March 1 to March 31
A Reading Life Special Event
A Q and A Session with Niall Foley
After reading "The Great South Wall", a powerful short story about a man at the brink of suicide (you can read my post on the story here which contains a link where you can read it ) I sent him an e-mail asking if he would be willing to do a Question and Answer Session for Irish Short Story Month Year III. Some of the questions I ask writers are generic Irish short story writer questions, some are based on my personal interests, and some drawn on my readings of the author's work and my limited knowledge of their bio-data.
Bio Data (from his webpage)
Niall Foley has been harnessed as a barman, laborer clerk, lecturer and journalist – and several other functions. He currently lives in Edinburgh, and is happiest when unshackled and alone in a room with a desk, some paper, and a pencil. He is from Dublin.
1. Who are some of the contemporary short story writers youe admire?. If you had to say, who do you regard as the three best ever short story writers?
I have to confess I read fewer contemporary short stories than I do contemporary novels. The short stories I enjoy best tend to be those of the authors I like best; James Joyce, John McGahern, Charles Bukowski. Having said that, I enjoy Joseph O’Connor’s work, including his short story collection Where Have You Been?, as well as his radio shorts. You can add Colm Tóibín to that as well.
2. I have read lots of Indian and American short stories in addition to Irish and alcohol plays a much bigger part in the Irish stories. How should an outsider take this and what does it say about Irish culture. Drinking is clearly a big factor in "The Great South Wall"
My girlfriend has a lovely way of describing Irish literature. She said many of the books were damp. I think drink accounts for a lot of that dampness among the pages.
Before I go on to affirm some stereotypes, let me dismiss some. I have met plenty of Irish people who don’t drink, and plenty who drink in a very moderate and responsible way.
Having said that, while I don’t believe Irish genes are more disposed to liking booze, a lot of Irish culture is still centered around drink. The alcohol industry sponsors many of the major sporting events, and if you haven’t got a ticket to the match then the next best thing is going down to the pub to watch it. Drinking is a big part of family and social occasions, weddings, wakes, and so on.
I grew up in London and most of my friends were second generation Irish. We drank. A lot. But we always drank in pubs, never on the street, and we didn’t touch drugs. During the late eighties and nineties there was a whole acid house and then a rave scene that I wasn’t part of. My English peers were taking acid or ecstasy (cocaine wasn’t so big then) and a lot of kids I knew from a west-Indian background smoked dope. That may seem like stereotyping, and in a way it was; we were all figuring out who we were and maybe playing out and trying on some of those stereotypes for size was part of growing up.
There’s a pragmatic element to the drinking scene and emigration as well. If you wanted to get work on a building site, one of the ways was to go to a pub, have a few drinks and meet people. The nature of Irish emigration has changed somewhat but drink still plays a part in how we network and connect with each other. Irish people are far more likely to say let’s meet up for a pint than let’s meet up for a coffee. These issues feature in a story I wrote published in The Galway Review called The Black Stuff.
Drink and the Irish identity have long seemed to be intertwined. We’ve mostly ourselves to blame for that. For instance, when an American president or major celebrity comes to Dublin and we want them to pat us on the head and acknowledge our Irishness, what’s the picture we go for? We take a picture of them pulling a pint of Guinness and taking a sup. Having said that, Hollywood hasn’t helped. I can’t watch The Titanic and the portrayal of the happy drunk Irish below decks. Where did all those pints of beer and the ceilidh come from? Those ships were often coffin ships for the Irish, and not because of icebergs, but because of poverty, starvation, disease, dysentery, malnutrition, etc.
But practical realities means the Irish relationship to drink is changing. There’s the cost, for starters, with supermarkets vastly undercutting pub prices and more people drinking at home. Tighter drink-driving laws means that the pub is no longer the centre of social life in rural areas. So maybe soon alcohol will be less of a theme of Irish literature and Starbucks or somebody else will provide the backdrop to the drama.
3. Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father? Do you think he is right and how does this, if it does, reveal itself in your work.
