Spanning thirty years and three continents, The Green Road tells the story of Rosaleen, matriarch of the Madigan family, and her four children. Ardeevin, County Clare, Ireland. 1980. When her oldest brother Dan announces he will enter the priesthood, young Hanna watches her mother howl in agony and retreat to her room. In the years that follow, the Madigan children leave one by one: Dan for the frenzy of New York under the shadow of AIDS; Constance for a hospital in Limerick, where petty antics follow simple tragedy; Emmet for the backlands of Mali, where he learns the fragility of love and order; and Hanna for modern-day Dublin and the trials of her own motherhood. When Christmas Day reunites the children under one roof, each confronts the terrible weight of family ties and the journey that brought them home. The Green Road is a major work of fiction about the battles we wage for family, faith, and love.
There is absolutely no such thing as a normal family. Everyone’s family is a bit crazy though some are crazier than others. The Madigan’s are one of those special kinds of Irish crazy though I’m sure there’s families like them everywhere. The self centred mother, the long suffering eldest daughter trying to take care of everyone, the sons who have fecked off, and the rather dramatic somewhat spoilt youngest child. But they are also the kind of family that when the chips are down will appear over the hill to help.
While reading it I couldn’t help but think of the poem by Phillip Larkin:
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.” – This be the Verse by Phillip Larkin
It is certainly a book about how our childhood and the things we are taught by are parents shape our later life. Rosaleen is undoubtedly a women dissatisfied with her life and with tendency to depression. She believes that she married beneath her in marrying a poor local farmer. She failed to live up to her potential. She is also extremely fond of that great Irish tradition of taking to the bed when things get too much. Her children too are dissatisfied with their lives. None of them seem overly happy at how things have panned out.
The book is also an interesting portrayal of a changing Ireland over a course of 30 years and it’s changing social structures. Rosaleen’s father ran the local pharmacy. In mid 20th century Ireland he, and by extension Rosaleen, would have commanded power and respect in the town as am important local business man. They belonged to the middle classes. When the book opens that power is waning and by the modern sections of the book (set in 2005 while the Celtic Tiger is its peak) we see the rise of a new wealthy class – the developer – a group into which Constance has married. Every member of her husbands family seem to be involved in the construction sector in some way. The brashness of this new found wealth is most evident when Constance is doing the Christmas shopping. She buy’s her mother an expensive scarf, strongly suspecting she won’t like it because that is the kind of woman her mother is, and manages to spend €400 on the Christmas food shop, which we are informed is a record and a fact apparently Dessie will be very proud of. Ah the craziness of the Celtic Tiger!!
The social changes occuring in Ireland during the course of the book, however are perhaps most evident in relation to Dan. The book open’s with Dan informing his family he wants to become a priest. Rosaleen, who is far from happy at this news promptly takes to the bed. 20 or 30 years previously she would have been singing such news from the rooftops, but even by the 1980’s having a son in the priesthood no longer carried the prestige it once did. Dan is in fact gay, and in the end never becomes a priest. We witness both he and his family struggle with his sexuality. Even in the later sections set in 2005 (notably 12 years after homosexuality was officially decriminalised in Ireland and 10 years before the historic vote to allow gay marriage) it is clear some members of the family struggle with it. It is not something they discuss, but rather ignore as one of the many things they leave unsaid. The rural – urban divide, and the generational gap are both evident in how different members of the family deal with Dan’s sexuality. Emmet and Hanna living in Dublin are clearly far more comfortable with it than Rosaleen or Constance still living in rural Clare, equally Constance’s children are more comfortable with it than their parents. It is a clear example of a changing Ireland.
This is an excellent book about the Irish family, the legacies we carry and how much Ireland changed in a relatively short period of time. I found it a surprisingly compelling read. For anyone interested in Irish literature this is a must read.
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