Roddy Doyle 1958-
Irish novelist, screenwriter, playwright, short story writer, children's writer, and biographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Doyle's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 81.
Doyle emerged among a group of young Irish writers during the 1980s to become one of the most popular Irish novelists of his era. His Barrytown trilogy—The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990), and The Van (1991)—focuses on a working-class Irish community, illuminating the behaviors and dreams of his characters through their actions and use of vernacular. Doyle has been noted for his recurring use of Gaelic and Irish idiom in his novels, though some critics have taken issue with his characters's liberal use of obscenity. Dialogue is one of the major driving forces behind Doyle's narratives, a technique which has caused many reviewers to label his fiction as “cinematic.” This comparison is not unjustified—Doyle has written the screenplays for the film adaptations of his Barrytown trilogy as well as writing the acclaimed television miniseries Family (1994), which presented a graphic portrayal of many social issues that affect modern Irish families, including domestic violence, alcoholism, and drug use.
Doyle was born in Dublin, Ireland, on May 8, 1958, to Rory Doyle, a printer, and Ita Bolger Doyle, a secretary. He was raised north of Dublin in the working-class suburb of Kilbarrack in housing projects erected during the post-World War II housing boom. After attending St. Fintan's Christian Brothers School in Sutton, Doyle continued his education at University College, Dublin, earning a B.A. in English and geography in 1979. He returned to Kilbarrack after graduation and began teaching at Greendale Community School. Doyle earned the nickname “Punky Doyle” from his students for his penchant for wearing leather jackets and jeans to class. In 1978 Doyle joined the Irish Socialist Party and remained a member until 1982. After contributing short articles to student magazines such as In Dublin, Doyle wrote his first novel Your Granny Was a Hunger Striker, but was never able to find a publisher for the work. In 1987 Doyle founded his own publishing company, King Farouk Press, and printed three thousand copies of his second novel The Commitments. He distributed the novel to local bookstores and attracted a large underground audience. Eventually the London publishing firm Heinemann bought the rights and re-released the novel which became a critical and popular success. The Commitments became the first novel in Doyle's Barrytown trilogy—the third novel in the series, The Van was shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize. His novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Booker Prize in 1993, and Doyle subsequently resigned his teaching position to focus on writing full-time. In 1994 Doyle wrote the screenplay for a controversial four-part television miniseries, Family, about an abusive husband and his family, which aired on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the United Kingdom and the Radio Telefís Éireann (RFC) in Ireland. The critical reaction to Family inspired a string of political debates in Ireland, with some complaining that the series portrayed the working-class Irish in an overly-negative light. Shortly after the miniseries aired, Doyle joined Irish protests for women's rights, abortion rights, and the legalization of divorce, which was illegal in Ireland until 1995. Doyle married Belinda Moller in 1989, with whom he has two sons, Rory and Jack. Aside from his novels and screenplays, Doyle is also an accomplished playwright—his plays Brownbread (1987) and War (1989) enjoyed successful runs at Dublin's SFX Centre. He has also written for children—his book The Giggler Treatment (2000) was shortlisted for a W. H. Smith Children's Book of the Year Award in 2001.
In Doyle's Barrytown trilogy, “Barrytown” stands as a fictional counterpart for Dublin's Northside. The Barrytown community is comprised of mostly uneducated working-class characters, many of whom are unemployed or underemployed, struggling to find the material means necessary for survival. However, although Doyle's characters are aware of their dire economic situations, they refuse to be defeated. Instead they find comfort in humor, seek help from communal networks of friends and family, and display unmitigated pride in their regional dialect. The Commitments focuses on Jimmy Rabbitte Jr., who assembles and manages a white Irish soul band called The Commitments. The band idolizes 1960s American Motown music, and Jimmy believes that the group will not only bring him financial success, but will also give him a vehicle for his political beliefs. After becoming a local success in Dublin, The Commitments fall apart due to internal fighting, jealousy, and personal differences. The Snapper continues Doyle's focus on the Barrytown community, following the experiences of Sharon Rabbitte, Jimmy's unwed sister, who is pregnant as a result of having been raped by a family friend. Sharon refuses to tell her parents who the rapist is, and her father, Jimmy Sr., becomes obsessed with identifying the culprit. As Sharon tries to keep her father from finding out the truth, they both realize that they need each other for emotional support during Sharon's pregnancy. The final installment of the Barrytown trilogy, The Van, chronicles struggles of Jimmy Sr. and his friend Bimbo as they deal with Ireland's massive unemployment rate during the early 1990s. The two friends form a business partnership and buy a catering van to sell fish and chips. Mirroring his son's experiences in The Commitments, Jimmy Sr.'s business and friendship with Bimbo is consumed by bickering, greed, and jealousy. Doyle also composed the screenplays for the film adaptations of his Barrytown trilogy—The Commitments adaptation was released in 1991, The Snapper in 1993, and The Van in 1996. Doyle's 1993 novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is also set in Barrytown, though it represents a tonal and thematic shift from the previous novels' focus on modern Irish culture and dialogue-driven stories. Set in 1968, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha views the deterioration of a marriage told from the first-person perspective of a ten-year-old boy. As Paddy Clarke tries to understand his parents' behavior, he must also deal with his burgeoning adolescence, neighborhood bullies, and the political environment in Ireland in the late 1960s.
