Roddy Doyle writes about Ireland, but not an Ireland of green fields and picturesque country pubs. Doyle's first book, The Commitments, was about young people in a gritty part of Dublin who form a soul band. His new novel, The Dead Republic, is the final book in a trilogy about the fictional Henry Smart, who, over the course of three books, has been both a foot soldier in the Irish war for independence and the manager of a young Louis Armstrong in New York City. In The Dead Republic, Henry is working for the famous American movie director John Ford. Though Ford is known for his Westerns, after World War II he decides to make a movie about Ireland.
Ford promises Henry that the movie, The Quiet Man, will tell the story of Henry's life with the Irish Republican Army. But much to Henry's disgust, the film becomes a love letter to rural Ireland.
"John Ford created one of the great myths of American history and American culture, and he did the same with The Quiet Man for Ireland, a place that he loved," Doyle tells NPR's Lynn Neary. Ireland was "a place that [Ford] didn't know all that well, but like a lot of Irish Americans, [he] absolutely adored the place.
Doyle says that in that relationship — between the feelings of nostalgia and love from Irish Americans to a homeland they did not know and in which they did not live — was a key to the development of culture and history in Ireland in the 20th century. "In the '50s, '60s, '70s — when Ireland was kind of an economic backwater," Doyle says, "we had to kowtow to a notion of what Ireland was in the hopes that tourists would arrive."
That deferential quality, embodied in Ford's realization of Ireland in The Quiet Man, causes Henry to call the film "the emigrant's dream." But Doyle says he has visited the spot in Ireland where the film was made. "The beauty of the landscape is there," he says, and the people who live there don't share Henry Smart's sense of outrage.
"Actually, it's very easy to slip into conversation that wouldn't be altogether different from some of the conversations in The Quiet Man. I don't think people would feel anger. It'd be more at this point amusement as much as anything else."
Henry gets so angry that he wants to kill the filmmaker for sullying his vision of Ireland, a vision that Doyle says is tied to Henry's sense of himself and the decisions he's made.
"Henry feels, I suppose, that he's wasted his life somehow," Doyle says. "It's a life full of drama and escape, but really he's been running away from things most of his life. And I suppose he sees the film as stopping and turning around and assessing his life; the ugliness of a lot of the things that he did, he thinks, is going to be an important part of the story.
"But what happens is that basically in the compromises, his life — the reason why he was involved in this thing — keeps slipping off the page, and the whole tone of the thing [changes] from being a story which exposes the ultimate stupidity of the Irish war of independence from his point of view, and the grimness of the violence and the reality of shooting someone in the head, [and] actually becomes a celebration of the rural Irish way of life and a wonderful comedy that had nothing in common."
Eventually, Henry himself decides that what he wants is to lead a quiet life. But the past catches up with him. As the book stretches forward into the 1970s, he becomes involved again in the IRA. It's an era Doyle knows well, the one where Henry's life finally begins to overlap with the author's experience — of the Dublin he knew as a young man. But at first, as Doyle points out, Henry doesn't notice the trouble brewing, until he witnesses a bombing on Talbot Street.
"Throughout the troubles, very few bombs went off in Dublin, but I have vivid memories of this particular day because I actually heard the bomb," Doyle says. "I was at home at a place where my parents still live called Kilbarrack. Myself and my mother were in the kitchen — I think I was literally just pouring myself a glass of water — and we heard this explosion. It was distant, but we knew immediately it was an explosion.
"But the bombing, the reprisals, the counter-reprisals, the kneecappings, all the ugliness — the horribleness — was a daily part of the news, really. You could get on with your life, you could fall in love, you could get a job, you could do all the things that everybody does everywhere, but if you were Irish, you had to live with either trying to ignore the violence and feel guilty about it or to confront it and feel guilty about it."
Much of The Dead Republic, as Henry is working on John Ford's pastoral vision of the countryside and later becomes involved in the IRA uprising more than 20 years later, is about clashing visions of Ireland. Late in the book, an IRA man tells Henry that the war was always about who got to hold the copyright on what it means to be Irish.
Doyle says the diffusion of culture in Ireland — results of the link to Irish Americans and the fact that the Irish speak English, he says — have made the country a "very self-conscious place."
"We seem to punch beyond our weight, so to speak," Doyle says. He worries about history repeating itself, if not in physical violence, then in the selling of Irish culture. "It's happening again because the economy, as you're probably aware, has hit, if not rock bottom, pretty close. And I suppose while the bankers and politicians have let us down, culture really hasn't, and suddenly the power of books and literature — and to a lesser extent, I suppose, film — has come to the fore again."
Of vital importance now, Doyle says, is just who will decide what it is to be Irish.
"Will it be us, the citizens of Ireland that actually live there? Or will it be some kind of marketing department of the Civil Service who will try to define what Irish culture is in the hopes of enticing people to arrive and spend their money?" he asks. "When I was a kid, if you didn't speak Irish, you really wanted to. And you played Gaelic games and you didn't pay any attention to what was happening in the outside world, because really, Ireland was the center of the universe. And I don't think that's the case anymore. Although, admittedly, it is the center of the universe."