The Curse of the Irish

The publicist’s art is to work sudden wonders. It was surely no coincidence that the new book by Ireland’s Michael Collins arrived at our desk on Saint Patrick’s Day.

But the grotesque Irish of Collins’s short stories, assembled as The Man Who Dreamt of Lobsters, no more resemble the festive Paddys capering down Dearborn in shamrock blazers than medieval Europe does the Magic Kingdom. His Irish are sick of mind, sick of soul, sick of body, and sick of Christ.

One droll tale, “The Meat Eaters,” is about a young IRA terrorist who must lie low in New York. His father sends him away with a list of names drawn from the “emerald underground,” a list he is to destroy after commanding it to memory. The youth drinks 24 bottles of Guinness on the way over and stumbles stupefied off the plane, the list lost and forgotten. As a consequence the new American friends awaiting him plant his feet in cement and dump him into the Hudson River. Collins not being one to underwrite, a whore figures centrally in this tale of thugs, as do a deaf idiot and an eerie portrait of Jesus. Collins is 28, and his literary sins are sins of youth.

A native of Limerick, Collins is enrolled in a graduate writing program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He’s been living here a couple of years, but we hadn’t heard of him until the publicist from Random House shipped us his volume. Its back jacket rings with praise from reviewers of last year’s British edition. “Reading Collins’s stories of unrelieved human (and animal) misery is like being mugged in a savage land,” observed the London Times. “Heartrending, powerful condemnation of Irish patriarchy,” exclaimed the Scotsman Weekend. Well, high time! we thought, as a block or two away bands played and ruddy Hibernians waved–paws that in Collins’s tales are oft employed to grope daughters and thump sons. On behalf of every dysfunctional Irish American we have ever known (you all know who you are), we read with the joy of justice done.

Not that we’d ever generalize about an ethnic group. But Collins, being Irish himself, felt both tempted and entitled.

“In art you have the prerogative if not to distort to highlight things,” he told us. “If I have to basically encapsulate what my book is about, it’s to say ‘Look, there are problems here. Look how psychologically and sexually repressed these people are. No matter how surreal the picture, this is an aspect of Irish life. Deal with it. Accept it. Acknowledge it.’ Just like if you go to Alcoholics Anonymous–only if you recognize the problem can you take the first step.”

As Collins sees it, the repression that’s expressed in his stories in hideous acts of abuse can be traced to centuries of English domination, which drove Irish culture underground and bred paranoia. “There’s no interior landscape in a person’s head at all,” said Collins. “If you follow form, are a good Catholic, and go out and lead your life, procreate, and eat, what more can you ask for.” Collins thinks Ireland let a chance for renewal go by when it sat out the last big war. “Ireland hasn’t come out of a kind of pre-World War II mentality. We didn’t participate in World War II. We were left with our buildings and countryside intact. We never had to rediscover ourselves and rebuild.

“We’ve also had the proximity of England, which has been a love-hate relationship. There’s no abortion in Ireland. There’s no divorce.” There isn’t, he said, in large part because these services are available a ferry’s ride away, a circumstance that allows the Irish to pretend that every union is blissful and every new bundle a joy.

Predictably, Collins’s views of the Irish found favor in England. “Some of the readings I did in England,” he said, “there were people who came up to me and said ‘Some of these stories really remind me of some of the Irish inner-city mentality.’ There’s a whole district of Irish [in England]. They really keep their connection with Ireland alive. They pick up one unemployment check in England and they catch the boat to Ireland and pick up another. They don’t work, because they have to be in transit three days a week to pick up the check. They’re a domineering, brutish, definitely kind of drunken specter.

“For instance in ‘The Meat Eaters’ the fellow who drank 24 bottles of Guinness, the reason I even thought of the story was that there were three fellows coming over on British Airways and they drank so much they became violent. I was scared. Jesus! Everybody was scared.”

Collins’s assessment of his homeland has been colored, no doubt, by growing up the namesake of a distant cousin who was Ireland’s military mastermind during the war of independence. That Collins broke the British code, designed a brilliant guerrilla campaign, in 1919 freed from prison Eamon De Valera, the elected president of the Irish Assembly, eluded the enemy despite a 10,000-pound bounty on his head, and eventually was sent to London by De Valera in 1921 to negotiate terms.

