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Roddy Doyle Biography

Nationality: Irish. Born: Dublin, 1958. Career: Since 1980 teacher of English and geography, Greendale Community School, Kilbarrack, Dublin. Award: Booker prize, 1993, for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.



The Barrytown Trilogy. London, Secker and Warburg, 1992.

The Commitments, Dublin, King Farouk, 1987; London, Heinemann, 1988; New York, Vintage, 1989.

The Snapper. London, Secker and Warburg, 1990; New York, Penguin, 1992.

The Van. London, Secker and Warburg, 1991; New York, Viking, 1992.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. London, Secker and Warburg, 1993.

The Woman Who Walked into Doors. New York, Viking, 1996.

Finbar's Hotel (serial novel, with others), devised and edited by Dermot Bolger. London, Picador, 1997.

A Star Called Henry. New York, Viking, 1999.

Not Just for Christmas (for children). Dublin, New Island Books, 1999.

The Giggler Treatment. New York, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.


War. Dublin, Passion Machine, 1989.

Brownbread. London, Secker and Warburg, 1992; published withWar as Brownbread and War, New York, Penguin Books, 1994.


The Commitments, an adaptation of his own novel, 1991; The Snapper, an adaptation of his own novel, 1993; The Van, Fox Searchlight, 1996.


Film Adaptations:

The Commitments, 1991; The Snapper, 1993; The Van, 1996.

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Roddy Doyle's novels have fundamentally changed the possibilities open to any fictional representation of Ireland in the late twentieth century and early twenty first. Where Joyce had demolished the myth of rural Ireland as the only fit subject for "high" Irish literature by making Dublin the context for his fiction, Doyle has made Dublin the subject for a literature that questioningly straddles the boundaries between "high" and "popular," even deliberately "low," culture. Doyle's writing uses the urban in place of Joyce's sometimes-urbane Dublin. Doyle's novels are set outside the literary confines of central Dublin, among the post-war housing estates and the disenfranchised population; with his most recent novel he moves the style and simple assurance of his earlier work into the relatively surprising and unpopular genre of the Irish historical novel.

These two aspects of Doyle's work, his courting of the "popular" and the specific setting for his novels, have been apparent since his first work The Commitments (1987). Tracing the short lifespan of a soul group in "Barrytown," The Commitments self-consciously makes an iconic use of popular cultures and watches their mutation, examines their applicability, in the context of contemporary urban Ireland. The early comments in the novel "The Irish are the niggers of Europe … An' the northside Dubliners are the niggers of Dublin" need some sceptical scrutiny for their cultural resonance, but they undeniably enforce the continual assertion that Doyle's novels make: that Ireland cannot contemporarily be considered in a pre-1950s separatist mode. The terms of cultural reference in The Commitments are necessarily delimited by its subject matter (usually American soul music), but the hybrid "Dublin soul" that is briefly born in the narrative points the way forward in Doyle's fiction to a continual, and politicized, prioritization of all elements of lived culture over the strictures of readily available "literary" tropes. One influential model for the novel is the movie The Blues Brothers, which is referred to in the text, and which in turn became the model for Alan Parker's film version of The Commitments (1991)—that the novel was so readily convertible into cinematic media testifies to its cultural influences and how they have structured Doyle's writing, which certainly owes more to film and television than it does to a "tradition" of "great" Irish writing.

The progression of Doyle's novels through The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van, and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha might almost represent a strategy that captivates an audience before delivering a message. If The Commitments contained populism as well as the popular, the succeeding novels have become increasingly hard-edged and interested in ever more troubling and difficult issues. The Snapper (1990) traces characters from the Rabbitte family (central to The Commitments and The Van also) through a teenage pregnancy—in Catholic Ireland; with contraception still having problematic connotations and abortion illegal, this is difficult enough in itself. But Doyle chooses to focus his text through Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr., thus filtering social issues with feminist/gender issues attached through an almost archetypal (but challenged) male ego. Doyle's dialogue-driven style, in his use of slang, dialect, and dialogue, remains relatively constant across The Commitments and The Snapper, and thus his readers feel themselves to be back in the groove of the first novel. However, where The Commitments narrates a temporary escape from pressing economic and social problems, The Snapper is able to confront those issues; the recognizable stylistics of humor and place retain their potentially comforting familiarity, but the subject matter increasingly politicizes what Doyle writes.

The Van (1991) moves on, in both accomplishment and content, from The Snapper. Like the novels of his Scottish contemporary James Kelman, Doyle's The Van is comfortable when almost narrativeless—indeed the same social context (unemployment) forces characters in the novels of both writers into periods of apparently unhealthy stasis. Doyle again makes Jimmy Sr., and his type of masculinity, central to his fiction, and traces the social and psychological effects of unemployment. The Van of the title is a chip van bought by Jimmy's similarly out-of-work friend, Bimbo, and in which Jimmy begins to work. The strains on male relationships and friendships become clear when the ownership of the business venture becomes an issue. The old structures of working-class male bonding are overthrown by economic circumstances that hint at the "enterprise culture's" intrusion into the Irish economy. And again Doyle uses popular culture, in this case Ireland's national soccer team, as a constant explanatory background for the sense of community and its breakdown that the novel hints at.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) is in many ways the most complex and rewarding of Doyle's novels. It steps back slightly from the overlapping but progressing narrative of what is now called the Barrytown Trilogy and looks to the formation of the communities on Dublin's housing estates in the 1950s and early 1960s. Paddy Clarke's childhood is concurrent with these social developments—their influence is mixed with his peculiar and carefully documented range of reading and the cruelties (inflicted and received) of childhood in a novel that builds with painstaking care towards an examination of the effects of marital breakdown on a child. Paddy Clark showed that Doyle was able to write novels that are political in the way that singing soul music in Dublin is, as Jimmy Jar says in The Commitments, "real politics." With The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996), Doyle put these "politics" to the test; having successfully narrated from the perspective of boyhood in Paddy Clarke, Doyle's narrator in The Woman Who Walked into Doors, Paula, presents an even greater challenge to the author's abilities and the reader's credulity. Paula's story tells of her experiences on the borders of poverty and of marital decline, including the constant experience of male domestic violence. Doyle's own voice is remarkably unobtrusive as Paula's story is told. The novel's focus is not on the sensational or the dramatic but on the heroic nature of everyday life under duress. Paula finally breaks out in her own way and finds her own voice, and Doyle's method and empathy are subtle enough to be able to register these changes too.

As if a process had reached its end with The Woman Who Walked into Doors, Doyle's A Star Called Henry (1999) sets out on a trilogy that explores Irish history, centering in this case around the Easter Rising of 1916 and the events that eventually lead to Ireland's independence. While such formative national moments had been briefly referred to earlier in his work (most humorously perhaps in Paddy Clarke, in which the boy narrator fraudulently claims a lineage with Thomas Clarke, one of the rebellion's leaders), A Star Called Henry is a disjunctive move in the trajectory of Doyle's writing. Despite critical acclaim for the novel, it remains for the rest of the trilogy to prove the value of the new direction Doyle has taken.

—Colin Graham

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