Penny Baps by Kevin Doherty: A new, original voice in Irish fiction

Donegal-set story concerns an eco-conscious protagonist and evokes hedonistic nights

Inishowen peninsula, Co Donegal. Photograph: Getty

Inishowen peninsula, Co Donegal. Photograph: Getty

Sat, Jun 26, 2021, 06:00


Book Title:
Penny Baps


Kevin Doherty

John Murray Originals

Guideline Price:

The front material of Kevin Doherty’s ambitious debut novel reveals that publisher John Murray uses “papers that are natural, renewable . . . and made from wood grown in sustainable forests”. A sympathetic message in the case of Penny Baps, certainly, given that its fastidiously eco-conscious young protagonist is so concerned about the conservation of forestry in his native Inishowen peninsula that he decides to plant and nurture a variety of saplings himself.

Cahir, who is mentally scarred by schoolboy bullying because of his weight, plants the young trees secretly on a patch of hilly land he believes still belongs to his family. Unknown to him, however, the land has been recently sold to progressive farming neighbours, known throughout the saga by their family nickname, the Masters. The only son of the house, Tom, is about to marry and he plans to build on the rushy, forested slope where Cahir has planted.

This looks like becoming another novel about a land dispute, but not so. Cahir’s decision to furtively plant results rather in an explosive climax involving his younger brother Dan, who is in his late teens. Dan feels fastidiously responsible for Cahir’s welfare, particularly given that the boys’ parents have retired early and travelled to South America for a long trip.

The discovery of the tree planting becomes the crucible in which the brothers’ mutually protective relationship is sorely tested. A certain despair about Cahir’s ongoing insecurities forces Dan to question everything about living in Carndonagh, not least his job in the local supermarket and his attempt to woo the Masters’ daughter Lydia, who herself carries psychic baggage.

Doherty brings a new, indeed original voice to the Irish fiction table, a voice that he has clearly nurtured like Cahir’s trees. He attempts, in rhapsodic, often elliptical sentences – mostly with success, sometimes not – to bring us all the nuances and intricacies in the interior lives of the two brothers. 

These portraits are set neatly against a detailed evocation of the externals, the hedonistic disco nights, the booze and the drugs, and the wild landscape of Inishowen.

Patrick Kehoe’s most recent book of poems is Places to Sleep (2018)