The Dead Republic

The closing part of Roddy Doyle‘s trilogy of the 20th century history of Ireland as evidenced through Henry Smart, his larger than life hero, was published at the end of March to no great acclaim, it has to be said: newspaper reviews were not particularly favourable (The Guardian, The Times, New Statesman; and, more favourably, the New York Times) while, so far, the UK Amazon site has an unprecedentedly low number of reviews (three) for a book by a major author. It took me more than six months to discover it – and I have had an eye out for it over the past few years since the publication of the second volume, Oh, Play That Thing!

As a whole, The Dead Republic lacks the breathtaking pace of the other two volumes – but this is clearly matched to the increasing age of Smart himself and his disillusion with and disconnection both from the cause he believed in and, indeed, his family. Nevertheless, amazing things are still happening to him as he continues his dramatic journey through the characters of modern history, both in Ireland and in the US. John Ford is first castigated as The Quiet Man idealises and romanticises his story, but then somewhat rehabilitated in terms of the theme; we meet a republican with a beard (which Doyle parenthetically informs us is not Gerry Adams, as he was still in Long Kesh at the time); Smart is then wheeled out to play a key role in the development of the modern strategy of Sinn Fein. Regeneration both of structures and of individual, personal belief and faith is certainly possible. And Doyle’s writing and characterisation is taut, and contain moments of laconic humour. Smart himself remains an utterly convincing character with genuine motivation and internal, very human contradictions amidst the events taking place around him which, it has to be said, do not always contain the same levels of believability.

The first part of the novel’s three quite distinct sections is over-long; the second betrays signs of Doyle rushing to finish (Bullfighting, a new collection of short stories, is due out next April and Doyle must have been either directly or indirectly feeling the pressure of publication deadlines); but the third is a gripping and rewarding section which provides a fitting end to the trilogy. At its heart, the novel turns on the extent to which its theme of how people and organisations are in control, or otherwise can exploit, the definition of Irishness, as the defining characteristic of the struggle for a free Ireland; this treads a fine line of plausibility but Doyle just about manages to carry it off. What most struck me is the timing: as Doyle was concluding the novel, Ireland was sinking into an economic morass not of its own making but to which the rapid style of its economic development had left it increasingly vulnerable. With the Irish economy first deliberately exposed to, and then ‘bailed out’ by, international capital, the extent to which Ireland is (or can be) actually independent in the context of the binds of international capitalism delivers both a talking point as well as an interesting conclusion to the trilogy.

Or, perhaps it is a conclusion. Doyle has already written elsewhere (The Deportees) of the changing face of Ireland, and its evident economic development from the opening of the A Star Called Henry provides an interesting counterpoint here. The Dead Republic contains a bold prediction for the future, and I have a feeling that Doyle is not quite yet done with this story: a fourth book is certainly a possibility, both thematically and historically (the novel ending some way short of the current political situation). I’d buy it.

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