A ‘mem­ory book’ writ­ten with eyes wide open

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - FIN­TAN O’TOOLE

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.

Enor­mous value

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)

■ Brex­i­tandthePol­i­tic­sofPain

Heroic Fail­ure:

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: ERIC LUKE; MELISSA GOR­DON

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.

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