Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle’s novel about a 10-year-old whose parents’ marriage is falling apart reveals the dark secret that the writer had been a literary novelist all along

New literary style: Roddy Doyle around 1993. Photograph: Nutan/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

New literary style: Roddy Doyle around 1993. Photograph: Nutan/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

 

– Paddy Clarke
– Paddy Clarke
– Has no da.
– Ha ha ha.
I didn’t listen to them. They were only kids.

If Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (the entry in this series for 1992) gave voice to an extraordinary kid in 1960s Ireland, Roddy Doyle’s Booker Prize-winning novel of the following year is narrated by a very ordinary boy growing up in the same decade. Where McCabe’s story is baroque in its fantasies and horrors, Doyle’s is pared down to its essentials. Nothing really dramatic happens. A 10-year-old boy in a new Dublin suburb tells us in his own simple words about his life. And in that life is the banal tragedy of a marriage falling apart. The brilliance of the book is that all the drama is offstage. We feel only its reverberations in the boy’s world. Few novels have ever captured so well the idea that children and adults may occupy the same space but do not live in quite the same universe.

As it happens, a momentous social change is unfolding through the novel. The new suburban Ireland of large housing estates is being built. Barrytown, where Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is set, is a version of Kilbarrack, on the northside of Dublin. Doyle grew up there when it was a village on the edge of the city. He lived through what Paddy lives through in the book: the transformation of village into suburb.

His world is a series of building sites: “We’d go down to the building site and it wouldn’t be there any more, just a square patch of muck and broken bricks and tyre marks. There was a new road where there had been wet cement the last time we were there and the new site was at the end of the road. We went over to where we had written our names with sticks in the cement but they had been smoothed over; they’d gone.” This is a literal Bildungsroman.

 

Doyle was among the first to write about this new Ireland. The previous generation had found it impossible to do so; Brendan Behan, for example, did not write about Crumlin even though he lived there. But Doyle worked as a secondary teacher in Kilbarrack after he graduated from University College Dublin in 1978, and he knew it intimately. He wrote about its working-class inhabitants not as exotic anthropological specimens but as people with rich lives. In his Barrytown trilogy – The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van – he created a chaotic, unruly but essentially happy family. The comedy that made those books so successful was never patronising, and neither did it shy away from dark materials of failure, rape and unemployment.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is in some ways more complex and nuanced than those novels, but it builds on the stylistic explorations that Doyle had made in them. His essential insight was that suburban life needed a new style. There is no local colour because one estate is pretty much like another. Doyle therefore moved away from physical description and lyrical evocation and created a highly concentrated form in which dialogue – clipped, combative and famously reliant on four-letter words – takes the place of description.

This apparently anti-literary style was easily caricatured, but Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, in which Doyle allowed himself more elbow room for psychological insight, revealed the dark secret that he had been a literary novelist all along. And a very considerable one too. There is in the novel an enormously poignant counterpointing of the physical transformations that are happening all around Paddy and the unhappy changes that are taking place in his family life. One world is built up while the other is breaking down.

Paddy is a master of magical thinking, believing that if he performs certain actions his parents will stop fighting. But he is forced out of the magic circle of childhood. His is a coming-of-age story at which age comes all too quickly.

Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is a collaboration between The Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy. Find out more at ria.ie

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