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Author Podcast: Damian McNicholl

abstract:

Damian McNicholl's first novel, A Son Called Gabriel (CDS Books) is a poignant story of a young boys' ambiguous sexual awakening in the backdrop of Northern Ireland's turbulent civil rights struggle of the '60s and '70s. It is a must-read for: every parent about to raise teenagers; every educator, councilor or psychologist; every minister or priest—indeed anyone seeking to be reminded of the importance of individualism.

article:

October 30, 2005
A Son Called Gabriel was the booksense Pick of the Year, and is now being adapted by Damian into a play. Listen to the interview and read along.

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Interview

  • Part I     Northern Irish Politics of the ‘60s and ‘70s
  • Part II    The Role of the Church in Northern Ireland
  • Part III   Resemblances to James Joyce 
  • Part IV   Gabriel’s Sexual Awakening
  • Part V    Preditory Nature         
  • Part VI   Warning *Spoiler Material*
  • Part VII  (coming) The Adaptation of A Son Called Gabriel into a Play

 

PART I Northern Irish Politics of the ‘60s and ‘70s

 

BB: Damian your first novel A Son Called Gabriel is set in Northern Ireland in the sixties and seventies during the civil rights struggle and it centers on a young Catholic boy who is grappling with his ambiguous sexual awakening.  It speaks to the nature of truth and the complicated nature of love in families.

 

I think that the main themes in the novel are really well covered. I wanted to start by saying that I think A Son Called Gabriel is one of the most poignant looks at sexual identity, religious education, and Irish politics that I’ve read, and I think it should be pre-reading for anyone who is involved or raising or educating youth and available in all school libraries. 

I wanted to thank you and congratulate you on the sensitive insights provided in your book!

DMN: Thank you very much. I appreciate that a lot.

BB: The book is set in a town called Knockburn. Can you describe the geographic landscaped and the nature of the economy for us, and whether or not it has changed very much since the period of this book?

DMN: Yes. Northern Ireland is a very interesting province because of the troubles and this conflict between Catholics and Protestants that has been ongoing ad-nauseaum; it’s really been a bit of time warp.

Southern Ireland, for example, has progressed and moved forward a lot; it’s really a true member of the European community; a very forward looking part of Ireland. Northern Ireland is still, unfortunately, mired in this political conflict, and although there is peace now. I will say—trouble has broken out recently again—quite interestingly now it is the Protestant minority who feel that they’ve been scapegoated by their Protestant overseers and they are now taking to the streets because they’re really losing all their jobs and the Catholics have been moving forward economically and socially. These working class Protestants never had to go to university and left school without qualifications to take jobs reserved forthem in ship-building and aircraft manufacturing, but those jobs are gone and these people now have no jobs; they’re really like an underclass. 

BB: That’s quite different from the description in the book where the Protestants were in control at that time economically and socially.

DMN: That’s right! You see in the sixties and seventies when the novel is set, the Catholics really were, I guess the best word to use is "the underclass," because they basically were taking to the streets like the Blacks did in the Southern United States. They were taking to the streets in Northern Ireland to protest discrimination and subjugation and really, their lack of civil rights. They wanted to be allowed to vote. Even as late as the seventies, most people don’t understand this; Catholics who did not own their own properties in Northern Ireland did not have a vote!

BB: That’s shocking.

DMN: Absolutely. I was stunned when I came of age and knew that that existed. I just couldn’t believe it.

BB: So could you give us a bit of the political climate in Northern Ireland during the sixties and seventies so people have a clear idea about what the civil rights struggle was about when you mentioned the no-vote.

DMN: Well what it was, just let me say, it boils down to a Catholic versus Protestant situation. Although I should say that unlike the Catholic religion, the Protestant religion has many denominations.  In Northern Ireland there is the Church of Ireland, which is really a sub-faction of the Church of England [Anglican in the UK and Canada] referred to as Episcopalians here [in the USA].

Then we have what is called the equivalent of the Christian Right, (here) and their leaders tend to be, the Reverend Ian Paisley for example, and other hard-line ministers who get involved in politics.  And these people, many of them get their degrees from Southern Universities, like Bob Jones.

 And these people, one [Catholics] cannot negotiate with  because it is their-way-or-the-highway.  They have been subjugating the Catholic populations for a long, long time. So the Catholics felt backed against a wall and the Civil Rights movement started whereby Catholics took to the streets in the major cities demanding their rights.

