Authors: Claire Kilroy
For my mother Helen
PART I: Michelmas Term
1: Sinne fianna fáil
2: The pipes, the pipes are calling
3: Tarry Glynn
4: The Rocky Road to Dublin
5: What’s another year?
6: Melmoth the Wanderer
7: Deirdre of the Sorrows
8: Strumpet City
9: Amongst Women
10: You scumbag, you faggot
11: The Quare Fellow
12: I’m an ordinary man, nothing special, nothing grand
PART II: Hilary Term
13: I don’t like Mondays
14: The Butchered Boy
15: How can I protect you from this crazy world?
16: Alive alive oh
17: The Book of Evidence
18: An puc ar buile
19: Mise Glynn an file
20: The Stolen Child
21: Woe was general all over Ireland
22: This boy is cracking up, this boy has broke down
23: Lowry Lynch has horse’s ears, Lowry Lynch has horse’s ears
24: School for Scandal
25: Castle Rackrent
26: Good girl Sharon, that was A1
27: De Profundis
PART III: Trinity Term
28: Failing better
29: The Importance of Being Earnest
30: Ní bheidh ár leithéid ann arís
About the Author
Nobody wrote about September like Glynn. It was his month. You could say it was his season. September intensified the lush sadness pervading his work, made it complete, corporeal, laden; the late summer drawing to a close, the sun forsaking our remote shores, the long hard winter setting in (he compared it once to an animal settling down to die). A spirit of contented melancholy swept through his eight startling novels, swelling their pages like sea air. You could almost taste it. I could almost taste it.
Abandonment; that was Glynn's great subject. Abandonment and longing. He wrote about anguish with a lucidity that was exhilarating. The autumn equinox in particular, the sun crossing the celestial equator, referred to in three of his novels, (
, p. 140,
, p. 98,
, p. 20), mirrored the condition of his narrators â each one of them was the Hanging Man, suspended on the cusp between love and hate, fear and hope, remorse and defiance. Oh, his incomparable skies. He sketched them almost offhandedly with a few deft words, evoking them as metal: pewter, silver, iron. Our northerly latitude became him. The cast of Irish light penetrated his every sentence; our fitful island weather infiltrated his every noun. During
the decade or so that he spent in the States, academics and critics eagerly speculated as to the nature of his first âAmerican novel', but Glynn's absence from his native country only compounded his vision of it, and it was whilst there, in Brighton, Connecticut, that he produced his masterpiece,
, land of winter, home.
It was an October day when we formally met Glynn. His season had latterly expired. The sky that day was bright, chill, coppery. Listen to me â I am as bad as him. The workshop looked whiter than it ever had. We had been waiting there for four weeks by then, and had grown accustomed to that attic room, familiar with the variations of light on the floor, its many shades of disappointment. Glynn was the best part of a month late and we had all but given up on him, so implausible did it seem that a writer as great as he should join us in a room as modest as that. It was a problem of scale.
When the front door slammed shut on the ground floor, the seven of us â there were seven of us left by then and, although it is hard to imagine, for a time I wasn't the lone male â the seven of us raised our heads, startled deer. The four, my four, had already begun their descent, but they about-turned without consultation and resumed their seats where they waited in silence, hands folded in laps, looking for all the world as innocent as if they hadn't budged in the first place, they of little faith.
We all of us listened intently to Glynn's tread on the wooden staircase, losing impetus with every step, but gaining substance. His approach lasted for ever and sounded so weary that he might well have been dragging his exhausted bones towards us for weeks, slouching across desert sands, icy plains, no different to the way in which we had found ourselves dragged towards him,
when you think about it, and I have.
They were unbearable, those last few seconds spent waiting for him to appear. We were trapped up there on the top floor, no escape. What had we summoned? What baleful spirit, what tormented soul? Too late to call a halt now. We were as charged as thunderclouds before we laid eyes on him, our imaginations sparking every which way, a meteor shower. We could have seen anything, anything at all. That is the effect he had on us. Glynn had been absent from the public domain for some time. We hardly knew what to expect.
