PAT MCCABE’S early career as a teacher informed his novel, The Dead School, published in 1995, which has been adapted for the stage.
The writer, born 60 years ago in Clones, Co Monaghan, has chronicled the tumultuous transition from a Church- and State-dominated society to modern Ireland. Two male teachers personify the chasm. Nationalism and religion clash with individualism.
McCabe, who trained as a primary school teacher at St Patrick’s College, in Dublin, says there were elements of both teachers in him. There’s the old-school Raphael, who employs Malachy, fresh out of training college. Malachy is an idealistic young graduate, for whom rote learning and piety are anathema. The play can be summed up as the pathology of cultural transition in Ireland.
“It’s a very Irish story,” says McCabe. “I don’t think you could write about English school teachers in the same way.”
The setting is almost like an open-air lunatic asylum. “I started writing it in 1992. The characters, in some ways, come from my own experience and are composites of people I’ve met. Raphael is a classic example of a now almost-extinct species (the male primary school teacher.) These days, something like 95% of primary school teachers are female. You wouldn’t have seen that coming. The drama is condensed into a couple of years, but the back stories go back to the foundation of the State.”
McCabe’s dark writing is ‘bog Gothic’, rooted far away from the bright lights of the city. “A journalist called it that. In a way, I don’t quite understand it. My writing is a bit Gothic, I suppose. But ‘bog’ I don’t quite get. I’m not rural. I’m more small-town urban. ‘Bog’ is almost derisory. It’s like a metropolitan putdown. It makes value judgments on what I’ve done and it puts down people who are as entitled to complexity as you are.”
McCabe taught children with special needs in London. It was worthwhile helping to socialise and educate children who had autism, but McCabe didn’t want to be a teacher for life.
“I was writing back then. I wasn’t much good and I didn’t have much success. I was very frustrated,” he says. “The world of writing is extraordinary now. Everyone wants to be a writer. Go into Waterstones and you’ll see writing kits. It’s seen as a glamorous career choice, whereas, in my time, people saw writers as bowsies, like the way Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan were seen.
“There’s some great writers now, coming through, both male and female. Writing is a lot different to what it used to be. In the past, it was linked into the problems the country had with Catholicism, republicanism, and ideology. Now, it’s inspirational literature. It’s what lifts your heart. So, that’s me out of the game,” half-jokes the prolific author, best known for the Booker-nominated The Butcher Boy (1992), which was made into a film directed by Neil Jordan.
But despite the poor regard in which Irish writers used to be held, McCabe says there was a sneaking regard for scholarship. “That’s gone now. If you’re not successful, who wants to know?”
The Dead School, says McCabe, appeals to audiences young and old. “There’s a couple of versions of the play going around. I initially did it with Joe O’Byrne, in Galway, many years ago. Andrew Flynn, who’s directing it for Decadent Theatre Company, has another version, based on my script. It’s a great version of it altogether.”
Set in a classroom, the play “bursts asunder into the imagination and into different parts of history. But it’s cohesive. That’s what’s great about it. It’s not like a workshop production.”
McCabe is also working on a collaborative play with Corcadorca Theatre Company and with composer, Mel Mercier, which will be staged at Elizabeth Fort, off Cork’s Barrack Street, as part of the city’s Midsummer Festival. The working title of the play is Sacrifice at Easter and is a response to the 1916 centenary.
“I’ve been up at Elizabeth Fort for the past week, just getting the feel of it. I’ve never done site-specific theatre before, so I’m following Pat Kiernan’s lead, having worked with him before.
“It’s going to have almost a psychedelic procession element to it, with intimate scenes within that. It will be more an impressionistic experience than a play, but there will be an identifiable narrative.
“Elizabeth Fort’s history is astounding and it has a great view of Cork. You get the sense of the end of the Gaelic order, the beginning of the military, and then, in no time, the post-industrial age.”
Site-specific theatre interests McCabe. “Anything new excites me and Corcadorca are so enthusiastic and experienced. I’ve always got something to learn from them,” he says. The collaborative process appeals to McCabe, as an antidote to the solitariness of novel writing.
"McCabe is the man." Irish Times— Decadent Theatre (@DecadentTheatre) February 25, 2016
"A nasty triumph." Irish Ind
★★★★ Sunday Times
"Bold and bracing." Irish Examiner https://t.co/1XjGuvPdBF
“Writing novels make me feel sort of unwell, just sitting in a room, typing it and sending it off to the publishers, who take an age to get back. ‘What the hell am I doing this for, when I could be working with people of the calibre of Pat’? The stakes are really high with Corcadorca. Their life depends on what they’re doing,” says McCabe.
He still writes novels, but at a different pace now. “I don’t want to do the cycle of (publicity) interviews. I have no idea of myself as a public persona that has anything to offer other than writing books. I have no advice to give anybody. I’m as muddled as the next person. But, sometimes, that’s all right.
“I’ve been working on various bits of prose for a long time, but I don’t know what sort of an audience I’d have, because, in a way, the world of small towns that I write about — and I’m not finished with it — is dying. I don’t know if many people are interested or recognise it.”
Despite his doubts, McCabe sounds like a writer with plenty more to say.