Barrytown in the Time of COVID: Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy in Print and on Film in 2021.

Before the pandemic began, my library would host weekly, and one additional monthly book sale. As an official patron and friend of the library, a membership that allowed one extra perks after making a small donation, I found myself with a sticker on the back of my library card that allowed me one free book per book sale. Not an incredibly interesting or particularly exciting part of another person’s life, sure, but having the opportunity to wander the stacks of books in the main hallway and basement of the library seems like such a gift now that it hasn’t happened for about a year now. 

There was an excitement and deep joy that came from exploring the books on display. Secondhands and discards were shelved alongside huge estate collections that were donated to be sold as well as books that the original buyer never cared to open. It was an adventure, and I often found myself lugging home more than the free book – often piles would come with me to read once and then pass off to friends I thought would appreciate it, make its way to one of several Little Free Libraries in the surrounding towns, or maybe make their way to my bookshelves if they were a particularly stunning find. Like the original owners, I too have some that I have yet to open in mismanaged stacks on the floor around my house, but I would still come home with evermore, and sometimes prioritize a new release or Advanced Reader Copy if it was particularly pressing that I read it and write a review for my friends debut. 

But all of that has been gone for some time now, and I have found my little stacks being eaten away more and more as I make my way through the excessive thousands of pages of companionship that I have surrounded myself with. There’s a word for that, you know… Actually, there are several. In English, we call it Abibliophobia – or the fear of running out of reading material. It is that itch that tickles the back of your ear while you get ready for a long flight and stuff your carryon, or buy more books than you need from your bookstore when you have plenty at home, or keep those New Yorkers piling up in a corner. There’s also the Japanese word 積ん読 “Tsundoku” coined in the late-19th century as people in Japan became more educated and able to afford enough books to begin having an extra few unread volumes on deck and begin to sidle up to one another on the bookshelf. Books have always been a status symbol, as Gatsby taught us, but those among us that actually love and read books understand them as materially spiritual objects in this physical realm, and we better never run out of that holy indulgence because anything could happen that forces us stuck inside for an indeterminate time. 

The pandemic hit, of course. To reference The Twilight Zone, we finally had “time enough at last.” 

I read 65 books in 2020. My exact goal, and not my best year by far. 

One volume that I picked up at one of my visits to the library in the before-times was a single-copy edition of Roddy Doyle’s The Barrytown Trilogy from Secker & Warburg. A few weeks later, I found his newest book The Guts, a continuation of the Rabbitte’s lives decades later. The Barrytown Trilogy was well loved, with a few places on the dust jacket that I lovingly colored in with a marker to repair the look of it, and added some cello tape to the light tears. Otherwise, it was a beauty. It had sat in one of the piles. It called to me. It whispered, ‘let’s go back to late-eighties Ireland…’

I had read the Commitments many years ago. Early high school. I wasn’t sure I understood it at the time with the heavy use of dialect and Doyle’s unique new approach to dialogue and framing scenes that reminded me of James Joyce when I studied him more and more in my senior year and beginning of my postsecondary literature studies. But I did remember seeing Alan Parker’s film and loving the energy and music and exhuberance of it. Everyone loved the film at the time.  

I decided that 2021 was as good a time as any to make my way through the book once more – and to continue through the rest of them before watching the films. The experience was quite better than I remember it being. To a trained literary eye, Doyle’s writing is actually very playful, with an energetic celebratory atmosphere that is unlike any other writer in execution and scope. The novels can be read in very few sittings – most readers will be able to fly through the breezy prose and format once they’re used to it. Surprisingly, I found myself enjoying The Snapper and The Van much more than The Commitments after reading them for the first time. See below for my reviews of the books and the films, and I will return to discuss The Guts once I dip into it after a short Doyle break. 

THE COMMITMENTS, A Novel by Roddy Doyle (1987)

The Commitments was a definitive novel that set the new standard for Irish writing, punk edginess, and a free-form jubilation in the 20th century novel. Doyle’s book tells the story of a pack of barely-passing working-class white Irish musicians as they start a Black American Soul band. The place where Doyle’s writing has always sparkled is his use of experimental formatting and dialect, along with sharp humor and real-world ribaldry. A lot of fun to read, and while there are some elements of the book that keep it very much stuck in the time it was written including a small scene with some language that would shock any American but might not have been a blip at the time in a nation on the other side of the ocean, it is still a very enjoyable book. It is also quite inspirational to see secondary English teachers such as Doyle come to international acclaim and start a fulfilling career of award-winning writing (along with several other colleagues at the late Greendale Community School).

As a writer and teacher myself, the trajectory is as delicious as the great work he continues to make. He self-published the novel at first, which continues to be in print thirty years later. Full of great lyricism, energy, and hilarious wit, The Commitments remains a great novel that is very much a time capsule of the time and place of its blue collar characters. But as a film, it seemed to be a bit more successful. Why is that?

