Grieving losses private, public, real and fictional
Beijing and Baileys
Public and private engage in a complicated interplay too in The Fall of Ireland. This novella’s protagonist is Martin, a midlevel civil servant who is on a St Patrick’s Day trip to China with a junior minister in the last government. While the official party goes on, Martin stays behind in Beijing, where exhaustion from official duties and overindulgence in Baileys has him at a low ebb. He’s the father of three teenage girls who are growing up, up and away. His marriage to menopausal, self-absorbed Rachel has entered its ice age. He takes no pride in his career as a faceless yes-man, with the collapsed state of the economy a source of further regret and demoralisation. For all his Killiney house and cushy pension package, loveless Martin has as little going for him as many another Bolger protagonist.
To clear his head, he goes for a swim in the hotel pool, on emerging from which he is hustled into hiring a masseuse. Out of his depth as this woman makes him feel, her touch is undeniably welcome, and though he tries to be sociable – well, you’ve guessed it. Playing into the masseuse’s hands, so to speak, is the last straw for Martin. One thing he has been able to pride himself on has been his fidelity to Rachel. Not that his wife has recommended it; on the contrary. But maintaining that one marriage vow has been a source of self-respect. With that gone, Martin has nothing, and now a certain amount of heavy metaphorical lifting takes place: “His fall had been as abrupt and humiliating as the fall of Ireland.” Yet the point isn’t that the country has fallen into foreign handlers so much as that the country has not kept faith with itself. Martin “had stained his own integrity, the moral codes by which he once lived”. The idea is that this is also true in the larger analysis. Such may well be the case. But The Fall of Ireland makes it clear that Martin’s “stain” is all his own work. So the title’s metaphor also points, in addition to impulses to spend, moral absentmindedness and so on, to individual actions having shameful consequences.
Dermot Bolger has told more dramatic stories than The Fall of Ireland. Still, it’s difficult to read of empty Martin and not be reminded of Linda Loman’s lament for her hapless Willy in Death of a Salesman: “Attention must be paid!”