Sir Roger Casement never deserved to hang

Telling the story of Sir Roger Casement’s life is a challenge for any biographer. In the land of his birth, he is remembered as a national hero. His remains lie in the Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin beside the graves of Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell. He is there because he was hanged in Pentonville Prison in August 1916 as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. The awkward fact that Casement had become opposed to the Rising and had tried to prevent it does not fit either the heroic Irish narrative of his life or the official English account of the wartime traitor who died on the gallows.

She’s leaving home: Breakdown, by Cathy Sweeney, reviewed

The narrator of Cathy Sweeney’s first novel has finally cracked. I say ‘finally’ because there have been signs: drinking alone; disliking her daughter, or at least her type; having an affair with her friend’s son; opening a separate bank account in her maiden name when her mother died. But in the beginning we don’t know any of this. We don’t know what she’s doing, and neither does she. It’s an ordinary Tuesday in November when she leaves her comfortable home in the suburbs of Dublin, which she shares with her husband and their two almost-adult children: ‘I grab my handbag and keys, let the front door shut behind me. I

What happened in Dublin?

11 min listen

There were riots in Dublin last night. Looters smashed shops, and burnt police cars in a night of unrest in the capital of Ireland. What provoked the angry crowd, and should the police have done a better job at stopping them? Max Jeffery speaks to Katy Balls and Pat Leahy, political editor of the Irish Times.

Ireland’s most notorious murderer still casts a disturbing spell

Mark O’Connell was three years old when Malcolm Macarthur – a silken-tongued toff in a bow tie – went on his killing rampage in 1982, and 33 when he was released from prison in 2012. Eight years later, when he began this book, O’Connell describes stalking Macarthur around Dublin in the hope of securing the kind of interview that would cause Ireland’s most famous murderer to ‘tremble in terror and awe at the moral magnitude of his iniquity. I wanted to witness the breaking down of his ego defences, the revelation of some terrible emotional truth within’. His ambition recalls that of the Romantic essayist Thomas De Quincey, in relation

Spirit of place: Elsewhere, by Yan Ge, reviewed

This collection of stories is so assured, and delivered with such aplomb, that it’s hard to believe it’s a debut – and, as it turns out, that’s because it isn’t. Although Elsewhere is Yan Ge’s first book written in English, she is a seasoned novelist in China, where she has been publishing fiction for more than 20 years. For the past decade, Ge has lived in Britain and Ireland, and the collection captures the spirit of both her birthplace and her adopted homes in a variety of registers. The stories set here have a whiff of autofiction to them, but transcend their origins with style and wit. In ‘Shooting an

At last, a book about James Joyce that makes you laugh

I do not think I am alone in confessing that I had read critical works on James Joyce before I got around to reading him. As a schoolboy I drew up my own private curriculum, and one influential book was Malcolm Bradbury’s The Modern World, where I first encountered Joyce; and then moved on to Anthony Burgess’s Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader. Eventually I did read the actual work. All my teachers told me Ulysses was ‘mucky’. When they said that Finnegans Wake was even muckier, it slightly fritzed my brain when I finally got a copy. This year being the centenary of

An actor’s recipe for insanity

I’m on the road, a very proper place for an actor to be. Never mind all those jokes about some people having tours de force and others being forced to tour – a tour gets the stuff out to the people. If they can’t come to us, we must go to them, each actor on his ass, as Hamlet smuttily tells Polonius. I fancy that my generation of actors was the last to assume that we would take our wares around the country. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed discovering all the different playhouses, with their different challenges and opportunities – a chance to rethink the thing. Standing in the same place,

Momentous decisions: Ruth & Pen, by Emilie Pine, reviewed

Emilie Pine writes about the big things and the little things: friendship, love, fertility, grief; waking, showering, catching the bus. She did so in her startling collection of essays Notes to Self, and she does it again in this, her equally startling debut novel Ruth & Pen. As Ruth (‘Counsellor. Patient. Wife. Wife?’) tells herself in the morning: ‘Swing the wardrobe door open, make a choice. To run. Or to stay. Or just which jacket to wear…’ This short novel takes place in Dublin on Monday 7 October 2019. It’s a significant day for our protagonists, two strangers who briefly cross paths. Ruth, 43, is deciding whether to end her

Irish quartet: Beautiful World, Where Are You?, by Sally Rooney, reviewed

The millennial generation of Irish novelists lays great store by loving relationships. One of the encomia on the cover of Donal Ryan’s Strange Flowers (Irish Book Awards Novel of 2020) declares: ‘You have to truly love people to write like this.’ It’s hard to imagine that being said of Colm Tóibín or Anne Enright (let alone Vladimir Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh or Muriel Spark). But there are new kids on the block, and forensically intense examination of feelings between pairs of friends or lovers have propelled the fictions of Sally Rooney into the stratosphere. The phenomenal success of Conversations with Friends and Normal People, along with her influential editorship of the

To appreciate Finnegans Wake you must hear its sounds and rhythms

‘How good you are in explosition!’ The first ever unabridged recording of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is a monumental achievement by Naxos AudioBooks. Before its publication in 1939, Joyce had spent 17 years on this notoriously impenetrable work. Since then it has sparked dedicated study — and derision. Many serious readers have abandoned attempts to understand it — referred to within the Wake itself as a worthless ‘pinch of scribble’. But here, Barry McGovern, an experienced performer of Joyce, and Marcella Riordan (Molly Bloom in the Naxos recording of Ulysses) are so spectacularly brilliant with the sounds and rhythms of the language that words seemingly incomprehensible on the page magically

