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The village idiot who defines home truths to ‘sane society’ around him

The Gamal
Bloomsbury €13.99

Humiliation and disappointment, historically, in Ireland, are things that would have been felt by large portions of the population down through the ages. And I guess that feeds into our drinking culture.

An idea can often start with a single word. But choosing your words carefully, and understanding their history, is usually the difference between mediocrity and brilliance.

When I begin my conversation with Ciáran Collins, he explains how his fascination with etymology led him deep into the well of creativity.

"There are two dictionaries that give a definition of the Irish word Gamal. The modern one translates the word as idiot. But the less PC definition from the 1940s, defines it as: a stupid looking fellow. It’s a very common word in Gaeltacht areas in the West of Ireland, and certainly in West Cork. Gamalóg would be the more well known form of the word, but I just preferred the sound of the word Gamal," says Collins.

Twenty-five year-old Charlie McCarthy, known to most people in the town of Ballyronan as the Gamal, is the narrator and central protagonist of Collins’ eponymous debut novel.

Since childhood, Charlie has suffered from Oppositional Defiant Disorder. In the years since he has been sent to a number of doctors. They have filled him with a variety of drugs hoping that they can somehow stabilise his mind.

When Charlie recalls happier times in his life, he thinks of his two friends, Sinéad and James: the only people in the world who truly understood him. But it’s been five years since he has seen them.

Charlie suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The story he thus narrates: is a therapy exercise he must write for Dr Quinn, his physiatrist. In this process we learn how a drama unfolded between Sinéad, James, and a sinister outside group.

Through a number of different court scenes that Charlie recalls to the reader, the macabre forces at work in this small rural village in West Cork are revealed.

Collins’ protagonist follows in the footsteps of other maverick literary heroes from modern literary classics — such as Holden Caulfield, Randle McMurphy, and Francie Brady — who fail to conform to what one might call "normal society".

"Charlie is an outsider, and that idea is attractive when you are a writer," says Collins. "We like having in our society what we might term an idiot, or a fool, because it makes us feel better about ourselves: essentially because it means we are not the fool in the group. Human beings tend to feel good about themselves when laughing or ridiculing others."

"I also like the idea of someone who might even be deemed as a danger to society, because they are different. With Charlie, everybody thinks that he is the village idiot, so nobody during the [key] events [in the novel] ever sees him as a threat, or a witness to what is going on."

"But of course he is. Charlie doesn’t have an allegiance to anything: be it family, or even how he is looked at [in society]. We all want people to respect us. But Charlie has given up that ghost from the earliest of times.

"Having a character like that is very liberating as an author."

Collins was born and raised in Innishannon and he lives in Kinsale. He teaches both Irish and English in Hamilton High School in Bandon. His professional discipline has given him a deep understanding of the complex cadences particular to Hiberno English, he says.

"I would often come across these different phrases in class when I am teaching: terms we would have in English that are direct translations from the Gaelic. There is a great poetry in everyday language like this. Even the wit of ordinary pub talk can be very entertaining as well.

"It’s something that Irish writers are not afraid to cherish, and it’s nice to be part of that tradition. We’re not attempting to be like anybody else in this regard. I like the way Irish authors feel very independent with their use of language. They have a bit of a swagger about them.

"This is something that the Irish are not usually known for. I mean we are renowned for drinking, and for years we were renowned for violence, but I think that we do have a swagger when it comes to literature."

Like many Irish novels and short stories, Collins uses the public house as a milieu for where much of the social activity takes place.

As Charlie has a scrupulous eye for detail, the reader is given a very accurate account of how alcohol affects different people within the community of Ballyronan.

Collins cites the classic tragic form as one of his biggest literary influences. But when it comes to the subject matter of the demon drink, he says he needs neither imagination, nor literature, to help him document the damage alcohol does in our society.

"Drink is a social crutch, and in this country we do seem to need it more than in most other places. What we are known for in Ireland is the craic.

"But behind that is an enormous national tragedy: in terms of how alcohol affects people and their families. It creates limitations in people’s lives. I really do think a lot of the time people drink out of the disappointment in their lives."

"Obviously that is not exclusive to Ireland, but it’s certainly more alive here. Humiliation and disappointment, historically, in Ireland, are things that would have been felt by large portions of the population down through the ages. And I guess that feeds into our drinking culture."

It’s with a Shakespearean element of irony that Collins’ main narrator — who is ostensibly the village idiot — actually ends up defining a number of home truths to the so-called sane society he doesn’t fit the parameters of.

It’s only when we begin to challenge the semantics of terms that continue to uphold the conventions of social order, that we can attempt to try and understand both the words, and the people, which shape the communities we are all supposedly a part of, says Collins.