It was almost a relief when he finally materialised. It had almost been too much. Guinevere said she found herself blinking back tears upon his entrance, Faye felt a rush of blood to the head. Aisling thought she was going to pass out. Her face went whiter still, if such a thing can be imagined. God only knows what raced through the dark alleys of Antonia's fraught mind â over a year had passed since she and Glynn had last come face to face. Not that the rest of us were aware of their connection at the time. Their history, I suppose you might call it.
If Glynn was surprised to see Antonia there, he betrayed not a trace. What a figure he cut. It looked to me that he hadn't slept during his month-long absence. His red eyes surveyed us from the doorway, then he stalked to the chair at the top of the room and collapsed onto it heavily, throwing his person down like a sack of coal, like so many goods and chattels.
How unlike himself he looked, how unlike his publicity photograph, that is. Older, uglier, yet more impressive. Every inch proclaimed his status as tortured heroic artist â drawn, crumpled, glowering, spent. It was a simultaneously appalling and satisfying sight. September
had evidently gone hard on him that year. Afterwards, months afterwards, we discussed how surprising it had been to encounter him there, despite it being precisely where he was supposed to be. He had stared at us like he loathed and pitied us in equal measure. Empty desks floated like icebergs in the no man's land between us. This first meeting is an event I shall return to.
Six of Glynn's novels were set â are set â by the coast, specifically the east coast of Ireland. No sublime Atlantic sunsets for him, no horizons charged with promise, no Americas. The man could in a sentence reduce you to the state of a child by invoking that universal response of helplessness when confronted with a vast and indifferent sky, its impact doubled by the vast and indifferent sea heaving beneath it, growing steadily darker. Glynn was uncannily adept at capturing the feeling of being lost. It is a difficult predicament to write.
One of the many singularities about the man is that the older he got, the more piercing his evocations of childhood became. A further singularity is that the more piercing these evocations became, the more familiar they became, to the extent that it could have been your own childhood he was describing. My own childhood, I mean. Though Glynn was over thirty years my senior, it seemed it was my childhood he was writing about. The incident with the stillborn calf in
, for example â the very same thing had happened to me. Or at least I thought it had, but thought so on a second reading.
I see now I replaced my childhood with Glynn's depictions â they were so vivid as to eclipse mine. Sometimes I even think I grew up on a Wicklow headland with lighthouses and what have you overlooking the Irish Sea
and not on our low-lying few acres of Mayo bog dotted about with rushes and reddled sheep, blue for us, red for the McGuigans. I went so far as to tell Guinevere about it once, how as a boy I fell asleep at night listening to waves crash against rocks. What waves, what rocks? And yet I hear them to this day. Storms were my favourite. âThere is nothing to beat a good storm,' I informed Guinevere, adopting the iambic cadence favoured by Glynn, hungry for her attention. I don't know what possessed me to impart all this. It didn't even feel like a lie. You could say I was part-Glynn by the time I made it to House Eight that October, so thoroughly had I absorbed him by then, so thoroughly had I been absorbed. To a degree we were all part-Glynn, the five of us, and he thrived on that, for a time.
Clearly it is problematic to conclude that if a great artist delineates the intimate contours of your mind, then you and that great artist are of a mind, yet forging that link is precisely what the poetical imagination does, it is precisely the locus of its power. Glynn's aesthetic vision was so expansive that it bled into our own, where it was welcomed, where it was invited to flourish. The five of us, strangers then, had found ourselves in the jaws of an inimical world, and Glynn's response to it made sense of our own. No longer did we feel alone, that is the plain truth of it. Our subsequent devotion was nothing short of pure. Somewhere along the line, art stopped being important to the rest of the country, failed in relevance, ceased to be a faith system. Not to us, though. And certainly not to Glynn. He must have known what he represented to us. He had been young, after all, once.
Of course, we were clear that Glynn had not written
about us, but that in writing about himself, he had formed us. And because we believed we were of a mind, it led to this misconception that we knew him, that we understood him, and that we loved him. Events thus gained a momentum they might not have otherwise. We thought he would be pleased, and in the beginning he was. Or not so much pleased as gratified.
