Ross O’Carroll Kelly’s parallel Ireland: a mirror for us to crack up at
Review: RO’CK of Ages: From Boom Days to Zoom Days by Paul Howard
Mid-period Paul Howard and Ross O’Carroll-Kelly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónail
RO’CK of Ages: From Boom Days to Zoom Days
Paul Howard has written across a range of genres about Ross O’Carroll Kelly, a satirical creation which mocks upper-class south Dublin mores; these include: 20 novels; four plays; two musicals; a mock travel guide of south Dublin; a book of mock interviews with all of the characters in the series; as well as the ongoing newspaper columns, a selection of which form the core of the present book.
Ross first appeared in the Sunday Tribune newspaper from 1998 to 2007, and then migrated to The Irish Times or, as the character himself would put it, in the upper-class accent which permeates the books, The Oirish Toimes, from 2007 to the present, and it is from the latter columns that this book derives.
Satire as a genre is as old as literature itself. In the Irish-language tradition, it dates back to Gaelic Ireland, where it was said that someone could survive a defeat but not a satire: “Is beo duine tar éis a bhuailte ach ní beo é tar éis a cháinte” (“A person is alive after being beaten but not after his good name is taken”). In Irish writing in English, there is a rich satirical tradition through Swift, Wilde, Shaw, Kavanagh, Clarke and Flann O’Brien.
Satire has long been the subject of academic study. Archilochus, a Greek poet of the seventh century BC, is seen as the earliest known satirical writer, and it is generally accepted that there are three types of satire: Horatian satire (playful and clever); Juvenalian satire (more aggressive and acerbic); and Menippean satire (generally attacking attitudes rather than people). Howard’s work is stylistically unusual in that, while its main modes are Horatian and Juvenalian, there are examples of a sharper-edged satirical blade that can surprise the reader.
Also stylistically, he tends to give each character a leitmotif, whether it is a linguistic tic as in Charles’s ongoing self-punctuation “Quote-unquote!”; “Exclamation mork!” and Latin tags; or Sorcha’s countless “Oh my God” exclamations; and Ross’s own difficulties with language and vocabulary: “He just shook his head – I think it’s a word – ruefully?” At another stage in the book, he confuses “incest” with “incense”, and Charles, his father, gently admonishes him: “Yes, you’ve reached for a word there, Ross, and taken the wrong one down from the shelf.”
Howard also satirises institutions and the engines that drove Ireland through the cycles of Celtic Tiger, the Crash and the Celtic Phoenix, notably estate agents (“an honest estate agent. I mean, isn’t that what they call an oxymoron?”) and bankers:
“Most of our senior bank management, they’re great guys, really terrific – I should know, I played rugby with enough of them – but you wouldn’t trust them to hold your ice-cream cone while you tied your shoelace.”
Ross works at the fictitious estate agency of Hook, Lyon and Sinker, which, as the CEO tells his workers, “has been a byword for unscrupulous practices in the areas of selling and letting”. As Ross notes, “we’re all just, like, nodding. We worked hord to build up that reputation.”
Writing in The Irish Times about what he learned from the columns and the books, Howard speaks to the value and role of satire:
“Satire doesn’t bring down governments. It’s hard to say that it changes anything at all. The best you can hope for, I’ve discovered, is Molière’s aspiration ‘to amuse men while gently correcting them’. I never expected the targets of the Ross books to become my audience. I reflect on this every time I’m invited to a yacht club, or a golf club or a south Dublin rugby school to read. I wanted to infuriate these people – but now I am their court jester.”
I think he sells his own writing short here; his “problem” is that his caricatures have become characters, fully rounded and developed, with whom his readers bond. As readers, we like Ross and are willing to make excuses for him when he falls into error because basically, we are fond of him. He is arrogant, privileged and not the sharpest tool in the box, but he is aware of this: “you know, I’m so slow sometimes they could put deckchairs on me and sail me round the Caribbean.”
He is the loveable fool, the idiot savant, a latter-day, though sharper and crueller, Bertie Wooster. His moments of self-knowledge and self-awareness raise him above satire and into literature, and this is quite an achievement, especially when the vignettes of Ireland and the Irish are so incisive and funny.
This book is divided into chronological sections, from 2007 to the present, with each series of yearly columns prefaced by a brief chronology of serious issues that occurred in the particular year, followed by a segue into the alternative world of Ross, with a page containing the word: “Meanwhile . . . “ The ellipses lead the reader into the alternative satirical version of that year in the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly parallel universe, which acts as a satirical commentary on the real events of the year in question. It is in the liminal space, shuttling between the real and parallel Irelands, that Ross lives and breathes, and the force of that duality of perspective shines through in a more recent column not included in the collection.
In the column of March 20th, 2021, Ross’s daughter, Honor, asks why their family hasn’t already got the vaccine:
“As in, why can’t we just, like, pay to get it before everyone else?”
“The vaccine is being distributed on the basis of the greatest need,” Sorcha goes. “We’re not considered a priority.”
“What, even though we’re rich?” Honor goes, and when she puts it like that – yeah, no – it does seem unfair.
Sorcha’s there, “Honor, I hope we didn’t raise you to believe that just because we live in a big house in Killiney, we should be allowed to use our money to skip the queue.”
Honor goes, “We use our money to skip every other queue. Why should this one be any different?”