 

The government in Northern Ireland at that time was basically controlled by the Orange Order, which is a Protestant group, and they would not give Catholics permits to protest for their civil rights.

The civil rights movement grew like a fire.  It spread throughout the province and people would attend marches, and these marches got larger and larger, and then the Protestant ruling class decided that they had to try and stop this process otherwise they were going to lose power. They tried to subjugate [the people] and they called Britain, who was at that time very much on the Protestant side, and they brought in the British Army to try and vanquish the Catholic protests.

The British soldiers treated the Catholic population very heavy-handedly in conjunction with the Protestant Arm or State Police Force and another group of quasi-soldiers called the Ulster Defense Regiment, and they began to beat and shoot Catholics. As a result of this the IRA became very strong and they took to the streets.  They equipped themselves with rifles to protect the Catholic minorities who were being shot and killed.

Gradually the pot began to boil, and violence spilled over and the IRA then became a gorilla organization that was fighting not only for a United Ireland but also fighting for the lives of Catholics at that time.

PART II The Role of the Church in Northern Ireland

 

BB: There is an incident in the book where Gabriel’s family shelters an IRA member and subsequently there is a police raid on the house and his father is taken into jail overnight.  Did you experience any activities with the IRA growing up?

DMN: A Son Called Gabriel is what I call fiction rooted in experience. In other words, it definitely represents part of my life, there’s a lot of fiction but there’s also a lot of truth in the pages.  That episode that you are referring to was actually called the beginning of “internment without trial” in Northern Ireland. 

The British pushed through parliament The Emergency Powers Act that allowed them to raid the homes of Catholics whom they suspected of being members of the IRA and take away those people; the fathers, sons, brothers for internment without trial.  They did not need to have a warrant to arrest people, they were taken off to barracks where they were interrogated without lawyers and they were kept for up to 72 hours and after that could extend the period within which they kept these people who had been taken from their homes. That is the period that I am describing in that book.

BB: I think people will obviously draw correlations to the post 9-11 political climate against civil rights; where people are being taken without charges and being put into prison and held…

DMN: Absolutely, there are similarities in the sense that it is the government who are not applying due process.  In the case of Northern Ireland it was against a part of the population; in the case of 9-11 it is leveled at foreigners who the United States government believe are terrorists, although it seems to me that it has been mostly word of mouth; it hasn’t actually been proven.  They’ve grabbed these people and taken them and incarcerated them in Guantanamo Bay. I don’t know if they are or are not terrorists, but they have not had their day in court.

BB: No they haven’t, and some of them who have been released have been proven innocent.

DMN: That’s correct.

BB: It’s an extreme situation and always a conundrum for governments and civil rights advocates to try to balance the protection of society and yet maintain our own privileges. 

Now speaking about the interests and the role of the church in society and in your book, it is a very large component of how people manage their lives, the responsibilities that they feel to the church, the obligation to give up a family member to become a priest or a nun, and just the succor that people [found] in the church.  Brendan, the uncle in the story has done this and later he leaves the priesthood and travels to America and this has effects on the family [left behind in Ireland] their feelings and their status, I suppose in the community.

Does the church have the same hold? Do people still marry and baptize and attend church in Northern Ireland today?

"All decent families have priests and the Harkin family is not going to be any different." Pg 329

 

DMN: Northern Ireland is still very much a church-going Province.  When people talk about Ireland they say it’s a Roman Catholic country, which is absolutely correct.  However, the vast majority of citizens in the Republic do not any longer attend church.  They do regard themselves as Catholics, but it’s like the Spanish, in other words they’re Catholic in name. 

Where as in Northern Ireland people are very much church going, both the Protestant and the Catholic members of the community.  And if you’d asked me that question about a year and a half ago, I would have said the Catholic Church, of which I can speak because I was a member, they do in Ireland rule with a tight fist.  However ever since the scandals that have broken-out about priests having affairs both with mature women and pedophile priests, they have been losing their grip even in staunch Northern Ireland, and I think people are much more likely to question the church and its teachings at times.

Not everything is taken at face value anymore. And I think that that is a very good thing because when I grew up in Northern Ireland in the seventies my parents and the community accepted everything without question. Now, my sisters who are bringing up their children there, as well as my brothers over there, would have no hesitation in questioning and I think that that is healthy in society. Absolutely.

