Interview | Dermot Bolger


Erik Martiny

Dermot Bolger

Between 1990 and 2005 Dermot Bolger published ten novels in Britain with Penguin and HarperCollins, starting with his controversial portrayal of life for young Dubliners in The Journey Home and ending with The Family on Paradise Pier, which followed a real-life Irish family whose passion for communism took them from a privileged upbringing in Donegal through the Spanish Civil War, 1930s Soviet gulags and the uneasy sanctuary of a war-becalmed Ireland. As poet and playwright, Bolger’s focus turned to theatre at that time, writing a trilogy of plays tracing life in a working-class Dublin suburb and adapting Ulysses for the stage. Since his return to fiction his latter books are not well-known in Britain, being published in Ireland by New Island Books and in French by Joëlle Losfeld. These include An Ark of Light – his standalone sequel to The Family on Paradise Pier. It tells the real-life story over four decades of an indefatigable idealist, who breaks free from an unhappy marriage in a conservative Ireland to strive to forge her identity as an artist. Set in England, Ireland, Spain and Kenya, it is a devastating portrayal of a mother’s anxiety for her gay son in a world where homosexuality was still illegal. Other more recent novels include The Lonely Sea and Sky, about a famous sea rescue by unarmed Irish sailors during World War Two and Tanglewood, which traces the economic collapse of the Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy and its effects on two marriages.

You’re a novelist who is also a poet and a playwright, which is rather unusual for a writer. Do you tend to first have a longing for a particular genre or does the nature of your thoughts determine the genre you end up choosing?

Essentially I am a storyteller and it is not unusual in Ireland for a writer to combine these three disciplines. Sebastian Barry, for example, began as a poet at the exact same time as myself, began writing for the stage at much the same time as well and then turned to fiction – with considerably more, and well-deserved, success than me. Likewise, although Colm Tóibín is best known as a novelist, he has successfully written plays and while his debut collection of poems only appeared in 2022, I first encountered him through poems he published in small magazines in the 1970s.

I think two elements are at play in the choice of medium I pick to write in – imagination and economics. On the imaginative side, as ideas or characters come to me, I instinctively sense whether the story I want to shape, to bring out the idea, works best as fiction, as poetry or on stage. When every young writer is starting out they need one person to truly believe in them. At eighteen I hitchhiked across Ireland and found such a true encourager in a remarkable seventy-three-year-old woman called Sheila Fitzgerald who lived in – and welcomed all-comers to – a caravan in a field in the West of Ireland. She was ninety-six when she died in the year 2000, so her life spanned the entire Twentieth Century. Her experiences ranged from growing up in an comfortable, artistic but rather eccentric Anglo-Irish family, to her brothers becoming immersed in communism in the 1930s (the youngest died in a Soviet gulag, though Sheila never knew his fate for decades); to her son being gay when it was dangerous and illegal in the 1950s; to her having courage to break free from an unhappy marriage in middle age to try and become a writer and painter, living, virtually penniless, in remote villages in the Pyrenees in the 1960s; to her encountering tragedies that would have destroyed most people. But despite every setback she resolutely embraced the right to be happy and be uniquely herself. Therefore when I sat down to write about her life, it had to be in the form of not just one big novel, The Family on Paradise Pier, but a second novel, An Ark of Light. And even those 950 pages (between two books) could not fully encompass her life.

In contrast, I used the medium of poetry, in my latest book, Other People’s Lives, to write about people whose lives I only had brief glimpses into. Figures like Arthur Fields, a street photographer, whose family fled persecution in Ukraine to find sanctuary in Dublin, and who spent half a century taking photographs of passers-by on Dublin’s busiest bridge. He was a constant but unknowable presence on the streets throughout my childhood. Poetry allowed me space to speculate on his inner life during decades of standing in rain and wind, a relic from a bygone era who still felt compulsively compelled to stand on O’Connell Bridge, until ill health forced him to stop when aged eighty-seven. Because many working-class families could not afford cameras in the 1950s, his street photos are now often the only mementos the families have of long-dead relations. I did not know enough about his life to write a novel about him (and it would be intrusive to do so, whereas Sheila gave me permission), but poetry allowed me the imaginative freedom to speculate on his thoughts and on the strangest paradox that – because Fields patrolled the same streets as Joyce’s hero, Leopold Bloom – the two men whose eyes we now most vividly see Dublin through were both slighted and ignored outsiders: a fictional Hungarian Jew and a real-life Ukrainian Jew.