The Commitments 1991 Film Directed by Alan Parker

THE COMMITMENTS, A Film Directed by Alan Parker and Written by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, and Roddy Doyle (1991)

The Commitments film was an absolute smash when it was released, making its shoestring budget back in North American theaters alone, but grossing many times that in worldwide box office and home video releases over the years. The soundtrack and subsequent touring band featuring the original cast spent 76 weeks on the Billboard 200, and spawned the ever-elusive soundtrack sequel that I can only remember including Trainspotting, Hackers, Grosse Point Blank, and The Wedding Singer in my time.

Alan Parker was no stranger to filming musicals and Ireland, so when he made his eleventh film, he pulled out all the stops to make the most Irish musical he possibly could. The film’s sense of place is astonishingly beautiful, as the people and setting of the hardscrabble Irish slums seems to invite the audience in for a pint and a song. While the music of the film is very grounded in American soul, nods to many popular artists and worldwide genres make a lot of cameos throughout some of the more hilarious montages. On my last viewing, I even saw that Parker had made a loving, joking nod to his own ego with a “Alan Parker Week” display in the back corner of the Video Rental Store scene.

Where Doyle’s story truly shined as a film were in precisely the many areas where a story such as this works better in the medium itself. Integrate the music and inspiration of the masters of soul, and round the film out with a small concert of hit after hit, and even the most staunch musical-hater in the audience will be tapping their feet. It simply works a lot better as a film, especially with the addition of two Hollywood screenwriters to even out Doyles inexperience at the time and the spectacular Oscar-nominated editing of Gerry Hambling. In many ways, this piece depends on the music and the editing, and Doyle’s story comes to life much more effectively and energetically than the book.

There is something to note that is important, though. Doyle is a master at humor writing in capturing the cadence and joy of friends having a laugh at one another’s expense – not to mention the particular salt-and-vinegar style of the Irish that I am intimately accustomed to growing up in Boston. I honestly am in awe at how wonderfully he captures it in his books, and that is something I am sure they didn’t want to lose. In this film, as with the rest of them, Doyle was able to accomplish that very difficult task of almost capturing the dialogue, pacing, and scenes of the books almost beat-for-beat. Where many jokes that work in a book don’t work in film, and vice versa, Doyle has been able to make the puzzle of adaptation and transference to another medium seem like light work.

Colm Meaney’s performance and involvement with the remainder of the films is an exceptional backbone on which to drive all three. He is a great actor, and his character of Jimmy Senior not only steals scenes in all three of the films, but carries them while other performers switch out. He is the patriarchal thread that carries the entire Barrytown story, and what a beautiful casting choice. The ensemble band is perfect, and they are clearly adept at playing their instruments and playing them well (always a tell when a musician watches a film, save for editing issues where clips aren’t cut right), in addition to actually having some great acting chops. The casting of a film almost entirely no names (at the time) is one of my favorite things, especially when the film is so well made and performed. Finally, this is the first appearance of Glen Hansard in an academy award-nominated film, but won at his second appearance when he accepted the award for best song in Once – a truly remarkable and beautiful film in its own right. Oh, and lets not get started with the Grammies, and Tonys, and everything else he was so successful with. I had honestly forgot he was in it, and yet here was the fresh-faced Frames founder killing it in The Commitments.

THE SNAPPER, A Novel by Roddy Doyle (1990)

The Snapper is by far a superior novel to The Commitments, and to me was a great deal more touching and funnier. While the Commitments literally sets the stage for Doyle’s illustrious career and unique Irish writing style, The Snapper is a beautiful, heartwarming, social novel about young Sharon Rabbitte (sister to The Commitments’ Jimmy) who is staring down a surprise pregnancy from a (somewhat) unknown suitor. It has a great deal more heart and substance than the Commitments has, and Doyle’s talent absolutely shines as a writer, storyteller, and true character magician in his second book. I really enjoyed this novel, and it is a breeze to fly through with its format and overall lyricism.

Doyle clearly had figured out his rhythm (er, no pun intended) in this novel. It also relies a great deal more on characterization and filling space with the story rather than the lyrics and experimental pagination in The Commitments. This is a sophomore effort that shows the growing momentum behind what he is capable of as a writer, and it is a touching family dramedy of the lengths to which humanity is so beautifully imperfect in sex, substance abuse, love, and the miracle of conception.

The Snapper 1991 Film Directed by Stephen Frears

THE SNAPPER, A Film Directed by Stephen Frears and Written by Roddy Doyle (1993)

The film version of The Snapper was an enjoyable story, but it had some strange elements that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until I read somewhere that it was filmed as a television miniseries that was then changed and edited to be distributed as a major feature film. That makes a lot of sense when one considers the strangeness of the editing and the broad film grain that appears even on the DVD release that I watched – I don’t expect a high definition version to come out anytime soon, but I can’t imagine it would look any better than just having sharper, noisier, larger film grain. Additionally, the Rabbitte family is the Curley family in this film because of a name-rights dispute, and all actors playing recurring characters except Meaney are completely different from the first film.

