Kevin Barry public interview for Limerick’s Make A Move festival

It’s hard to dislike Kevin Barry though, believe me, I’ve tried.  He’s an annoyingly-good writer.  He’s successful. He’s won lucrative prizes. Each of these reasons would be sufficient on its own to hate Kevin Barry, but what makes him even more irritating is his complete lack of arrogance.  He laughs at himself, he scoffs at his own eejitness, he freely acknowledges the random, arbitrary, serendipitous nature of his creative process.

kevin barry make a move festival limerick

If this man had any decency, he’d at least dress like a literary  clown, talk through his nose and patronise us with random quotes from German philosophers we’ve never heard of, but he doesn’t.  Instead of saying praxis and zeitgeist, he tells us about writing as work. About discipline. About tearing up blank sheets of paper.  He tells us about getting it wrong more often than getting it right.  Along the way, he tells us about his tragic adolescence as a red-haired Goth, his brief and sordid career as a dodgy impresario and his general approach to life as a man surrounded by a bubble, much like the notorious reality distortion field of Steve Jobs, but with a lot more bewilderment.

This man doesn’t take himself seriously.

How do I know this?

He said, I don’t take myself seriously.

What he does take seriously, however, is The Work.  He cares what he churns out, which is why he doesn’t churn stuff out.  He goes through three, four, even five drafts, with his digestive system becoming increasingly disturbed as he approaches the end.  He might spend four years on a short novel of 50,000 words, as he did with his latest : Beatle Bones (hat-tip to Captain Beefheart), exploring the absurdities of John Lennon’s interactions with Mayo County Council.

Who knows how long his sequel to Bohane will take?  Maybe not long at all, if we’re to believe him about the sounds and the cadences of the thing.  I suspect he already has it all sketched in his head and maybe even already spoken out loud to make certain it runs as it should with the rhythms correct and the words where they belong.

He sees himself as a Limerick-bred writer, but by no means a parochial one.  He recognises his influences, far less highbrow than the average successful author might admit, but more appropriate to the modern era. The WireThe Sopranos. Deadwood.  He listens to music all the time as he writes.  The soundtrack to Beatle Bones was the Double White album. He’s disturbingly honest (another reason to hate him) about the amount of inspiration he stole from contemporary television. He describes such near-mythological Limerick creatures as Michael Curtin, who had published six novels in Britain when Barry was a lad and he speaks of the great change that relieves writers of the need to live in London or New York.  Curtin, for his own part, is a fervent admirer of Kevin Barry’s work, though the two have never met.

Acknowledging the mix of Cork and Limerick, stirred about with some dub reggae and a little voudou, that became the city of Bohane, Barry speaks of the unique language patterns and vowel sounds that place this novel in a unique place, even though that place doesn’t exist.   Echoing Flann O Brien’s absurd and hilariously sinister Corkadorcha of The Poor Mouth, he describes Bohane as a place somewhere between Limerick and Cork:  A sort of spiritual Charleville. When I read the book, for the first fifty pages I thought it was New Orleans or maybe Hell’s Kitchen before the truth dawned on me, but there you are. I’ve always been a bit slow.

Bohane is Limerick and the obvious conclusion is this.  Surely if we can trundle credulous Japanese tourists around Limerick on the rain-sodden, misery-laced Frank McCourt trail, we can do it even better with City of Bohane tours. A lot less po-faced solemnity and a lot more dub reggae.

There’s talk of a TV version of Bohane, though he recoils in horror at the suggestion that the accents might not be genuine Limerick but instead the new synthetic, generic, robotic Roadwatch drone.  Aargh no!

How will the sequel work out?

He won’t say, apart from a hint. Bohane is gone to fuck altogether.

As I said, it’s hard to dislike Kevin Barry.



City of Bohane. Mad Max meets The Poor Mouth

Limerick Make A Move Festival


Favourites Writing

City of Bohane — Mad Max Meets The Poor Mouth

There are some novels you find yourself reading out loud without even realising it, as you swirl the flavours of the language around your palate.  This happened to me last night when I finally got around to opening City of Bohane and found myself still awake at five in the morning. I finished it this afternoon over a nice cup of tea in my pub of choice with people giving me funny looks as I voiced the speech of the characters.

