Review of Joseph O'Connor's work by Dr. PJ Mathews  

Dr P.J. Mathews, University College Dublin

At the beginning of Joseph O ’Connor’s early novel, Cowboys and Indians, Eddie Virago, protagonist and UCD graduate recalls:

…the chatter of conversation he used to hear on the middle floor of the university canteen, a great full noise which, if you listened to it for long enough, would trip you out better than any drug. (3)

John Henry Newman’s idea of a university, it would seem, was alive and well in the UCD of the mid-nineteen eighties and had managed to survive the move to Belfield. Not even the ‘squat grey buildings full of stark modernist sculpture and its brutal perspex tunnels’ (4) could dampen the palpable enthusiasm for intellectual exchange that seeped out of the lecture theatres and into lunchtime and late-night discussions. The built environment may have been somewhat testing but so too was the prevailing mood on campus. As Eddie recollects, ‘everybody, absolutely everybody, seemed to have something to prove’ (4). His UCD, after all, is a place where classmates aspire to becoming ‘Ireland’s first anarchist Taoiseach’ (136) or to writing ‘ the Great Irish Novel’ (137) and where friendships can be broken in a row over Marxist literary criticism in the Belfield bar. Not all of Eddie’s encounters are of the intellectual variety, however. In this novel Theatre L is as much an amphitheatre of romantic possibility—no better place to check out the class talent—as an arena of knowledge.

On the whole, though, Cowboys and Indians is more concerned with Eddie Virago’s post-UCD adventures. One of the most significant aspects of the novel is the extent to which it captures the mood of pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland avant la lettre. Set in the early nineteen nineties it documents the last moments of the particular cultural, political and economic stasis that characterised Irish life in the late decades of the twentieth century. It is hard not to think of James Joyce as an important precursor who famously described a comparable moment of Irish cultural paralysis in Dubliners and who, in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, also sent his protagonist into exile after his UCD days. Eddie Virago, however, is no Stephen Dedalus. O’Connor’s leading character is, in some important ways, a much more representative figure who embodies the frustrations of a generation coming of age in nineteen eighties Ireland. He is not in any way surprised, for example, when he encounters a former college acquaintance—‘some bright spark hot shot who used to be auditor of the UCD History Society’ (42)—working at the Ryanair check-in desk. O’Connor portrays this sense of trapped potential in his image of the Irish flag on the ship that takes Eddie to England, wrapped ‘hard around the mast where it struggled unsuccessfully to unfurl’ (12).

Throughout the novel Eddie Virago betrays an astounding level of moral confusion, which, in many ways, is suitably emblematic of nineteen eighties Ireland—a society which was despairing of itself in a whole range of complex ways. He is animated by the dream of becoming a rock star in London but lacks the talent commensurate with his ambition. To use a Joycean analogy, he is Little Chandler in the world of Ignatius Gallaher—in love with the idea of rock stardom but unable to transcend his own personal circumstances to achieve it. His frequently espoused left-wing pronouncements are, more often than not, strategically deployed for effect rather than securely held beliefs. Proudly sporting his mohican hairstyle well beyond the heyday of punk, he wears the garb of radicalism while living a life of misguided self-interest. Eddie is an incorrigible Walter Mitty who has difficulty reconciling his dreams and fantasies with the brutal realities of everyday life. He is unable to form meaningful and fulfilling relationships and is astonishingly blind to the hurt he causes others as a consequence of his moral cowardice. The break-up of his parents’ marriage provides an important mitigating backdrop to all of this and, at the same time, symbolises the wider fragmentation of older certainties of Irish life. In its downbeat ending Cowboys and Indians does not offer a way out for Eddie. The novel does, however, diagnose a condition and define a cultural moment with admirable prescience. In its engagement with a range of contemporary issues such as emigration, abortion, the Northern Ireland conflict, unemployment, marital breakdown and the crisis of national identity—albeit from the confused perspective of Eddie Virago—Cowboys and Indians bears witness to the challenges and frustrations of bleaker times.

