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Author McCabe revels in revealing the other Ireland

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Michael Gray

Author Patrick McCabe recently arrived in the U.S. for a two-week tour to promote his latest book, "Emerald Germs of Ireland," leaving behind him at home some mixed reactions to this latest foray into the rural Irish darkside.

The New York phase of the tour included an event at the Irish Arts Center that his publishers modestly described as a "reading."

McCabe reads alright, but the word scarcely does justice to the performance that he delivered to a packed theater on West 51st Street one recent Monday night.

The author prowled the stage restlessly, book in hand, fleshing out the deranged dramatis person’ that infest the farms and villages of "Emerald Germs." A former schoolteacher, McCabe snaps the audience to attention from the word go, and keeps it that way for the duration, thundering and whispering his tale of horrific deeds in sleepy Gullytown. The county is unspecified, but we’re clearly in the north Midlands in the vicinity of McCabe’s native Monaghan, locus of his earlier novel, the celebrated and controversial "The Butcher Boy."

McCabe’s twisted main protagonist this time is a middle-aged and possibly matricidal bachelor, Pat McNab. During the course of the reading, McCabe describes a litany of bloody retributions inflicted by McNab on every neighbor, houseguest and passing salesman foolish enough to annoy this troubled central character. McCabe enlivens his reading with a raucous selection of tunes borrowed from the second-stringer songbook that acts as a framing device for the novel. "Whiskey on a Sunday," "The Turfman from Ardee" and "Courting in the Kitchen," poor relations all in the august canon of Irish folk music, serve as a disturbing musical interlude on the night. On the page, McCabe uses their lyrics as a catalyst for his murderous plot developments, while simultaneously paying homage to the sentimental RTE radio shows where he first heard them when he was growing up in Ireland.

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Celtic Tiger amnesia

The response to McCabe’s live performance is as positive as the press reviews the book received over here, in contrast to the tepid feedback from the Irish media. McCabe remains unfazed by this disparity, explaining later that it’s a function of the amnesia that prevails in Ireland’s new economy regarding earlier versions of Irish popular culture.

"They don’t want to know about that stuff from before the 1990s, and many of the younger critics who reviewed the book had no recollection of the radio shows where I first heard these songs," McCabe said. "They were too young. The "Walton’s Music Program," hosted for years by Leo Maguire, means nothing to them. And they’re gone kind of snooty as well, kind of, ‘we don’t want to know about it.’ Plus there was a certain amount of ‘here’s more of the same bloody mayhem from Pat McCabe’ when the book came out, but then, it’s often said of writers that they spend their whole lives writing the same book."

McCabe is scathing about the prevailing tendency in Ireland to neatly divide recent cultural and economic history into Celtic Tiger and pre-Celtic Tiger categories.

"As John McGahern said, this retrospective thing of life only beginning in ’92 is a bit embarrassing," he said. "People don’t live in decades, they live in moments, they live in days. I remember McGahern saying that the 1950s was a wonderful time to be an intellectual. He was far from trashing it as a miserable decade, though the struggle for survival was the big thing for a lot of people. But the Celtic Tiger thing, tell me about it, it’s really tiresome, isn’t it? It’ll catch up on them, especially if the foot-and-mouth disease kicks in — the whole lot will come down around it."

McCabe is a returned emigrant, having spent almost a decade of his teaching career in England before moving home, and sees many parallels between Britain 15 years ago, and the boisterous Ireland of today.

"Dublin may well settle down. London settled. Dublin now is very like London in the ’80s, like Thatcher’s Britain," McCabe said. "Property prices gone mad, and people becoming obnoxious. But they realized then that they were becoming obnoxious, so Blair gets in and that made a significant difference; before that Tories were running riot. Now London is a much pleasanter place to be. Don’t get me wrong, there are many good things that have happened in Dublin — it has become more open. But there aren’t the same underground opportunities for people that there were before.

"Unfortunately now in Ireland, material success is everything. They aren’t interested in any other sort of success.

But that’s not the way it was in the ’70s. Think of the old Project Arts Center. The Project gave an outlet to Jim Sheridan and the Virgin Prunes. The bands in the city that you were talking about then, in the post-punk explosion, were far more exciting musically."

