A Star Called Henry, Roddy Doyle (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) ISBN 0224060198

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2000), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 8

Academic historians tend to be sceptical and at times begrudging about historical novels, suspiciously dissecting the text for sloppy research methods and pouncing on convenient writer’s licence, but also secretly envious, knowing that the book will reach much larger audiences than anything their own often narrowly trained minds could produce. Before historians balk at the notion of a novelist tackling the sensitive area of the Irish revolution (1916-23), they should remember a definition of history by one of their own, Joe Lee, who wrote that

history is not simply what happened. That is merely chronology. History is what happened in the light of what might have happened and to understand what might have happened one has to have a historical sense about potential alternatives over a longer period.

There is no reason why this should not apply to fiction as well as academic writing, and this is the logic underpinning Roddy Doyle’s first historical novel as he systematically slaughters and satirises Irish nationalism’s sacred cows. What does Doyle bring to this period ? His central character, Henry Smart, is born into the squalor and deprivation of Dublin at the turn of the century, a city with the highest infant mortality rate in Europe, a metropolis in which he notes that ‘the family trees of the poor don’t grow to any heights’. Tearing around the streets of Dublin with his younger brother Victor he becomes ‘at home in the rags and scarcity, dirt and weakness’. Notions of faith and fatherland are derided from the beginning—the child Henry abusing King Edward VII on the streets of Dublin: ‘why had I told the King of Great Britain and Ireland to fuck off? Was I a tiny fenian? A Sinn Féiner? Not at all. I didn’t even know I was Irish’. For the eight-year-old cold and hungry Henry, value systems are born of deprivation and the example of a despicable father rather than inherited faith: ‘that was one good thing that came out of all the neglect. We’d no religion. We were free. We were blessed’.
By the time of the 1916 Rising, under the tutelage of James Connolly, fourteen-year-old Henry’s attitudes have crystallised—he ‘didn’t give a shite about Ireland’, but persuades Connolly to incorporate the section in the 1916 proclamation promising to cherish all the children of the nation equally in order to honour the death of his consumptive brother Victor some years previously. In the GPO he meets again with Miss O’Shea, his former temporary teacher with, like most of the female characters in the book, a voracious sexual appetite who robs him of his virginity as shells pound the building. Emerging unscathed from the Rising, he works on the docks and rides on the crest of the new militant republican wave and plenty more besides, finding himself in a Gaelic League hall where the Irish language is far from a priority: ‘I was riding the arse off the mother of one of 1916’s executed heroes. Her son’s portrait was wobbling on the opposite side of wall as the dancers cantered past him and his grieving mammy backed into me’. The notion that the putative republic would be classless is mocked: ‘Jesus I hated the volunteers. The poets and the farm boys, the fuckin’ shopkeepers. They detested the slummers, the accents and the dirt, the Dublinness of them’. Although still a teenager, belligerence, precociousness, arrogance and lack of an alternative ensure him a role in subsequent years as one of Michael Collins’ key men, killing agents of the Crown and training a new generation in the art of guerrilla warfare, getting them to roar ‘fuck you God’ as part of their initiation, as well as a reunion with the redoubtable Miss O’Shea who becomes his wife. Exhaustion, injury and a recognition that power corrupts lead to a disillusionment with the revolution and an awareness that he is merely a pawn in the bigoted and selfish pursuit of aggrandisement by others, in much the same way as his violent disabled father had been. Ivan Reynolds, one of the young men he trained, and a future TD, sums up the attitude that comes to the surface in most revolutions:

but here’s the truth now. All the best soldiers are businessmen. There had to be a reason for the killing and late nights and it wasn’t Ireland. Ireland’s an island, Captain, a dollop of muck. It’s about control of the island and that’s what the soldiering’s about, not the harps and martyrs and the freedom to swing a hurley.

By making the central character incredible and supernatural, it could be argued that Doyle has fallen between the two stools of devastating satire and serious social comment on the events which shaped independent Ireland, and this novel could have been much more powerful if the central characters were more human, or if Doyle had looked more closely at the available historical material. At an academic level, studies of the republican movement have became more sophisticated, with an emphasis on the importance of localities and analysis of the occupational and class backgrounds of activists, seen in such studies as David Fitzpatrick’s recently republished Politics and Irish life 1913-21, a study of the revolution in County Clare, and Joost Augusteijn’s From public defiance to guerrilla warfare: experience of ordinary volunteers in the Irish war of independence. Last year the recollections of Dublin volunteer Frank Henderson were published, revealing a narrative which was understated, sober and devoid of self-congratulation, demonstrating how family background and social and educational environment conditioned political beliefs, providing interesting insights into the city itself, the difficulty of squaring secret society membership with Catholicism, the challenge of sacrificing a civilian career to nationalist involvement and the manner in which civil war killings wracked conscience.
Doyle’s novel promises a subversive look behind the legends of Irish republicanism, but closer attention to detail instead of taking huge liberties with the truth would have led to less lazy assumptions about the nature of that republicanism and the diverse forces propelling it. He could have learned a valuable lesson from James Plunkett, who, in relation to Strumpet City and the manner in which James Larkin remains a background character, commented that ‘You can’t mix a huge heroic figure with the ordinary life. You can hint at him all right, like a shadow looking over things, but you can’t have him as true flesh and blood’. Nevertheless, the book quite rightly raises serious questions about the architects of this state who in their single-minded pursuit of political self-determination, had virtually nothing to say about social need and want. After more than seventy-five years of independence we should be ready to debate the issues raised in a book of this kind: a novel which is a fitting reminder of how self-satisfied, uncritical and politically apathetic we have become.

Diarmaid Ferriter

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