Angela’s Ashes springs immediately to mind. As does John McGahern’s writing, although really it is the loss of the mother he laments, and the dominating presence of the father that troubles him.
I have just written a short story called The Calf which I am really happy with, and my father features heavily in that. I don’t know about other writers, but whenever I write a story I immediately feel it is a load of rubbish and that something has been lost in translation from my head to the page. It’s rare that I write something and feel right off the bat that it is good, as I did with The Calf. This probably means it is useless. However, I have a nice feeling about it right now anyway, and as I say my father features heavily in that, neither as absent nor weak.
4. When did you start writing?
It’s always been there as a hobby, but only in the last few years have I started writing more consistently. I write for my own development. If stuff gets published, great, if not, no problem. I know it’s something I am going to keep on doing as long as I live. When I read short stories I wrote a couple of years ago I realise they are terrible. But that is okay. It means I am learning and improving.
5. Your bio data on your webpage indicates you live in Edinburgh Scotland. What do you miss most about Ireland and what are you glad to be away from?
I will start with the latter.
I am glad to be away from the Irish media (with the partial exception of The Irish Times newspaper and Newstalk radio’s Off The Ball sports show.) For a country that gave us Swift, Yeats, Joyce, etc, the critical faculties applied to television is almost zero. Most programmes are mindless derivatives of tired formats already screened on British TV.
An honourable mention should go to TG4, the Irish language broadcaster. They help fund some great documentaries, including one called Bernadette: Notes on a political journey by Lelia Doolan. RTÉ turned down funding for this, which says it all, really.
I’ll be moving back to Ireland in the future and when I do, I’ll not be bringing my television.
What do I miss?
Shamrock Rovers Football Club. Easy conversations wherever you go. Walking down a street in Dublin and thinking of the great figures in Irish history and literature who walked down that street before you. Friends and family. The sense that whatever else may be wrong in my life, I’m in the right place.
6. I sometimes wonder why such a disproportionate amount of the regarded as great literature of the world is written in the colder temperate zones rather than in the tropics. How big a factor do you think the Irish Weather is in shaping the literary output of its writers. I cannot imagine The Brothers Karamazov being written on a tropical island, for example.
Maybe it goes back to the question about alcohol. I can’t imagine Brendan Behan or Flann O’Brien creating the work they did if they were fuelled on cappuccinos instead of a pint.
I’d like to respone by challenging your notion. First of all, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a great read, and Nigeria is a lot warmer than Russia or Ireland. (Although, funnily enough, the title comes from a line in a Yeats poem.) Also, there would be a legion of Latin American writers who could lay claim to great literature.
But if we accept what you say - maybe it is because in warmer countries it is far more tempting to just go outside and enjoy life. Writing for me means sitting alone in a quiet room. I can sometimes think of one million excuses not to write, and if the weather outside is fine it probably becomes one billion.
Colder weather means people staying in more. Writing is a pretty cheap way of staying in. All you need is a paper and pen or pencil.
7. A character in an Ali Smith short story, asks in a conversation on the merits of short stories versus novels ""Is the short story a goddess and nymph and is the novel an old whore?" Does this make a bit of sense to you?
Not quite. I’d maybe say the short story is a mistress and the novel a wife. You can do something quick and dirty with a short story and get a quick hit. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. A novel is a much longer relationship. There will be ups and downs, you invest much more time and effort, even if it isn’t going well you tell yourself you have to see the whole thing through…and Christ knows how it will all turn out.
8. Who do you regard as the first modern Irish short story writer?
I have no idea. That’s the kind of thing Declan Kiberd will probably have an opinion on. Though it’s hard to see beyond Joyce’s Dubliners as some kind of touchstone.
9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers?
I think the statement is true, thought the reasons are complex and beyond me. It may come from our verbal articulation. This is a stereotype again but on the whole the Irish are great talkers, great personal communicators. Certainly no-one is afraid to talk to each other – I’m talking strangers here, on a bus or somewhere, just passing the time in conversation – as seems to be the case in other countries.
