posted on Facebook about a couple of middle-aged Dubliners discussing topical issues in their local pub. The subjects up for debate have included Nelson Mandela’s demise (“I never thought somethin’ as ordinary as watchin’ someone goin’ for a walk could be so incredible”), HD television (“Does it make the f**kin’ economy look better as well) and the same-sex marriage referendum which prompts one man to say of his gay nephew, “I thought to meself, a few years o’marriage will fix that little f**ker’s cough for him.”
As part of the Abbey Theatre’s 2017 programme, Two Pints will be performed by actors in pubs all over Ireland next year. “I see those characters as two fellas who don’t know each other all that well, but are comfortable enough to say whatever they want,” Doyle said in an interview with this newspaper last month. “Political correctness goes out the window and sometimes the modern world confuses them, but they are absolutely not stupid.”
In 2013 Doyle decided it was time to revisit the characters who had first made him a household name. He created a musical version of The Commitments, which has played with great success in London’s West End and Dublin’s Bord Gais Energy Theatre. Jimmy Rabbitte Jr’s story was brought up to date in the novel The Guts, showing him as a 47-year-old man suffering from bowel cancer and trying to recapture his youth by attending the Electric Picnic.
Doyle insists that none of these people is a disguised version of himself. “I’ve never been in a band, never been pregnant and never been unemployed.” In many cases he does not know or care what they even look like. “The best way to get characters alive,” he maintains, “is to get them talking.”
Doyle occasionally takes on non-fiction projects as well and in 2014 ghost-wrote Roy Keane’s second autobiography. In his own words, however, asking him if he plans to write a new story is like asking him if he plans to breathe again today.
Roddy Doyle has given us some of the most unforgettable and best-loved characters in modern Irish literature. Charlie Savage is now ready to join them.