John Broderick: ‘a fugitive from a superior civilisation’

As three €15,000 artist residency awards are launched in his honour in Athlone, the author’s life and literary legacy are assessed

John Broderick: “a disillusioned romantic ... struggling to survive in a meretricious wasteland”. Photograph: PJ Murray

John Broderick: “a disillusioned romantic ... struggling to survive in a meretricious wasteland”. Photograph: PJ Murray

 

The Athlone writer John Broderick is never celebrated in Ireland to the extent that his literary talents deserve. It is true that his work is not of a uniformly high quality, but when he wrote well, he was extremely good, as good as any writer of his generation. However, when he was bad, it could be excruciating, with authorial interventions and emotive outbursts against his pet hates commonplace.

He was someone who suffered inordinately during his early years as a result of the premature death of his father and the remarriage of his mother to the manager of the successful family bakery, Paddy Flynn. Being a man of independent wealth meant that Broderick could indulge his literary vocation without worrying unduly whether he was successful or not.

A portrait of John Broderick by Harry Kernoff
A portrait of John Broderick by Harry Kernoff

He was a voracious reader and cited French writers as among his favourites, chief among them Honoré de Balzac and François Mauriac. In fact, he admitted on numerous occasions that Mauriac was the only influence of which he was aware. Undoubtedly a commitment to Catholicism was a shared preoccupation, but so too was their acute sense of place, which resulted in the graphic descriptions of the Landes district near Bordeaux for which the Nobel laureate is rightly renowned, and the uncannily accurate rendering of the topography of Westmeath and Roscommon by Broderick in some of his work, The Fugitives (1962) being a prime example.

Broderick’s first novel, The Pilgrimage, published in 1961, was promptly banned by the Censorship of Publications Board. It is difficult to know if the banning was the result of the descriptions of extramarital affairs by the main protagonist, Julia Glynn; or the homosexual proclivities of her invalided husband, Michael; or indeed the miraculous cure of Michael during a trip to Lourdes announced in the last line of the novel, which some viewed as blasphemous. Whatever the reason, the novel certainly seems to have struck a dissonant chord. Its publication came one year after Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls and four years before John McGahern’s The Dark suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Censorship Board. These novels presented a dangerous cocktail of promiscuity, burgeoning female sexuality and musturbation that elements within Irish society were not prepared to face up to in the 1960s.

Broderick’s friend, the French writer and member of the Académie Française, Julien Green, was generous in his praise of The Pilgrimage, describing it in a preface to the French edition as “an extraordinarily gripping book”. He described Michael’s cure as theologically justified, asking: “Since when has healing been exclusively available to the just?”.

A portrait of John Broderick by Sean O’Sullivan
A portrait of John Broderick by Sean O’Sullivan

Writing in this paper in May 1999, John Kenny maintained that British publishers at the time were happy to promote Broderick “as a writer engaged in titillating iconoclasm”. He was caricatured, in other words, as being “racy of the soil”, a reputation he may have inadvertently done a lot to enhance with some of his later work.

The Pilgrimage, while it does contain sexually explicit scenes, is never salacious or deliberately titillating. Julia Glynn does not suffer from a sense of sin and embarks on affairs with her husband’s nephew Jim, a doctor, and his helper, Stephen, who is described by Julia as being unable to “dissociate lovemaking from the furtive, the sordid, and the unclean”. She continues: “The puritanism that was bred in their bones, and encouraged in their youth by every possible outside pressure, was never entirely eradicated”. Unlike his mistress, Stephen was not capable of engaging in sexual intimacy without feeling guilty afterwards and the intriguing scenario that the end of the novel raises is whether a fit again Michael might take up where he left off and try to pursue a relationship with his manservant.

Broderick was a devout Catholic and often experienced difficulties reconciling his homosexual desires with his deep faith. At one point he considered studying for the priesthood and even went so far as to discuss the matter with his friend, Fr Peter Connolly, Professor of English in Maynooth, who wisely discouraged such a course of action.

Religion is a common trope in Broderick’s writing. He demonstrated a genuine understanding of the clerical caste and a deep dislike for the hypocrisy and small-mindedness of the moneyed provincial middle classes, to which Broderick belonged.

