Post-Celtic Tiger rural Ireland, internal exile and male identity in the fiction of Colin Barrett and Donal Ryan.

An analysis.

Maeve Mulrennan

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 “It was go home or die, and home was an oblivion that was at least reversible.” (Barrett, 2012)

“What remains is defined by what is absent.” (Trigg, p.88)

Rural Ireland after the economic crash of 2008 has been the subject matter for two contemporary Irish writers, Colin Barrett and Donal Ryan. Their respective works Young Skins and The Spinning Heart shed light on the figure of the disillusioned, internally-exiled male in rural Ireland. Both works are informed by the collective trauma and memory in a fractured society. The changing world has problematised the political, social and cultural bonds to the land. Irish male identity is in particular trouble as Ryan and Barrett’s works deconstruct a mostly internalised response to external disaster. Multiple perspectives and the episodic nature of Donal Ryan’s 2012 novel The Spinning Heart and Colin Barrett’s 2013 short story collection Young Skins are rooted in the national identity crisis in twenty-first century Ireland. While there are limitations in both authors’ choice in utilising multiple character perspectives, it does accurately represent the fractured post-Celtic Tiger psychogeography of rural Ireland. The internalised sense of self in Ryan’s and Barrett’s characters create an accurate reflection of the collective trauma and fallout of the 2008 economic crash.  

What is most arresting about Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is the raw grief and devastation seeping from each of the stories of twenty one interconnected characters inhabiting a small town in County Tipperary. There are also two characters absent but who have left permanent marks on the town. Builder Pokey Burke’s charade of profitable business has been revealed as a lie. Also absent is Johnsey Cunliffe, main character of Donal Ryan’s other novel, The Thing About December, set in 2001. Cunliffe’s refusal to buy into the Celtic Tiger property bubble resulted in the community turning against him, the aftershock of which is felt in The Spinning Heart. These two opposing characters personify the negative aspect of the Celtic Tiger. This essay will argue that because of the twenty one perspectives coming together within the shadow of Burke and Cunliffe the complex and traumatised Irish ethnoscape is revealed.

The narrative of The Spinning Heart is structured around multiple perspectives, with each character’s point of view contained within one chapter. As the book unfolds, this episodic, soap-opera style of plot development through the eyes of different characters firmly connects people to place, and their feelings of what is going on defines the overall narrative. The collective trauma of the recession is the umbrella under which twenty one individual narratives are situated. The novel begins with the voice of the protagonist, Bobby Mahon. His character reveals to the reader the shock of the economic crash and links this to the death of his father. From here the reader is accustomed to the marrying of private and public and the blurring of these into a complicated narrative. The final chapter is voiced by Bobby’s wife Triona. At the close of the novel, the reader has a different understanding of the character of Bobby. The author uses this character to show what a good man looks like; one that other characters are measured by. However, the last line of the novel: “I just said oh love; oh love, what matters now? What matters only love?” (Ryan, 2012, p.156), is at odds with the realist language of the rest of the novel. Although other existential questions are asked of different characters in the novel, the absence of and low value of love in The Spinning Heart make Triona’s questions seem hollow. The vital moment of the novel is not connected to the plot of Bobby’s father being murdered or a missing child. The vital moment is stretched out over the twenty one perspectives, stretched over the space of this village. Each character’s dissatisfaction with their life is brought to a head by the economic collapse. In Spacing Ireland: Place, Culture and Society, the editors speak in the introduction about the rise of the Celtic Tiger being a framework for a new national identity, post-Good Friday Agreement and after the series of revelations in the 1990s about the Catholic Church which contributed to its loss of power in Ireland (Crowley & Linehan, 2013). The new national narrative was one of success, of rags-to-riches.  Ireland was seen both locally and internationally as a serious player in the 21st Century economy. The Celtic Tiger was something to be proud of but it also gave the nation a sense of freedom and possibility. The same nation whose morality had been governed by the Catholic Church since the writing of the Irish Constitution was now relatively free from its dogma. However this freedom manifested mostly in consumerism, both on a small scale and a large scale with what eventually became the property boom and bust. Fintan O’Toole has analysed the effect of the Celtic Tiger on Irish identity: the one hand seems too connected to too many conflicting loyalties of place and on the other seems to melt away into the sea, as if the coastline that surrounds the country was merely a thin membrane that lets in all the flotsam and jetsam of consumer culture and lets out a constant flow of people. (O’Toole, 1997, p.12)