Role of music

Music always plays an important role in McCabe’s work, and before he fully committed himself to writing, he pursued a musical sideline in his spare time from teaching. Like many Monaghan men before him, country and western was his preferred genre. McCabe is typically modest about his life as a showband singer.

"I wouldn’t call it a band, more a crowd of eejits," he said. "I was only messing to begin with, but I realized I’d better get a bit of irony in because I’m making a show of myself. It was the end of the showband era, and we’d shaved off the brass section and worked as a six-piece. We used to play a lot in England, the Gresham in Holloway Road, places like that."

McCabe shares this musical career tangent with his mentor and frequent collaborator, Neil Jordan, who also spent time on the Irish showband circuit. Jordan, director and co-writer of the screen version of "The Butcher Boy" used his experiences on the road as the basis of his first feature film, "Angel," and jazz horn players are recurring characters in his subsequent films. Jordan has always downplayed his showband days in interviews, preferring to focus on his writing and film work, but McCabe credits the Oscar-winning filmmaker with superior musical talent.

"He was very good, an excellent player," McCabe said. "He’s a great musician, a great piano as well. I mean a whole different league there. I could barely bang three chords together, but he could actually riff for 15 minutes on the saxophone and completely blow your mind."

Jordan has returned the complement with regard to Pat McCabe’s writing skills, buying the film rights to McCabe’s Booker Prize short-listed novel, "Breakfast In Pluto," almost as soon as it was published. The script is currently nearing completion.

"It’s a good script," McCabe said. "It was a hard one to do, mind you. You could see from the book why it would be difficult. The way we work is, I do a draft, he does a draft. I’m not a great man for e-mailing the stuff. I just don’t like it, in terms of work anyway. It’s too geeky for me. Whether it’ll be made or not this year is hard to say. Neil already has a script about the Borgias written, and what he’s doing now is ‘Bob the Gambler,’ down in France. He’s working on that, in preproduction."

McCabe never makes it easy for filmmakers to adapt his work for the screen, not just because his central characters are chronic schizophrenics, psychopaths and sociopaths, but because their story is told from the inside out rather than recounted from a safe distance.

"I don’t like that ‘one-remove’ business, the godlike aura of the writer paring his fingernails, more intelligent than his subjects, and showing no real respect for his protagonists at all," McCabe said. "That’s the way I had written ‘The Butcher Boy’ first, and I felt kind of disgusted with it [and] tore it up. You know, written in the third person and all, like I was observing someone through a parsonage window. So it was a much better book for that change."

Adaptation challenge

McCabe acknowledges the difficulty of adapting his work, and in early drafts of "The Butcher Boy" script he tried to solve it without resorting to voiceover to speak juvenile killer Francie Brady’s mind.

"It’s a very hard one to crack, ‘The Butcher Boy,’ because it’s all interior monologue, and we were wondering was it possible to film it at all," McCabe said. "Then we thought, ah to hell with it, the voiceover worked well in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and in ‘Taxi Driver,’ so in a way that’s the model, using the voiceover as an ironic statement about what’s actually taking place, rather than making up for a failure of the visuals to capture what’s really going on. So if the voiceover is used properly, there’s nothing wrong with it."

Unlike Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan, who moved on to directing and producing films after initial involvement through their scripts, McCabe is content to confine his role in the industry to writing.

"Sure, I couldn’t direct traffic; I know nothing about the technical aspects," McCabe said. "And all I ever wanted was to be a writer. I never thought about anything else. It was all I ever did, it was all I felt I was ever any good at. Whether I was any good at it is another story. It’s the classic scene, you create an alternative reality where things make sense. Coming from a poor background, with poorly schooled but highly educated parents, the house was full of books and music, there was never any question about their value, and material success wasn’t the be-all and end-all of anything, the work of writing itself was important."

With that singular commitment to his craft, we can depend on Pat McCabe to remain an unsettling voice in an increasingly self-satisfied crowd, lifting the polished paving slabs of modern Ireland to see what’s wriggling in the dark underneath.

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