During his brief return to UCD to be presented with the Literary and Historical Society’s James Joyce Award, Roddy Doyle sat down with Jon Hozier-Byrne to discuss his work, his country, and his passions – and explains why UCD isn’t one of them.
Roddy Doyle is not happy. Waiting in front of a lecturer’s entry way to Theatre P, we stand in the ‘secret tunnels’ and wait for his name to be called. I have been asked to interview the Booker Prize winning author, an opportunity I lept at as a lifetime fan of his work, but the proposition was proffered with an unusual caveat – I would be interviewing him in front of a packed lecture theatre in the lead up to his receipt of the James Joyce Award. I try desperately to break the ice, commenting on how the L&H had truly rolled out the red carpet for him, gesturing towards the large chalk outlines of phalluses scrawled onto the dark tunnel walls. Doyle seems nonplussed.
We cannot make out any name being called, but the sound of rapturous applause fills the tunnel, and we assume we best begin. We enter and take our seats, and as Doyle gives his opening statements, the cause of his previous dissatisfaction becomes somewhat clearer; “I feel no emotional rush walking in here, for example, where I would have been twice a week for three or four years. I never look at UCD football scores, I couldn’t care less. I don’t feel that kind of attachment that Americans seem to feel towards their own colleges. Never worn a UCD scarf or jumper… ” Doyle continues, before changing tack, recalling the friendships he gained in UCD, “But at the same time, it’s been an extraordinary experience, watching, from a distance, the continuing lives of people whom I met here … What a privilege it had been to be here. I suppose I’d feel the same way if it was Trinity or DCU, to be here though, for those four years, and to gather up these friendships, and to watch them take flight.”
Whatever malaise left in Doyle from our introduction was immediately cast off when asked why he has chosen to vocalise the ‘New Irish’ so prolifically in recent years, most notably in the adaptation of Playboy of the Western World, in which the protagonist, Christy Mahon, is replaced with a Nigerian immigrant, and a long standing collaboration with the multicultural newspaper Metro Éireann, in which Doyle publishes a chapter of a story focusing on New Irish protagonists every issue. Doyle rises in his seat, and explains; “I never anticipated that Ireland would become a magnet for immigrants, and yet it was. We had to accept we were living a different life, we couldn’t blame the Brits for our poverty any more … I thought it was great.” Doyle hints at the skill that, perhaps more than any other, has cemented his reputation as the ‘authentic’ Irish voice in contemporary literature; his ear for dialects, and his remarkable capacity for witty dialogue. “When people start learning English, they learn the informalities as well as the formalities. You have this lovely thing where Polish people use the word ‘like’ a lot, as if they were thirteen-year-old girls … It becomes a habit, they think that’s what you do. They use old, hackneyed phrases that we use, in ways that were probably never intended, it’s brilliant, it’s like the invention of a new phrase. The word grand … Tiny little things like that, send me running home to work when I hear [them].” This shift in focus places Doyle’s work in the somewhat unique position of bookending either side of the boom years, and as such, proving massively influential in defining an ever-shifting national cultural identity.
Having made his name with the generation-defining Barrytown trilogy, and after winning the Booker Prize for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in 1993, Doyle’s work had become synonymous with a pre-Celtic Tiger, under-privileged voice. Perhaps his resurgence in recent, more turbulent years owes a great deal to this arguably more authentic Irish literary mode, and his latest work, an adaptation of The Government Inspector, presents the classic Russian satire of Nikolai Gogol through the brown-enveloped optics of our not-so-distant history. Co-opted somewhat as a recessionary author, Doyle is not shy about expressing his impassioned opinions on the topic, particularly in relation to Ireland’s youth; “Your future is supposed to be grim, you’re not supposed to have a future. Four years ago, five years ago, going to the airport would have been a cause for celebration; you’re going off to see the world, you were going off to conquer the world, you were Irish and that’s what we do. Now, it’s supposed to be a tragedy.” Doyle reflects on what he perceives to be an expectation of hopelessness directed towards today’s students; “I heard a kid from Dundalk, a seventeen-year-old, on the radio very recently, saying that he ‘was worried about his job prospects when he left college.’ I did a bit of calculation; that’s four or five years away, and I actually didn’t believe him. In his soul, in his heart, in the back of his head where his real person was lurking, he didn’t believe that at all. He was saying what was expected of him, that’s what I think.” Doyle expresses his annoyance with the media, whom, to him, look exclusively for “tears … something deeper and darker that might be there,” and eloquently proffers advise to the students assembled; “So, in a cheerful way, if they start telling you life has no future, just tell them to fuck off.”