Ryan’s characters are utilised to demonstrate that the unexpected, vital moment is that they have been simultaneously the victims and victimisers in their own downfall. Although there is some reference to politicians and banks, it is the character's’ own actions in the shadow of the two absent characters, Johnsy and Pokey, that create the trauma. The repetition of dismayed characters at a remove from society, in the multi-perspective, episodic structure, give the reader the impression of a community of isolated ghosts, not interacting with each other in the way they want to. The author does not use dialogue in the novel; it is all monologues, which further emphasise the disconnectedness of the characters from each other. This technique also put the reader in a very specific role: they are listening to the almost confessional thoughts of each character. The reader finishes the book knowing the most about these people but of course is unable to influence what happens next. Each character builds an image of her or his own landscape, which all adds up to a multi-layered sense of place. The small village, the ghost estate, the building site, the run-down widower’s cottage, are familiar images to the Irish reader. The world outside the village is referenced and sometimes visited by the characters: the dole office in Limerick City, the city crèche that caters for the closed Dell factory, and of course the plains of Siberia, where character Vasya is from. His reminiscence of the open plains and nomadic tribes sits in direct opposition to the Irish landscape. No one owns the lands where his nomadic family live: there is no race to own overpriced houses. He finds the landscape of his new Irish home disorienting, but cannot return home as the death of his brother means that home has dissolved for him. He is stuck in a limbo where he is not local but not fully foreign either. He has been scarred by the economic crash as much, if not more, than the other characters. This trauma aligns Vasya with his Irish neighbours.

The rural setting of the novel reveals a microcosm of Irish society. The city is referenced, but the countryside is where other people live. The isolation of the village emphasises the powerlessness of the community. The decision makers - politicians, bankers, the IMF, are elsewhere: “Ireland is a diaspora, and as such is both a real place and a remembered place...Ireland is often something that happens elsewhere.” (O’Toole, 1997, p.12). The Spinning Heart was published in 2012, four years on from the September 2008 date when Lehman Brothers in New York closed and is generally seen has the peak of the crash. By 2012, the world had seen the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring and the intervention of the IMF into Ireland. The sense of distrust and betrayal with the Irish Government and local government by the Irish people had continued through elections and into new leaders. Meanwhile, Irish people were being worn down with wage cuts, unemployment and emigration. The ghost estates, one of Donal Ryan’s sites of trauma in The Spinning Heart, were a concrete monument to the follies of the Celtic Tiger. Empty houses became ruins even as people were being made homeless or being let down by the social care and health systems. The ghost estates are monuments to the people we thought we were; a post-religious state with a foot in the door of the global markets. However, as the identity of Ireland is ever shifting, what people had discovered by 2012 is that the sense of power that people felt during the Celtic Tiger years was imagined, and that real power lay elsewhere. The Spinning Heart accepts the view that Irish people had of themselves in 2012: the economic crash and the nation’s compliance in creating an economic mirage was embarrassing but the real damage had been done elsewhere - by the people holding the power. In The Spinning Heart this is emphasised by the two absent characters and the blame is given to them. Firstly Johnsy was blamed for not selling land for development, with fatal consequences, and Pokey Burke is blamed for accepting inflated loans and not paying his workers’ taxes. Of course characters such as Pokey Burke have done wrong. However, the consistent admiration for his foreman and protagonist of The Spinning Heart, Bobby Mahon, brushes over the fact that he was involved in a lot of decision making. It is referenced in the novel that Burke never made a decision without checking with him, and Denis, the Plant Hire boss, admitted to aligning himself with Mahon during meetings between them and Burke. However, Ryan places Mahon in the role of victim: a gentle giant and GAA star in the community.