The other thing is that literature is accessible here. I’m talking in terms of social class. I worked in a pub in Dublin when I was in college and some of the linguistic dexterity and conversations you would hear from ordinary punters was fantastically rich. Of course, they do say no-one speaks the Queen’s English like the Dubs. It’s why Roddy Doyle’s recent book Two Pints works so well. It comprises a series of conversations between two punters in a Dublin pub. It’s rich in both humour and pathos. I just couldn’t see the same, for instance, if you chose to base it in a working class pub in London. Having grown up in London, I would say there is a strain of anti-intellectual snobbery in British working class culture. Writing, literature, poetry, it’s something that belongs to “them”, not “us.” Something to be distrusted. Whereas figures like John McGahern or Brendan Behan or Patrick Kavanagh…in different senses these were all men of the soil. Unpretentious, accessible, everyday artists – although the latter two could be unpleasant company at times. Attitude, maybe, but no airs and graces.
10. (This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declain Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking this:
" One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there."
I once knew a girl who believed in fairies. Strange, strange girl.
No, I don’t believe in Fairies. But there is a rich oral tradition, particularly in rural areas, of Fairies and prophecies and myths. It’s all quiet interesting but no, I am not a believer. I’m a bit too existentialist for that.
11. Do you think the very large amount of remains from neolithic periods (the highest in the world) in Ireland has shaped in the literature and psyche of the country?
Ireland’s record in preserving its heritage – from the Neolithic period to the site of the 1916 Rising – isn’t always something to be proud of. Ireland’s streets are rich in history. I don’t believe history should be under lock and key but more should be made of everyday historical sites and stories are the way to do it. A society shouldn’t be chained by its history but nor should it bulldoze it to make way for shiny progress of glass and steel.
12. Is Dublin a much better city for the emerging writer than Edinburgh
I read an article in a Scottish paper that called Dublin pretentious and boastful of its literary history. This surprised me. For me, literature is very accessible and very down to earth in Dublin.
In response to your question, I suppose it depends on where you draw your inspiration. What is Edinburgh’s contribution to literature? Irvine Welsh? Walter Scott? Ian Rankin?
Then look towards Dublin. Swift. O’Casey. Joyce. O’Brien. Behan. Beckett. Donleavy. I could go on.
For me, Dublin wins hands down. It’s hard to get published in the more established creative writing periodicals and you tend to see the same old names. But for the emerging writer there are many online literary magazines. Alice Walsh’s The Bohemyth is a fine example.
Again, in Edinburgh, you can climb the Scott monument, take a Ian Rankin tour, and what else? Where in Dublin you have the Irish Writers’ Centre, the Writers’ Museum, Joyce’s Martello Tower museum. Writers are bonded in the history of the city. Many of the leaders of the 1916 Rising were poets and writers as well as revolutionaries. If you want to get a feel of Dublin one hundred years ago, read the city’s One City One Book selection for this year, James Plunkett’s Strumpet City.
There is also the old joke of two fellers in a pub in Dublin. One asks the other what he is up to, and the feller replies that he is writing a book. “Yeah,” says the first feller, “I’m on the dole too….”
13. How important are the famines to the modern Irish psyche?
Before The Celtic Tiger I would have thought that the Famine left a somewhat existentialist shadow on the Irish psyche. A people who hold the collective memory of famine and emigration know the difference between what is and isn’t worth worrying about in everyday life.
But the Celtic Tiger era proved that Irish people are as capable of greed, avarice, hubris and stupidity as any other people on the planet.
