Frankie Gaffney on Dublin Seven: Love/Hate meets Ulysses
My idea was to present the experiences of a young man embroiled in Dublin’s gangland, and show how this lifestyle can accelerate a person’s journey through life
Frankie Gaffney: Dublin Seven, doesn’t refer to the postal district (hence Seven rather than 7). There are seven chapters, each with seven themes that determine the content. Prime among these themes is Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man
I’m told I have an unusual background for a writer of literary fiction. My Da spent time in prison when I was a kid. I grew up on a council estate, then moved into the north inner city when I was 12. I went to a secondary school in town – where I had the worst attendance on record, and failed my Leaving Cert (failed to even show up for some of the exams). I was very political when I was young, and often spent time when I should have been at school putting up posters for public meetings or attending protests. But then I started working in nightclubs, and this fell by the wayside.
I had a bit of a rough time then: the inevitable run-ins with gardaí and gangsters that are just a normal part of growing up for a lot of working-class kids. But despite having always lived in deprived areas, I was privileged in other ways, certainly in comparison to a lot of my peers. For example, my Da’s parents (who even the adults in the family referred to always as ‘The Nanny and The Da’), provided a stable and loving second home for me and all my cousins, that nurtured us into adulthood. I couldn’t have wished for better matriarchal and patriarchal role-models.
But Dublin was a rough city to come of age in. Living, working and socialising in town, the underworld was unavoidable. Down the years I’ve had friends succumb to the temptation of heroin, seen more than one acquaintance murdered, and been to some fairly dark places myself. I believe what saved my from getting into the type of trouble there’s no escape from was simply the fact my Ma read to me before I could even talk, and always bought me books no matter how broke she was. It sounds like a Dickensian tall tale, but I sincerely remember her reading me a story by candlelight because our electricity had been cut off. However poor we were on occasion back then, we knew we had support if we really needed it. No matter how much bother I got myself into, I always knew I had my Ma to rely on, and she instilled in me a love of books which meant I was constantly educating myself even though I didn’t recognise it. This is what stopped me from suffering the fate whole swathes of young, working-class men do: ending up in prison; on heroin; or shot dead.
Gangland mystique in Ireland is largely a creation of the news media. The tabloids are packed with lurid and sensational stories about Dublin criminals that are really just trivial gutter gossip. The so-called “crime bosses” and “drug lords” are glorified with glamorous nicknames. The unnamed, unaccountable sources vaguely cited are usually gardaí. This is an unhealthy symbiosis, skewing coverage in one direction. The childishly simplistic “Guards good/gangsters bad” narrative simply does not reflect reality (the epidemic of corruption recently uncovered in our police force should make this clear). I wanted to present a fresh perspective, one informed by personal experience of the characters who inhabit this world. Thus, my extremely flawed hero is Shane, a working-class 18-year-old who’s just finished school.
The book’s title, Dublin Seven, doesn’t refer to the postal district (hence Seven rather than 7). The novel isn’t even necessarily set in Dublin 7 – the events could take place in any working-class area. There are seven chapters, each with seven themes that determine the content. Prime among these themes is Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man. This famous passage (beginning “All the world’s a stage . . .”) stuck in my mind from the moment I first encountered it. It appears in his 1599 pastoral, As You Like It, a merry romp of a play – a sort of Tudor version of the rom-com. Yet in the middle of this optimistic comedy, suddenly you’re hit with a fatalistic enumeration of the stages a life progresses through, from infancy to decline. I found the stark contrast utterly chilling.
Cohabiting with the high-street shops and the slick offices of financial institutions, there exists a precarious, working-class world in Dublin – an environment that intensifies the natural highs and lows of life. This is even more true of the underworlds associated with drugs and crime. The losses and rewards there are much more immediate and intense than in other arenas. Shakespeare’s speech reminded me of how the wheel of fortune can push us into different roles over time, and how our mortality is a constant presence looming over our day-to-day existence. So my idea was to present the experiences of a young man who becomes embroiled in Dublin’s gangland, and show how this lifestyle can accelerate a person’s journey through life.
The accordance of Shakespeare’s distinct ages and the life of a young Dubliner is realised in the content and language of each chapter. In the first chapter (Shakespeare‘s “infant” age), Shane toddles off partying in town for the first time. Kissing a random girl he meets drunk, his immediate instinct is to satisfy an infantile mammary fixation by suckling on her breast. The encounter ends disastrously. Inexperienced alcohol consumption results in him “mewling and puking” like a baby before being escorted home, where his Ma humiliatingly puts him to bed with a glass of milk. The second chapter (corresponding to Shakespeare‘s “schoolboy age”), sees Shane “creeping like a snail unwillingly” to a pointless course, while he is more keen to be schooled in the curriculum of the city’s cocaine trade – a business still booming at the crescendo of the Celtic Tiger.
I was inspired in this regard by James Joyce’s “Linati schema” for Ulysses. Joyce’s masterpiece is organised around a grid, allocating each episode a Homeric parallel, an organ of the body, an academic discipline, and so forth. I wanted to do something similar on a more modest and intelligible scale. Each chapter of Dublin Seven has one each of the seven deadly sins, seven holy gifts, seven Biblical plagues, the seven Egyptian souls (as imagined in the famous William S Burroughs poem some might remember from the montage at the start of the final season of the Sopranos), the seven traditional colours of the spectrum, and the seven ancient vedic deities/planets (that gave their names to our days of the week). So, for example, chapter 1 is structured like this:
Soul: Ren (the secret name)
Because of my background, the temptation will be to read Dublin Seven autobiographically. I know people will, it doesn’t bother me. But once I’d decided to use this formula as a sort of structural engine to drive the plot, the book essentially wrote itself. I’m not Shane. There are plenty of synchronicities, but my family, my friends, my personality, my life trajectory are (thankfully) all quite different from his. The plot of Dublin Seven was determined almost wholly by the schema I’ve outlined. In terms of authenticity, the important thing is not that everything in the book did happen – but that it could. The characters, the events, the dialect, the dialogue, could all be real, even if they aren’t. So Dublin Seven isn’t about me. Well, apart from the sex scenes: they’re all true...
Dublin Seven is published by Liberties Press