You may ask how it was that the five of us came together, but you might not â indeed Glynn might not â accept our answer: We came because he called us. Glynn set down his words knowing they would mean nothing to most, but everything to a few. We, those few, heard his siren song and followed it, having little alternative under the inhospitable circumstances. He wanted his art to be a dangerous force, alive. Well then, you might say he got what he asked for.
When Glynn published
in 1981, a public reading was organised in the Meeting Room of the Royal Irish Academy to mark the occasion of this, his first novel in four years. The attentive response was in no small part due to the success the writer had for many years enjoyed in North America.
Advertisements were placed the week beforehand in the
. We all, it turns out, saw them. This fact is remarkable for its improbability, and not just because the advertisements were scrupulously mean (though even in eight-point font, Glynn’s name leapt screaming off the page at us, as if it were our own names we saw printed there) but mainly since none of us much troubled ourselves with newspapers. Too ephemeral. Lasting monuments of art were what was wanted.
We did not know each other, or of one another. Our backgrounds were what you might call diverse, by Irish standards. Beyond our love of Glynn, we shared nothing in common, not a blessed thing.
Guinevere and Aisling were the closest in age, hardly out of their teens back in ’81, and still living with their parents at opposite ends of Dublin Bay – Bray and Howth respectively. The two headlands regarded each
other benignly across the broad curve of sea, desultorily flashing lighthouse beams at one another, batting commuter trains back and forth.
Faye had travelled all the way from Clonmel to attend, although the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the day she traditionally came up on the train to Dublin to do her Christmas shopping, wasn’t for another fortnight. The Christmas window in Switzers had yet to be unveiled, so it wasn’t quite the same, she later told us, quickly adding that it didn’t matter, it was fine, she didn’t really mind. She was asked by the porter to leave her crammed shopping bags behind in the cloakroom, such was the mill caused by Glynn.
Antonia, in the painful throes of marital separation at the time, mentioned that she had entered a period of depression so bleak, so hopeless, so self-defeating, that she no longer, if she could help it, left the house. She made an exception for Glynn that night. Her hair, she realised as she slipped into the last vacant seat, which was right in the middle of the front row where everyone could see her (‘just my luck’), hadn’t even been brushed that day. I broke into laughter. This, I could not envisage. Antonia’s impeccable grooming, her expensive glossiness, was key to the woman she was, or to the woman I thought she was. ‘I know,’ she agreed, tapping cigarette ash into the brown glass ashtray. She went on to pinpoint that evening in the Royal Irish Academy as the first step in her journey back to what she called ‘civilisation’, enunciating the term with the caustic irony she so often employed in an attempt to mask her vulnerability.
Four years passed after Glynn’s Academy reading before the five of us came together in House Eight. It took us a number of weeks to establish that we had all
been in attendance that wet night in ’81. The discovery was made during one of those landmark late-night marathon sessions in Bartley Dunne’s which consolidated us from five individuals into a bona-fide group. Those conversations often lasted longer than a working man’s day and revealed (to our surprise) that here were five people who badly needed to talk. Enormous revisions to our self-conceptions were incurred by this revelation. Each of us had learned to regard ourselves as solitary to the core. A predominant characteristic of our group was that none in it had been part of one before. The experience was disarming. Within a short period, our guards were down, strewn about us like discarded coats on a hot day. Defences were no longer necessary, as interacting with each other was not unlike interacting with aspects of ourselves. Alcohol, naturally, was a catalyst.
Once securely within the fold, we allowed ourselves to acknowledge the true extent to which we’d privately longed to feel part of a group. This was not a desire any of us would have owned up to in the past, describing ourselves variously as ‘loners’, ‘outsiders’, ‘misfits’ and so on, clamouring to outdo each other with such labels as if they were badges of honour, hallmarks of authenticity. Antonia even went so far as to apply the adjective ‘cold’.
