Why Repeal tops, not Lolli-Popes, should define 2018
For author Darragh Martin, objects are a useful medium to explore his characters’ lives
Darragh Martin: I hope that the Repeal the 8th jumper becomes the souvenir to define 2018 Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times
After the results of the Eighth Amendment referendum, Fintan O’Toole spared a thought for Irish writers, tweeting “what will they do now that we don’t have shame and guilt anymore?”
The variety of responses to the thread – the old problems remain! There will be new problems! There’s always the weather! (an especially charged topic in these climate-changed days) – suggested that bookshops need not panic just yet. If they’re stuck, they can always fill their shelves with “lollipopes”.
The bright yellow and white striped lollipop with a sticker of a grinning Pope Francis on the front might provide enough material to keep writers going for a while. It’s a symbol of how little has changed; divorce, abortion, and contraception might have arrived but Vatican yellow remains in vogue. It’s a sign of terminal decline, a disposable piece of tat (what kind of souvenir is a lollipop?) that jauntily represents the apotheosis of late-capitalism.
In the light of sexual abuse scandals, it’s offensive, shocking to see the face of a clergyman on an item people are being asked to lick. It’s only a bit of a fun, proof that this pope isn’t as bad as some of his dour predecessors, the little bit of cheeky Charlie Haughey about him – just don’t ask him about anything controversial and it’ll all be grand.
When I started to write Future Popes of Ireland in 2012, I had no sense that it would be sharing shelf-space with lollipopes and Pope Francis souvenir mugs six years later. Equally, I hadn’t anticipated the other objects – rainbow “yes” badges and Repeal the Eighth jumpers – that would symbolise how much Ireland had changed since Pope John Paul II’s visit. I’ve been enormously heartened to see some of the social movements featured in the novel, particularly the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and access to abortion, achieve major victories.
Yet, the difficulties of both referenda also caution against a reading of history that arcs beautifully towards justice; it is hard to imagine that shame and guilt evaporated like dew on May 26th. One of the reasons I wanted to write Future Popes of Ireland was to address the question that Fintan O’Toole poses – what can we write about beyond shame and guilt? – in a world where shame and guilt were still hanging around, a pair of shambling actors biding time in a bar, waiting for their next entrance.
I also wanted to recuperate objects that showed that Irish people had been resisting shame and guilt for a long time. My part-time job as an archivist encouraged daydreaming about the detritus of human lives; in the dark of the library stacks, I imagined repurposing the “world in 100 objects” model of exhibitions to tell the story of a fictional family. As well as the objects that embodied Catholic Ireland – holy water fonts and statues of the Sacred Heart – more rebellious items jostled into their story.
A condom, smuggled from Belfast to Dublin on an infamous train. The first Dublin Pride flag, held up with rage and sorrow and solidarity, months after Declan Flynn was gay-bashed to death in Fairview Park. A photograph of a pope, ripped to pieces on live television.
Objects seemed a useful medium to explore the lives of the four main characters, children who were reared to be future popes of Ireland but ended up as Celtic Tiger cubs, material boys and girls worshipping a material world that would be the death of all that was good and holy. I wanted to disrupt a narrative of the boom and bust that imagined Catholic idols being tragically usurped by capitalist ones, some version of “didn’t we all get too carried away with ourselves?”
As a teenager growing up in Celtic Tiger Ireland, I was often frustrated at portrayals of “the youth of today” as shallow or indifferent to politics; I had a series of impassioned and ill-informed rants on several topics, were the national media ever to ask! More seriously, I knew plenty of young people for whom greater meaning couldn’t be reached through beading the rosary or caressing a flip phone. In one grandiose vision of this project, I imagined characters eschewing both Catholicism and capitalism and reaching for other objects instead: environmental manifestos; cardboard protest signs; sex toys, drugs, and the textbooks of dead philosophers.
Writing a novel is a messy business and I soon discovered that characters have a way of bristling against well-made plans. After spending hours with them, even the two villains of the piece – stern Granny Doyle and her ever-grinning grandson John Paul – who I had initially imagined as the embodiment of the worst of old and new Ireland, pushed against the boundaries I had sketched.
Granny Doyle had some softer edges despite her sharp tongue; John Paul wasn’t quite the demon love-child of Jedward and Kim Kardashian. One of the things I became most interested in was the gap between the grand futures we imagine and the messiness of lives that follow, something that seemed equally true of nations or political figures, with the Ireland that Pope John Paul II or Barack Obama conjured slipping away before they had left their podiums.
Pope Francis seems an equally complex figure to me. I appreciate his willingness to shake things up at the Vatican and to talk about climate change and economic inequality. And yet, however warm his smile or progressive some of his politics, this is also the man railing against abortion and blasphemy and presiding over an institution whose prejudices and practices have harmed many lives; I won’t be queuing up to buy a lollipope or receive Communion.
Ultimately, I hope that the Repeal jumper becomes the souvenir to define 2018, representing a movement rather than a man, stitched with pride rather than shame, suggesting stories that have only just begun to be written.
Darragh Martin is author of Future Popes of Ireland