Future Popes of Ireland by Darragh Martin
Magic was in the air. Fairy lights twinkled in the marquee. Everything flowed freely – drinks across the bar, jackets across chairs, limbs across dance floors. Rory O’Donoghue loved weddings because everybody was a little bit gay, the Aunties and young lads YMCA’ing with the best of them, obstacles to dancing to cheesy songs removed because you could pretend you were being ironic, because who cared?
And then – magic – ‘It’s Raining Men’ coming on, the dance floor filling up, Clodagh and her pals clustering around Olly, who delivered each ‘hallelujah’ with the fervour of a Baptist minister. Rory had a following too, he could lip synch the song in his sleep, was every straight girl’s best friend, the guy they could grind to without consequences. Everybody was on the dance floor: Jason Donnelly pulled over by the girl he had been kissing; John Paul sashaying over to the group; lads from school that Rory could never have imagined dancing to this song with, layers of clothes left at tables, drinks in hand for elaborate gestures, nobody minding the sticky floor, or caring if beer sloshed towards them as somebody pointed to the sky; magic was in the air, or drunkenness, or, perhaps it was that John Paul and Clodagh were genies, or geniuses, enchanting every foot to tap, every torso to shake, every mouth to cry ‘amen!’
commentary: Last year I read a new American novel called The People we Hate at the Wedding by Grant Grinder. Still possibly the best title for a novel, but to me it was rather disappointing, and when I came across the nuptials in this book (several pages long, but still only a minor part of the plot) I realized that scenes like this were what I had been hoping for.
This is a wonderful wedding: to me the words leap off the page and you can see every moment of it. Is it just something the Irish excel at? – weddings are also well-done in the very fun Oh my God, What a Complete Aisling by Emer McLysaght & Sarah Breen from earlier this year. I am open to being told it’s the weddings themselves (and I have been to many cracking Irish weddings), or the way they are described.
The wedding is a high point in this very unusual book: it has many features and strands that we are all familiar with: unhappy childhoods, family falling out, unforgotten grudges, secrets in the history. Matriarch Granny Doyle is determined there should one day be an Irish Pope, and she has great hopes for a child conceived during Pope John Paul II's visit to Ireland in 1979. She ends up bringing up four of her grandchildren, all of whom will be a disappointment in one way or another. Life in Ireland is going on in the background, and the usual Catholics/sex/disapproval/horrors/anti-gay feeling are going on in the foreground. The way in which her wish is (kind of) fulfilled is funny and actually very believable (SPOILER: not a real Pope).
- and I can only guess that the publication of this book was planned to coincide with the visit by the current Pope, Pope Francis, to Ireland, starting tomorrow. Who knows who will be conceived this time.
The action flips back and forward from adulthood to childhood for the Doyle siblings. It’s done in quite a fanciful way, as if for a piece of modern art: there is a series of artefacts, such as a holy water bottle or a handbag, and each is the starting point for a section of the story.
Of course, nobody is very happy – feature of many an Irish book - and the secrets spilling out, the inheritances and the memories, don’t make things better.
There are many funny and charming lines:
The 4 year old Peg’s new shoes are
Shiny enough to impress a Pope and sensible enough not to suggest a toddler Jezebel.The same Peg – older and not happy or sociable –
Sometimes worried that she had outsourced affability to [husband] Dev.And then
Catherine Doyle might prove to be the Patron Saint of Dramatic Interventions.
Had John Paul sat in Solomon’s chair and eyed the two women fighting over the one baby, he would simply have bought another baby, one for everybody in the audience.The beginning of the book is particularly impressive, there is a glimpsed-at happy-marriage, a wife whom we never get to know, a life that should have been fulfilled and close – and then it all disappears, haunting everyone disastrously. I found the middle of the book somewhat tricksy, I wanted the author to just slow down and tell the story, have faith in his characters. But then the end picked up again a lot (despite a final, annoying, uncertainty).
But a good novel: funny, sad, entertaining, and with a most interesting picture of Irish life over the past 40 years.
The picture is The Wedding Dance in a Barn, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, painted in around 1616, from the Web Gallery of Art. I absolutely can see them dancing to 'It's Raining Men'. Hallelujah.