Significantly, not one of us reached for the term ‘lonely’. That would have constituted an admission of defeat. Over the preceding years, as a protective measure, we had come to regard the need for companionship as something to be disdained, as if the natural impulse to share your life with another human being were a weakness, not a strength. It wasn’t until we had come in from the cold and thawed ourselves at the fireside of each
other’s company that we realised how perished, how neglected, we’d been. Guinevere told me in confidence that there were times during the infancy of the group, as it took its first trembling steps, when she could have cried with relief, this new sense of kinship being so unprecedented, and so welcome. She had never dared hope to belong either. It was the last thing you’d expect a beautiful girl to say.
We fell silent and exchanged meaningful glances over our pints at the discovery that the five of us separately and unbeknownst to one another had come to hear Glynn speak that night. That we had all spotted the newspaper ad was of particular note. So small, so unassuming, no bigger than a matchbox. That ad was certainly, we agreed, barely noticeable, and yet … In those early days, we thrived on coincidences of such a nature, being engaged in the great project of constructing our collective mythology, like married couples rehearsing the story of how they met, so that everything, in retrospect, seems predestined. That five strangers at different stages in their lives had gravitated toward Glynn like pilgrims toward a star proved that there was such a thing as fate, and that we were firmly in the grip of it. This desperation for justification is common to all who have taken risks that have yet to pay off.
The weather was especially foul the night of Glynn’s reading. The Irish winter threw its entire repertoire at us. Thunder, lightning, sudden downpours, blasting gales, fleeting glimpses of stars. We grimly recalled those adverse conditions which tested our commitment, and did not find it wanting. A torrent of rain had started to fall in Ireland in 1980, after the largely sunny decade that was the seventies. Once the rain started, it did not
seem to know how to stop. It rained so heavily and so steadily that we started wondering where it was coming from. Then we wondered whether it could keep coming from there. There was so much of it, we were surely leaving another part of the world short. The surface water drains quickly clogged with the fallen leaves and detritus carried by the coursing rainwater along the gullies. Flash floods formed wide pools on the pavements and streets. It was, by any stretch of the imagination, a spectacularly filthy night, even for late November. (We can confirm the date as it was Aisling’s birthday.)
Who could have divined that that fine room was there all along, concealed behind a grey Dawson Street façade like a clandestine church, a priest hole? How many times had I walked past without noticing? I possessed little knowledge of civic Dublin, of the institutional fabric of the city, despite having lived there for four years by then. That feeling of strangeness, of unfamiliarity, of having inadvertently stumbled upon a hidden world, detonated a headiness in me, in us.
Certain minor details from the evening stood out in our minds all those years later. We each recollected with undiminished agitation the faulty microphone, for instance. Glynn stepped up to the lectern to applause, nodded his thanks, opened
to the appointed page, but his voice, when he spoke, did not receive the expected amplification, and thus audience members at the back (Faye, Aisling) failed to hear a thing. Antonia and I, sitting at the top, picked up what the others missed. (‘Good eve–
’ is what he said.)
Not being in the least bit technically minded, and certainly not prepared to give it a bash in front of all those people, Glynn simply removed his book and took a step
back. A man appeared and tinkered behind the podium until he found the switch that turned the shagging thing on; the microphone which, when it did eventually decide to work, converted all of Glynn’s
’s into minor explosions, so that every time he pronounced a word beginning with that letter (‘profundity’ he used at least twice), the backfire caused him to recoil from the grey foam turtle head as if it had electrically shocked him. All five of us, a full four years after the fact, still harboured resentment towards this unsatisfactory piece of equipment and thought – individually, unbeknownst to each other, scattered throughout the soggy audience of approximately two hundred – Could we not, as a nation, have done better for the man? Wasn’t this precisely the class of shabby disregard that drove Joyce and Beckett away in the first place?
And the coughers. Why were they there? And in such numbers. Those dirty sickly people teeming with greasy germs – why had they come out that evening if they were so very unwell? Glynn had to raise his voice to be heard, and repeat sentences, or halt them halfway through until a bronchitic fit subsided. ‘
’ Antonia had hissed at the old man beside her, as if the event were a recital. He did stop, confirming her suspicion that much of this coughing was recreational, stemming from habit as opposed to need. Perhaps it was the same crowd shooed like chickens out of St Anne’s Church at closing time, there simply to spend a few more hours in a heated building, hunched up in overcoats like perverts. There was so much coughing, and in such rhythmic patterns, that we discussed the possibility that it was an act of sabotage. Glynn had enemies, jealous rivals. I concentrated on his voice, my hands clenched into fists. The
Meeting Room was beginning to smell of wet dog.