Again, in contrast, when I wanted to write about the vanished world of Dublin dockworkers, I knew that the stage was the best medium to let me recreate the razor-sharp street humour of that tough world where men were chosen (or not chosen) for work at hiring fairs on the docks at dawn each morning. I sensed that I would hopefully get to the heart of the human dilemmas facing them, as these often dangerous jobs dried up, by creating characters who could joke and argue and sing among themselves on stage. When that play, Last Orders at the Dockside, played in Ireland’s national theatre, The Abbey, it was a great privilege to see the children and grandchildren of some dockers so immersed in the play that they sometimes shouted comments back at the actors, with certain audience members making their first visit to our national theatre, despite it being located less than a mile from those docks.

So each medium allows the writer the space to be a storyteller but in slightly different ways. Each also allows them different ways in which to explore themselves, reveal themselves or indeed conceal themselves.

Who are the writers who have had the greatest impact on your work?

Growing up in the working-class suburb of Finglas in Dublin, the early influencers were the random handful of poets and playwrights who had books on the shelf allotted to poetry in the visiting mobile library. Half of these were faded editions of the Pre-Raphaelites, whose poetry did very little for me but whose frontispiece images alarmed me. They seemed to have long flowing hair and elaborate dickie-bows, and I was prematurely bald at thirteen and reluctant to ask local skinheads where to buy dickie bows. The other poetry books were from “The Celtic Twilight” period of Irish writing, but this description is too vague for the intellectual rigour I found in the best work of Yeats, once he got over his dreamy younger self, and in the plays of J M Synge, which caused riots when first staged in Dublin. If you want to understand the often ambivalent and contradictory attitude of some Irish people towards violence, read Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. I learnt a lot from Yeats and still know his poems by heart (I close my eyes and silently recite his “The Wild Swans at Coole” during all dental procedures).

I got incredibly lucky, when aged fifteen, to meet my first living poet, Anthony Cronin, who became a life-long friend and mentor. I later published his poetry for the final thirty years of his life, firstly through the Raven Arts Press (which I founded from my first wages as an eighteen-year-old factory hand to publish a new generation of Irish writers) and then through New Island Books, which I co-founded in 1992 with Edwin Higel to continue this work on a more professional footing.

Cronin, who had been a friend and contemporary to a generation of Irish writers lost to drink, like Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan, was not only a fine poet and author of the best biography of Beckett, but a stringent critic with no time for “all that Celtic nonsense”. He was a dissident voice in Irish writing at that time.  He wised me up as a teenager as to how nothing within the parameters of human experience was outside the ambit of the writer and that I needed to stop writing pastiches of dead writers but focus of exploring the realities of the world I was growing up in.

The first non-Irish poets whose work truly resonated with me were Russians like Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova. I encountered these and others like Paul Celan and Camus, by random chance, browsing in cheap bookshops or swapping books in a new suburb which, once you leant where to look, teamed with new voices experimenting in poetry or punk music or a marriage of both.    

When seeking inspiration for the novels of Dublin life which I began writing in the early 1980s (at a time when little has been written about contemporary working-class Dublin life), I didn’t look to Joyce or O’Casey for a role-model but Pier Paolo Pasolini whose novels of post-war Roman street life, like Una Vita Violenta (A Violent Life) carried that sense of new worlds being built on the fringe of things.

Initially I was too young to grasp the importance of Joyce. I disliked the tourist fuss around him in Dublin, as I was meant to be living in a literary mausoleum at a time when I was imbued with the punk spirit of shaking things up. But when I later adapted Ulysses for the stage, I quickly realised  how contemporary that book remains and why Joyce’s great love, Nora Barnacle, complained about being kept awake at night, during their years of poverty, as he laughed so much when siting up to write it and subtly get under the skin and prejudices of the claustrophobic city Stephen knows he must escape from, in a novel that teems with virtuosity, but also with deep insights into the human condition that remain equally true today.

