By godly bag­gage

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS -

On the face of it, you as­sume Dar­ragh Martin’s adult de­but (a fam­ily saga timed for this papal visit) has its feet planted in this lat­ter camp, and this is the case for its open­ing chunk. Brisk, chirpy and wryly per­cep­tive, our nar­ra­tor tells us that the 1979 visit “brought sex to Ire­land”, qui­etly prod­ding a gen­er­a­tion into pro­cre­at­ing an army of the blessed to off­set the im­pend­ing evils of di­vorce, abor­tion and con­tra­cep­tion. Telling of four sib­lings who di­verge on dif­fer­ent paths af­ter be­ing raised by their de­vout grand­mother, there is a home­li­ness and rear-mir­ror charm in the way Martin — a suc­cess­ful play­wright and chil­dren’s au­thor — lends every­thing the tone of a sun-bleached hol­i­day Po­laroid.

But fears that this is about to be­come a 400page wade through rosary beads and salt-ofthe-earth god-both­er­ing are grad­u­ally dis­pelled. Five-year-old Peg and in­fant triplets Rosie, Damien and John Paul lose their mother in tragic cir­cum­stances and are brought into the care of Granny Doyle, a woman who ends up cast­ing a long shadow on their lives. We know this be­cause Martin bounds back and forth through the years, clos­ing in on what broke the sib­lings’ bond and made Peg re­lo­cate to New York (you can prob­a­bly guess the rea­son — “Ir­ish women dis­ap­peared from time to time and that was how it went,” our nar­ra­tor re­minds us). Back in 7 Dun­luce Cres­cent, Granny Doyle’s pi­ous hopes that pon­tiff ma­te­rial will emerge from some­where among this lit­ter never get off the ground.

Martin’s characters are roundly drawn and tan­gi­bly messy. John Paul is the devil-may-care cad who could charm the birds down from the trees. In­side Rosie, a fire burns in re­sponse to in­jus­tices be­falling the planet, her con­vic­tion lead­ing her to the Glen of the Downs and Shell To Sea cam­paigns. Damien is a more tem­pered ver­sion of the en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist, af­fil­i­at­ing him­self with the Green Party and its Celtic Tiger elec­toral gains to try and im­prove the world. He is un­able, how­ever, to con­front the ma­tri­arch and tell her he is gay, de­spite there never be­ing a bet­ter time to do so.

The “elas­tic band” that binds the three is snapped. Some­thing hap­pens around the time of Peg’s sud­den de­par­ture that changes things. The triplets come to­gether years later in a con­flu­ence to con­front their re­la­tion­ship with the es­tranged Peg and ap­ply a balm to wounds stub­born to heal.

Martin’s am­bi­tious saga zig-zags through time, stop­ping by where for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ences take place and mem­o­ries are burnt into be­ing. The scrolling back­drop to the characters runs like a Reel­ing in the Years om­nibus, tick­ing all the ma­jor boxes you’d ex­pect — from the Health and Fam­ily Plan­ning Amend­ment Act, Con­tra­cep­tive Train and the X Case, to River­dance, Gal­way tents and the Crash.

We’ve come a long way, Martin is say­ing, much of the progress made in bound­ing leaps bunched to­gether in a short space. Hav­ing lived in both New York and Lon­don, Martin has wit­nessed these changes with the per­spec­tive of dis­tance, tak­ing in “the joke of the world”, as he calls it, where his home­land is given what it wants but not in the way it wanted.

When the zeal­ous re­stric­tions are worn away and no longer there to pre­vent peo­ple be­ing who they need to be, what is left? In Fu­ture Popes of Ire­land, the an­swer is an un­tidy and ach­ingly hu­man mix­ture of shame, love, and apolo­gies that don’t need to be ut­tered aloud. A me­an­der through loves and lives and consequences brings us to this re­al­i­sa­tion. Stylish verve — short chap­ters (some abruptly so), struc­tural play­ful­ness — and as­tute char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion piled on over decades, com­plete the ef­fect. Martin’s novel never sits still. Things are al­ways chang­ing and al­ways the same, much like the na­tion that plays a star­ring role in it. Some pa­tience is re­quired.

In some ways, it is the more op­ti­mistic younger sib­ling of Emer Martin’s re­cent The Cru­elty Men. That book be­gan a dark his­tor­i­cal dis­cus­sion that Fu­ture Popes of Ire­land brings into the sun­light of the mod­ern age. Both deal with fam­i­lies that never asked to be lumped with godly bag­gage, and both sug­gest that bag­gage can be tricky to shake off. As one char­ac­ter re­marks here: “Catholi­cism is there, a pea at the bot­tom of a stack of mat­tresses, shap­ing our thoughts, even as we claim not to feel its pres­ence”. The moral here is that it can be done, though, and that there is plenty to cher­ish in its wake.

The scrolling back­drop to the characters runs like a

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