A ‘memory book’ written with eyes wide open
OVERTHEBACKYARDWALL: AMEMORYBOOK THOMAS KILROY Lilliput, 246pp, ¤15
at the back of the house and the results carried away by a man on a cart, “a figure out of a Dickensian nightmare, carrying away the waste from behind the terrace”.
He captures aspects of the society, from “the elasticity of Catholic morality” to the naive pro-German attitudes that led to fighting on the streets when local men serving in the British army and the Royal Navy were home on leave. But the book is nonetheless rightly billed as a “memory book” rather than a memoir.
In his comprehensive, engaging and consistently illuminating overview of Kilroy’s 10 plays, José Lanters notes John Devitt’s description of the shock of Mr Roche in 1968: it “dealt with things everybody knew about and nobody had previously exhibited in the theatre” – in this case the Irish male anxiety about homosexuality. It is striking that Lanters also notes Kilroy in 1997 saying that he “did not know where the gay thing came out of”. Perhaps this is one of the memories recovered after the operation, for in Over the Backyard Wall, he gives a fascinating account of how and why he replaced a female prostitute in his early drafts with a gay man.
The book goes little further chronologically than that play and it is not a conventional memoir. Over the Backyard Wall is certainly a kind of autobiography but also, as Kilroy puts it, “a book about a writer in his eighties playing with those memories and trying to see how this past might become usable in writing”.
We do encounter Tommy, as he was known in the town, growing up during the second World War in Callan, “a weedy picture of childhood, bespectacled and freckled”. But Kilroy’s search is not for the past in itself but for the past that remains artistically usable. He is always here not so much painting a portrait of the artist as a young man as summoning on to the page a Cubist image of the young man as an emerging artist.
It may have helped that Kilroy came to know two remarkable local artistic figures: the wonderful painter Tony O’Malley who was from the town (his father and Kilroy’s father were friends) and the great essayist Hubert Butler from nearby Bennettsbridge. He writes superbly here of both of them and it is especially intriguing that he credits Butler with giving him a sense that “history is something that exists in the present tense, entwined in the contemporary narrative”, a perception that is so much at the heart of Kilroy’s own art. As Lanters shows so well, this intertwining of the real and the invented, of history and the contemporary, is everywhere in Kilroy’s work.
And Over the Backyard Wall is no exception. It certainly has enormous value as a record of Ireland from the 1940s to the premiere of Mr Roche. But in the manner of a Kilroy play, it mixes realism with imaginative experiment. He has never been one to merely accept given forms and here we have a kind of exploded memoir that moves between his vivid memories of his father’s and mother’s lives, a fascinating recounting of his father’s IRA career and the early years of the Garda Síochána, based on a memoir written by his father himself, extracts from an unfilmed screenplay, a description of his father’s gambling addiction, a superb account of seeing Éamon de Valera speak in Callan in 1948 (and the bitter political division between his parents), long fictional interludes re-imagining the siege of Callan by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1650 and evoking the German families who came to live in the town after the second World War, with great accounts of Kilkenny hurling culture, the remarkably cosmopolitan theatre of Anew McMaster and of Dublin in the 50s and 60s, and the idiocies of censorship (Kilroy was fortunate to have a brother who was a customs officer and thus had access to all the banned books).
There is all the time an emerging sense of how the loss of religious faith is made up by the growth of Kilroy’s artistic sensibility in the company of friends like Mary Lavin (again brilliantly evoked here), Ben Kiely and Tom McIntyre. One especially memorable vignette has Saul Bellow throwing up in the toilets in Trinity College while assuring Kilroy that, as a member of the Booker Prize jury in 1971, he had voted for The Big Chapel. But as Lanters points out at the beginning of his study, and in his subtitle, the consistent theme of Kilroy’s plays is “the rejection of absolutism and certainty in favour of provisionality and doubt”.
The claims of memory here are never absolute and the past always seems intriguingly provisional. And yet it is evoked with such vibrancy and fixed with such keen intelligence that we can but hope for a second volume in which the fractured story continues.
‘‘ He is always here not so much painting a portrait of the artist as a young man as summoning on to the page a Cubist image of the young man as an emerging artist
Fintan O’Toole’s latest book is (Head of Zeus)
Thomas Kilroy at the unveiling of his portrait by artist Colin Davidson at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, to mark his 80th birthday in 2014. Below: Ian Toner in Kilroy’s Double Cross at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.