Liam Harte, ‘Tragic Trio Trapped by History: politics is character in family saga set against European upheaval, review of The Family on Paradise Pier (Fourth Estate), in The Irish Times , 9 April 2005 ), Weekend, p.12.
It is almost 20 years since Dermot Bolger complained about an “idea of nationhood which simply could not contain the Ireland of concrete and dual carriageway (which is as Irish as turf and boreens) that was a reality before our eyes”. Much of his literary output since then, as novelist, poet, playwright and editor, has been devoted to challenging the dominance of this nationalist aesthetic by writing from the perspective of various disenfranchised social groups: emigrants, the suburban working class, the Protestant minority. In the process he has become one of the leading sponsors of a liberal post-nationalism predicated on the need to accommodate the multiple strands of cultural difference and ideological dissent within the “imagined community” of Irishness.
The Family on Paradise Pier shows Bolger extending his critique of the concept of a historic Irish identity through an exploration of the conflicting forms of ideological affiliation and alienation that attended the birth of the State. The novel, his most sustained exercise in historical fiction to date, is loosely based on the life of Sheila Fitzgerald (1903-2000), freethinking daughter of the aristocratic Goold Verschoyle family, whom Bolger first met in 1977 when she was living in a caravan beside her former manor in Co Mayo. In his Authors Note, he reveals how he deliberately blurred reality to create “a parallel and condensed fictional universe” in which invented characters interact with historical personages such as Jim Gralton, Charlie Donnelly and Charles Haughey, who features as a Union Jack-burning firebrand outside the gates of Trinity College on VE Day.
Devotees of Bolger will realise that this is not the first time he has woven a fiction from Fitzgeralds life. She is clearly the prototype for the mysterious former mistress of a Big House in The Journey Home (1990), who offers Hano and Cáit sanctuary in her Co Sligo caravan. But whereas that novel invites us to read her metaphorically as a renovated version of Cathleen Ni Houlihan, here she is Eva, a flesh-and-blood woman struggling to live a simple, spiritual life governed by “a God unowned by priests or ministers”.
The tripartite narrative traces the fortunes of Eva and her brothers, Art and Brendan, through a series of interlinked vignettes covering the years 1915 to 1946. The idealistic Art embraces Marxism, moves to Moscow and marries a Russian, before being sent back to Ireland to foment a workersrevolution, imagining “a future where his son would grow up with Irish cheekbones and a Russian accent, the citizen of a new world, cleansed of the sins of his ancestors”. Brendan becomes a communist also and finds himself fighting fascism in Barcelona in 1936, until kidnapped by Soviet agents and sent, to the gulags. Meanwhile, Eva herself, who, is portrayed as a dreamer and a frustrated artist, unhappily marries the feckless Freddie Fitzgerald, from whom she eventually becomes estranged.
As the three siblings lives become ever more troubled and fragmented, paradisal moments from their Co Donegal childhood cohere into a sustaining vision of familial love and togetherness. The lost pastoral idyll, a locus of moral value, is a familiar Bolger trope, which is here inflected with a tinge of religious exoticism in the form of Mrs Ffrench, a Bahaite. Her Dunkineely parties, to which local children of all creeds are invited, act as a symbolic counterpoint to the slaughter at the Somme and the “shocking fiasco” being played out in Dublin, where “some bizarre class of Republic had been proclaimed by a handful of desperadoes”.
While, ideologically, the novel resists the notion that history is destiny, it endorses the view that politics is character, and herein lies its central weakness. Bolgers decision to set his family saga against a swirling canvas of Europe-wide social and political upheaval obliges him to anchor the action in specific times and places throughout. Consequently, historical exposition often gets in the way of subtle characterisation and the dialogue strains under a dense mass of allusions. Only when Bolgers kaleidoscopic lens settles on a single setting for a concentrated period – as happens in Part Two, set in Co May in 1936 - do characters transcend their typicality and grow in intimacy as individuals with complex interior lives. In such moments The Family on Paradise Pier fulfils its ambituious aim of imaginatively recreating defining tensions and tragedies of a family, and a nation, in flux.
[Liam Harte is lecturer in Irish and Modern Literature Literature at the University of Manchester .]