Doyle's television miniseries Family recounts the physical, sexual, and emotional violence within a working-class Irish family, the Spencers. Told in four parts, the story is related from the perspective of four different family members—Charlo, Paula, Nicola, and John Paul—illuminating the cycle and inevitable escalation of violence in an abusive situation. Doyle followed up the miniseries with The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996), a novel featuring the same characters as Family but related solely from viewpoint of Paula Spencer. The book opens with Paula being informed of the death of Charlo, her estranged husband. Through flashbacks, Paula reflects on her life before Charlo, the beginnings of Charlo's physical and emotional abuse, and the moment when she finally left him. In 1997 Doyle contributed to Finbar's Hotel, a short story collection that published stories from seven different Irish novelists—Dermot Bolger, Joseph O'Connor, Anne Enright, Jennifer Johnston, Hugo Hamilton, Colm Tóibín, and Doyle—but withheld which author had written which story. Each story in the collection is set around an aging hotel in Dublin on the eve of its demolition. Doyle turned his attention to Irish history in A Star Called Henry (1999), the first novel in a projected trilogy titled The Last Roundup. The novel relates the early life of Henry Smart. Born in 1901, Henry lives on the streets from a young age and becomes engrossed in the dark underworld of early-twentieth-century Irish slums. As Henry grows older, he finds himself intertwined with many of the most significant moments in Irish history including The Easter Rebellion of 1916 and the formation of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). In 2002 Doyle published a biography of his parents titled Rory & Ita, which follows their lives from their individual childhoods through their marriage. Each chapter shifts alternately between his mother and father's perspective, showing how they both view their relationship and life in twentieth-century Ireland. Doyle has also written three children's works, Not Just for Christmas (1999), The Giggler Treatment, and Rover Saves Christmas (2001).
Doyle's novels have attracted a wide popular audience in Ireland and abroad, with readers praising the Barrytown trilogy's humor and thoughtful examination of familial relationships. However, some critics have offered mixed assessments of the Barrytown novels, faulting Doyle for weak plots and gratuitous use of slang and profanity. Other reviewers have countered that Doyle's emphasis on dialogue and local vernacular are the defining and most appealing aspects of his prose. Such commentators have noted that the dense language in The Commitments and The Van has allowed Doyle to create a protracted study of a very specific Irish community. Though the Barrytown trilogy has been most frequently lauded for its humor and wit, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha has been considered a more serious work by critics, who have commended Doyle's new focus on social issues. While some have faulted the novel for its lack of introspection, episodic plot, and reliance on anecdotes, a number of reviewers have praised the work's realism, effective use of dialect, and engaging descriptions of boyhood and working-class Ireland. The miniseries Family has attracted harsh criticism from critics and popular audiences alike. Many have argued that the series portrayed the working-class Irish as foul-mouthed, illiterate alcoholics and fostered negative cultural stereotypes. Others have disagreed, complimenting the series for drawing focus to important, though unsavory, aspects of Irish society. Women's rights advocates, in particular, have commended Family for highlighting the plight of battered women. The Woman Who Walked into Doors, Doyle's narrative continuation of Family, has been more generally accepted by critics and readers, with commentators noting his skill at creating a believable female narrator. Some reviewers have found fault with the novel's lack of sentiment, though others have argued that Doyle's dispassionate authorial voice captures the emotional emptiness of his protagonist. Doyle's historical novel A Star Called Henry has been met with a mixed critical reception. While some critics have maintained that Doyle's attempts at magic realism fail and that the story is implausible, many reviewers have complimented his thematic shift and welcomed his insights into Irish history.