Some of your earlier novels have a gothic theme: did the strong presence of Irish gothic writers of the past like Bram Stoker and Sheridan Le Fanu have anything to do with this?

I was always interested in that overlooked tradition of Dublin gothic writing, figures like Bram Stoker and before him Sheridan le Fanu and Charles Maturin who wrote Melmoth the Wanderer. This streak of doomed horror seems to creep into 19th Century Dublin writing, especially among a Protestant elite who sensed that their ascendency status was increasingly built on quicksand. I was amazed that my early novels were always seen purely as social realism (as if working class writers could write nothing else) when one narrator in The Journey Home (1990) speaks from beyond the grave and one character in The Woman’s Daughter (1992) is a 2,000-year-old spirit who occupies the body of some new victim and carries within him memories of everyone encountered across those centuries.

I paid my most direct homage to this tradition in a young adult novel, New Town Soul. I hoped that Le Fanu’s ghost might have enjoyed reading it in the gloomy house where his wife died following a “hysterical attack” and he was later found dead. I didn’t expect it to end for some years being studied for the Irish Leaving Cert (the equivalent of Britain’s A Levels). I was besieged by anxious letters from parents, students and teachers, all saying how they loved the writing, but could I please explain (in a way they could condense into neat answers) what on God’s earth happens at the end when supernatural forces take over. I’m still terrified that a generation of students may have failed their Leaving Cert because of me.    

Why do you think Ireland produced such outstanding examples of the gothic genre?

I think Irish writers have produced outstanding examples in so many genres that one great benediction is that there is no longer a typical Irish novel. Of course, Joyce broke the mode a century ago when Ulysses’ publication coincided with the emergence of a new Irish state which had an uneasy relationship with Joyce. One newspaper, The Nation, called Ulysses an ‘unspeakable heap of printed filth’.

The Censorship of Publications Act passed in 1929 – with the Catholic Bulletin labelling all objectors to it as “low creatures, vulgarians, wastrels, mere Irish scum” – hardly created a climate of unfettered artistic freedom, with many writers choosing exile to let their voices be heard. This, and the lack – unlike now – of a flourishing indigenous publishing industry, meant for, for decades, most decisions about what constituted Irish literature was made by foreign editors with laudable intent but often little knowledge of the true preoccupations of Irish society. Interestingly Patrick Kavanagh – the poet most cherished by Irish people, between the eras of Yeats and Heaney, and whose poems I hear quoted in unlikely places – is virtually unknown outside of Ireland.

By the 1960s there was often a certain similarity in themes within debut Irish novels holding up a disturbing mirror to Irish society. They often involved a sensitive, quietly rebellious young person coming into contact with their sexuality, into conflict with clerical authority and taking the boat to England, with the author to follow soon after publication.

Obviously Northern Irish writing followed a different trajectory, amid the pressures and stress of the conflict that engulfed society there. 1968 signalled change in the North, with inflammatory images of unarmed Civil Rights protesters being savagely beaten by policemen. But in the South that year also heralded huge change, with the introduction of free second level education. It created a new generation of working-class writers like myself, Fintan O’Toole, Paula Meehan and others. Small local publishers sprang up, like The Irish Writers Co-op, co-founded by Neil Jordan, and my Raven Arts Press. Raven had a punk ethos and possessed no single unifying intellectual agenda. It was a loose movement for change, its course dictated by the writers who got involved, like Fintan O’Toole, Sebastian Barry, Sara Berkeley and Patrick McCabe, and who brought others in. It was never run as a business, but it was a huge amount of fun with serious intent; a collective adventure undertaken with a genuine love of literature and sense of mischief. We launched one early book by kidnapping the Arts Council’s literature officer with nylon stockings over our faces. I think we were just a bit daunted by having to fill in the application forms like everyone else. This was before Irish writing took off internationally in the late 1980s. It’s almost impossible to underestimate the generosity of Colm Toibin back then who found agents and often brokered deals for us.

Thankfully a typical Irish novel or genre no longer exists. That big mirror held up in the 1960s has shattered and I see every Irish writer, in all their diversity, being like a shard of glass from that mirror, all giving an utterly different but equally true reflection of the society that shaped our imaginations.

By Erik Martiny

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