"Growing up in America, its terrain always seemed wild and anonymous, where you were always exploring but never lingering, and where in wandering, you might get lost. In Ireland, land was something you knew, touched and felt belonged to you, and into which one would one day melt away."
J. P. Donleavy is the protagonist, Ireland the antagonist. It is a love story that, I think, never ends for anyone who cares, like this, about a place.
A popular contemporary Irish song ("Dublin in the Dear Old Days") laments the rapid transformation of Dublin from a town to a large city. Rapid it has been. And Donleavy grieves for the passing of much that was good about the old.
Ireland, and Dublin in particular, never went through an industrial revolution but recently jumped to microchip and light manufacturing. The farriers are gone, but so is much of what was not so good. This includes what Donleavy describes as "the crut": a conditioned proclivity of the Irish masses toward intolerance of anything remotely salacious or irreverent.
Donleavy's new book is an apparently autobiographical account of what it was like to be a Trinity College student in the years following World War II. Sebastian Dangerfield, protagonist of "The Ginger Man," can be revisited in the author's account of articulate Fenian reprobates who frequent a Dublin abode lasciviously called the Charnel Chambers. Parts of the account might be described as an earlier-day Animal House, done with Gaelic flair. Its fighting and fornicating scenes are brought off with a wonderfully heightened metaphor and paradoxically non-pornographic Irish wit.
Donleavy remembers drinking with Brendan Behan in a coastal pub south of Dublin. Behan took his clothes off, jumped into the water, then rolled back and waved his penis at a passing train. Chastized for his actions, Behan retorted, "If I had an erection, you could say I was being provocative, but the fact that I was in the natural state of me own flaccidity, sure what bloody harm is it to wave me flag of procreation and stimulate the conversation among the passengers. And most of them wouldn't know what I was wagglin' in my hand a'tall."
After seven years in Ireland, Donleavy returned to America, the land of his birth, because "although the Irish are a highly disobedient race . . . a smaller and meaner spirited Ireland with its narrow-minded, bigoted ways of banning books and films" just got to him. But Donleavy found that although America had its humanity and generosity, it also had its bland bleak conformity. A place with "Black Widow spiders in the shadow, copperhead snakes in the grass, and sharks just off the shore."
He returned to where "the breezes blew soft and moist and warm and were sometimes stained with sun. With peace so wild for wishing where all is told and telling."
Alas, "the crut" reared its blind head again when, after three performances in Dublin, "The Ginger Man" did not survive. "The crut," encouraged by Maynooth Monastery, had for the first time in Irish history stopped a play playing on the stage. After the forced closing, Irish writer Patrick Kavanaugh put the perennial "crut" cry in his own words: "As a Catholic and an Irishman and a f------ eegit, I object." Richard Harris, as Irish as anybody, proclaimed he would continue to play the lead role on top of an orange crate in the middle of O'Connell Street Bridge and break the jaw of anyone who objected.
Donleavy, disgusted, made his "final departure" once more, this time for England. That was in the very early '60s. He lived there until nearly 15 years later, when Ireland passed a law exempting all artistic earnings from tax. This "emerald green nation, the first in the history of nations, legislating to the exclusive benefit of artists" had now a new appeal.
He returned to find "a land which has undergone a sweeping revolution greater than any that has ever occurred to any people on earth. It may be that freedom of speech and expression is here to stay." Perhaps a Celtic overstatement, but through regular periodic observations since 1966, I would not take issue with the author's statement.
Donleavy ends, where he began, with a note to his love, his land,
"Where the brooding
Their veils of rain
To hide of her sins
And keep her safe in her graces."