One of his best novels, The Waking of Willie Ryan (1965), recounts the sudden return of the black sheep son of a prosperous family from the mental asylum to which he was committed 25 years previously, with the complicity of his family and the local priest, Fr Mannix. The reason for this action was that Willie was having a sexual relationship with a local man, Roger Dillon, now deceased.

In order to be allowed to end his days at home, Willie is obliged to feign spiritual rehabilitation by receiving Holy Communion at a Mass organised in his nephew Chris’s home. He later lets the priest know about the sacrilege he committed by not attending Confession before the event, while at the same time enlightening him about the relationship which led to his incarceration: “Roger never gave up what you like to call ‘vice’. If it’s of any interest to you now I never wanted it, not with him anyway. It was he – how would you put it? – seduced me. Yes, that’s how you’d put it. I hated it; but I did it because I loved him.” Fr Mannix is shocked by these revelations and ends up wondering how he was inveigled into being part of a sinister plot to have Willie committed to the asylum under false pretences.

The priest and Willie end up becoming good friends and avoid discussing religion as best they can. Willie is still prone to angry outbursts when people persist in talking to him about God, who, in his experience, is merely a “convenient excuse for the hypocrites to get their own way”. In his foreword to the Lilliput edition of the novel, David Norris commends Broderick for not making a monster out of Fr Mannix, who after Willie’s death is openly derided by Mary Ryan for the emotion he displays at the graveside: “I never saw a priest to act like that, swaying and muttering like he was going to fall in, and nobody could hear a word he said. You’d think he was drunk, the Lord save us.”

The third novel that has been reissued by Lilliput Press, An Apology for Roses, sold more than 30,000 copies in the first week after its publication in 1973. It is not of the same standard as the 1960s novels mentioned above, but it contains lovely vignettes such as the gossip exchanged between the priest Tom Moran’s housekeeper and her friend, or the discreet placing of a handkerchief over the statue of the Virgin Mary before Moran makes love with Marie Fogarty, the daughter of wealthy parishioners. Fr Moran struggles with his vocation, but in the end knows that his commitment to the priesthood supersedes the physical desire he has for Marie. His opinion of women is not altogether complimentary in any case, seeing them as “fit only for bed and breeding”, and he ends up sticking with the clerical state, and doing reasonably well in the role.

Some other titles by Broderick that are worthy of mention are Don Juaneen (1962) and The Trial of Father Dillingham (1974), both skilful portrayals of Dublin life of the period. However, problems with alcohol and a tendency to court notoriety meant there was a serious declension in his work, which is clearly visible in novels such as The Pride of Summer (1976), which is far less controlled than his better work. In it, he gives free vent to his personal opinions, and not to good effect.

Friend and critic Patrick Murray describes Broderick as “a fugitive from a superior civilisation, struggling to survive in a meretricious wasteland”, which is as apt a summation as one will find. Murray adds that his friend was “a disillusioned romantic” at sea in a world which he saw as being devoid of culture and sophistication. His own learning was impressive and some of his best work was done as a literary critic for this newspaper.

He was very encouraging of emerging Irish writers and it was therefore sad to see so few of those whom he had helped at his funeral in Athlone in 1989. Notwithstanding, I’m sure he would have been thrilled at the news that the Arts Council has announced a call for writers to apply for funding under a new writer residency programme that is being funded using monies bequeathed to the council by Broderick in his will. He stipulated that they would be used “for the benefit and assistance and advancement of the arts in Athlone”.

Following consultation with Westmeath County Council, it has been agreed that there will be three artist residency awards, worth €15,000 each, whereby the successful applicants will spend 20 hours per week on the residency over a period of 10 weeks. It is a significant award, one that does honour to the memory of Athlone’s best-known writer.
Full details of the residency are available here. Interested candidates are invited to submit a proposal on their approach to the residency and a full CV to include previous public engagement work and the name and contact details of two referees to arts@westmeathcoco.ie The closing date for receipt of applications is March 1st at 3pm
Eamon Maher is director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies at the Institute of Technology, Tallaght. His latest publication, The Reimagining Ireland Reader: Examining our Past, Shaping our Future (Peter Lang, Oxford), will be launched by Dr Derek Hand in IT Tallaght on Tuesday, February 27th, at 6.30pm. Anyone interested in attending should email eamon.maher@it-tallaght.ie