Donal Ryan addresses the collective trauma of the recession in his novel. However what is more interesting to the reader is the connections and relationships between the characters. There are several isolated males in the book; some who are portraits of those left behind, firstly in the boom and then with emigration. They are the scars left on the landscape, along with the ghost estates and crumbling cottages. Ryan also shows the isolation of mother figures; one who lost a child to drowning and one who was a prostitute and now abandoned by her children. These mothers contrast with the other mothers in the book -there are several overbearing mothers, or mothers that did more damage than good - from sheltering the absent Johnsey and the Timmy, to the absent mother of Bobby who withered under her husband’s cruelty and in doing so failed to protect Bobby. The treatment of Bobby and his mother by Frank Mahon is seen early on has justification for his death, and indeed, it is his murderer’s fury over his own father that leads to his death. What is also shown by Ryan however is that the community were complicit in the cruelty of the father: although Bobby and his mother would flee from him at times, they always returned and there was never any legal intervention. This is further emphasised in Frank’s admission that he too was treated cruelly by his own father. By 2012, when the book was published, the Irish identity had been complicated further by a succession of reports on institutional abuse. What was seen most clearly in the Ryan Report was that the non-clergy, in many cases, were aware of the systematic cruelty and denial of human rights in these institutions, but did nothing. Ryan successfully shows how doing nothing can do further damage - Bobby and his mother’s agreement to become strangers to each other rather than leave Frank shows this. However, the absence of any religious figures in The Spinning Heart does not connect this explicitly to institutional abuse. Rather, it displays the attitudes still present, hangovers from being governed by a Catholic state for so long. Furthermore, the fact that the characters talk about each other rather than to each other shows the legacy of distrust and disconnectedness of the community which was briefly forgotten about during the Celtic Tiger years. This essay will now move on to discuss Colin Barrett’s Young Skins and how it represents the internal exile of the young male in rural Ireland during the economic recession.

Colin Barrett’s Young Skins is a collection of seven short stories, all from a male perspective. Six of the seven are set in the fictional Mayo town of Glanbeigh. The recurrence of place creates a sense of familiarity for the reader and allows Barrett to develop the characters’ connections to place further. Calm With Horses is a novella-length story in the middle of the collection; the other six stories are almost a lead-in and a lead-out to this story, which stands aside both in its depth of characterisation and its violent plot. The collection begins with The Clancy Kid, which utilises motifs that recur in other stories. We see the first male double act of the collection: friendship is an antidote to the claustrophobia and isolation inherent for each character. In a podcast for the Irish Times, the author explains that these friendships are a way for characters to find their own networks and familial units, as there are hardly any nuclear family set ups in the Young Skins. Each character is in the process of reaching out (Barrett 2015b). It is possible to see that a certain paralysis in the characters, something greatly discussed regarding James Joyce’s Dubliners, and can also be seen in a lot of John McGahern’s work, where characters’ paralysis or inaction is the core of the story. The initial story in Young Skins also begins with a lost child, and the final story ends with a funeral - echoing the journey of ageing and life also seen in Dubliners.

The main technical aspect of note in Young Skins is Barrett’s use of language. Although the characters in each work have limited life experience, or in the character Arm’s case in Calm with Horses, a singular kind of life experience, the language used by the author transcends these limitations. Barrett’s successful use of poetic language has been remarked upon in reviews and interviews (Williams, 2015). Barrett has also talked about how the short story structure has more in common with poetic structures and play structure (Barrett 2015b). The combination of poetic structure and poetic language leads to images that are both harsh and rich; for example describing the Mayo coastline as a ‘gnarled jawbone’ (Barrett, 2013, p.3)

