The Gamal by Ciarán Collins, Winner of The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and Le Prix Des Lecteurs Escpades, France. Interviews-Ciar n Collins
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote William Faulkner. Our heroine, the reclusive and hardy Jake Whyte, has fled from Australia to a small island off the British coast, where she farms sheep. But all is not well. Her flock is subject to a series of brutal and mysterious slaughters. We don’t know what she has run from in her homeland, but we know it’s not good. And it may have something to do with the horrors she’s experiencing now.
We learn of her old life in reverse chronological order. This enables Wyld to create an unforgettable closing paragraph which is written in the future tense. It’s an ending of extraordinary pathos and beauty.
My working week begins when I hop in the car on Monday mornings and drive from Kinsale to Bandon, where I teach in Hamilton High School. It sounds like a posh private school but it’s not; it’s a secondary school offering free education to boys in the Bandon area. If I wanted to be all artsy fartsy about it, I’d tell you about how beautiful my drive to work is every morning –fifteen miles of picture postcard countryside, along the Bandon River Valley. I’d tell you that I see the lovely ruins of Shippool and Dundaniel castles along the way. I’d tell you that I pass my native village of Innishannon and that I always have a fleeting glance at The Bleach, Innishannon’s GAA grounds, so-called because the low-lying field was a bleaching green in the late 18th century. I’d tell you that it reminds me of the many happy days and evenings I spent there, under the coaching guidance of great volunteers, my father Seán, the local school-master, among them. I’d tell you that as I finally pull up at Laurel Walk in Bandon, I’m always struck by the beauty of the stone façade of the old school building.
In reality though, I’ll probably be drinking coffee from my travel mug along the way, wishing I had gotten up early enough to have a decent breakfast, as I chew on a croissant that would have been better suited to the Sunday morning it was bought. I may occasionally find myself cursing a tractor or a slow truck in front of me, if I need to do some photocopying before first class. I flick through radio stations, tut-tutting away to myself like a man twice my age. I flick on the CD and realise that I still haven’t gotten around to changing the CDs in the car. Nirvana, Arcade Fire and Mazzy Star really need to be shelved for a while.
I put back on the radio and try not to get depressed about the horrendous mess we’ve made of our country, and yes, I try to be thankful that I have a job. But it’s the guys –the “let’s be positive” brigade –that really get on my nerves. “We’ve turned the corner,” they say. Try telling that to those who have no choice but to leave Ireland, probably for good. As I meet the hardworking, eager, decent youngsters I teach on yet another Monday morning, I hope that things will change in this country. For them. And the thousands like them. They deserve it.
Our busy hurling training schedule begins on Monday evenings too. This year, I’m privileged to be a member of the coaching team of the best hurling team our little school has ever seen. We’ve qualified for the last eight of the Dr. Harty Cup. There are those who will read this and will know what that means. And there are those who won’t. It’s an old Cup awarded to the best school hurling team in Munster. Many of the best hurlers of all time have honed their craft in “the Harty”. The Harty Cup is special. Very special.
Recently, for the first time ever, we won the prestigious O’Callaghan Cup, a competition for all the best hurling schools in Cork. Between training, practice matches and now, various local award ceremonies and presentations, I’m kept pretty busy.
In the evenings I’m always glad to get home. I’ll usually light the fire and either my wife Sandra or I will throw on the dinner. I might watch Grand Designs or catch up on all the stuff I’ve recorded that I never get around to watching, like Boardwalk Empire. Or Sandra might watch something, if she doesn’t have badminton. Increasingly nowadays though, we don’t switch on the box at all; we just shoot the breeze in front of the fire with the radio on. I read a lot too. I’m going through a short story-reading phase at the moment. Last weekend I joined a gym, but I’ve yet to make an appearance after work any day. There’s always next week.
