How Celtic Tiger’s death led to a Gothic revival
Ireland’s rich Gothic tradition seemed dead in the boom but Conor O’Callaghan’s inspired ghost estate novel reflects an Ireland as strange as Dracula’s Transylvania
In his largely forgotten novel, The Milesian Chief (1812), the Dubliner Charles Robert Maturin described Ireland as “the only country on earth, where, from the strange existing opposition of religion, politics, and manners, the extremes of refinement and barbarism are united, and the most wild and incredible situations of romantic story are hourly passing before modern eyes”.
For centuries, Ireland has been considered rather weird, a kind of unsettling site of the bizarre, a mythic-Gothic land of fairies, ghosts and demons
Maturin was not alone in this opinion… For centuries, Ireland has been considered rather weird, a kind of unsettling site of the bizarre, a mythic-Gothic land of fairies, ghosts and demons. Indeed, in popular culture, and particularly in Gothic literary and cinematic traditions, there circulates an almost unchanging version of Ireland as a site of queer goings on. Whether Ireland is pleasantly quaint or horrifying depends on the perspective being employed, but the strangeness of the country and its inhabitants is an abiding concern, from Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernia (c.1185), to Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II (2008). Importantly, the long history of such representations takes in canonical horror classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) and William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderlands (1908). To a global audience, Ireland is where anything can happen, and usually does, and interestingly, Irish writers have very often reflected that view back to the world.
The Celtic Tiger, with its promise of a bright future in which such dark shadows had been completely banished, seemed to herald the end of this Gothic Irish nightmare
The coming of the Celtic Tiger in the 1990s, with its promise of a bright future in which such dark shadows had been completely banished, seemed, to some at least, to herald the end of this Gothic Irish nightmare. If the Gothic genre is very often about the inability to escape from sins committed in the dim and distant past, by the end of the twentieth century it appeared that Ireland was at last being dragged (albeit, as one commentator put it, “kicking and screaming”) into an enlightened modernity.
Given Ireland’s reinvention as a technological hub, a site for the cutting-edge rather than the atavistic, a gateway into a free-trade EU rather than a backwater with bad roads but sublime views and haunted houses, it looked for a while as if the country’s proverbial weirdness was being overcome and relegated to an embarrassing historical memory. With the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, too, the murderous violence of sectarian conflict was displaced and replaced by Troubles Tourism. For a while there in the early years of the twenty-first century, it looked as though Gothic Ireland would exist in the future only as a tourist virtual reality.
However, as the critic Declan Kiberd has often reminded us, traditions are at their most vital when their death sentence has been pronounced. The Celtic Tiger turned out to be all shine and no substance, and beneath the surface glamour dark and mysterious forces continued to operate. In Dracula (1897), Bram Stoker warned that far from having been banished to the dustbin of European history by the technology of modernity, the Gothic was as up-to-date as a communications revolution or high speed trains, and that the contemporary could be as haunted as the past. So, too, for Ireland.
Eerily empty houses, malevolent patriarchs and clerics, abused innocence, all seem to be with us once more. In other words, in the downturn we re-entered Gothic Ireland
The housing boom upon which so many Irish fortunes were based soon produced “ghost estates”; the financial wizardry admired all over the world magicked up “zombie banks”. Property developers, who had for a decade been lauded as engineers of a cosmopolitan future, were now reviled as Frankensteins, vampires and ghouls. Indeed, eerily empty houses, malevolent patriarchs and clerics, abused innocence, all seem to be with us once more. In other words, in the economic downturn we re-entered Gothic Ireland (or, more credibly, we never really left it).
The focus of much of the best Irish Gothic fiction has been on the past, and traced its malevolent energies to the 1950s, 1960s or even the 1980s (I’m thinking here, for example, of Eimear McBride’s extraordinarily Gothic evocation of an ’80s Mayo in her award-winning A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing). Finally, however, with Conor O’Callaghan’s brilliant and disturbing Nothing on Earth, the Irish Gothic has been brought fully up to date.
Set around what quickly becomes a ghost estate located in one of those insignificant and outlandish places that we usually insist on calling a town, with the bare minimum of “Two streets, five pubs, a Chinese takeaway, a filling station with a minimart, a hardware shop”, its main characters could have come out of Gothic central casting: doppelgangers/twins (think Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or Fight Club), a very odd adolescent girl (The Exorcist or Carrie), and a slippery, suspicious Catholic priest (The Monk or The Omen). The plot involves that Gothic cliche, the skeleton in the family closet, leans heavily on those old reliables, mysterious noises in the night, and is recounted in the form of a probably unreliable confession (Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Interview with the Vampire).
What O’Callaghan does with these stereotypes, cliches and conventions, however, is nothing short of remarkable. He takes the supposedly outmoded and creaky ingredients of the Gothic and reinvigorates them, demonstrating their continued relevance as ways we can explain to ourselves events and situations that are otherwise inexplicable, and brings them into direct contact with contemporary Ireland, which turns out to be as peculiar and unsettling as Count Dracula’s Transylvania.
If ghosts are haunting the houses of this half-built, almost empty estate, they aren’t (only) the ghosts of the Irish Past, but more importantly of the Present and perhaps even the Yet to Come. Placing a priest and a 12-year-old girl alone together over a nightmarishly sweaty long two days obviously evokes both Gothic treatments of the monstrous Catholic clergy and recent Irish history, but O’Callaghan unnerves by refusing to clarify what “actually” happens in this time. Indeed, the priest seems more persecuted than persecutor here, even if it is unclear how much we should believe his story.
The traumatised girl who turns up on his doorstep may be both a victim and a medium through which otherworldly powers are operating (it is, after all, this girl who is described as like “nothing on earth”), and may not even exist at all. As if anticipating the predicaments in which the institutions of the modern state are now embroiled, the local gardaí seem like a malevolent version of the Keystone Cops while those charged with child welfare are not just grossly incompetent but perhaps wilfully negligent.
No one is to be trusted here, from the locals who seem only mildly entertained by a series of bizarre disappearances, to the noisy Polish construction workers who may or may not live next door, to the randy local lad guarding the almost empty estate from a nearby caravan who may be a figment of the imagination, to the meek and mild neighbours who put on the most disturbing intimate dinner party since Hannibal Lecter. And, above all these achievements, Celtic Tiger Ireland is reconfigured as a land of the dead in a way that rivals the images from the best (and the worst) of the Gothic tradition.
The challenge of making Irish Gothic contemporary has just been met superbly.
Jarlath Killeen is a lecturer in Victorian literature at Trinity College Dublin. He is the author of British Gothic Literature, 1824-1914 (University of Wales Press, 2009), The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde (Ashgate, 2007), Gothic Ireland: Horror and the Irish Anglican Imagination in the Long Eighteenth Century (Four Courts Press, 2005), The Faiths of Oscar Wilde: Catholicism, Folklore and Ireland (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), and the editor of Oscar Wilde: Irish Writers and Their Work (Irish Academic Press, 2010)