Augustus Young’s ‘Storytime’ and New Ireland

The first part of Augustus Young’s work of autofiction is set at a very specific time in Ireland’s contemporary history, in 1998, when the Tour de France had come to the South. It can be a cliché in academic (or pseudo-academic) discourse to identify a particular time as a turning point, a time of transition, internal contradiction etc, but nevertheless 1998 can be productively viewed as such and this comes through in Storytime.

In 1998, Ireland’s growth rate reached 11% and its traffic had just reached two-thirds of the European average. Much of Young’s observations turn on some sense of Ireland becoming an international state, taking its place on the world stage, a moment that is emphasised by the presence of an internationally recognised competition taking place within its borders. Even a policeman that Young briefly engages in conversation seems to be aware of the significance of this cultural moment and remarks to Young, with one eye to the sacred and the other to the secular, that: “the tour is the best thing that has happened since John F. Kennedy’s visit. The eyes of the world are on Ireland and the people have risen to the occasion…Men, women and children. I have not seen the like since the Marian year.”

Of course, this onward thrust of modernisation is tempered by reminders of the past, with the tragedy of the Omagh bombing taking place later in the year. One hesitates in framing these events as time-warps, defective occurrences running in opposition to the over-optimistic view of ‘New Ireland’ when it is still part of our political discourse today. At the same time however, we have B*Witched reaching number 9 in the US and The Corrs going quadruple platinum in Australia.

Young is sceptical that this marks some kind of sea change for the Irish and that the nation can now be said to have a grown-up view of itself. Sitting in a pub Young notes the following: “The bar is crammed with young and old, male and female, sonorously pissed. Backs to the screen. Palls of tobacco smoke obscure the picture, sound deafened by outbursts of laughter and singing.” He dismisses the preparation for the Tour as a ‘tidy towns competition.’

Fortunately, Young does not record mourn for a pastoral ideal of Ireland’s past; he records no nostalgia for a primarily rural society that no longer exists and his criticism of this tendency in Irish letters is present throughout Storytime, most notably in the image of abandoned villages with well-kept cemeteries.

In this paradoxical society, simultaneously mercantilist and globalised while retaining a penchant for fetishising the dead, Young casts himself as a misfit’s misfit, reminiscent of Patrick Kavanagh’s own diagnosis of the country’s woes in the fifties in ‘A Wreath for Thomas Moore’s statue: “The cowardice of Ireland is in his statue/No poet’s honoured when they wreathe this stone/An old shopkeeper who has dealt in the marrowbone of his neighbours looks at you/Dim-eyed, degenerate, he is admiring his god.” Young also shares Kavanagh’s wish to repudiate his role as a poet, preferring the image of the writer as a word mechanic, like Kavanagh’s ploughman: “’I’d rather not be stereotyped as a ‘writer.’ I’m a maker of verbal things, a handyman with words who fashions books.’”

Irish literary history is peppered with such iconoclasts, Kavanagh and Young are certainly not the only ones who hold the reading public in contempt for their ignorance and by condemning the Irish for being too materialistic they probably make themselves the norm rather than exception. (Thinking here of Yeats’ ‘greasy till’ and Joyce’s ‘their land a pawnshop’). The redeeming features for both consists in the subtle links made between their publicly expressed venom and their vulnerability, which makes itself apparent in Young’s more reflective, private moments, but not when among others, nor when admonishing attendees at a literary festival for not having more cosmopolitan tastes.

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