Donal Ryan in Conversation

The novelist Donal Ryan recently visited the Irish Literary Society in London to discuss his work and read from his latest novel, All We Shall Know. Guest blogger Anthony Cannon was at the event.

Donal Ryan in Conversation

Tonight the London Irish community is having a rare treat. The award-winning novelist Donal Ryan,  a man at the vanguard of  Ireland’s literary revival, is a guest of the city’s oldest and most respected Irish cultural institution, the Irish Literary Society (ILS).

The venue, The Bloomsbury Hotel in the heart of London’s theatre land, has been home to the ILS for many years and it’s a very grand setting indeed. The room on the second floor where the gathering is taking place is like the set of a period drama. Enormous chandeliers hang from the ceiling and portraits and mirrors adorn the walls.  But here the pretentions end. There are no tight collars to be seen or waltzes to be heard. Instead, the room is full of the music of polite and friendly brogues with a bit of Gaelic thrown in here and there.

The author has drawn a good crowd of over one hundred and fifty people and when he takes to the stage he is greeted with a warm and enthusiastic welcome. And his host Dorothy Allen, Deputy Chair of the ILS, makes no attempts to hide her delight at having Ryan in the seat opposite for the evening.

The talk begins with his new book All We Shall Know. Like his previous work this novel is set in his own part of the country, in West Limerick and North Tipperary, but this time Ryan is exploring the world of the travelling community. Dorothy asked Ryan how he gained such an insight into their world. Ryan is quick to respond and has much to say. ‘Travellers were just people who were my neighbours,’ he explains in a matter of fact way, ‘they were my friends, they lived in the estate across the road’, and he admits a fascination for their world, ‘because there was also a sense of separateness about them’.

He reads from his new novel, in which a married teacher becomes pregnant by a seventeen-year-old traveller, and as he reads people giggle and laugh out loud. The passage, which relates a teenage boy’s untimely sexual excitement – he gets an erection at school – is childishly obscene and very funny.

Ryan’s voice is light and crisp, and unlike the adulterated sound of much of his audience, has accent has the full rich texture of the west. And it is clear that Ryan is comfortable in his own skin – perhaps too much so at times. His wife, he explains, is not so keen on his openness at such events, and you do feel there is nothing between him and his audience. He might be a novelist but he’s is determined not to create a fiction of his own life.

The inspiration for his work, he says, is not from any great misadventures of his own. ‘I was a civil servant,’ he repeats several times, ‘and everything you write is a distillation’. But it is very much a distillation of his immediate surroundings. And Dorothy notes that the same places and people reappear in slightly different guises in his novels.

Ryan nods in agreement. He describes his books as a mishmash of characters, places and vernacular. He obviously loves writing in his native tongue. ‘The people of West Limerick speak in a very poetic way’ he says, ‘everything has an edge of teasing and joking about it’.

And his attempts to recreate the particular uniqueness of his region have been very successful. ‘I’m from a very small village’ says Ryan, ‘and I didn’t consciously use any one individual’. Nonetheless, his friends and family hear and see themselves in his work – to such an extent that he has alienated a few relatives along the way who are convinced they have discovered themselves in his work.

Of course living in and writing about your own community requires a degree of courage, and placing travellers at the centre of his latest novel is in part a due to his ‘fascination with their separateness’. But he has also manufactured a deliberate collision of two worlds and two social classes. Perhaps these rigid structures are something that Ryan is trying to break down.

Ryan maintains that he is uncertain of his own class. What he means, however, is that to him it shouldn’t matter. ‘My parents were extremely socialist without ever expressing it,’ he says. His father drove a van and his mother worked in a bookies and he was raised around very liberal and egalitarian views.  So the boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger and neo-liberal economics was inevitably going to be grist for his mill. And he points forlornly to the greed that he sees as re-emerging and a new liberal orthodoxy which he says, ‘isn’t liberal at all’.

Ryan’s vocabulary is not political, it is human. He believes in the ‘pure heart’ and he is wary of words used to hide people’s true feeling while shrouding those feeling in a banal or bogus sincerity.  As a writer, he is adamant about not accepting this form of self-censorship. Writers should be transgressive, he says. He believes that all the violence and rage now present in Ireland is a consequence of poverty and he complains about right wing thinking. He isn’t ranting, he isn’t bitter, far from it, he is just sad and disappointed.

Then Ryan talks about and reads from his short story Tommy and Moon and before we know it an hour and a half has passed.  And so the easy exchange between host and guest must come to an end. Ryan adjourns to a table and disappears into a crowd to sign some books.

A little while later and a small group gather around a polished low table in a colonial style bar in the basement of The Bloomsbury Hotel. Ryan talks softly, has one drink, gives some polite and thankful goodbyes and he is gone. He has a wife and two children to get back to.

Ryan claims it is his wife that he really writes for. She, he says, is his only real audience. He is adamant about this claim and it is rather perplexing, even when you take into account his obvious devotion to his wife. One can only guess what his true motivation is for taking on the darker side of Irish life. As Ryan himself points out, you can never really know someone.  But in the final analysis, it requires courage to write about the community you live with every day, and it’s his commitment to his wife and his liberal and socialist beliefs that give him that courage.

Anthony Cannon







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