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Lisa McInerney: Glorious Heresies

Lisa McInerney’s first writing was a blog called the Arse End of Ireland. It described life on a council estate in Galway. Sadly, this blog has now been deleted in its entirety, so we cannot compare it with this book. However, it seems highly likely that the blog influenced this novel, as the novel clearly describes the arse end of Ireland, even if it is in Cork, rather than in Galway. There are few if any redeeming characters in this book. They are drunks, drug addicts, drug dealers, abusers, rapists, prostitutes, murderers (at least three of the main characters commit a murder in this book), arsonists (one actual and two potential in this book), petty criminals and the like. While we might feel sympathy for one or two of them, given that they have turned out the way they do because of circumstances, such as a lousy childhood, an abusive parent, the economic situation in Ireland, lack of education and lack of opportunity, it is difficult to find any of then even vaguely endearing, even the religious do-gooders (of which there are relatively few). Of course, such people and worse can be found in many other countries. However, it is clear that, for McInerney, Ireland is, as she says, well and truly banjaxed.

The novel follows the lives of a group of people living in Cork and, presumably, the arse end of Cork. The plot revolves around an accidental murder, which, eventually, one way or the other, involves virtually all the main characters, directly or indirectly. We first meet Maureen Phelan when she had just killed a man. He had broken into her flat, and she smashed him on the head with a heavy religious object and killed him. Maureen had been brought up in a fairly good family but had got pregnant when fairly young. The child had been brought up by her parents, while she had been shipped off to London. Many years later, the child, Jimmy, now a professional gangster, thug, pimp and murderer, had tracked her down and brought her back to Cork. He had installed her in a flat (which had previously been a brothel) and that was where she was living when the man broke into her flat. Though we do not know it till later, we have already met the man, a petty drug dealer and criminal, who is living with perhaps the most sympathetic character in the book, Georgie, a prostitute. Maureen phones Jimmy to get him to deal with the problem, which he does.

The man he uses is Tony Cusack, widower (his wife was killed in a drunk driving accident), father of six, drunk and petty criminal. Cusack helps dispose of the body but Tony recognises the victim and inadvertently later mentions the name to Maureen, who mentions it, inadvertently, so someone else so, very soon, to Jimmy’s annoyance, people know about it and he cannot have that, so they have to be dealt with. The whole business drags in Ryan, Tony’s eldest son, who is a victim of his father’s regular abuse and who drops out of school to become a drug dealer, before getting caught and sent to prison; Tara Duane, former prostitute, next door neighbour of the Cusacks, drug user, gossip and occasional helper of the fellow fallen; Georgie, the prostitute, who used to work in what is now Maureen’s flat and was in love with the murdered man, as well as various others, such as Tony Cusack’s other children, the religious group who try to help Georgie (and others) and Jimmy’s various criminal associates.

However, on the other hand, many of the main characters, despite their wicked ways, have some small redeeming feature. Jimmy Phelan, brought up by his grandparents and not knowing his mother, tracks her down and brings her back to Ireland and installs her in a flat. When she behaves badly, which is frequently, he might shout and scream at her, but he more or less goes along with her behaviour and helps her out of difficulties. Maureen, his mother, might not be a good mother but she shows some concern for the younger people in difficulty, particularly Georgie and Ryan. Ryan is a drug dealer and user but he loves Karine and, despite the ups and downs of their relationship, remains faithful to her throughout the book and clearly cares for her. He was abused by his father when young but, as a young man, he acts to protect his father. Georgie, the prostitute who always seem lost, shows a lot of concern for the memory of her lost and murdered lover. When she gets pregnant by another man and the child is taken from her, as she is an unfit mother, she is determined, for the rest of the book, to earn enough money to get her daughter back.

Novels about the utter dregs of society are certainly not new. Dickens and Dostoevsky, for example, made a living out of the topic. But even they had one or two redeeming characters in their books. There is not one redeeming character in this book, no-one we can admire, identify with or, I suspect, even think that that could have been me if circumstances were different. Of course, that is McInerney’s point. Ireland is, in her view, completely banjaxed. She does not attribute blame. There is little about the politicians or the bankers who have run Ireland into the ground. Indeed, the only characters who have survived the economic fallout are Jimmy Phelan, who has done it by dealing drugs and pimping, and Dan Kane, another drug dealer. This is simply a portrait of the victims, those that are left in the arse end of Ireland.

I cannot say that I enjoyed this book, but then it is not a book to enjoy but, rather, to endure. I also cannot say how accurate a portrait of contemporary Ireland or contemporary Cork it is, as I have not visited the country since the economic recession, though, like many people, I suppose, I retain fond memories of a somewhat romanticised Ireland. McInerney has received much praise for the book, both in the Irish press and elsewhere and won the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction for it. The Chair of the Judges said of it that it was a a superbly original, compassionate novel that delivers insights into the very darkest of lives through humour and skilful storytelling. I respectfully disagree. I found little compassion, the humour was mainly scatological and, while showing the arse end of Ireland might be considered an insight, I am not sure that this is necessarily something to praise.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by John Murray