Future Popes of Ireland – The Children of Pope John Paul II


Future Popes of Ireland – The Children of Pope John Paul II

Fiction: Future Popes of Ireland Darragh Martin, 4th Estate €12.99

The triplets were conceived, it appears, on the weekend of Pope John Paul II's visit to Ireland
The triplets were conceived, it appears, on the weekend of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland
Future Popes of Ireland

‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So goes Leo Tolstoy’s much-quoted opening sentence in Anna Karenina. Stories of unhappy and fractured families are as old as Cain and Abel, as old as Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Shakespeare gave us Hamlet and his awful mother, Dostoevsky gave us the Karamazov brothers and their awful father and virtually every Irish novelist who ever took pen to paper has each donated at least one unhappy tribe. They are strewn across the pages of literature like crumbs across a breadboard and still we can’t get enough of them. You would think there’s nothing left to say about the whole sorry business. But you’d be wrong.

The Doyle family in Darragh Martin’s masterpiece (there is no other word) suffers a distinctly sorry loss from the outset. Their mother dies in childbirth, leaving triplet infants and older sister Peg with their worse-than-useless father who graciously allows his mammy, Granny Doyle, to look after them. Granny Doyle is so busy with the triplets that she has little time for Peg, “…that divil of a four-year-old with alert eyes that took in everything: Peg Doyle would need glasses soon, for all the staring she did, and Granny Doyle could summon few greater disappointments than a bespectacled grandchild”.

The triplets were conceived, it appears, on the weekend of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland. And like so many babies born in 1979 and 1980, one of these Killester triplets was destined to be christened John Paul, the other two conferred with the far more ordinary titles of Damien and Rosie. It is on the wily wide-boy John Paul Doyle that Granny will hang all her hopes and aspirations. Sure isn’t it high time the Vatican had an Irish pope? John Paul is destined for greatness. His frequently cruel granny is sure of it.

Fast forward to 2007. Pope John Paul II’s been dead for just two years and already the moves towards his beatification are in train. Peg is in New York and is estranged from her family, we don’t yet know why. Granny Doyle’s useless son is now dead. These days she knows more dead people than live ones. She has a box full of memorial cards. “She’d be lost without her little box of laminated lives.” Her grandchildren don’t visit. John Paul is the only one who stays vaguely in touch, gets her groceries delivered, sends her the odd present, gives her a mobile phone that she’s unable to use. Her bad knees prevent her from going to Mass. “She could have asked John Paul to drive her to the church, in a different life, where he hadn’t torn the heart out of her.”

And so we discover quite early that John Paul Doyle hasn’t devoted his life to God and is not blazing a trail to the Holy See. Although he has been using the name of John Paul III (ironically, of course), to become a YouTube star “well, in Ireland at least”. Meanwhile, Damien has a new partner, Mark, and some keen political aspirations within the Green Party. But when blue-haired bohemian Rosie decides to look up her long-lost sister in New York, things take a turn for the Doyles. The past is no longer a foreign country but is suddenly here and now, staring them all right in the face, like a red-light picture of the Sacred Heart.

Darragh Martin’s family history is set within Ireland’s see-saw social and political climate from the 1980s up to 2011. A sharp chronicler, you can practically smell the past as it wafts up at you from his pages. And while there’s tragedy, and outrage, too, there’s whipsmart satire and riotous comedy alongside a type of scholarliness that provides this novel with its zest and ingenuity. Think Zadie Smith. But much funnier.

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