- 27 Jul 20
Colm O’Regan discusses his new Ann Devine novel, Handle With Care, which offers another funny and insightful portrait of rural Ireland.
Colm O’Regan’s latest novel may be exactly what every Irish person looking for home comforts needs in their life during a pandemic. Filled with hilarious characters and memorable lines, Ann Devine: Handle With Care offers a rich tapestry of rural life.
The story brings readers back to the fictional town of Kilsudgeon, where Ann’s family prove a constant handful: Rory has set his sights on a future as a local TD; her mother moves in after having a fall; and sister Ger is off “finding herself” in India. Meanwhile, Ann’s daughter Jennifer is caught up in a love triangle, and her teenage niece Freya is causing Gen-Z havoc. With the post office closing down and the locals up in arms, Ann is in the thick of things - right where she belongs.
Observation lies at the heart of comedy, and O’Regan clearly understands Irish society. First, though, we ask: how has the Covid crisis affected his writing?
“Sometimes you’re liberated when the worry you’ve been catastrophising in your head actually happens,” reflects Colm. “You find that you’re still grand, so you might make more of a leap in the future. I hadn’t meant to write a nostalgic book, but going to a restaurant or large gathering like the March For Truth; it’s a trip down memory lane to a time where we used to just go to events without thinking. It’s like this historic moment when we didn’t have to be two metres apart getting our hair cut.”
Handle With Care touches on themes of home and family – issues which have loomed large in people’s lives of late.
“I have this yearning to get back to Dripsey, the village where I’m from in Cork,” notes Colm. “Country people have an ache over the last three months to visit home. I use the family as a way of reflecting the world. People love the idea of a big, flawed family with all the generations muddling through a major problem. The weird thing is that we haven’t been able to process the strangeness of this moment together.”
Has Colm thought about setting an Ann Devine story in the time of the pandemic?
“There would be interesting logistical difficulties,” he considers. “Does Ann break lockdown? Does she tweak the five kilometre rule? There’ll be a million books written about the pandemic though, and you’d want to offer a fresh perspective.”
The various protagonists of Handle With Care display a real wit and tenacity – does O’Regan feel these are the primary characteristics of rural Ireland?
“What makes people part of the country is the lineage going way back,” he replies. “It’s not like we’re sitting around the fire telling tales of long ago, but it’s this casual connection to the area that seems to persist. Brand new villages don’t just crop up with zero history, there’s always that special connection.”
As might be expected, the tales of Ann Devine have provided succour to Irish emigrants experiencing homesickness.
“Sometimes it’s just the speech patterns that resonate with them,” he says. “You underestimate how important it is to hear somebody use the word ‘grand’ correctly if you’re living away from home. It’s not rose-tinted nostalgia, but sometimes words can transport you back to a place.”
Wrapped within its heartwarming story, Handle With Care has some surprisingly heavy themes, focusing on the nation’s struggle for social progress.
“I set it in the summer of 2018,” says Colm. “A lot happened – you had Repeal, the Papal visit, the Irish Presidential election, and the beginning of agitators trying to make people afraid of asylum seekers. I wanted to know what the local reaction would be to these events within small Irish towns like Kilsudgeon.
“What the book is trying to get across in terms of polarising themes, is representing the hugely important conversations that were had, in a way that conveys what most families are like. It’s massively important not to trivialise anyone’s experience in the process.”
Elsewhere, the Irish comedy scene has gone through a dark moment of late, with numerous women sharing disturbing stories of sexual harassment on the circuit. Colm expresses empathy for the women who shared their testimonies.
“I’d like to think if I ever saw anything negative or unsafe happening to women in the Irish comedy scene, I’d do something,” he says. “My initial reaction is to shut up and listen to the testimony. We have people who have carried a trauma, and have reached the stage where they physically have to type it out. It’s traumatic to share, regardless of the response, so we have to respect them.
“There’s also a feeling of sadness for women who have left comedy. The biggest step should be going on stage and facing the audience, so it’s incredibly sad that women have found that one of their biggest barriers is on the way to the stage. It has to stop.”
• Ann Devine: Handle With Care is out now, published by Transworld Ireland.