Inside the secret world of a Dublin childhood
My favourite novel
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