I recently listened to an interview with Tim Pat Coogan who was talking about his recent book, The Famine Plot: England’s role in Ireland’s greatest tragedy. He made the point that at the time of the Famine, Ireland was not a sovereign nation and relied on the goodwill (or otherwise) of an overseas power for survival, and that this is very much the case today given Ireland’s financial position and relationship to Europe. I might be paraphrasing him somewhat clumsily here, but he also suggested that the main harmful deposit from the Famine has been the sense of “learned helplessness.” The sense that things are out of our hands, the acceptance that bankers and politicians will get away with what they did and that’s just the way it is. The, “Sure, what can you do,” attitude. At least I think that is what he said. I don’t have the interview to hand.
14. Does the character of the "stage Irishman" live on still in the heavy drinking, violent, on the dole characters one finds in many contemporary Irish novels?
Across the spectrum of contemporary writing I think there are broader male Irish characters than that, and even where it does exist the character of the stage Irishman has developed somewhat.
One of the characters in my short story The Black Stuff is something of a stage Irishman…or is he just being himself because that is who he is? Certainly it’s an identity the other character in the story struggles with.
15. William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "“The popular poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons”. I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence. The natioonal heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by the Spanish or American rulers. How do you think the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature
The myth of the martyr has traditionally played a significant role in Irish history and identity. But recently, I would say in Sebastian Barry’s books, and it’s a theme John McGahern touches on in That They May Face the Rising Sun, these myths and concepts are being questioned somewhat.
It’s a sweeping generalisation but I would say lament features heavily in Irish literature too. Lament for home, for destinies unfilled, for loves that have been lost, for victories escaped.
What was Beckett’s line? Something like ever tried, ever failed, no matter, try again, fail again, fail better. Maybe rather than celebrate those who have tried and won, we tend to celebrate those who just try, regardless of whether they win or lose. The act of trying itself is the victory. It brings to mind Jack Nicholson as the Irish-American Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He takes bets from the rest of the patients that he can lift the marble water fountain, chuck it through the window, and escape. He knows he can’t do it, but takes the bets anyway. He strains and strains, but exhausted, he slumps in defeat. He loses his money and the other patients mock him. But as he walks out of the room he sneers at them; “At least I tried, goddamitt.”
He’s the winner, even though he’s the loser. Irish literature often celebrates the McMurphys of this world rather that the Nurse Ratcheds.
16. Do you attend the big Book Festivals?
No. I like to write, I like it when people get in touch after they have seen one of my published stories, I like talking to people about books and writing. I like libraries and writing museums. But I have no desire at all to go to a big book festival. I have gone to a few Q and A sessions and enjoyed them. I attended a Q and A with JP Donleavy a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. So depending on the author I attend events, but the circus of a big book festival is just something that doesn’t appeal.
The Leitrim County Council Arts Office hosts an excellent international annual seminar on John McGahern. It’s a brilliant programme of events, tours and activities each year focusing on the work of the Leitrim author. I attended a few years ago and really enjoyed it.
17. Do you think poets have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers?
Firstly, I don’t believe it is the prerogative of artists to teach society to eat their greens. And secondly, the more someone writes for just themselves, the more relevance what they have to say has to wider society.
18. "To creative artists may have fallen the task of explaining what no historian has fully illuminated – the reason why the English came to regard the Irish as inferior and barbarous, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetic and magical."-is this right? Kiberd, Declan (2009-05-04). Inventing Ireland (p. 646).
The English didn’t come to regard the Irish as inferior and barbarous, they deliberately regarded the Irish as inferior and barbarous. For the greater part of history the relationship between England and Ireland was one of conflict and exploitation. This doesn’t mark the Irish out as special or anything, the British Empire stretched across the globe. And if you are in warfare or conflict with another community, the first thing you do is dehumanise them and portray them as barbarous and animalistic. The second thing you do is promote the war as some kind of drive to civilise the natives and teach them democracy.
You can see this today in the coverage of the war in Afhanistan and Iraq, with the American and British forces bringing democracy to the rag-heads. Well, once, the Irish were the rag-heads, except they were called bog-wogs.