The man who always showed up to readings was first to pose a question, that vain white-haired man who was more interested in listening to the sound of his own voice than in hearing Glynn’s response. That man, who didn’t know the difference between a query and a speech – all of us remembered him distinctly. A question mark, we observed, could not with any degree of conviction be placed at the end of his concluding sentence. It was merely a verbose statement of opinion. Glynn, we concurred, delivered the most felicitous response. ‘Good for you, sir,’ he replied cheerfully, and then, swiftly pointing at another raised hand, ‘Next.’
In his answers, Glynn demonstrated no desire to entertain or amuse, no tendency towards flippancy, instead speaking about the act of writing with generosity and lucidity. ‘The writer’s role,’ I recall him saying, ‘is to snow on things, that is, to pick out the surfaces which go unnoticed when it does not snow, to illustrate the world as it really is: a chaos of peaks and troughs.’ Yes, I found myself nodding; yes, that’s it exactly! This was what I had come to hear. ‘Pliancy–’ Glynn continued, but the explosion on the
put him off his stride, and we lost whatever he was about to tell us.
At the book signing which followed the reading (badly organised, queue as bloated and malformed as a tumour), the pushiest denizens of Dublin were, as ever, attended to first. Antonia would have been up amongst them but for her delicate state of mind. She feigned rapt fascination with the cover of
to avoid meeting the eye of past acquaintances, though this measure was unnecessary and well she knew it. Her old friends no longer acknowledged her. There’d been much unpleasant
talk surrounding her separation, she told us. ‘Dublin,’ she noted, ‘is excruciatingly small.’
The Meeting Room fell suddenly quiet when the rabble of boors left, clattering the double doors carelessly in their wake. The rest of us drifted in single file along the aisle, waiting for a brief audience with the man at the top. At a table, with a publicist standing in attendance to his right – a whole publicist, God forgive us our sins – sat Glynn, listening, nodding, inscribing. He was for the most part obscured from view by those ahead in the queue. We caught a glimpse of elbow here, a silvery flash of curl there. The smell of antiquarian books lining the walls was as musky as incense, the gold titles embossed on their spines arcane as alchemy. The brass fittings of the overhead lamps glinted down on us like thuribles. There was an atmosphere of the midnight mass, though it wasn’t past nine.
All manner of thoughts flowed through my mind as I progressed, head bowed, toward Glynn; Russia at the turn of the last century, extreme unction, a handful of uncut emeralds. These images fell beyond the pale of my habitual sphere of reference, and I was happy to break loose for once in my life from the usual banal restrictions that held my imagination in check. My mind glided freely as if it had been released into the locked wing of an old castle in the great forest of a country since dissolved, some long-gone kingdom that exists only in the annals of history and the realm of folk memory and is thus more alluring, more compelling, than the modern-day place could hope to be. Bohemia, say, or Dalmatia;
Nothing that transpired that evening quite took place in the present tense, nor did it feel as if it were unfolding
in the city I knew so well but, rather, in some chamber out of time. More than anything, it seemed that I was reading it, in the purest, most liberating sense of the word reading, that state in which the mind is lifted out of its confines and cut free to roam at will behind the veil of a book. My imagination felt airborne, as if it had set down a great weight it had been carrying for miles, for years, until it had all but merged with it.
I – we – still heard the occasional blast of traffic on Dawson Street, but it sounded improbable, artificial,
on a stage set. That I hadn’t previously been aware of that building’s existence compounded the impression that the real world had been temporarily suspended. It was extraordinarily peaceful. I don’t recall ever having felt so calm. Things made sense. Faith systems, religious rituals, liturgy, made sense that night as we closed in on Glynn – not as they pertained to the divine, but in the true value of ceremony, the recalibration it induced.