A melting pot of fiction from Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry’s book combines everything from Portugese architecture to Traveller cant, he tells Richard Fitzpatrick

A melting pot of fiction from Kevin Barry

ONE of the highlights of next week’s Kinsale Arts Festival is the presence of Kevin Barry on the bill. The City of Bohane author is a natural and entertaining speaker. Literary awards keep tumbling his way.

Barry came to our attention by scooping the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2007 for his short story collection, There Are Little Kingdoms. Last year, he won the world’s richest prize for a short story, while a few weeks ago he beat off the likes of Haruki Murakami and Michel Houellebecq to win the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his debut novel.

The “big chunk of change”, the €100,000 he pocketed for the IMPAC award, gives him a bit of breathing space to complete his second novel, which is at draft stage. At the moment, he’s “putting some manners on it”, he says. The Limerick-born writer is a rare one from his trade who can survive without supplementing his income by other means.

“I’m lucky that I can get by from writing,” he says. “It’s because I’ve been writing film scripts as well for pitches that are in development. That’s cash flow basically. I don’t teach or do other things. I’m in a privileged position to be able to not leave the house. Instead I can stay in the room and make stuff up.”

The make-believe in City of Bohane — which, incidentally, Barry has also fashioned into a film script — is riotous. He churns out the kind of dialogue that makes you want to read out loud to yourself to properly capture the music of its rhythms. He says the talk in Bohane is a composite of three tongues.

“The language in the novel comes from working-class speech in Limerick and Cork — which has almost never shown up in Irish literature before, which is weird — with a bit of traveller cant and a few little made-up bits thrown in as well.”

City of Bohane is set in a decrepit west of Ireland city in 2053, which is overrun with “skinpoppers, inebriates and hoor-botherers” and poor-sighted “bog-spawn” police that log mobster hits in the suicide files.

The Nation Beyond, or the NB in local vernacular, pays little heed to the city’s disorder, although Bohane’s citizens occasionally fret over what the Sweet Baba Jay makes of their licentious ways. Its streets have a dank, cavernous, un-Irish feel to them.

“There is a kind of Mediterranean and western seaboard of Europe influence on the west coast of Ireland, which goes back centuries. I was imagining Bohane with that as a very pronounced influence,” says Barry. “It’s a dark, rundown, almost Mediterranean port town. A lot of the physical geography in the book is basically stolen from Porto — I was in Porto on holiday when I started writing it — almost as if a Mediterranean country had floated up a few hundred miles. It’s just playing. Mostly what I was trying to do in writing the book was to entertain myself.”

City of Bohane is a gangland drama, with “a rum ol’ love mess” underpinning it. The city is Logan Hartnett’s fiefdom. He has run it for 25 years, but comes under pressure when a feud breaks out between his crew and the families of the Northside Rises.

He enlists the sand-pikies — at a grave cost — as backup. The sand-pikies live out on the dunes outside the city. They marry at 14 years of age, enjoy “the maudlin scrape of a fiddle” and carry their tools of battle (hatchets, iron bars, blackthorn sticks soaked in brine, etc) “with a lovely insouciance”.

Trouble compounds for Harnett when his old nemesis, the Gant Broderick, re-surfaces. The Gant used to have “the runnins” of Bohane before Harnett; more pertinently he used to do a line with Harnett’s missus, Macu, or Immaculata as she was christened.

A slugger, and smart “as a hatful of snakes”, the Gant’s downfall is that he’s a sentimental old codger. Macu is “a prize squaw”. Like the other two women in City of Bohane — Harnett’s 89-year-old mother and Jenni Ching, a 17-year-old lieutenant of the Hartnett Fancy gang — she is, however, steelier in her emotions then the two men who vie for her affections.

“Too little has been said, actually, about living in windy places,” notes the narrator early on in City of Bohane. “When a wind blows in such ferocious gusts as the Big Nothin’ hardwind, and when it blows 49 weeks out of the year, the effect is not physical only but philosophical. It is difficult to keep a firm hold of one’s consciousness in such a wind. The mind is walloped from its train of thought by the constant assaults of wind. The result is a skittish, temperamental people with a tendency towards odd turns of logic.”

The observation possibly holds for the real, windswept island of Ireland and its people. Barry, who lives in an old, converted RIC barracks in south Sligo, entertains the notion.

“People have sort of a natural grimace from living in these places,” he says. “You’d hear lots of lore. Up around where I live in Sligo, you hear about people living up in hills being ‘different’ and ‘odd’ compared to people who live down on the plain. There’s definitely something in it. Weather sounds like a pat thing or too easy a thing to pin personalities, but the fact that we live on a wet rock with 300-odd days of rain a year isn’t insignificant on personalities. It makes us people who badly need stories, who need to invent stuff or else we’d go nuts.”

*Kevin Barry will do a reading at 8pm, Thursday, Jul 11, at The Lord Kingsale. *kinsaleartsfestival.com

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