In­side the se­cret world of a Dublin child­hood

My favourite novel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

WHEN I first read my favourite novel, it did more than en­ter­tain, amuse and move me. It helped me de­ci­pher life in a strange city. In 1992, my mar­riage to an Ir­ish­man took me from South Yarra in Melbourne to a tiny row cot­tage in Stoney­bat­ter, a gritty north-side sub­urb of Dublin. The first thing I no­ticed was the ab­sence of trees. The sec­ond was the kids roam­ing wild on the streets. I watched them drag­ging pal­lets from the nearby fruit mar­ket to build bon­fires at Hal­lowe’en.

My hus­band and I got to know a red­haired eight-year-old we called Michael the Ar­son­ist, who set fire to skips, rub­bish bins and, mem­o­rably, some­one’s door­mat when he spied it stick­ing out un­der the front door. Busi­nesslike chil­dren called to our house sell­ing goods of doubt­ful ori­gin — bat­ter­ies, de­signer per­fume, tea-tow­els, even nose­hair clip­pers. I was once fol­lowed down the street by a nine-year-old girl chant­ing her opin­ion of my ap­pear­ance: ‘‘ White legs! Red skirt! White legs! Red skirt!’’ When she saw me go in my front door the chant turned to: ‘‘ White legs! Red skirt! Green door!’’

I found work as a ju­nior book publi­cist, help­ing to pro­mote Ir­ish and vis­it­ing in­ter­na­tional au­thors. In 1993, we be­gan work on a new novel by Dublin writer Roddy Doyle. He was al­ready fa­mous for The Com­mit­ments. This was dif­fer­ent, his pub­lisher ad­vised us. Told though the eyes of a 10-year-old boy.

I read a proof copy, a month be­fore the of­fi­cial pub­li­ca­tion date. It was like no other Ir­ish book I’d read, and no other depic­tion of Ire­land, ei­ther. There wasn’t a dis­puted field or lonely farmer in sight. It was set in 1968, on a hous­ing es­tate un­der con­struc­tion on the north-side of Dublin. The nar­ra­tor was Pa­trick Clarke, known as Paddy.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha fizzed and sparked from the first page. There was no scene set­ting, no de­scrip­tion of the char­ac­ters. I was im­me­di­ately walk­ing home from school with Paddy and his friends, shout­ing at Mis­sis Quigley. As the chap­ters un­folded, and Paddy’s life moved be­tween his class­room, his neigh­bour­hood and his home, I felt I’d been al­lowed into a se­cret world.

It wasn’t just like be­ing in­side Paddy’s brain. I was in­side the brains of all the kids I saw on the streets around me.

It was fast, funny, sly and vi­o­lent, in the way 10-year-old boys are vi­o­lent. It was filled with the sto­ries my hus­band — the same age as Doyle — had told me of his Dublin child­hood. It was also pep­pered with the Dublin slang I was still learn­ing to de­code: gick, mickey, ec­cer. I laughed out loud on nearly ev­ery page, but un­der­neath, build­ing slowly, omi­nously, was the feel­ing that the care­free, rough-and-tum­ble life Paddy was en­joy­ing at home and with his friends was about to change. I wanted to stop the ac­tion, pro­tect him, make life bet­ter, hap­pier, for him and his par­ents. I couldn’t. I fin­ished the book in tears.

Last year, 18 years on, I re-read Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. It was the same copy Roddy Doyle had signed for me at the launch in 1993: To Mon­ica, Good luck, Roddy Doyle. I read it in one sit­ting, in the front room of my house, still on Dublin’s north-side. It was even bet­ter than I re­mem­bered. I ended it in tears, once again.

Out­side, I know there are still kids liv­ing those knock­about lives, hav­ing ad­ven­tures un­seen by adults, suf­fer­ing through fam­ily events they don’t un­der­stand and don’t want to hap­pen.

But Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha isn’t just Dublin on a page. It’s the joy and heartbreak of ev­ery child­hood, cap­tured per­fectly. Mon­ica Mcin­er­ney’s most re­cent novel, Lola’s Se­cret, is pub­lished by Pen­guin.

Stephen Romei re­turns next week

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