Two lives, one semi idyllic representing the way the older generation would like Ireland to have been, one completely dysfunctional, standing for the “fall of Ireland”, collide with comically black consequences.
Suicide, adultery, child death and many more dark subjects are explored in a grotesquely chatty style by McCabe’s narrator who is a frankly weird character in his own right as we move across the social history of Ireland in microcosm.
Ireland, due to its unwilling participation in British history has undergone massive upheavals followed by long periods of economic hardship and this has undoubtedly had a huge affect on social attitudes.
The 20th Century saw the War of Independence followed by a savage civil conflict. The Catholic Church then took centre stage both politically and socially during a long and seemingly unending period of economic hardship which produced a breathtaking level of emigration right up until the 1990’s when all of a sudden a huge bubble of ill distributed wealth fractured the Nation between the Celtic Tiger “haves” and the rest of the country. Added into the mix was a long and attritional sectarian war in the North with all the attendant fallout that came with it. Then to cap it all the economy in the South went into complete meltdown whilst the North has been to a large extent remained immune to the downturn due to the population’s massive reliance on the Public Sector allied to the fear that British politicians have regarding a return to war. The dole queue was one of the paramilitaries best recruiting agents.
No wonder Irish Society is confused and a bit dysfunctional and this is reflected in the two main protagonists. Raphael Bell is the son of a war hero slain by the Black and Tans, brought up to love his Mammy and make her proud by reciting poetry in public aged five, excelling in the classroom and on the GAA field whilst remaining pious but popular at his teacher training college. He ascends to be the perfect Primary Headmaster inculcating generations of the sons of Irish Mammies with his values.
Until the arrival in his school of newly qualified teacher Malachy Dudgeon…. Son of an adulterous woman whose shenanigans with the local cowman result in his father’s suicide and Malachy’s own descent into cynicism and growingly chaotic lifestyle.
The narrative is black, funny and thought provoking as you can sense the train wreck that is about to unfold but can’t help looking. A worthy, and in some ways more mature follow up to 1992’s “The Butcher Boy”.