It’s impossible not to do so with dialogue that jumps off the page, weird and vaguely familiar at the same time.  It takes control of your tongue and commands you to speak.  I have rarely read a book that manages to make language sparkle as it does in City of Bohane but  Kevin Barry’s novel is that kind of book, an extraordinary blend of post-apocalyptic weirdness and Hell’s Kitchen gangster tale.

Here comes the second layer of weirdness, but it isn’t for everyone: just the denizens of this here borough.  The city that is the book’s central character could be anywhere. It could be Marseille.  It could be Liverpool.  I could be Djakarta.  It could be New Orleans.  But it isn’t. It’s Limerick!


I know.  Hardly a surprising discovery given that Barry grew up here, but it took about fifty pages before it dawned on me, which is probably very slow.  I was never the quickest on my feet anyway, or on my dancers as the good people of Bohane might call them, but the language is pure Limerick dialect, mixed in with a bit of tinker-talk and the author’s own imagined speak, y’sketch?  ‘Twould put the heart skaw-ways in you, as the old people used to say and as Barry remembers.  Is there e’er a chance ye might recall it yereselves?  Ironically, this kind of speech is far from traditional Irish, having its roots in the English spoken by the Elizabethan soldiers sent to quell this uppity little island, and preserved by  centuries of urban Irish people until little more than a generation gone by, when young people started to speak like Yogi Bear.

Oddly, my personal insight into the language is a handicap.  Someone unfamiliar with the argot will be entranced, captivated and ensnared by the dialogue.  It jumps and it sparkles.

This is a book of gangs, of psychopathic dandies, of turf wars, opium dens and grim deeds carried out in the half-light of an August murk in off the sea.  Barry has realised that you can’t just write a post-apocalypse novel without changing the way people talk, precisely as Russell Hoban did when he wrote the wonderful Riddley Walker, and so he created a new voice for the people, yet a voice that sounds utterly familiar.

Far to the north are the poppy fields, disregarded by a corrupt and degenerate hoss polis, a force ready and willing to accept bribes and inducements.  You learn that only some world routes are still open.  Mobsters can buy their high-topped boots from Zagreb and their wine from Portugal, but for most people, life is grim.

Another great post-apocalyptic book

His touch is so light that you never quite know what disaster befell this Ireland of the 2050s.  You can see the disused pylons everywhere.  You know that everything is powered by generators.  The streets are lit only when the Authority can afford it.  You realise there are no cars, no mobile phones, no computers, no email and no guns.  People write to each other, and when they wish to commit homicide, they do so using shkelpers: knives.  Shkelp, a wonderful North of England word, kept alive in Ireland and reimagined by Barry.   Even the most powerful mob boss must walk in the biting wind and the rain, for there is no other means of transport except the foot.  This is not the world we know.

And yet, this weird and strangely familiar town is the place they choose to be.  They could take the High Boreen to the Big Nothin’, or even the Nation Beyond (known as the NB) but they don’t.

I recognised individual characters and whole families from local knowledge, which provided a wry insight.  Having done a little bit of this kind of thing, I know that an afternoon in the public house can have a wonderfully clarifying effect on the creation of a character, but general readers are probably better off lacking the home-town knowledge, to preserve the feel of the story.

Barry takes a bit of here and a bit of there to create Bohane, and it all reminded me of Myles Na gCopaleen’s Corkadorcha in the Poor Mouth.  I’m sure Kevin must have read Myles/Flann/Brian, just as I’m sure he looked to Blade Runner, Once Upon a Time in America, Mad Max, perhaps Riddley Walker and many more besides but he went one step further than most.  Just like Stephen King, Barry realised something that only the best practitioners know: you have to leave them wondering, and he doesn’t provide all the answers.  He just plants the questions. This city of Bohane doesn’t seem to be a direct projection of 2011 Ireland, even if the apocalypse occurs.  There’s too much weirdness.  Something else is going on.

This city of Bohane is in a parallel reality, close enough to be familiar, yet sufficiently removed from us to be entirely alien and terrifying.  It’s not an offshoot of our current existence, but a strange and menacing alternative universe.  You wouldn’t want to meet any of this book’s characters in real life.

My conclusion? Wonderful.  Years ago I gave up caring if something is good literature.  Is it a good read?  That’s all that matters, and this one is a big thumbs up.  It cost me a night’s sleep.

I hate Kevin Barry.  I’m consumed by jealousy at his gift for language.  I want to track him down and eat his liver.

I’d say he had the greatest laugh of his life writing this book though, y’heed?

How we now, Kev?