The violence in Calm with Horses is the unexpected element in Young Skins, emphasised further by being sandwiched between six other stories of relative non-violence or character-inaction. However what is most striking is not the murder in this story, but how the author utilises this plot point to unpeel and develop the main character Arm. It is Arm’s inner exile and perception of his place within Glanbeigh and in his family that is of most interest. Upon the final death in the story, the reader is more concerned about the value of Arm’s life and if it was a life well lived than the criminal or dramatic elements of the story. Through Barrett’s characters the reader gets an insight into the multi-layered rural Ireland, post-Celtic Tiger. Young Skins does not address the economic crash in the same direct way as Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart. However, it is acknowledged through recurring images of money - specifically pre-Euro coins and notes in Calm with Horses. The Irish punts - a symbol of Ireland’s old identity - are useless: “‘This is pounds,’ Arm went on, ‘this is no good. This money’s gone. It’s done.’” (Barrett, 2013, p.138). While the author does touch on the urge to emigrate and there are recurring images of small spaces and of people being trapped, most notably in the story Stand Your Skin; Young Skins explores the decision to stay, to live and be in a small town. While the author has said that emigration is a vital part of the Irish psyche (Barrett, 2015b), he has chosen not to write about emigrants, but about the young men that stayed, not just in Ireland but in rural Ireland. The trauma of the economic crash is therefore not as explicit as in The Spinning Heart, but it is there in the underlying structure of Glanbeigh. The first story in Young Skins says of the place:

My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk. A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs inside the square mile of the town’s limits.(Barrett, 2013, p.3).

The post-Celtic Tiger male identity is revealed in each male character’s own story but also as a collection the male psyche is shown. In an email interview, Barrett expressed his interest in how places, post-Celtic Tiger were negotiated by the young men that did not emigrate:

I was thinking about the type of person who sticks around, what consolations they might find in a place like Glanbeigh, in a place that is too familiar, finitely-horizoned and sort of moribund. And I like the countryside, and rural towns, which are becoming even more paradoxical and incongruous places. (Barrett, 2015a).

The friendship and connection in Young Skins is not seen in The Spinning Heart, where Ryan’s characters orbit each other in isolated dismay. Young Skins’ friendships and alternate families offer a way of getting through the national identity crisis. However Young Skins is not a utopian. Self doubt in the characters of this town is a microcosm of what is going on nationally. The image in The Clancy Kid of the titular character disappearing in the capital city sets the tone for the distrust and fear of what can happen beyond the aforementioned square mile of pubs in Glanbeigh.

Young Skins was published in Ireland in 2013, only a year after The Spinning Heart. However the inflammatory trauma of Ryan’s Tipperary town has died down into a kind of acceptance in Barrett’s Glanbeigh. Like the characters in The Spinning Heart, Barrett’s characters are literally and figuratively miles from where the power is, and the people in power. What matters to the people of Glanbeigh is what happens there, not in Dublin or Europe. Barrett’s description of places like Glanbeigh as being paradoxical and moribund is evidenced in the actions of his characters: “His stories are crowded with young men and women making a racket while going nowhere, with ambitions that don’t really stretch past scoring the next high or kissing the next girl.”(Williams, 2015). The moribund natures of towns like Glanbeigh; the fact that they do not matter to the power makers, to the international economy, is embedded in the place. The story Stand Your Skin, which is occupied by an isolated, anxious man that has been left behind, is quite close to the despair expressed by young male characters in Ryan’s The Spinning Heart.

Young Skins closes with a funeral procession, with the characters, older than Barrett’s other males, deciding on whether or not to join in with this ritual or not. Their own anxieties are revealed through recollection of their lives and regrets in them. By joining the procession they accept that what should be done is not the same as what one wants to do. Explicit thoughts on the recession are not addressed in Young Skins, and according to the author was not an aim of the collection (Barrett, 2015a). There is an assumption that the reader is familiar with this type of place from the first lines of the first story. It could be said therefore that the anxieties and claustrophobia of Glanbeigh is timeless, and has always been there. The readers’ real-life knowledge of what has happened to small towns because of the economic crash goes beyond the Irish context: Barrett’s collection has been lauded and awarded outside of Ireland, with the most glowing review coming from a place a pole apart from rural Ireland: the New York Times. The economic crash, claims Barrett, amplified what was already happening in rural Ireland:  

The kind of people I was writing about in Young Skins have always been there, I think. The recession probably sharpened everyone's focus a little on just how depleted small towns and provincial and regional areas were becoming in the wake of recent economic devastation, but the recession likely only exacerbated a problem that was always already there (Barrett, 2015a).