Regardless, the film exemplifies the novel in many ways, and is a shot-for-shot recreation of the novel. It was cast perfectly, with catty and hard-to-listen to young women gossiping loudly and drinking heavily in strange early-nineties European discotheques. But the performances were genuine, and as Sharon becomes more and more pregnant, Tina Kellegher’s performance becomes more and more poignant and less sharp, which was the point. The binding force in the film, as with all three, is Colm Meaney, and he carries this film on his back as the Tevye-like authoritarian of the house who wants what is best for his family but also needs to balance the delicate and complicated interpersonal relationships of home, pub, and work. He is soft, but stern, and always seems to make the right decision for his family.

It was a pretty good film, and effectively portraying the difficult moral and ethical obligations of a family in a situation that doesn’t seem to have an answer in a parochial world. Stephen Frears was an excellent choice for leading the charge on this one, and the subsequent final film in the trilogy. His ability to capture the beauty of humanity in difficult situations is something I love about his films My Beautiful Launderette, Dangerous Liaisons, and High Fidelity… As if his finger was always on the pulse of what it means to survive such imperfect existences.

THE VAN, A Novel By Roddy Doyle (1991)

The Van follows Jimmy Sr. And his friend Bimbo as both become unemployed and decide that replacing a chip van that mysteriously stops parking outside their favorite bar is a great business opportunity. They buy the most garbage one they can, spruce it up, and hilarity ensues of course! This book was a good combination between the energy of The Commitments’ plot and the deep characterization of The Snapper. The characters and their interactions are the best part of this book, but it is missing a lot of heart that The Snapper had, and felt a little thin (and almost too similar to the construct of The Commitments). Still, it was a fun read, and managed to have a lot of laugh-out-loud moments. The story reminded me of a much scrappier version of Jon Favreau’s 2014 film Chef, albeit with the chefs being bumbling idiots that don’t entirely know how to mix a proper batter and prep fries.  

The Van 1996 Film Directed by Stephen Frears

THE VAN, A Film Directed by Stephen Frears and Written by Roddy Doyle (1996)

The Van was a pretty difficult film to get my hands on, actually. It appears that it was never released in the United States on any sort of home media that I could find, so it is pretty cool that we can stream it and resort to watching it at our convenience (unlike a lot of films that still seem to be floating in the ether somewhere in undistributed-land). The Van, like the other films in the trilogy, has an excellent ensemble cast, and continues the almost scene-for-scene execution with the screenplay by Roddy Doyle and direction by Stephen Frears.

I wish I had much more to say in regards to the film, but it was the least captivating of the three. The jokes were well executed, Colm Meany was incredible alongside some other family members (we’re back to Rabbitte, by the way) played by actors who weren’t in the other films. Bimbo, the unemployed and depressed sod, was played by Donal O’Kelley. The meat of this piece depended on how well Meany played off O’Kelley, and it worked. Their performances were great, the script was great, but there just wasn’t much material to work with to bring any depth to the film. So in this case, I thought the book was better and worked better as the medium for this story. It is worth a watch as long as one expects maybe a long sitcom. Seeing that Colm Meany hasn’t aged in twenty years is cool, and Eric Clapton was pegged to write the music for the film for some reason… Considering he did the music for Phenomenon that same year, time did in fact tell how far his career would go in film scoring.

In conclusion… The books are great. Doyle is a master of dialect, and humorous dialogue. The novels get better as the trilogy goes on, and it seems the films get worse. But it was fun revisiting Doyle’s Ireland during the COVID pandemic. Doyle captured the spirit of the Ireland of the late twentieth century in an independent, unique, and true fashion that easily pulls you into it and keeps you there, and the sense of community and exuberance of his Barrytown is something that is incredibly comforting in these times. Embracing and revisiting characters and settings over a series of books, joining them for their nightly pint and a discussion, listening to them gossip, party a bit too hard, and just be part of a society again is something… I guess, nostalgic. We all want to be there again, and we will be soon. But living and breathing with the imperfect Rabbittes is something that brought me a lot of comfort over the past few weeks. I was with everyone, and everyone was close again. Music was live again. The pubs were hot and crowded, laughter and ribaldry bounced off bodies, and everyone went back to work and did their best the next day… Not a mask among them.

Small bonus note… In doing some research for this piece, I somehow found a collection of Star Trek / Roddy Doyle fan memes featuring Colm Meaney. A very specific joke for a very specific and narrow fan base, of which I am a member… How many other people besides me could possibly fall into the category of the audience for this esoteric nonsense? I laughed.

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