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The Prodigious Roddy Doyle Is the Celtic Tiger of Irish Literature

By Allen Barra

One of Ireland’s best writers—certainly its best known—talks about James Joyce, John Ford, ‘Father Ted,’ and bringing Jimmy Rabbitte of ‘The Commitments’ back in a new novel.
Roddy Doyle, the most popular Irish writer of his generation, was born in 1958 in Dublin. He is the author of 11 novels (the latest of which is The Guts) seven children’s books (including the well known Rover Adventures series), three novellas, several plays and screenplays, and a swarm of short stories (one of which, “New Boy,” was a 2008 Academy Award-nominated short film). A stage version of his first novel, The Commitments, is currently having a successful run on London’s West End.
We caught up with him last month at the Empire Hotel in New York, where he was doing publicity for The Guts, which has already won the [Bord Gais Energy] Irish Book Awards, the only award supported by all Irish bookstores.
In your story collection, The Deportees (2007), Ray Brady, an employee of the Minister of Arts and Ethnicity, attempts to devise a test to determine the extent of one’s ”Irishness.” The story is called “57% Irish”—what percent are you?
A hundred.
In the story, Brady borrows a few things from his mother to test himself on, including her Irish Tenors CD, a Darina Allen  (TV’s “the Irish Chef”) cookbook, a tape of the Pope’s mass in Galway, and a tape of The Commitments (Alan Parker’s 1991 film made from Doyle’s first novel). Was that actually kind of your own ironic comment on how you’ve become part of modern Irish culture?
I kind of put it in for a joke. It’s one of the big Irish films, and I don’t mean that as a boast, and a lot of people know it by heart. I’m very lucky in that regard.
The Commitments was published, or rather self-published, by you in 1987. Why did you wait 27 years to check in on Jimmy Rabbitte?
Actually I went back to Jimmy in 2001 in The Deportees—I gave him a wife, Aoife, and four children. In 2012 I decided to make him the main character in The Guts. He’s older, of course, as are his children, and he has a dog …
And cancer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more … let’s say, upbeat—novel about someone with cancer.  What made you decide to give Jimmy cancer?
I had a good friend who died of cancer some years ago, and I’ve had other friends who have fought cancer. I heard the phrase a lot—“fighting cancer.” I wanted to see if Jimmy in his middle age had it in him to fight cancer and how his sense of humor would help him in this fight.
And rock ’n’ roll, too?
There’s always been a great rock  ’n’ roll feel to your books, and in your latest novel, The Guts, Jimmy Rabbitte stages a rock festival. You’ve got some names for bands—are they real or made up?
Which ones do you mean?
Here’s two: Queens of the Stone Age, The Gutter Twins …
Yeah, they’re  real. Too good to be made up.
How about The Half-Breds?
Made up.
A couple of questions about opinions expressed in your books and whether they belong to you or your characters—one of the characters in The Guts, I think it’s Jimmy Rabbitte, says that a friend fell asleep watching Downton Abbey and “what a load of shite that was.” Do you share your character’s dislike for the show?
I think it’s safe to say he and I agree on that one.
In The Dead Republic (2010) Henry Starr goes back to Ireland, working for John Ford while he makes The Quiet Man. His judgment on the film, “It’s shite, but it’s beautiful.”  Does that speak for you as well?        
Yeah, I suppose so, though I think I like it a bit more than Henry does.
Somewhere in that book Henry remarks that Ford was very good at “giving Americans the history that they wanted.” Did he do something similar with The Quiet Man?
Very much. I suppose that of all the Irish-American images of Ireland that The Quiet Man is the best representation of what Ireland was. Whatever is wrong with it, whatever doesn’t ring historically true about the time, it’s still one of my favorite films. Also, it was a way for me to get Henry back to Ireland in the book.
It was written by an Irish-American [Frank Nugent] and directed by one [Ford]. It’s a glorious piece of work because he was such a brilliant director and Maureen O’Hara is just plain glorious. The movie could easily have been a disaster.
