- 26 Sep 22
Multi award-winning author Donal Ryan is back with his latest offering, The Queen Of Dirt Island, a characteristically powerful account of the lives of several generations of women from the same Nenagh family. Photography: Miguel Ruiz.
Leavened with a wonderful sense of humour, Donal Ryan’s latest novel, The Queen Of Dirt Island, movingly recounts the ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies of Nenagh family the Aylwards, with a particular focus on young mother Eileen, her daughter Saoirse and Saoirse’s grandmother, known as Nana.
What’s more, the story is primarily told through Saoirse’s eyes, and does a remarkable job of capturing a child coming into consciousness and growing older. But when Hot Press previously spoke to Ryan – himself a Nenagh native – in the dog days of lockdown at the end of 2020, he said his next book was going to focus a man recounting his life in the present day.
However, a change in plan meant Ryan ended up turning to The Queen Of Dirt Island instead.
“It’s a sorry story,” reflects the softly-spoken Ryan of his planned book, in a quiet corner of Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Hotel. “That’s how confident I was of that book, and how misguided I was – I just presumed that was my next novel. But at that point, neither my editor or my publisher had seen it! (laughs). It turns out it wasn’t the book I thought. In fairness, it just wasn’t really viable to go on bookshelves at the time, it needed more work than I realised.
“So then this book occurred to me. It really did feel like a favour from the universe, to be honest, cos I was sitting there going, ‘Jesus, what am I gonna do?’ That other book needed so much work, and it was also a long novel. Because it was a story of a man from his birth to the day of his death, I felt an obligation towards the character. It was a fictional life, but it was still a life that would become real for people. So I said I’d leave it and try something totally different.”
Thus arrived The Queen Of Dirt Island.
“I just heard a whisper of this female voice, and I had a vision of this house with these women in it,” explains Ryan. “It was very easy to write and I did it very quickly. I’d had an idea that, at some stage, I’d write a story where Josh Elmwood [a character from previous Ryan novel Strange Flowers] and Honey Bartlett were back in Ireland – some kind of continuation of their story. It ended up not being quite about them, but they do feature fairly prominently in it. That was part of the vision, that there’d be some resolution of their story.
“I really missed some other characters I’d written too, who also pop up in the book. I wanted to have them back in my life for a while. Funnily enough, the same thing has happened now with the main characters in The Queen Of Dirt Island, Saoirse, Eileen and Nana. I’m writing a sequel although I shouldn’t say much about it, I’m going off half-cocked again! It might not work out, but I’ve a feeling it will.”
Clearly, Ryan was able to write the novel with remarkable speed.
“I remember hearing Kevin Power talking a few years ago,” says Ryan. “I don’t know if was at some live event, or in some article he wrote, but he reckons that a lot of writers get one 12-week novel in their career. Literally, you get a good draft written in about that time. I also teach in the University of Limerick, and a few years ago one of my favourite writers, Mary Costello, came down. She said the same thing about a novel she wrote.
“It was as if every single experience she had was somehow the universe feeding into her novel. I mean, she knows that’s not really true, but it just felt that way. Things just fell into place for her and the ideas came so easily – every single thing she saw in the street was something she could use for her novel.”
The Queen Of Dirt Island tells its story in a strong rural Irish voice, which also adds to the novel’s considerable humour. With perhaps only Pat McCabe trafficking in a similar style among contemporary Irish authors, I wonder if it’s an under-represented voice in homegrown literature?
“Well, in one sense, you could say it’s been done and done,” considers Donal. “The great exponent of it, of course, was John B. Keane. Marina Carr has done it as well, some of her plays have a fabulous rural Irish voice. But maybe, you could say the kinds of characters in my books don’t feature prominently in literature. That humour is nothing to do with me – that’s just how funny my mum and her mum were. That’s just the way they carried on, it was always a howl.
“There always was that thing where, if someone from outside saw them, you’d think they were having a blazing row. But really, they’re just having an ordinary conversation. It sounds like this high-pitched aggressive thing, but for them… I hate the word ‘banter’, but that’s what it is really.”
Although the novel to some extent echoes Ryan’s own Tipperary upbringing, pop culture doesn’t really surface in the world of The Queen Of Dirt Island. I wonder what kind of kid Ryan was – did he enjoy music, movies, sport?
“Well, we were mad into hurling like every Tipperary family,” he replies. “Also, our house was always full of books. My parents didn’t have much money, so they used to buy books on the cheap in jumble sales and so on. Later on, when they had more disposable income and we’d a bigger house, they built a small library at the front.
Although it became a TV room pretty quickly, because the kids came along and took it over! It sounds very middle class to have a library, but it was just a small room where they kept their books.”
With Donal having earlier mentioned being a Tipp hurling fan, I suggest to him that we’re still waiting for someone to write the great GAA novel.
“I’ve said it before, it’s been done by Tadhg Coakley,” says Donal. “He wrote a book called The First Sunday In September, a polyphonic novel centred around the All Ireland final, it’s fantastic. Recently, he also wrote a book about our relationship with sport, which is great too.”
Ever since following the Kildare footballers’ journey to the All Ireland final in 1998 – during a hedonistic summer soundtracked by Blur, Nirvana and the Pulp Fiction soundtrack – I was convinced GAA culture would have an international crossover moment. I thought it might come with an author chronicling the fans’ lives, in much the way Irvine Welsh wrote about Hibs supporters over the years.
When the moment did eventually arrive, it came from a somewhat expected source: Paul Mescal’s rise to international stardom on the back of Normal People imbued the GAA with an unprecedented hipness. Suddenly, the look of the average Lilywhite fan in high summer – sunglasses, Adidas tracksuit top and Kildare jersey – was all over GQ, Esquire and the tabloids. Mescal’s girlfriend, Phoebe Bridgers, was pictured in O’Neills shorts. We were through the looking glass.
Ironically, I wasn’t a particularly big fan of Normal People, but Mescal’s defining of millennial coolness – solidified by his memorable appearance in the video for the Rolling Stones’ ‘Starlet’ – was arguably the cultural triumph of 2020.
“Paul Mescal is a real all-rounder, isn’t he?” chuckles Donal. “I thought Normal People was great. I was kind of reluctant at the start, because if you really admire a book, you’re always wary of seeing an adaptation, in case it’s ruined. But I think they did it really well, it was fantastic. Lenny Abrahamson is a genius.”
• The Queen Of Dirt Island is out now, published by Transworld. Read our verdict here.
Read more book interviews and culture in the new issue of Hot Press.
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- 22 Sep 22
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