Jennifer O’Connell: 15 things we learned from the Barrytown trilogy
Roddy Doyle’s trilogy is up for this year’s Dublin: One City, One Book initiative. That’s very clever all the same
The Commitments: ‘The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin’
The choice for this year’s Dublin: One City, One Book initiative, which encourages everyone to read a particular book connected with the capital in April each year, is Roddy Doyle’s brilliant, heart-warming and subversive Barrytown trilogy – as the name suggests, not one book but three: The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van.
As Jimmy Rabbitte might say, “That’s very clever all the same”.
And it is a clever choice. Before the Barrytown trilogy, at least one of the prevailing views of Dublin was of a grimy and heartless place of tower blocks and forlorn suburban commuter towns, a city with a pop culture just emerging from infancy. But after the Barrytown trilogy, the prevailing view of Dublin came to be summed up by the Barrytown trilogy: a place of warmth and wit, fierce family loyalty, raucous bands, bawdy language, untapped potential.
To mark the occasion, here – some 25 years on – are 15 things the Barrytown trilogy taught us.
1 You could write a book about contemporary Ireland in an Irish accent and get it published.
2 You could write a book about contemporary Ireland with lots swearing in it, and ignore all the established conventions of novel-writing, and still get it published. Arguably Joyce, Behan, Beckett, O’Casey and others had already proven this point, but it’s fair to say that nothing that came before it had the wit, the warmth, the mass appeal and the sheer, spectacular range of swearing of the Barrytown trilogy.
3 Dublin wit does translate. At the time The Commitments was published, an Irish Times reviewer dismissed it, with something of a lack of prescience, as “of little interest to people outside Dublin”. Last year, some 24 years after its publication, I introduced The Snapper to my Australian book club, comprising two Australians, two English and one Scottish expat, and an American. They unanimously loved it, finding it moving, funny and relevant. One reported repeatedly nudging her sleeping other half in the ribs so she could wake him up and read bits aloud to him.
4 Great Irish novels don’t have to be self-important or showy; they don’t have to deal with sweeping themes and or be set in the civil war or a tenement in the 1950s. Great Irish novels can be about teen pregnancies, football, soul music, alcohol, redundancy and chip vans, and still be great.
5 Great novels aren’t always instantly recognised as great novels. When The Van came out in 1990, it divided critical opinion. The Irish Times review was scathing. “Many times I felt this book left a lot to be desired – primarily, a book,” it began, going on to describe the punctuation as a series of “visual atrocities” and to accuse the plot of “tedium and space-consuming dross”, finished up by bemoaning the lack of “one passing reference to politics of any sort”. The Booker prize committee disagreed: The Van made the 1991 Booker shortlist.
6 Married sex can be summed up in a sentence: “I suppose a ride’s out of the question?”
7 “Soul is democratic, Jimmy. Anyone with a bin lid can play it. It’s the people’s music . . . Jazz has got no soul. It is sound for the sake of sound. It has no meaning. It’s musical wanking, Brother.”
8 The deadliest putdown in cinematic history comprises just two words, delivered by a garden shears-wielding Jimmy snr in film version of The Snapper. “Snip, snip (Mr Burgess).”
9 “The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin.”
10 You could make a film about, as the promotional pack for Alan Parker’s The Commitments put it, “bollix, tossers, sex, soul, boxes, gooters, the works” and not only get it past the censors but turn it into a worldwide hit (even if an early review in the Los Angeles Times complained that it was “bogged down by the muck of deep Irish accents”. To get around it, a Tosser’s Glossary was distributed with the promotional materials.)
11 Declarations of love don’t have to be sentimental to be memorable. “I love yeh, son,” said Jimmy snr. He could say it and no one could hear him, except young Jimmy, because of the singing and roaring and breaking glasses. “I think you’re fuckin’ great,” said Jimmy snr. “Ah fuck off, will yeh,” said Jimmy jnr. “Packie saved the fuckin’ penalty, not me.” But he liked what he’d heard; Jimmy snr could tell that. He gave Jimmy snr a dig in the stomach. “You’re not a bad oul’ c*** yourself,” he said. (This scene from The Van might just be the most accurate portrayal of the Irish father-son relationship in literature.)
12 “I’m scarleh” became, with The Commitments, a universally recognised exclamation of mortification.
13 Georgie Burgess’s “Did you not see me over by the vegetables?” in The Snapper stole the crown from Dirty Dancing’s “I carried a watermelon” for the the most embarrassing appearance by a fruit or vegetable in film.
14 “They’ll be eating chips out of our knickers,” opines Natalie in The Commitments, giving birth to possibly the highest accolade the music business has to offer.
15 Joey’s words to Jimmy Rabbitt jnr in The Commitments might just as easily be applied to the Barrytown trilogy as whole. “You raised their expectations of life, you lifted their horizons. Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it’s poetry.”
See dublinonecityonebook.ie for more information on events celebrating the Barrytown trilogy being held throughout April