Dublin double act: Love, by Roddy Doyle, reviewed

Far be it from me to utter a word against the patron saint of Dublin pubs, Roddy Doyle. Granted he’s a comic genius, his dialogue comparable with Beckett and that this, his 12th novel, is garnering rave reviews in America. But is not Doyle’s trademark conversation between two men in a pub not just a little interminable? Love follows on from Two Pints (a play), Two More Pints and (last year) Two for the Road – two men chewing the fat on news events from 2014 to 2019. Squibs compared to Love, which is bigger, deeper, longer — but still two men in a pub. Joe and Davy, fifty-plus drinking

Shadows of the past

The Shangri-Las’ song ‘Past, Present and Future’ divides a life into three, Beethoven-underpinned phases: before, during and after. Each section turns in on the next, binding them together with devastating effect. It is one of the oddest and most radically structured moments in pop, and one that came to mind when reading these three very different debut novels. With similar temporal concerns to the Lieber-Butler-Morton lyric, each traces the implications of past action on the present —and how these in turn could shape the coming years. The future is most notably explored in Danny Denton’s brilliantly conceived The Earlie King & the Kid in Yellow, a polyphonic trawl through the

If you voted Remain, you’ll never ‘get’ Trump

How do you defend Donald Trump without coming across like a rabid lunatic? This was my challenge as the only ‘out’ Trumpophile on a panel at the Dublin Festival of Politics last weekend. What made me especially trepidatious is that Ireland is even more painfully right-on than we are these days. It has ditched most of that Roman Catholicism and Cúchulainn and Yeats malarkey and become just another compliant satrapy of the ahistorical, cultureless, communitarian Brussels empire. Happily there are still one or two Irish who feel just as strongly as I do about what has been done to their wonderful country. There were about a dozen of them in

A choice of first novels | 3 August 2017

Remember Douglas Coupland? Remember Tama Janowitz? Remember Lisa St Aubin de Terán? Banana Yoshimoto? Françoise Sagan? The voice of your generation? (If you’ve forgotten the voice of your generation, the brilliant Christopher Fowler’s forthcoming The Book of Forgotten Authors will provide you with the necessary reminder. The voice of my generation, as far as I’m able to recall, was a poet called Attila the Stockbroker, who we used to go and see perform in Harlow, and who did an excellent Peel session. Whatever the hell happened to Attila the Stockbroker?) Three new debut novels might all properly be acclaimed as representing the voice of their generation — though who knows,

Fierce indignation

In an autobiographical note written late in his life, Jonathan Swift set down an astonishing anecdote from his childhood. When he was a baby in Dublin, he was put into the care of an English wet nurse, and one day she heard that one of her relatives back in England was close to death. Hoping for an inheritance, the wet nurse jumped on a boat back to Whitehaven in Cumbria, taking the infant Swift with her. ‘When the Matter was discovered,’ Swift wrote, ‘His Mother sent orders by all means not to hazard a second voyage, till he could be better able to bear it.’ So the wet nurse kept

Far from ideal

There were few subjects which escaped Oscar Wilde’s barbed wit: dentists, cynics, Americans, literary critics, democracy, the working classes, the middle classes, the upper classes and Bernard Shaw were all prey for his cutting paradoxes. Family, however, got off lightly. Not for Wilde the sinister or cruel depictions of relations which permeate the novels of Evelyn Waugh and find their dysfunctional climax in Brideshead. On the contrary, family is an affectionate theme running through most of Wilde’s work and is at the very heart of his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest — a play whose plot rests on the fact that the leading protagonist has lost his parents. This

Those fearless men, but few

While reading this book in a London café, I was politely buttonholed by an Irishman: ‘Sorry to disturb you, but I saw what you were reading and wondered how far back it went.’ I answered that, as it was a group biography of the men who led the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916, it began with the eldest of them, Tom Clarke, in the mid-19th century. ‘But,’ I added, ‘it goes back further, to Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone — even Cromwell is mentioned.’ ‘Sure the feud’s much older than that,’ was the gleeful reply. If Ruth Dudley Edwards had been at the table, I imagine she would have said that

The Easter Rising centenary shows Ireland more at peace with its past

Here in Dublin, Ireland is busy marking 100 years since the Easter Rising of 1916. It is being celebrated, but with far less chest-beating and bombast than met the 50th anniversary in 1966.  And this is a good thing entirely. The Rising lasted for six days.  Its leaders seized key buildings around Dublin and proclaimed an Irish Republic.  It started a series of events that led to an independent Irish state in the south, but also to the partition of Ireland and a bloody civil war which claimed between two and three thousand lives. Emblematic of this year’s commemoration was an event on Good Friday, at a Unitarian church on St

Nuclear waste

Miss Atomic Bomb celebrates the sub-culture that grew up around nuclear tests in 1950s America. The citizens of Nevada would throw parties and stage barbecues to coincide with the latest nuclear detonation in the desert. This musical has a lot going for it. The melodies are strong, and well sung. The high-kicking chorus lines are easy on the eye and the show has a zippy, innocent spirit. But the storyline gets sidetracked in a mass of contradictory directions. The main theme follows a homesick farm girl who becomes involved with a runaway soldier whose brother runs a Vegas nightclub where a beauty contest is being held that the farm girl

Rebel angels

This is the first exhibition I’ve been to where the Prime Minister joined the hacks at the press view. A week after the Irish general election, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, came to the biggest show in Ireland devoted to the centenary of the Easter Rising. Kenny’s presence at the press launch just goes to show how the Irish rebellion against British rule at Easter 1916 is still the defining story of modern Ireland. In fact, the Easter Rising was a pretty good failure, although I didn’t suggest that to the Prime Minister at the press view. The rebellion lasted only six days before it was put down by the British