For Irish-Americans, finding the Ireland of that period is like finding the Holy Grail. What is it like for the Irish to see The Quiet Man?
It’s tough because when Americans or anyone else come here, we have to live up to that image. It was filmed in a real village, Cong [in the west of Ireland, straddling the borders of Counties Mayo and Galway]. There’s a monument there to the movie. The pub they used in the movie is still there, with two huge TVs—one running only The Quiet Man and the other showing football or horse racing.
Okay, so you cut John Ford some slack. But how about James Joyce? You made some famous comments some time ago about your dislike of Ulysses. Has that changed?
I’ve got nothing against Ulysses. I said that almost ten years ago, to be funny but somewhat serious. It’s a brilliant novel—I’ve read it twice and if I didn’t enjoy reading it, I wouldn’t have read it again. But some people took it as if I had spat on the Koran or something. And after all, he could have used an editor.
But what was your serious point?
That Joyce has stopped being about literature and is almost a religion to a lot of people.
Would you say that’s happened to Yeats as well?
Sure, it happens to a lot of them. In Ireland, once they die they almost become saints. It’s happening now with John McGahern {who died in 2006]. A great writer, but he was human—brilliant and flawed. They all are. We all are.
A friend of mine in Ireland told me that there was a mention of you on a TV show, Father Ted.
It’s a brilliant show, very funny, about priests and their housekeepers living on an island …
Well, the character Father Maguire uses some mildly off-color language, and someone says, “That’s because he’s been reading those Roddy Doyle books again …”
That’s the coolest thing about me—I was named on Father Ted. My children think it’s the only cool thing about me.
The only cool thing? Don’t they care that all three novels in “The Barrytown Trilogy” (The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van] have all been made into successful movies?
No, in their world the only cool thing about me is Father Ted.
Speaking of profanity, you are supposed to have said that your style consists of “An awful lot of dialogue, an awful lot of gaps, and when in doubt say f …“
Yeah, well, I may as well own up. I mean, the evidence is there in the books and they’ll probably be my epitaph.
Since The Guts is connected by Jimmy to the Barrytown Trilogy, I guess we can now call it a quadrilogy?
Yeah, I guess that’s the term.
Is Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (which won the Mann Booker Prize in 1993) the only one of your novels that stands on its own?
Yes. I like to go back to old characters, to add years and new experiences to them. They seem new.
I loved the trilogy—I think it’s called “The Last Round-up Series” [A Star Called Henry (1999), Oh, Play That Thing (2004) and The Dead Republic ]—especially the way Henry, when he comes to America, seems to experience so much vital American culture. Jazz, in particular, when he becomes a bodyguard for Louis Armstrong. Is there any chance of having one or all of them made into movies?
We were very close to that, but the project went from hot to cold overnight. That’s how the movie business is, and you can’t sit and fret over it. You can only work with these things so long before the words start to swim in your head.
Who would you like to play Henry.
I haven’t thought about that recently.
I like Chris O’Dowd.
I like him, too.
Do you read your reviews?
Yeah, no … sometimes. I’m happy when they’re good, not happy if they’re bad, but then I get bored. I don’t get worked up about them. I do pay attention, but not all that much attention.  The only time I looked at a review on Amazon, the reviewer reminded me of Kathy Bates in Misery. I haven’t gone back there since.
When I talked to you several years ago, you gave me the names of some Irish writers you thought were first rate—Sebastian Barry, Colm Toibin. Can you recommend a few I may not have heard of yet?
Kevin Barry [whose novel City of Bohane won the 2013 International Dublin Literary Award]. Peter Murphy [whose 2011 novel John the Revelator was nominated for the Dublin Literary Award], and Claire Keegan [whose short stories won the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing award in 2009].
Is everyone in Ireland a writer or are those the only Irish we get to see over here?
As a man walking down the street in Dublin, it would never occur to me that anyone coming toward me was a writer.