O’Connor’s second novel, Desperadoes, is more assured and technically adventurous in the presentation of the narrative from the dual perspectives of the central characters. Interestingly, this travel tale extends the scope of Irish fiction beyond the usual confines of the Anglophone world into a challenging Central American terrain. Desperados, indeed, might properly be considered a bilingual novel with significant portions of dialogue given in Spanish. Ostensibly it tells the story of Johnny Little, a character bearing many striking resemblances to Eddie Virago, who leaves Ireland to pick coffee in revolutionary Nicaragua in the mid-nineteen eighties. Among the noteworthy features of this book is the convincingly drawn setting of revolutionary Central America. O’Connor has a keen understanding of the attractions of Nicaragua for a whole range of first world drop-outs and romantic revolutionaries or ‘sandalistas’ in search of adventure. The novel is peopled by an array of these characters in the last throes of sixties’ ‘peace and love’. Many, indeed, are gently satirised for their use of Nicaragua as an exotic backdrop for their own self-fashioning. This critique is succinctly delivered by a journalist who confronts the phenomenon head on:

It’s just like summer camp for you people, isn’t it? I mean, down here on your trust funds, down to the bar-stool Bolshevik Disneyland, before you go running back to Greenwich Village to put on coffee mornings for Jesse Jackson’. (47)

Desperadoes is also an interesting meditation on inter-generational relationships and is just as much a story of Johnny’s parents, Frank and Eleanor. They receive news of Johnny’s death and travel to Nicaragua to find their son’s body. This forces them to confront the mistakes of the past in their attempt to deal with the trauma of the present moment. In essence, their journey becomes both a love story and a tale of falling out of love. In the unfolding of their stories, O’Connor creates an intriguing, and beautifully detailed, portrait of Dublin life in the middle decades of the twentieth century which is brought into relief, in all kinds of unexpected ways, by the revolutionary chaos of nineteen eighties Nicaragua.

With his most recent novel, Star of the Sea, Joseph O’Connor has achieved an astounding breakthrough that puts him in the front rank of contemporary Irish writers. Many of the preoccupations of the earlier fiction are still in evidence—emigration, an interest in issues of social justice, and a fascination with the tensions between espoused beliefs and personal motivations. Setting this story in the historical past of the Irish Famine is a brave, if somewhat risky, strategy for any novelist; it is a familiar and, to this day, a contested context. Yet in the best traditions of the historical novel, O’Connor enlarges and complicates the Irish historical imagination through a potent combination of artistic insight and judicious historical scholarship (acknowledged at the end of the book). As the novel opens subtle reference is made to the passing of O’Connellite Ireland as the passengers, catching sight of the ship that brought The Liberator’s remains home, are moved to spontaneous communal prayer for their dead hero. If O’Connell represented a non-violent democratic tradition within Irish nationalism that strand was eclipsed by more revolutionary tendencies as the nineteenth century progressed. The reader of Star of the Sea is left in no doubt about the crucial role of the Famine in this transformation. Significantly, the novel’s epilogue is dated ‘Easter Saturday, 1916’ (405).

The ‘Star of the Sea’ sets sail from Queenstown bound for New York on 8th November 1847. The 403 steerage passengers on board are in various states of destitution and cling on to the hope of a new start in America. Many of the first-class passengers have also been touched by the ravages of the Famine in various ways. Just as in Desperadoes where distressing times force unconventional interactions on an extraordinarily diverse array of characters, so too in this novel the lives of famine victims, aristocrats, revolutionaries, do-gooders, murderers, servants and charlatans come together in unexpected ways on the famine ship. Among the greatest achievements of this book is the plausible re-imagining of a period known to most of us in terms of cruel statistics of death and emigration. The characters presented are not fleeing starvation and a broken culture to merely exist elsewhere but have passions and aspirations, wonderfully articulated throughout the novel, to lead fully realised lives. O’Connor skilfully weaves these lives together in a compelling blend of fictional writings—journal entries, newspaper articles, letters, fragments of fiction, ballads and testimonies—which are, supposedly, contemporaneous with the Famine and its immediate aftermath.