Collins settled for what he thought he could get: 26 of the 32 counties, dominion status (like Canada), and formal allegiance to the crown. But Republicans like De Valera didn’t like the treaty, civil war broke out, and Collins was shot to death eight months later in Cork. He was 32. De Valera did not die until 1975, after 35 years as prime minister and then president of Ireland, and his hand is widely suspected in Collins’s murder.

The present Michael Collins was a boy in Limerick in 1969 when the present “troubles” began in Northern Ireland, and he grew up listening to countrymen denounce his ancestor as the traitor who condemned Ireland to partition and lasting misery.

“Some people say he sold out,” said Collins. “Either he sold out or he had the common sense to realize the north of Ireland had to be treated as unique and separate. I interpret him as a revolutionary but also a kind of practical man. Other leaders at the time, even Yeats, were into trying to reestablish a very old Ireland. Michael Collins was much more realistic. He wanted to establish a country and get on to the issue of economics. After [the assassination], a lot of pseudophilosophical figures got involved in Ireland for a very long time.”

He sees signs of progress. One is that the mayor of Dublin admired his book enough to launch it with a reception at the official residence. “He thought a lot of the issues were legitimate issues.” Another is that the original Michael Collins is back in vogue. Kevin Costner is making the movie.

Channel Five’s Loss

Channel Five’s Ray Suarez just accepted a desirable new job. On April 12 he takes over as host of National Public Radio’s call-in talk show Talk of the Nation, which began 18 months ago on 10 stations and now is heard live each weekday afternoon on 127. Suarez is taking a cut in pay, but as he told us, “I’ve always said there are some things more important than money and I guess if you say it you have to prove it.”

He said much more than that. We caught him Monday just a few hours after he told news director Mike Ward he was quitting, and his emotions ran high. Suarez recalled coming to Chicago in 1986, as Council Wars was entering its final phase–the ward remap special elections. “I was thrown right into the maelstrom. I was standing at the same level as everyone else because no one knew who Luis Gutierrez and Juan Soliz and Jesus Garcia were so they thought they might as well send this guy.”

He went on, “It’s odd to leave, but I’ll tell you, I don’t feel I jumped as much as I was pushed. I wouldn’t even have looked if they’d done the slightest thing to satisfy my aspirations at Channel Five. I certainly had the reporting capabilities to demand a place in the sun there, and they would not do it.

“Part of the problem is, with affirmative action hires they feel they’ve done a great thing by just giving you a job and they don’t have to do anything else. You’ve already served your purpose by drawing a breath and drawing a paycheck. I wasn’t asking for anything more than anybody else was getting. After Paul Hogan died I was the most senior general-assignment reporter there, and yet I had to fight like I was still fighting on day one. The thing that was puzzling about it was that I never got the sense I had to prove myself to the audience. They seemed to appreciate my nonsensational approach to the news, not making it into this tawdry, lurid exercise. I think the audience got it and my bosses never did. And at NPR quite frankly they’re doing handstands. I’ve never had people so happy to have me before.”

Suarez got to know a couple of NPR staffers–producer Peter Breslow and Chicago correspondent Jackie Lyden–while they were all Benton fellows at the University of Chicago. “They came to me and said we have to look at this guy, he’s great,” said Bill Buzenberg, who’s NPR’s vice president of news and information. “They said he’s funny, smart, and knows everything.” When John Hockenberry left Talk of the Nation last August for ABC’s new newsmagazine show Day One, Buzenberg gave Suarez a call. Talk of the Nation had been getting by with guest hosts, and Suarez ran it for a couple of days in February.

“He did a great job with callers and listeners and he’s one of the best writers we tried out,” Buzenberg said. “He framed issues very cleanly. We loved that.” Born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican immigrants, Suarez majored in African history at New York University, earned a master’s in urban studies at the University of Chicago, has lived in Italy and England, and reported for Cable News Network in Los Angeles before coming to Chicago. “We think he combines a lot of the things we’re looking for,” Buzenberg said.

Mike Ward didn’t get back to us to talk about Suarez’s departure.

Channel Five’s loss is also Chicago’s. Suarez isn’t only moving to Washington; he’s leaving the local airwaves. One NPR station that doesn’t carry Talk of the Nation happens to be WBEZ. And because WBEZ still hasn’t hired a new program director, we can’t expect the show to be picked up anytime soon.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Luthringer.