It could be said that traces of Irish writer John McGahern’s oeuvrecan be found in most Irish writing. However, this essay will look at McGahern’s address of the internalised sense of self and its reflection of collective trauma regarding the new Irish state has carried through to the contemporary work discussed in this essay. It is also possible to see the inheritance of Joyce feeding through McGahern’s work and into the contemporary works. The Joycean paralysis and subsequent epiphanies apparent in his short story collection Dubliners, referred to by Colin Barrett (Barrett, 2015b) is, claims writer Patrick Crotty, also evident in John McGahern’s work:

...vivid presentation of situations in which consciousness is alert but incapable of action: a McGahern epiphany characteristically involves heightened sensitivity to conditions over which the subject has no control. (Crotty, pg45).

His characters do not hold power; it lies elsewhere, as in Ryan’s and Barrett’s books. In an interview, John McGahern spoke of the disillusionment of men after the creation of the Irish Free State:

That was in a way, a prevalence - in that the dream didn’t become the reality. A lot of it was confused with their youth which would end anyhow. It was also the most exciting and dramatic time of their lives. I think they had a kind of dream - …- that they were bound together by something bigger than themselves. And then normal life restored itself and the Church and the medical profession got power. (Maher, 2001, p.78)

As can be seen here, the collective dream, of an Independent Ireland, and a new way of being, brought people together but ultimately this dream could not be fulfilled and the Church stepped in. McGahern speaks also of the medical profession - at the time an institution infiltrated by the Catholic Church also. In the 21st Century however, the Catholic Church could not fill the void left by the economic crash. Although still powerful, particularly in the educational system, it no longer held the morality of the nation in its power. Says Crotty of McGahern’s characters: “His writing tends to seek out the inadequate, the mis- and the dis-placed, people whose unease in their particular circumstances is emblematic of a more general dilemma” (Crotty, 2005, pg.44).

Short stories by McGahern, collected in the 1992 publication Collected Stories demonstrate the paralysis of a nation marginalised by its own state create characters, plots and subsequently themes. Although not rooted in one particular town or city, his short stories are of the place, in the same way that Ryan and Barrett attempt to be with their works in 2012 and 2013. However, by writing in a way that immerses the reader in a certain place, a context, and with characters that seem familiar, McGahern is creating a microcosm in which the human condition can be deconstructed by the reader.

The deliberate open endedness of some of Barrett’s characters, particularly in the short story Bait, allow the reader time and space to consider multiple possibilities. However the multi-perspective, episodic nature of The Spinning Heart does not allow the reader the same time and space to consider ambiguities and different possibilities within the work.

Donal Ryan and Colin Barrett have both, in their first published books, given contemporary readers a multi-layered deconstruction of the internal exile of the Irish male identity in post-Celtic Tiger rural Ireland. With Ryan, the multi-perspective structure of The Spinning Heart does lean more towards a scatter-gun approach, not resting on one character long enough to get past the initial knee-jerk reaction of his characters to the myth of the Celtic Tiger being dissolved. However, by utilising the recession as a framework in which characters are self-reflective, the structure is successful. Problems inherent in Irish society before the Celtic Tiger - the disillusion of the Free State as discussed by John McGahern, the reliance on the Catholic Church for moral guidance as discussed by McGahern and Fintan O’Toole - are amplified in The Spinning Heart once the myth of economic wealth is removed. As in McGahern, Ryan populates his novel with characters that are displaced, powerless or paralysed into non-action. The other constant in The Spinning Heart is the place. Over the course of the novel, and through multiple perspectives, the fictional setting is mapped for the reader. Neglected cottages surrounded by fields of brambles – a symbol of our move away from old rural Ireland are juxtaposed with the familiar monument to the Celtic Tiger: the ghost estate.

Colin Barrett’s Young Skins, occupying the same setting and historical context as The Spinning Heart, offers a multi-perspective, multi-layered view of the internal exile of the Irish male identity in post-Celtic Tiger rural Ireland. The paralysis / epiphany structure, when paired with Barrett’s poetic prose and harsh imagery create a world that allows for more subtlety and introspection of the characters, thus giving the reader more space to reflect and analyse. The examples of friendship and alternate family set-ups offer a possible way to console the self and a way to overcome the internal exile of young men in rural Ireland. Although problematic, when compared to the isolation of other characters in the collection and also in Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, it is possibly the only solution available.


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