After the Revolution

FICTION: ROY FOSTER reviews The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Cape, 329pp, £17.99

FICTION: ROY FOSTERreviews The Dead Republicby Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Cape, 329pp, £17.99

'ANYONE WHO makes plans for after the revolution," the young Karl Marx remarked, "is a reactionary." Roddy Doyle's revolutionary hero Henry Smart might agree. The Dead Republic, ending his trilogy "The Last Roundup", takes Henry to post-revolutionary Ireland, first as "IRA consultant" on John Ford's film The Quiet Manin 1952, then as a school janitor outside Dublin and finally as a rediscovered hero of 1916 and poster boy for Provisional Sinn Féin in the 1980s. His odyssey culminates in the back rooms (and back seats) of the peace process and ends, audaciously, in 2010; what has happened to the revolution is anybody's guess, but, as with Ulysses, there is a large hint lurking in the title.

At the end of the first volume Henry had left the future to his wife’s cousin Ivan, sinister hit man and ambitious politician; the second volume saw our hero pursuing a freewheeling life in the US during the jazz age. Now, in late 20th-century Ireland, Ivan re-emerges, but somehow diluted and neutered. The same is true for several other characters, notably Henry’s irrepressible wife; also missing is the integrated narrative drive of the previous volumes. As Henry ages, and his country loses track, Doyle remains a master stylist, writing sentences that hit you like a slap in the face, and delivering sardonic one-liners out of the corners of his characters’ mouths. He manipulates the disappearance and re-emergence of characters like a puppeteer, and brilliantly creates surreal effects; he can paint in the whited-out aftermath of a bombing, the stomach-crawling uncertainty of a blindfold drive to a lonely farmhouse or the feel of the cold earth at a funeral with powerful authority.

But while the novel is as ambitious as its predecessors, the focus wavers periodically into irresolution and perfunctoriness. The recurring symbolism of Henry’s wooden leg, the magical realism of shape-changing and agelessness, cannot disguise nagging questions. Too many of the characters – apart from the charismatic hero – appear as ciphers. And Henry’s political grasp of what is happening in 1980s Ireland involves a different kind of shape-changing, never quite clarified.


The Dead Republicbegins marvellously, with Henry adopted by John Ford as a revolutionary icon: Ford is wickedly sketched as a drunken magus with a sinister edge and a determination to claim Irish revolutionary roots. The initial conception of The Quiet Manis to be a biography of Henry himself (Ford's earlier film The Informerremains a powerful image, anticipating Henry's own role at a later stage of the book). Naturally the bosses of "Republic Studios" and the necessities of tourist-friendly Ireland bring about a different outcome, to Henry's chagrin; the attendant misunderstandings and manipulations are hilariously conveyed: invited much later to view it "in Technicolor", Henry responds that it is "shite in any colour". Here as elsewhere, Doyle borrows freely from real life, and real lives (notably the legendary gunman Ernie O'Malley's). But the technique becomes less successful with the shift from this prologue into the much longer second part of the book.

Queries accumulate as the story proceeds. The soul of Ireland is up for grabs, but who represents it? Is it Henry and other ancient survivors of 1916, whose stories are publicly acclaimed and secretly contested? Is it Ivan, the Fianna Fáil ex-minister tainted by gunrunning? Is it Henry’s rediscovered “Miss O’Shea”, immobilised in a coma till national liberation awakes her, and eventually released by a lie? Or is it Henry’s implacable (and improbable) American daughter, Saoirse? It is probably not the bearded Sinn Féin leader with his tweed jacket and large white teeth. “I’d never seen teeth that white in a Catholic mouth before . . . He was young, in his twenties, but there was nothing young in him.” In a Doylesque aside, Henry immediately tells us that we may think this was Gerry Adams, but it wasn’t: Adams “was in Long Kesh, becoming Gerry Adams”. This may be a jokey narrative trick or it may be dictated by Cape’s libel reader. But in any case, the Provos and the policemen who come to haunt Henry’s life are oddly interchangeable: in one brilliant shift Henry mistakes them for each other.

This works well, but Henry’s own political position is oddly undefined. He hates violence, and eradicates it in the school where he works; he is all too aware of the unfinished nature of the original revolution; though utterly indifferent to the Northern crisis until caught up in the 1974 Dublin bombings, he comes strongly on-side with the republicans during the hunger strikes and stridently excoriates Thatcher as a murderess; he acts as a deep throat during the peace negotiations between the governments and the IRA Army Council. The irony whereby the hunger strikes turned the Provos into politicians, and therefore compromisers with reality, is not pointed up, though he emphasises the image of republicanism as religion, with prophets and a direct line to God: Henry’s wooden leg is “my piece of the cross”. Mysticism, as ever, gives way to politics, Henry apparently endorses the move to “legitimacy” and the claims of “the dead generations” remain unfulfilled. It is perhaps just as well that he bows out a few years before the 2016 celebrations.

The third section of a trilogy often presents problems; this was true of Thomas Flanagan's The End of the Hunt, which followed two of the very best Irish historical novels ( The Year of the Frenchand The Tenants of Time) with a lengthy and unconvincing diminuendo. Maybe Doyle should have envisioned a quartet: after A Star Called Henryand Oh, Play That Thing, one novel dealing with the making of The Quiet Man, and Henry's struggle to wrest his life-story back from the demonic Ford, followed by another dealing, more searchingly, with the later use made of Henry's cult and reputation by the Provos. As it is, links between the two are sketchy, and Doyle's powerful theme of the US as essential to Irish self-invention, central to the trilogy and declared in its overall title, eventually dwindles into Henry's symbolic cowboy boots.

Roy Foster is Carroll professor of Irish history at the University of Oxford. His most recent book is Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change 1970-2000( Penguin )

Roddy Doyle will read at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway, as part of the New Yorkerat Cúirt event on Tuesday, April 20, at 8.30pm and will also give a reading for children on Wednesday, April 21, at 11am