- Mark Nixon
Born in Dublin in 1958, Roddy Doyle was educated by the Christian Brothers and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he read English and Geography.
He became a teacher in Dublin in 1980, before leaving to write full-time in 1993. His first three novels, The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990), and The Van (1991), narrate the adventures of the Rabbitte family, residents of Barrytown, a poor housing estate in north Dublin. Both The Commitments and The Snapper were made into films, and Doyle wrote the Channel 4 series, The Family, which was televised in the UK in 1995.He won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1993 for his novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the vibrant tale of a ten-year-old Irish boy. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors (1996) is the tragic story of Paula Spencer, alcoholic and mother of four children, locked in an abusive marriage. Doyle revisits Spencer's life in his 2006 novel Paula Spencer. His novel, A Star Called Henry (1999), is set in 1922 during the civil war in Ireland. Doyle is also the author of two plays, Brownbread (1987), and War (1989); and children's books, including The Giggler Treatment (2000), Rover Saves Christmas (2001) and The Meanwhile Adventures (2004). His children's book A Greyhound of a Girl (2012) was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2013.
He is also one of 15 Irish writers who contributed to the 'serial novel' Yeats is Dead! (2001), a murder story set in contemporary Dublin, the proceeds of which were given to Amnesty International. His book, Rory & Ita (2002), a mixture of oral history and family reminiscence, tells the story of his parents' lives. He published a collection of short stories, The Deportees, in 2007, and a second, Bullfighting, in 2011.
His most recent books include The Dead Republic (2010);Two Pints (2012); The Guts (2013), which takes us back to Jimmy Rabbitte, now in his forties; Two More Pints (2014); Dead Man Talking (2015); and Smile (2017).
Roddy Doyle is perhaps the novelist most closely identified with the emergence of Ireland as a modern European nation.
His extraordinary success as a writer lies partly in his appeal to a broad readership, and his presentation of difficult social, critical and historical issues in a condensed and accessible form. Immediately recognisable for his rich humour, his contemporary references to pop music, football or television, and his ability to render accurately on the page the vernacular or slang of working-class Dublin, he has reinvented the modern Irish novel as an authentic, popular medium which registers the experiences of everyday Irish life.
Doyle made his mark with the publication of what became known as his Barrytown trilogy – The Commitments (1988), The Snapper (1990), and The Van (1991). Barrytown is a fictionalised version of a typical working-class housing estate on the northside – that is, the poorer side - of Dublin. The use of such a setting suggests that Doyle has more in common with the working-class realism of the Irish playwright Sean O’ Casey than with the modernist fictional tradition of James Joyce (though at times he has been accused of patronising his working-class audience). But from a different perspective and despite the brevity of his novels, it might be more appropriate to see him as Dickensian, for his comic, celebratory depiction of the community, and his skill in depicting its characteristics and idioms.
The trilogy is immediately striking in its narrative composition. Doyle relies heavily on dialogue rather than authorial relation, but dispenses with quotation marks for direct speech and rarely departs into analysis or extensive commentary of any kind. The style is economic and pared back: much of the emotion and tension of the writing could be said to lie in the gaps between lines, or in the spaces of the dialogue. Nor does Doyle compromise in his use of Dublin dialect words or expressions, or indeed, in his inclusion of blasphemies and obscenities. The overall effect is rich and raw, and the powerfully dramatic presentation has ensured that the novels of the trilogy have transferred easily to screenplay.
The first novel, The Commitments, which was made into a successful film by director Alan Parker, tells the story of a young Dubliner, Jimmy Rabbitte, and his attempt to establish and manage a soul music band. Soul music, Jimmy claims, is ‘the politics o’ the people’, a way of expressing the emotions and frustrations of those at the bottom of the social pile. And for his own band, it offers a potential means of escape. While the novel – written almost entirely through compact, vivid dialogue - has little in the way of description as such, it hints frequently at the dead-end jobs, long-term unemployment and urban squalor which face the members of ‘The Commitments’ group on a daily basis, outside the colourful and sexually charged world of music and performance. The quick-fire Dublin humour, which lends the book momentum, only thinly disguises the bleak realities of growing up on the city’s deprived northside inner suburbs.
Doyle’s sharp and gritty realism comes to the fore again in The Snapper, which depicts the Rabbitte family plunged into the dilemma of an unmarried daughter’s pregnancy. A more subtle novel than its predecessor, The Snapper shows how the typical Irish urban family functions in a largely post-Catholic, post-nationalist Ireland. Rather than expelling young Sharon or sending for the priest as an earlier generation would have done, Jimmy Sr. and Veronica Rabbitte manage to absorb the news and eventually the new arrival – the ‘snapper’ of the title – into their daily life. But it is the deepening relationship between Sharon and her father that provides a primary focus, as Doyle explores the changing gender roles of contemporary Ireland. Through the softening and maturing of Jimmy Sr., he analyses in particular the nature of modern Irish masculinity, a subject followed through to the crisis of male confidence depicted in the final novel of the sequence, The Van. Doyle’s interest in family life is a mainstay of his fiction. The Rabbittes, in the trilogy, are both distinct and archetypal; intimately delineated and at the same time, fully representative of the contemporary Irish family unit. But Doyle’s positive presentation of their humour and resilience gives way, in his next work, to a darker picture of family relationships.
Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha (1993) is in many respects, his most accomplished novel, its bleak portrait of marital breakdown, witnessed through the sensitive yet naïve eyes of its ten-year-old protagonist, brilliantly and movingly constructed. As in The Woman who Walked into Doors (1996), which confronts the subject of domestic violence, Doyle exposes the disturbing and often painful reality behind the fictional ideal, and the public face, of the family. But Paddy Clarke is also important as a historical novel. Set in 1968, just as the Barrytown estate was being constructed in the middle of the north Dublin countryside, it evokes the family as an allegory for the Irish nation and its difficult transition from coherent rural traditionalism to fragmentary modern urban culture.
This retreat from the contemporary was a significant change, for Doyle, which anticipated his radical departure into the history of modern Ireland’s evolution in A Star Called Henry (1999). This tale of a poor boy born in 1901, and destined for involvement in the major Irish revolutionary activities of the early twentieth century, draws the violence of the present back into the past with a semi-comic focus on the individual experience of historical events. Criticised by some for its lack of historical depth, it was regarded by others as a masterpiece of invention and iconoclasm, and as a suitably burlesque revision of sacrosanct nationalist mythologies.
Doyle’s 2002 work, Rory and Ita, returns to the family, but this time, his own. It is an oral history related by his own parents, and detailing their lives before his birth. Like all his writing it is touched with comedy, and enlivened by his ability to pick out with extraordinary economy and precision the telling intimacies of a relationship. And above all it is stamped with his characteristic celebration of the ordinary, a characteristic which has led at times to accusations of anti-intellectualism in his novels, but which in fact provides the groundwork for a most accurate rendering of how Ireland and its people have been caught up in the processes of social and cultural change.
Eve Patten, 2002