I once saw a black and white propaganda film made by the British government around the time of the second world war. It wasn’t screened publicly in Britain but was preparation to influence public mood should the need to invade Ireland arise. It painted Ireland as a land of ignorant, thick, incompetent alcoholic farmers, who blamed England for all their ills, and believed in a religion that was little more than voodoo. It would make you think invasion would be doing the Irish a favour – white man’s burden and all that.
The theme of civilising the wild Irish has been a strand explaining the British military presence in Ireland from centuries ago right up the recent history of The Troubles.
However, having said all that, at the level of the individual in society, relationships and friendships between the people of Ireland and England have existed for centuries. In the Dublin Lock Out of 1913, English people sent aid and relief to the striking workers. Trade and tourism and economic fluctuations have seen migration both ways across the Irish sea. The English have got to know the Irish, and vice versa, and despite the propaganda on both sides, it turns out that everyone is just human after all – capable of the kindness, love, greed hate that all humans are capable of.
And if the English see us as poetic, why shouldn’t they? The best poets and literature in the English language have come from Irish tongues and Irish hands.
19. Do you think Irish Travelers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment? are the Travelers to the Irish what the Irish were once to the English? I became interested in this question partially through reading the short stories of Desmond Hogan.
If the Travellers were treated poorly in the past, who wasn’t? Young people in Industrial Schools haven’t faired well over the course of modern Irish history, nor did women in the Magdalene laundries. Our mental health care has been pretty grim too. I don’t think any vulnerable group has been served well by the Irish state, and as usual the poor were most vulnerable.
I know very little about Travellers. I have met a good few and had a pint with some. They struck me as fairly ordinary people. Travellers in the UK have featured a lot on reality television shows and I think no more than the stage Irishman, there may be some pressure on young men in the Traveler community to be a stage Traveller – the television shows suggest they are all larger than life brawlers, but that’s probably more a reflection on television than Travellers.
By the way, the Pecker Dunne, a musician from a Traveller family, died recently. He was a great performer and wrote a great song called O’Sullivan’s John, and he also does a wonderful version of McAlpine’s Fusiliers. You Tube him if you get the chance.
20. Do you see Scotish resentment at the rule of the English as much less deeply grounded than that of the Irish?
I think in both Irish and Scottish society you get a much broader spectrum of attitudes to the English than you may otherwise think.
In Scotland I have found a contradiction in the attitude towards the English. Many of the Scottish I have met who are disparaging towards the English – ranging from good natured jokes to downright abuse –are also proud to be British. Again, this apparent contradiction has a practical basis. Britain’s armed forces are a means of escaping the poverty trap, as indeed they were in the past for the Irish (Spoiler alert – see Strumpet City). So you get people disliking the English who sign up to fight for the English Crown.
Also, you hear a lot of English voices in Edinburgh – including those born and raised in the Scottish capital. There’s a strain of middle class Edinburgh accent that is very English-sounding.
Tensions around Irish, English, Scottish and British identities tend to get played out more overtly, I think, in the west of Scotland rather than the east.
On a recent visit back to Dublin I was surprised at the amount of casual graffiti along the lines of “Brits Out”. I think it has always been there, I just hadn’t noticed it that much. Of all the negative agencies operating in the island of Ireland right now, I don’t think the Brits are the worst. But I don’t see any graffiti saying “Catholic church out” or “Greedy bankers and developers out.” I’m not condemning those who advocate the establishment of an all-Ireland Republic, I’m just saying crap graffiti maybe isn’t the way to do it.
21. Do you like haggis?
I love haggis in any form: served on a gleaming plate in a fine restaurant; heaped on a piping hot oven-baked potato; or deep-fried in batter with chips smothered in ketchup. Haggis is warm and hearty, not unlike Irish black pudding.
22. Do you prefer ereading or traditional books?
Traditional books. I have never read an ebook and don’t own a Kindle. There’s nothing I like more than finding a nice copy of a book I am after and discovering a bus ticket, shopping list, or personal inscription from some far off land. Who was that person? Why were they flying to Berlin in 1983? Was it a one way ticket? Did they fly alone? You don’t get that with an e-reader.
