Wednesday, August 1, 2012
A CLASSIC MODERN NOVEL FROM FERDIA MAC ANNA
This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 23, Number 8 (August 2012), 13.
Understandably, a casual reader of Ferdia Mac Anna’s recently reissued first novel, The Last of the High Kings, might think of it in Joycean terms. Originally published in 1991, this novel of youthful development seems, on the surface, to share some essential thematic territory with the spirit of non serviam articulated famously by James Joyce’s quasi-autobiographical character Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church.”
Yet, even aside from the fact that he is not cast in the role of “the artist”—that is, in the mold of the self-consciously sensitive individual committed, in his struggle against the values of a repressive society, to deploying the Joycean strategy of “silence, exile and cunning”—Mac Anna’s protagonist Frankie Griffin emerges as much more, or at least much other, than a late-twentieth century variation on Joyce’s Stephen. Set in the north-of-Dublin community of Howth in the summer of 1977, Mac Anna’s novel is ultimately very much a product of its own place and time and is infused with a comic spirit that distances it both tonally and stylistically from Joyce’s signature ironic treatment of his Dublin-centered creation.
Not unusually for a first novel (and in that regard not unlike Joyce’s Portrait), The Last of the High Kings is also infused with many details drawn from the author’s own life. As Mac Anna registers his childhood and his adolescence in The Last of the Bald Heads, his memoir published in 2004, these details include not only Howth as setting but also essential elements that propel the narrative of the novel: a domineering and eccentric mother, a frequently absent father, a male youth longing for individual identity in a community and culture (social, scholastic, political) demanding blind conformity to established codes of conduct. As Mac Anna acknowledges in recounting the family’s move from Killiney to Howth, even the novel’s title derives from a refrain that he endured throughout his growing-up years: “On the first day, the local kids came around to check us out. ‘Where are you from?’ one asked. ‘We come from the High Kings of Ireland,’ I replied, repeating what Mother had told me to say. The kids were not impressed. A girl said that she was going to ask around about us. She reckoned we were from Cabra.”
In fact, one of the central tensions of the novel involves Frankie’s mother’s designating him for greatness from a very young age: “At home, Ma told him he was a special boy, descended from the ancient Celtic warriors and High Kings. She said there was powerful blood in his veins because he was the firstborn son. Someday he’d be a great man, she promised; he’d be a professor of history, then President of Ireland. That kind of talk made him feel great. Every time Ma leaned over him, he felt warm and secure and lightheaded. It was like being bathed in his own personal spotlight.” But by the time Frankie reaches his teenage years, such puerile gratification has been replaced by his interest in girls, drink, and rock ’n’ roll: “At home Ma gave out to him about everything. She said his hair was a disgrace. She didn’t like his clothes or his habits or his friends.” Clearly, Frankie has trouble living up to his mother’s expectations for a descendent of “the High Kings of Tara” whose “bloodline is one of the most revered in Europe.”
Ultimately, the tension between Frankie and his mother centers on her “politics”: a diehard nationalist and a local activist in the Fianna Fáil party, she actively despises any and all Irish Protestants, whom she labels sweepingly as “Brits.” Indeed, the climactic confrontation of the novel involves Frankie being accosted by his mother for his burgeoning romantic (and sexual) relationship with a local Protestant beauty, Jayne Wayne, whose mother happens to be from Belfast and whose father happens to be from Essex in England. “No Brit bitch is going to come between an Irish Celtic warrior mother and her eldest son,” she launches her verbal assault on Frankie: “Who would have thought that my own flesh and blood would have turned out to be a dirty Brit-lover. You’re as bad as the dirty Black and Tans. What about the 1916 Rising when Jayne’s father’s countrymen shot dead thousands of innocent Irish revolutionaries? What about Father Murphy’s glorious Rising of 1798? What about Wolfe Tone and poor old Robert Emmet? Look what they did to Parnell.” She then proceeds to assault Frankie physically, pelting him with whatever she finds close at hand, starting with a bronze bust of Cuchulainn from the mantelpiece. Frankie retreats out the front door and down the drive: “When he looked back, he saw Ma in the light from the open doorway, darting in and out of the house, hurling objects out into the darkness after him. A book clunked onto the tarmac. Then a picture frame smashed on the path. His brand new Stranglers album went gliding over his head into Figgis’s garden. Within moments, every album he owned seemed to be flying through the air. He recognized the sleeve of ‘The Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore East’ just before it thudded into the telegraph pole above his head and went spiraling off into the blackness.”
Tellingly, of course, the mother’s passionate nationalism reflects the spirit of the place and the time that Mac Anna chooses for his novel’s setting. Born in 1955, Mac Anna sees both himself and his younger protagonist as products, or victims, of the nearly six-decade domination of the Irish political and economic landscapes—and thus of the social and cultural landscapes as well—by Éamon de Valera, nationalist rebel, later Prime Minister, and later still President of Ireland. Founded by de Valera in 1926, Frankie’s mother’s beloved Fianna Fáil party set the tone of social conservatism and lingering republican nationalism that defined the heart of the twentieth century in Ireland. Frankie’s resistance to his mother’s political bent thus represents, even in this novel characterized by hilariously comical scenes and dialogue, a serious indictment by Mac Anna of the spiritually dreary times that he himself grew up in and that continued to characterize both Dublin and the countryside up until the economic boom of the 1990s known as “the Celtic Tiger.”
The Last of the High Kings was adapted by Gabriel Byrne and David Keating as a film, directed by Keating, with the same title in 1996. While featuring cameo appearances by Byrne, Stephen Rea, and Colm Meaney, the film version—blandly re-titled Summer Fling when released in North America—has mostly a North American cast playing Irish roles, including Jared Leto as Frankie and Catherine O’Hara as his mother. It falls short of being a cinematic must-see.
But reissued by New Island Books as part of their “Modern Irish Classics” series, The Last of the High Kings definitely belongs in the “classic” category. Its update of the Irish coming-of-age novel etched so indelibly by Joyce in A Portrait rings as utterly true as Joyce’s to the period of Irish life that it responds to and reflects and refracts. Setting the novel in his native Howth, a fishing village located on a promontory nosing into the Irish Sea nine miles north of Dublin’s city center, Mac Anna absolves himself of writing in the long literary shadow cast by “Joyce’s Dublin,” a favorite playground of casual readers and Joyce scholars alike. He also absolves himself of having to engage with the more complex social and cultural landscape of “the heart of the Hibernian metropolis,” allowing him to focus on Frankie’s particular domestic situation as the window opening onto the larger world of modern Ireland.
At the end of A Portrait, Joyce has his protagonist reject his literal father to embrace his mythic father, the Greek inventor Dædalus: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” True to the prevailing comic temper of his novel, Ferdia Mac Anna ends The Last of the High Kings with Frankie Griffin reconciled, at least for now, with his mother, and he even joins her and his siblings in greeting their prodigal father returning from one of his long absences: “‘Wave, everybody, wave,’ Ma said, her face shining. ‘Show your father what a great family he has.’ Everyone waved.”