Dermot Bolger's latest book, The Family on Paradise Pier, changed title several times in the four and a half years it took him to write it. For a long time it was called The Former People. The term was used by Stalin to describe those who refused to take part in the Revolution, served no useful purpose and therefore must cease to exist. The convenient airbrushing out of events and people who do not fit neatly in to the accepted canon is a widespread malaise. Bolger has throughout his career resisted it by writing about aspects of Irish reality which many would rather forget. In doing so, he has contributed to the construction of an alternative, and much richer, version of Ireland's recent past.
But while it is easy to see how others got it wrong, perhaps a more interesting question is: what do you do if you really want to see the whole picture? Is it even possible?
Bolger's answer is that “if you really want to understand the past, it means you do not have heroes and villains; you remember the complexities of a decade and try not to be wise after the event. The challenge for the novelist is to make your characters human; get to the engine of how they actually work and bring them alive within that period”.
Dermot Bolger was born in Dublin in 1959, founded the Raven Arts Press while still a schoolboy and then a factory hand in 1977, and since then has been a major force in Irish writing as a playwright, novelist, poet and editor. Much of his work has been dedicated to the portrayal of contemporary Irish life.
In his new book he is ambitious enough to want to bring alive not just Ireland but Europe in the years between 1915 and 1946. In a series of short, exact tableaus, like frozen moments in time, he forges together a broad description of one real Irish family, the Goold Verschoyles, and through them, of the first half of the century.
The Goold Verschoyles are, at the start of the book and of the century, a rich protestant family from a Big House in an idyllic (paradise?) Donegal. They are open-minded, loving and foster artistic interests. They have forgotten that their fortunes were founded on the ownership of slum tenements in Dublin. The book quickly zooms in on three of the children: Eva, Brendan and Art. Soon the reality of the Great War is being felt. Their neighbour, an officer in the British navy, returns home from Russia with a new religion: soviet communism. The two boys become converts and eventually turn their backs on their family and class. The times they live in are shaking the foundations of both. The first world war, closely followed by the war of independence, and the rise of Irish nationalism is pulling the rug from under the protestant population. By 1922, power that for so long had been the privelege of the protestant Anglo-Irish had been largely transferred to the catholic Irish. Now, with their young men dead in the trenches of the empire, their houses burnt, with little understanding of those who live around them; to be a protestant is to be ‘former people’. The Goold Verschoyles are former people, of a former world– and as their world collapse they try, through art and politics, to create another.
The book is based on the true story of their lives, as told by Eva, whose real name was Sheila Fitzgerald. How exactly did Bolger come to write it?
“I knew Sheila very well. I met her when I was a young man and she was extraordinary; her life was extraordinary. She was always true to the diamond that was herself. My first aim was to record something of this remarkable woman who inspired so many, including me. I made tapes with her in 1992 about her life with a view to writing a book. Then when I came to write it, I found that to understand her life I needed to understand the 20th century. Sheila died in the year 2000, which was not just the end of a century but also the end of a millennium, and that also influenced my wish to examine, and to reimagine, the century. I was not the only one, many writers had similar ideas – I met Roddy Doyle when I was working on it and found that he was doing something similar, writing a A Star called Henry at the time “.
But the book is not just about Sheila/Eva – her story seems more like a tool to recapture a whole era?
“The book changed several times as I was writing it. In imaging her life I had to build on the canvas of what was going on in the world around her. I found that to tell her story I had to also tell that of her family. I did not, as some people seem to think, invent the lives of Art and Brendan in order to write about Russia and Spain – it was the other way around. These were the remarkable events this family actually got caught up in; this happened to them. And as the story of Eva becomes the story of her family, in order to understand their lives I had to broaden the scope of the book; including events like the Russian revolution.”
But even if the characters and events are real, this book is not a biography and Bolger no historian. He brings us in to the hearts and minds of the people in the Goold Verschoyle family, to the engine of what they are.