23. If you were to be given the option of living anywhere besides Ireland or in the UK, where would you live?
Maybe in a Norwegian cabin on the side of a mountain where I would be alone and hard to reach. Fewer distractions equals more writing.
24. If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?
Dublin 1916. Enough said.
25. Irish Whiskey versus Scotish?
Irish, for me. Take a glass, warm it with hot water. Keep a metal spoon in the glass so it doesn’t crack. Add hot water, then sugar, and give it a spin. Add a slice of lemon studded with cloves, and then a good measure of Jameson’s. Nicely wrap a serviette around the glass so you can hold it without getting burned, and drink. It’s a sweet medicine for cold winter nights and all types of the common flu.
26. Are you willing to generalize at all about the differences between the Scotch and the Irish?
Not quite. But I will say in general that Scottish and Irish people are more personable and wittier than English people. But when you live somewhere for a while you see beyond the stereotypes that people are just people.
27. Best Literary Festival you have so far attended?
The John McGahern International Seminar in County Leitrim.
28. Flash Fiction-how driven is the popularity of this form by social media like Twitter and its word limits?
I don’t know the history of flash fiction but it seems to have grown alongside social media. I like flash fiction because if you have a notion or scene in mind you can build an enjoyable little story. If the novel is a wife, and the short story is a mistress, then flash fiction is a drunken fondle with a willing woman in the pub car park at one a.m. on a Saturday night.
29. How important in shaping the literature of Ireland is its proximity to the sea? It plays huge role in your story?
I grew up in London nowhere near the sea. Then when I moved to Dublin I lived near the sea and understood what a friend said when she commented that when you grow up near the sea, you always want to live by it. There’s a song called The Sea Around Us, written I think by Dominic Behan, which celebrates the sea for keeping us from England. The sea is always there isn’t it, in emigration, in our identity and relationship to Britain, to Europe and to America. I’m not sure how this plays out in Irish literature.
30. Do you teel being an Irish writer gives you higher status or cache in the UK?
No, and regardless of how my career goes, status as a writer isn’t something that will bother me. I know the journey I am on and it’s up to me to get the work done and get there. Success and status isn’t the victory. To echo Beckett (and Randle Patrick McMurphy), trying is the victory.
31. Once about 15 years ago I was on the train in London, a man next to me was from Edinburgh and he was going on about how much cleaner Edinburgh is than London,how the trains are not full of trash? Any reaction to this.
Edinburgh yet has the feel of the second city of the British Empire and is a very clean city, much cleaner than Dublin and London. I often feel that Dublin, Glasgow and Belfast are quite similar and industrial, whereas Edinburgh reminds me of Derry, particularly within Derry’s walls where there is a lot of stone architecture.
But bear in mind Bukowski’s quote about cleanliness: “Show me a man who lives alone and has a perpetually clean kitchen, and eight times out of nine I'll show you a man with detestable spiritual qualities.” Edinburgh may be a lot cleaner than Dublin, but there will never ever be a revolution in Edinburgh. I guarantee you that.
Anyway, while on the surface of things everything is prim and proper, Edinburgh has it’s seedy side too, believe me.
32. OK let us close out on this note-what is your reaction these lines from a famous Irish poet?
I was born to the stink of whiskey and failure
And the scattered corpse of the real.
This is my childhood and country:
The cynical knowing smile
Plastered onto ignorance
Ideals untarnished and deadly
Because never translated to action
The sick glorification of failure.
Our white marble statues were draped in purple
The bars of the prison were born in our eyes
And if reality ever existed
It was a rotten tooth
That couldn't be removed. Michael O'Loughlin
Tim Pat Coogan’s phrase about learned helplessness springs to mind. Get over it, poet, and get off your knees.
End of Q and A
I offer my great thanks to Niall Foley for the very illuminating answers he provided to my often naive questions.
You can read "The Great South Wall" here
You can learn more about his work on his very well done webpage.