Last weekend we went shopping. Well, Sandra braved the Christmas shoppers for a while and I scooted off to Mother Jones’ Flea Market near McCurtain Street in Cork. I picked up a few nice old vinyl records and a couple of books. This weekend we’ll put up the decorations and the Christmas tree with my daughter Róisín. We walk the dog on the beach a couple of times too, every weekend. Other times we go to Mayo, to see Sandra’s family. I do a bit of writing too, sometimes, but I don’t have much time for that just now. Life gets in the way. And it’s a good life and I’m grateful for it.
Journey to Publication for The Irish Times
By the end of 2007 I’d written a couple of plays, for which I’d amassed a fine collection of rejection letters. I felt a bit disheartened, but I did still very much believe in myself. And so I began my first novel, the idea for which I’d had for a long time. I wrote about thirty pages. I thought it was good. My girlfriend (now wife) did too. We went to an internet café, took a computer each and sent email after email to any literary agent we could find online.
Responses came thick and fast –mostly generic rejections, but a few were impressed and requested another fifty pages. I stocked up on coffee and got to work, managing to complete the fifty pages in a number of short days and long nights.
They loved it and asked to see the rest of the novel. Only problem was it didn’t exist yet. I told them I needed a few months to ‘rearrange the structure of it.’ I finished the manuscript over the summer. Jamie Coleman in London really loved it and I signed with him and that, eventually, led to a deal with Bloomsbury. I was delighted.
I don’t really feel qualified to give advice to aspiring writers. All I can say is what I think worked for me. Firstly, I’ve always devoured the works of great writers but I hope I’ve never sought to imitate them. Secondly, I tried hard not to let rejection letters cause me to doubt my ability or affect my happiness. Thirdly, I have a job. I didn’t need to make money from writing. There’s freedom in that. Finally, I love that amazing feeling you get occasionally when you think you’ve just written something very good. It might just be a little paragraph. No book deal in the world could ever compare to that.
I think much of what we term ‘teenage angst’ is young people's frustration in trying to come to terms with and adjust to some of the unfortunate realities of the adult world that awaits them in present-day society.
One memory I have of my teenage years is of a night when my friends and myself had a close encounter with a bunch of older lads that we'd have (at the time) regarded as 'scumbags.' These were early school-leavers, from 'rough' back-grounds and were probably long-term unemployed and would now have been well into their twenties. Some of them, we'd have heard, were 'druggies'. They were still going to the discos that we sixteen year-olds in the area were going to with our fake IDs, probably because the bars in the town wouldn't let them in. Bouncers would have regarded them as 'trouble.'
In truth, they were dangerous when they were drunk. They were often fighting, or beating up some unfortunate younger lad, and seemed to enjoy it. We hated the sight of them, but we thought that going to the disco that served drink to the underage, was worth the risk.
The incident I remember wasn't such a 'beating' or fight. It was in the aftermath of such a scrap, when one of these lads came up to us and shouted the following:
'I suppose ye'll all be off to college next year!'
He eyeballed us individually, still shouting at each of us,
'Will you be going to college?'
We said nothing. He finally staggered off, and we lived to tell the tale, not that it's much of a tale. But as we headed off, giddy with relief, a silence gradually came over us. And the silence came, I think, from a place of guilt. Because we knew that yes, in all likelihood, we'd be in college before too long or would get a job, with decent enough prospects. Others of my friends were lucky enough to have farms behind them. We all knew, that the opportunities that lay ahead for us, were never and would never be within this guy's grasp. We all knew then, that the society, that we were about to enter as adults, was an extremely unfair place.
And it wasn’t the first time we’d come to this rather depressing realisation over our teenage years. Class-based alienation was just one aspect of the society that awaited us. It was also a society where regular adult drunkenness was socially acceptable, if not almost admired. It was a society where bullying and unkindness was normalised every day in the media. It was a society where corruption, at the highest levels, went largely unpunished. It was a materialistic society, where kids learned from adults, the importance of projecting an image of taste or wealth with expensive labels and goods. I could go on.
I fear that, often, behind what we describe using the catch-all term ‘teenage angst,’ is real disillusion and disaffection among young people.