And of course, we smile, until we look back across the ellipsis to the following week’s “real” headlines, and discover that teachers from a private school were jumped up the queue by a private hospital CEO whose children attended that same school. This has been followed by a number of occasions where “the great and the good” (read: the wealthy and the entitled), have been seen to get vaccines ahead of their allotted place. While Ross may be a cruise liner in terms of intellect, and remain unaware of much of what is going on, Howard is more of a speedboat, whose ironic paralleling of the real Ireland can effect sharp, Juvenalian incisions.
Ross’s self-delusion is ongoing, and the use of irony to spear his pretension is a central trope of all of Howard’s work. Ross’s perceptions of his parallel world mirror those of the real world, and the ironic counterpoint is an ongoing trope in the series. So on looking around at Leinster fans at a rugby match, he notes that:
“See, we get a bad rap – and by we I mean, like, Leinster fans? But, despite what people say, we really do come in all shapes and sizes. There’s goys here with Aviator shades on their heads, goys with Oakleys on their heads, goys with Ray-Bans on their heads.
I think Oisinn sums it up best when he describes it as a real cultural melting pot.”
Oisinn may be speaking ironically, but Ross is not. While authorial irony is pervasive, the narrator himself is an irony-free zone. This is also true of his obsession with rugby and his ongoing delusions that he should have a place in the Irish rugby structures. Ross again seems to be the embodiment of the Brandoesque “I could have been a contender” mentality:
“He’s [Tana Umaga] on the record somewhere as saying that I could have played at number 10 for Ireland had I not pissed my talent up against the wall – which was an amazing thing for me to hear, because I don’t always get the recognition?”
We smile at the lack of awareness, but as this is Horatian in tone, it is never completely cruel, and Ross’s moments of self-knowledge (all too brief but real nonetheless), do serve to broaden him as a character. As he notes watching Ronan O’Gara in action:
“See, there are those who say it could and should have been me down there today, but those people are wrong. I could never do what he does and that’s a hard thing to admit when you’re pushing thirty and someone else is living your dream.”
And it is the skill of Howard’s writing in making us feel a sense of connection with, and sympathy for, this character that may lessen the Menippean element of the satire, but which leaves us with a character who is lovable and coherent for all his faults. Ross can be seen as an aspect of the Irish cultural unconscious, living with fantasy and articulating some opinions that readers may share, but are unwilling to acknowledge.
The same is true of his parents, who might be termed unrepentant Dublin-4 dwellers, who have very little time for any other part of the city, let alone the country, and have no issues in voicing this. Ross’s mother, Fionnuala, is an author of a “recession-era misery lit novel, Mom, They Said They’d Never Heard of Sundried Tomatoes.” As she tells Ross: “there are People Like Us and there are People Like Them. As your father says, this city has been planned in such a way as to ensure that we lead parallel and mutually exclusive lives.”
She has formed a group called “Luas Women”, which is protesting against linking the red and green lines of the Luas, and campaigns against any extension of the postcode “Dublin 4” to people in Terenure, again quoting her estranged husband: “if the people of Terenure want to live in Dublin 4, why don’t they simply buy houses in Dublin 4? A damn liberty expecting Dublin 4 to come to them.”
That estranged husband, Charles, referred to as a disgraced property developer, local politician and founder of the political party, New Republic, is a right-wing crony capitalist. Famous for wanting to be “tough on soccer, tough on the causes of soccer,” he responds to the recession by forming a document-disposal firm called Shred Focking Everything:
“Being in business? We’re shredding documents. Evidence, in other words. You said it yourself. People aren’t ready to hear what it was that made this country great for eleven-and-a-little-bit years. All we’re doing is making sure that no one finds out.”
He teaches Ross’s daughter to play an Irish property version of Monopoly “capitalism in all its wonderful glory”, as he calls it, and as when Honor wants to buy a house on Capel Street “she takes a hundred from her little pile of money and she puts it into – hilariously – a little brown envelope,” and Charles then “slips it into his pocket – or ‘off shore,’ as he calls it.” He is unrepentant about his role in the Celtic Tiger, and the €48 million that he hid in Andorra. He and his friend, Hennessy Coughlin-O’Hara, “are tendering to build a portion of this famous wall that Donald Trump wants to build,” and says that the boom was created by people like him bending laws and bribing people:
“It was us, Ross. We’re the economic boom. We’re the Celtic Tiger.
You think it got here by accident? Without us, the bloody Irish would still be cleaning their teeth with their own shite.”
Here the cultural unconscious of Golden Circle Ireland speaks directly in a way that it can never do in the “real” Ireland. That shuttling back and forth across the ellipses does amuse and instruct: in the current Covid situation, class and social prejudices, while largely unspoken, are rife, as Travellers and students are often blamed for Covid spikes, whereas often it is those of us who are “careful” but need to visit our holiday home, or go to Galway that can be the cause. This mentality is captured beautifully in a mother and son conversation:
“Oh, we’re all fine up here, Ross. As I said to Delma on the phone, I just can’t imagine this thing coming to Foxrock.”
“Yeah, it’s not public transport, Mom. Or a drive-thru Krispy Kreme. It’s a global pandemic – and you’re not going to stop it by writing to the council and saying we don’t consider such things appropriate for an area like this.”
But Fionnuala’s mind will not be changed as, she would tell you, people like “us” are just different: amuse and instruct indeed! There is a truth in fiction, and in Howard’s work, satire provides the mode for the telling of this truth. His parallel Ireland is a mirror though which we can smile at the “real” Ireland, but also learn more about it than it is often willing to teach.
Eugene O’Brien is head of the English department at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. He is currently writing a book on the work of Paul Howard, entitled Reading Paul Howard: The Art of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly. It will be published in the Routledge Studies in Irish Literature Series, which Eugene also edits, in late 2022.