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In Ireland: painful pasts, current clashes


A repressed society may not have always served the Irish people well, but it's given them the material for great literature. We wouldn't have Joyce, for instance, if Ireland weren't as closed, if the influence of the Roman Catholic Church hadn't been so pervasive.

Irish writer Patrick McCabe explores the theme of repression vs. freedom in "The Dead School," his first novel since the highly acclaimed "The Butcher Boy." The protagonist, Francie, was grotesque and off-putting, but he was also oddly endearing, mostly because Mr. McCabe showed that Francie was a product of dreary circumstances.

So it is with the two central characters in "The Dead School." Malachy Dudgeon is an inept schoolteacher who'd rather get stoned and enjoy the indolence of 1970s hippie Britain and Ireland. Raphael Bell, the long-time headmaster of Dudgeon's school, simply cannot change with the times as religious and social strictures lessen.

Each is a wounded soul, shaped by betrayals and unbelievably cruel circumstances -- and by a society that nurtures and inhibits at the same time. But dualities are constants in their lives.

For Raphael Bell, life was irretrievably changed in 1916, when he was 8. He was a good boy, a smart boy, one blessed to be living in a tranquil town with loving parents. "It was good being alive in those days." Mr. McCabe writes.

Then he amends: "Or at least it was until the War of Independence when people started getting shot right left and centre and sometimes even whole towns were torched and left to burn away to nothing." And so, one day, when a couple of Black and Tans (British soldiers) accused Raphael's father of being an Irish rebel, they resolved the matter finally by putting a gun to his chest.

For Malachy, born five decades later, it was family shame -- the shame that came from realizing that the whole town knew his mother was sleeping around.

When young Malachy encountered the village toughs, they would cruelly tease him. And when his gentle father, Packie, would have a few drops at the local pub, patrons would make wisecracks about his cuckoldry behind his back. At last, Packie commits suicide.

The two react to these horrific situations in markedly different ways. Raphael remains the dutiful son, the overachiever at boarding school who becomes a scholar and leader. And though he appeared an unassuming and modest sort, he was all steel inside. "Even by the way he walked you could tell that Raphael had principles," Mr. McCabe writes. "It was clear to him that students did not respect weakness in a prefect. In any position of authority, be it captain of a football team or anything else, equivocation or uncertainty was as nothing." The passages about the young Raphael's lonely ascent to manhood are among the most affecting parts of "The Dead School."

That moral certitude served him well when Raphael was named headmaster of the prestigious St. Anthony's School in Dublin. He was an exacting taskmaster, but he got results: In time, all Dublin knew of "the wonderful work being done in the school as regards training in good habits, the formation of character, and the pride clearly being taken in all things Gaelic and Irish . . ."

But by the early 1970s, when Malachy Dudgeon was applying for a teaching position at St. Anthony's, Raphael no longer recognized what Ireland had become. TV and radio talk-show hosts talked openly of sex; women were first admitting to having had abortions (strictly illegal in Ireland), then were demanding the right to have them, And at St. Anthony's, parents started to complain about the school's rigid dress code, the unbending curriculum.

If Raphael represents the old in Ireland, Malachy, of course, represents the new. And, of course, it's inevitable that they should clash and that a catastrophe should occur. There's a sense of foreboding all through "The Dead School," and that feeling drives this book in compelling fashion.

But though Mr. McCabe suffuses this book with undeniable power, Malachy is much the lesser of the two main characters and drags the book down. Raphael's insistence on duty and responsibility in a time of moral laxity is affecting, even as his behavior becomes more bizarre. Malachy, though, comes off more as a twit than as a tragic figure.

Still, "The Dead School" has wonderful strengths, chiefly Mr. McCabe's dead-on depiction of small-town life (does it seem the same in every country?) and his magnificent rendering of Raphael Bell. It's a sad and grotesque book, but at the same time compassionate and very human. Mr. McCabe knows how to forgive, even if his characters don't.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.


Title: "The Dead School"

Author: Patrick McCabe

Publisher: Dial Press

Length, price: 286 pages, $21.95

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