Roddy Doyle is planning to write a book based on his brother, also named Roderick, who was born two years before him and died. The Booker Prize-winning author said he knew about his brother from a young age but has found that as he got older and since his parents died, “I feel not his presence because I don’t want to be daft about it, but actually his absence”.
He spoke publicly about his brother on Thursday night, in an interview with Irish Times columnist and college friend, Fintan O’Toole as part of The Irish Times Summer Nights Festival.
“I’m kind of keen on trying to explore what impact that had on me. The discovery that actually there was a me two years before me so to speak.” Doyle says he recalls being told about his brother Roderick when looking at a Sacred Heart picture in his parents’ bedroom with the names of the children in his father’s handwriting. He had only just learned to read and read out his sisters’ names, then there was Roderick Anthony, 1956, followed by his own name Roderick Timothy, 1958.
“It gave me pause for thought and I asked my mother . . . she’d had a little boy, she said, and he’d died . . . she used the word ‘died’, I’ll never forget that.”
“She’s a devout Catholic but she used the word died, she didn’t say gone to heaven or other words, she said died. About 10 years ago I was walking with her one day along the coast and it came up in conversation that she’d never seen the baby. She hadn’t been allowed see the baby.” A neighbour with a car had taken a day off work to bring his father with the coffin on his lap, to bury him in the angels’ plot in Glasnevin. They had never visited the grave since.
“I said to her would you like me to see if I can find out where it is and she said she’d love it.” He located the burial plot within half an hour on the Glasnevin Trust website. “So, I saw my parents I’d say about two years before my father died, standing on the point where their child was buried for the first time ever. It was a strange, a wonderful experience in many ways but strange to witness that. This very elderly couple in their late 80s, mourning the death of their child.
“I’m kind of keen on exploring it . . . It may only be an essay and it may never be written but I’m kind of keen on trying to explore how, what impact that had on me.”
They didn't like The Commitments. They liked the film. It's a funny thing. My mother particularly, she didn't like the bad language on paper
His parents he said enjoyed his successes, though they weren’t crazy about his first novel The Commitments when it came out. “The Commitments was self-published and I needed a guarantor for a loan back then because I was a man of no property. I went to my parents and they didn’t hesitate . . . They didn’t like The Commitments. They liked the film. It’s a funny thing. They didn’t like . . . my mother particularly, she didn’t like the bad language on paper.”
His father’s favourite of Doyle’s books was A Star Called Henry. “He loved that. The whole history side of it and the little bit of mythology . . . My mother’s favourite was Paddy Clarke and I think she particularly liked what I did with Kilbarrack if you like. They moved into that house in 1951 and she died in 2018. I think that was her favourite book.”
After The Commitments movie became a blockbuster and he won the Booker Prize for fiction for Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha, Doyle says he found the success intrusive. “They interfered with my life in a way. I mean in retrospect it’s purely when I looked back to Barrytown, the three-part series that RTÉ did, I realised just what a good time it was in many, many ways. Because I pushed it aside. I didn’t like the whole bulls**t around it, the whole publicity thing. It got in the way of my life in a way. I was very happy with the film but I could well have done without all the other stuff. I was the same with the Booker Prize. The night I won it I was delighted. I mean such a compliment. But there were people hanging off me like literally hanging off me that night.
“Looking back on it now which emotionally meant more to me, I’d say The Commitments probably. Seeing the book coming to big life in that way and the enjoyment that it delivered to people I think in retrospect means a lot . . . I won the Booker a few months after I gave up teaching and suddenly the books were flying, absolutely flying . . . So, any anxiety I might have had about paying the mortgage or something like that were gone for quite a while. But it was in some ways a pain in the arse.
“It took a long time to really persuade people who I didn’t even know that this was how I lived and this is how I wanted to remain living and I wasn’t really impressed by, I don’t know, stuff.”
I was a Dubliner, and so, I didn't feel particularly Irish in that official way we would have been supposed to feel
A former teacher, Doyle says he always knew he wanted to write but just didn’t know he was going to be a writer. “I drifted into the teaching as much as anything else, I said ‘I’ll do the HDip’ and it was the best decision I ever made, to do it in that particular place [Greendale Community School] and that type of school, a community school, in 1979, it was still an experiment, it was co-ed, boys and girls, and not a sniff of a nun or a priest.”
His start in writing coincided with a wider shift away from Irish literature as it existed in Ireland in the mid-1970s. “I’ve no right to speak on other people’s behalf, but we saw ourselves as ‘urban’ . . . I was a Dubliner, and so, I didn’t feel particularly Irish in that official way we would have been supposed to feel . . . There was very little evidence of Dublin really in popular culture . . . I didn’t go to the theatre much. I think I was about 19 before I saw a play, but I began reading Seán O’Casey and stuff like that and it was so different. Then Paul Mercier, who got a job in the same school I was teaching in, and we’d known each other since 1976 . . . we were fast friends and we, he and John Sutton, another great friend of mine, formed The Passion Machine. And so when I was just beginning to write myself, I was watching Paul put on these plays, like Studs. The Dublin accents and the kind of wit that I was listening to from the kids I was teaching, and then I became more aware that I had always known this, because I’d grown up with this.
“So there was an absence of all of this stuff really in the official version of Ireland, and I didn’t feel any conscious anger about it. It was a huge big empty field really – that’s a really bad analogy, The Field – but it was a . . . building site!”
Doyle was in the UK in March 2020 when the pandemic started. “I was in Newcastle on the Friday evening when everything shut down here. And it was stag and hen central in Newcastle, in my innocence I went into Boots looking for hand sanitiser, couldn’t be had. And there was steam on the windows and people coughing and hacking. And it suddenly felt really, really dangerous . . . when I came home, I was half convinced that I was carrying this plague. I remember I hung up my coat somewhere – and I didn’t go near that coat for months.
“I opened up a novel that I had started a few months before and it made absolutely no sense whatsoever. The present day where it was set, didn’t exist anymore. And in a way no longer will. So, I dumped it, because I’ll never write it.”
This is an edited version of Roddy Doyle’s interview with columnist and friend Fintan O’Toole at The Irish Times Summer Nights Festival on Thursday.