When Roddy Doyle was in secondary school, one of the Christian Brothers turned to him and said in front of the whole class: “Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile.”
“Now, to be clear. He never touched me. He never ordered me, or asked me to stay back from school. There were no consequences, so to speak,” says Doyle. “But it was a dreadful experience.” Inevitably, he was teased relentlessly. It was nothing too savage—mostly industrious back-thumps and demands he shoot the teacher a quick smile to get them all off homework. For Doyle though, grappling with the teenage realities of hormones and sex in 1970s Dublin, the attention was pricklingly awkward. “It was very unwelcome. You know, really unwelcome. To a fact that I began to wonder what was wrong with my smile.”
As the years passed, the incident took on storied proportions in Doyle’s mind, becoming one of those childhood memories that sends shudders racing down your spine. But when he brought it up with some old school friends recently, none of them remembered it.
And so the basis of his latest book, Smile, was born. A bleak portrait of institutional abuse (spliced with pages of typically sharp dialogue), its 54-year-old protagonist Victor shares the same experience Doyle had at school, and the narrative lingers at the bleary junction between childhood and memory—a fascination for Doyle since he self-published his 1984 debut The Commitments, which follows a group of schoolboys in their kinetic attempts to bring Motown to the fictitious Barrytown (“from New Orleans to Donaghmede, there’ll be dancing in the streets”).
“Well, it’s life, isn’t it?” says Doyle. “And it’s so unreliable. That has its fascination and its anxiety to it as well.”
Memory is a particularly relevant theme in Ireland at the moment. The country Doyle grew up in—his parents’ Ireland: rural, isolated, governed by the Catholic church–has collapsed. And now, post-Brexit, its internal transitions are the subject of intense international scrutiny. Shining office blocks lining the River Liffey are starting to mop up businesses relocating out of London, whilst talk of a tech boom and flourishing economy are accompanied by headlines debating the upcoming abortion referendum and fears about the return of a hard border with Northern Ireland. “As a writer, it’s really interesting,” explains Doyle, who can see the cranes working in central Dublin from his office window. “I remember when the first television was brought into the house and plugged in. I remember visiting relations with my mother in County Wexford who didn’t have electricity. It’s really interesting to contrast then with now, and look at the similarities, too.”
Much of the change sweeping Ireland is, of course, tied to the waning influence of Catholicism. When Doyle was 17, he realized he was an atheist, a slow-burning epiphany that didn’t just vex his parents, but hampered his day-to-day decisions for decades: “I constantly had to explain, no, I can’t do that. I’m an atheist.” Today, atheism is unremarkable (“Nobody gives a toss what my religion is any more”), a reality punctuated by last year’s same-sex marriage referendum, which saw thousands upon thousands of Ireland’s diaspora fly home to vote for gay rights.
If the result was motored by a younger generation shaped less by Catholicism than their quest for perceived social justice, Doyle suspects some older voters were motivated by a sense of defiance against the Church and its tentacular influence. “I felt at the time when I voted it gave me an opportunity to right a lot wrongs that I had grown up witnessing,” he says. “Men who were gay being bullied in school . . . I spoke to men my own age, and we were all voting the same way. In part it was an apology, if that makes sense.”
As Ireland prepares for its next referendum, on abortion (which remains illegal, and can result in up to 14 years of imprisonment), Doyle is swift to point out it’s not the only thing happening next year: just weeks later, in August, Pope Francis is scheduled to visit. The last pope who came to Ireland was Jean Paul II in 1979 (“a total medievalist”), who delivered mass to 1.5 million people, over a quarter of the country’s population. Doyle is intrigued (and as a religious skeptic, perhaps, reasonably, a little concerned) as to the shape of this visit. Despite today’s dwindling congregations, nothing reconnects a community with its religious roots like a papal stopover, especially one administered by a divinely ordained maverick who has just been accused of spreading heresy by several dozen outraged Catholic scholars and clergy.
“The impact of [Francis’s] visit will be very interesting because he seems to be a nice man. He’s very charismatic,” says Doyle. “I was kind of hoping it would be the last guy, who seemed like a bit of a slug.”
The result of the abortion referendum, paired with the reaction to the Pope, will offer an insight into where Ireland stands in 2018 as it wrestles with the jarring forces of memory and change. How deeply scored are its publicized shifts in perspective? How robust is Dublin’s shiny, Google-fronted veneer? These are spinous, uncomfortable questions, especially when looped back to the role of the Church, which has been mired in multiple abuse scandals over the years.
“I’m very reluctant to speak generally. I mean the stones, a lot of stones have been lifted. And there has been a public acceptance that it happened, and I think a lot of the people who came forward and said ‘it happened to me’ are greatly admired,” says Doyle. “There is great comfort in the notion of the few bad apples. ‘There are a few bad Christians, there are a few bad priests who, if you like, made the whole institution seem rotten, and it’s not, it’s fine.’” He quotes his recent play Two Pints, a series of dialogues performed in a different Dublin pub every night, as an example. At one point, one of the veteran drinkers cracks a joke about the Christian Brothers. “One of them says: ‘It’s a bit like the Christian brothers, your voice broke and they lost interest.’ And there was a certain hostility to the line.” At the time, Doyle was a little taken aback, but then he thought to himself: well, that’s a job well done; a thinly concealed impulse exposed. “There is a reluctance to accept. An acceptance, but at the same time, a reluctance to accept the scale of it,” he explains.
As Dublin is touted as the European Union’s fledgling economic powerhouse—the Big Brexit Beneficiary—Doyle is anxious about another cloudy area of acceptance. There has been an upturn in the years since Ireland’s devastating financial crash, but the poorest communities are still grappling with the scale of it. Officially, employment rates are up, but Doyle is skeptical as to the quality of the employment. “So yeah, thing have improved, but there was a point roundabout 2009-10 when things were so low that you’d be worried about turning on the news in the morning. You’d wonder, like, did money still exist? Was the country being governed? The anger seems to have gone, but there is an absolute obsession with house prices and property. And it’s almost as if no lessons have been learnt.”
For Doyle, then, personally and politically, everything circumnavigates back to this filmy, labyrinthian notion of memory, and how we mould it into our lives. For Smile, he wove reality into fiction, and in the pages of the book he deftly and confusingly weaves fiction back through reality. “It is just interesting. We repress things; we give significance to things others don’t give significance to. And we can never ultimately know how, or why.
“So much work has been done on the human brain, but we still don’t know much about it. So it’s kind of unexplored and unexplorable. There’s a lot of contrary out there.”—Isobel Thompson
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Credit: Mark Nixon