Formally, Star of the Sea is significantly more elaborate and yet more accomplished than anything Joseph O’Connor has attempted to date. On the surface the novel bears resemblance to the penny dreadfuls and shilling shockers that were so popular during the Victorian period. These were cheap illustrated storybooks and novels that were unashamedly sensationalist, often borrowing their storylines from the theatre of melodrama. Many of these publications were designed to appeal to the working classes and, in America, to immigrants. In Ireland they were so popular among a constituency which was gaining competency in the newly-acquired English language that Douglas Hyde, in his famous essay on de-Anglicising Ireland, urged those interested in promoting Irish to set their faces ‘sternly against penny dreadfuls and shilling shockers’. (85) Star of the Sea recalls many of the salient features of these publications in the sensationalism of the chapter titles; in the overtly melodramatic tone of the standfirst texts placed below them; and in the engagingly horrific storyline of the ‘Monster of Newgate’. There is also an abundance of contemporary illustrations recycled from publications such as Punch and Harper’s Weekly, strategically deployed throughout the novel to confer authenticity on what is presented as a contemporary account of the Irish Famine.

Yet there is a weightiness to this novel which belies its populist appearance. To some degree, Star of the Sea can be read as a sustained meditation on the authority of writing itself. One of the leading characters, the American journalist G. Grantley Dixon, is an aspiring novelist whose various writings are cleverly stitched into this complex narrative. The inclusion of his newspaper report on the Famine in Ireland for the New York Tribune is a clever expositional device deployed by O’Connor. The reliability of his account, however, is undermined by the character, Merridith, who dismisses Dixon as a ‘coffee-house [radical]’ (6). Further into the book the reader comes upon a fragment of Dixon’s unpublished novel. This extract, combined with Dixon’s spectacularly misguided appraisal of the recently published Wuthering Heights, might lead the reader to incline more towards his proficiency as a journalist than as a novelist. Significantly though, it is Dixon’s reflections on writing that bring the novel to a close as he considers the motivations and constraints that have shaped his own writing career. Ironically, at the end of this complex tale he is left contemplating the radical instability of narrative itself.

The art of the novel, then, is a central concern of Star of the Sea with the author paying homage to the great traditions of English fiction. The investment in presenting the narrative as if it were an actual contemporary account of the Famine is reminiscent of the strategies of the earliest novels. O’Connor’s debt of influence stretches back to Daniel Defoe whose memorable descriptions of the grotesqueries of disease and death in A Journal of the Plague Year may have provided a useful exemplar for the fictional rendering of the horrors of the Irish Famine. In one memorable sequence in O’Connor’s book, the face of the corpse of an elderly woman, who dies just as the ship sets sail, is disfigured with a crude blade lest her body drift back ashore to the distress of her former neighbours. The adventures of the wonderfully conceived character, Pius Mulvey, recall the picaresque escapades of the fiction of Sterne, Fielding and Smollett, albeit with a darker edge. A copy of Wuthering Heights plays a pivotal role in the intricate unfolding of the plot while Charles Dickens appears as a minor character in his own right. The demise of Merridith owes something to the nineteenth century novel of decadence and the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle hovers perceptibly over the ‘whodunnit’ denouement. Even the fleeting insight into the torment of the failed novelist, Dixon, recalls the inadequacies of Virginia Woolf’s Mr Ramsay.

Notwithstanding its indebtedness to the English tradition, Star of the Sea is without question one of the most noteworthy Irish epics of recent decades. Significantly in this book, Joseph O’Connor turns away from the charms of the contemporary moment and rises to one of the great challenges to the modern Irish literary imagination: the elusiveness of nineteenth century cultural experience. Thomas Kinsella articulates this crux memorably in his influential essay ‘The Divided Mind’. ‘Silence’, he writes, ‘is the real condition of Irish literature in the nineteenth century…there is nothing that approaches the ordinary literary achievement of an age’. (208) A society recovering from catastrophic famine and in the process of replacing one language with another, Kinsella implies, does not have much energy to invest in literary endeavour. Nor, indeed, does a dispossessed peasantry leave even the most rudimentary of written archives behind it. It is out of a felt need to somehow restore the dilapidated cultural archive that Brian Friel attempts to imaginatively recreate the complex dynamics of nineteenth century Gaelic experience in his masterpiece, Translations. Set in 1833 the play is centrally concerned with the causes and consequences of the decline of the Irish language in the period just before the potato blight descends in devastation. Star of the Sea is a fitting prose companion-piece to Friel’s drama, moving the imaginatively reconstructed national narrative into the next decade with the harrowing story of Black ’47.

Yet O’Connor’s novel does a lot more than simply bear witness retrospectively to a traumatic moment of historical experience that passed without due creative articulation. In an imaginative manoeuvre Star of the Sea offers itself as a lost epic of the nineteenth century—a missing link in the Irish literary tradition. The genius of O’Connor’s method lies in the fact that the narrative, in its intertextual allusions and references, stands up as a plausible, if necessarily fictional, culmination of mid-nineteenth century Irish literature. At the outset the reader is presented with an elaborate infrastructure of narrative framing devices—a preface, a whole series of complex footnotes, an epilogue and a list of sources—all of which allude to ‘the first Irish novel’, Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. Star of the Sea, it would appear, is also intentionally derivative of the fiction of William Carleton, most notably in the depiction of famine suffering in The Black Prophet and the portrayal of the clandestine workings of agrarian secret societies in Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry. Perhaps most significantly, in one of the most remarkable passages of the book, O’Connor celebrates that most quintessential of nineteenth century Irish forms, the popular ballad. In the artistic awakening of Pius Mulvey the balladeer, one can see an analogue for the author’s own aesthetic:

The effect you wanted was a kind of easiness. Strong forward motion and easily remembered words. People needed to feel that the words had written themselves, that the balladeer now possessing them was only their medium. He wasn’t singing the song. He was being sung. (102)

If this would-be missing link of the Irish literary tradition constructs a pedigree for itself out of the influential texts and genres of the first half of the nineteenth century, it also positions itself brilliantly in subtle and tantalizing ways as a fictionally seminal precursor of the literature to come. Surrendering to this fiction, Yeats’s poem, ‘The Fisherman’, can be read as a re-imagining of that memorable Connemara man in ‘ash-coloured clothes’ (xi), Pius Mulvey. The hedonistic downfall of Merridith inspires Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. Joyce’s Ulysses appears to have a significant progenitor in the formal experimentation and stylistic virtuosity of this famine narrative. It can seem plausible that the austere portrait of the bachelor years of the Mulvey brothers, who ‘slept together in their parents’ bed’ (89), may have influenced Patrick Kavanagh’s poem The Great Hunger. The impact of Mary Duane’s love affair with the boy from the big house may be traceable in the fiction of Jennifer Johnston which is repeatedly concerned with unconventional relationships on the fringes of the Big House. Even John Banville’s postmodern speculations on the limits of narrative can be seen to have their origins in G. Grantly Dixon’s admission: ‘Everything is in the way material is composed’ (397).

When Pius Mulvey discovers his talent for balladry in Star of the Sea the narrator observes that ‘(k)nowing what to write about was the hardest thing about writing’ (99). In many respects Joseph O’Connor, like most novelists, circles around the same concerns in all of his work despite the impressive diversity of contexts that have taken hold of his literary imagination. There is a neat symmetry, for example, in the fact that Cowboys and Indians begins on a ship with the main character reading Ireland since the Famine by F.S.L. Lyons. O’Connor, too, has a fascination with self-styled rebels on the margins who represent, in some way, the dying moments of a movement or era: Eddie Virago is the last of the mohicans, ‘Los Desperados de Amor’ are the last rebels of rock and roll, while David Merridith is the last inhabitant of the Big House. Nearly all of his central characters have ambitions greater than their talents and live dysfunctional lives, often radically at odds with their professed beliefs. Music is also a common thematic and stylistic thread in his writing—from nineteen seventies punk to classic roll ’n’ roll to nineteenth century ballads. But what seems most significant about O’Connor’s work is the profoundly intelligent cultural awareness at the heart of it. This has developed steadily with each novel and has reached a zenith with Star of the Sea—a novel of a different order to anything else he has written. For this reason his work to date stands as significant contribution, not only to the UCD aesthetic, but also to the mapping of the modern Irish consciousness.

Joseph O’Connor, Cowboys and Indians (London: Flamingo, 1992)
---. Desperados (London: Flamingo, 1994)
---. Star of the Sea (London: Vintage, 2003)

Douglas Hyde, ‘The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland’, in Poetry and Ireland since 1800, edited by Mark Storey (London: Routledge, 1988)
Thomas Kinsella, ‘The Divided Mind’, in ibid.



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