 

PART III Resemblances to Joyce

 

BB:  In your novel I was very much reminded of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in respect to the similarities between the education system and the experience of the boys: the power; the corruption; the discipline; the ritual; the instances of duality and hypocrisy—but also just the whole rigor of it.   I am wondering if the whole Irish diasporas, having gone through similar sorts of education processes, obviously well educated, you yourself read Law at University and you also described earlier that the children in the Catholic education system have been able to go on to secondary education and achieve and improve themselves. Can you describe for us the education process there and how it shapes you? 

DMN: There is a very, very strong educational bias in Northern Ireland. In other words growing up Catholic it was synonymous with going to school and staying on and doing the state-run exams, then going off to University.

BB: Yes, tell us how the “O” levels and “A” levels work.

DMN: At eleven years of age we have our first state examination, it’s called “Eleven Plus” and really it’s an exam that I don’t really care for because it’s testing ones IQ, and if you pass this exam you can go off to grammar school and if you don’t you are immediately weeded out and have to go to a secondary intermediate school, which has the ultimate objective of being more vocational.  I don’t think that is a really great system in itself because many kids got weeded out that later were found to be late-developers academically. Or they were nervous taking the exam and as a result they were prematurely weeded out of the system.

That said, those people who do pass that exam attend grammar school for the next seven years from age eleven until eighteen.  At sixteen we sit what is called "ordinary levels", and we are tested by government on ten to eleven subjects, and depending on how we do on that exam at sixteen we then specialize for the final two years of our grammar school doing advance levels.  We specialize in three or four subjects at a very high level, and I often refer to it as a college level.

BB: Uhum. Really.

DMN: Yes, it really is the equivalent of college because in the States people do an undergraduate degree, and then a law degree or medical degree as a postgraduate, whereas we go straight to university at eighteen and to law school. So we’ve already in effect specialized at grammar school during those two years. And the universities will look at those exam results when we’re sixteen years of age, at those “O Levels", and they will make an offer in our final year, the five universities that we choose, including Oxford and Cambridge, they’re in the same system. And they make the offer, say if you want to go to law school, you will have to get three A’s on your final exam. If you can get those A’s you go off to the law school of your choice, so you pick out the five colleges in descending order of preference, and then you leave at eighteen for three years in college.

BB: Did you practice law before you moved to the States?

DMN: Not in the UK. I came here and I did the New York State Bar when I first arrived because New York has reciprocity with Britain and Ireland.

BB: Oh, I didn’t realize that.

DMN: Yes, it was as if I did law school in the States and I had to do a course here and then I sat the bar and then I worked for a law firm on Long Island while I was starting to write A Son Called Gabriel

BB: So are you still practicing law?

DMN: No I still have my license, but I don’t practice law. I’m writing full time now but I still keep my oars dipped in the legal sea shall we say.

BB: Right, right. Well that’s interesting. Is it the same across the board in other disciplines, in medicine…?

DMN: I think so. I think the big jurisdictions like New York and California do, but the smaller jurisdictions like Pennsylvania don’t really because at the end of the day it’s a system of keeping people from entering the system…

 

PART IV Gabriel’s Sexual Awakening

 

BB: Now A Son Called Gabriel is not just about politics and not just about religion, it’s about sexuality and sexual awakening.  I found that one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel was Gabriel’s experience of his own sexual orientation being this uncontrollable barometer.  He wanted to fit into society, fit into his family’s mores and yet he knew he was being drawn.  And I am wondering how has the Gay community responded to your novel?

DMN: They have been very positive.  When the publisher decided to publish A Son Called Gabriel, they decided that the best way to do it, the most effective way, would be to aim a promotional campaign both at the lesbian and gay community, and at the Irish-American community because it was positioned main-stream; those were the two most important niche markets where they felt they could create maximum awareness that it was an Irish book, yet indicate that it was also an Irish book that was different because it was dealing with a subject matter that traditionally wasn’t dealt with in Irish literature.

I was so thrilled both by how it was received by the gay and lesbian community and the Irish-American community. Bear in mind when James Joyce wrote his works, Ireland was a very screwed up, conservative place, and he basically left Ireland because he was so disgusted by the narrow-mindedness of the country.  I was also a little nervous about the Irish-American community because they tend to be more conservative than the Irish themselves.

BB: Really?

DMN: Yes, that happens a lot. When a people uproot and move to another country, they look back on their country of origin with rose-tinted glasses, and that country meanwhile moved on. Ireland is quite liberal. 

Irish-Americans tend not to be liberal and I know that first hand from my own experiences. I’m not saying that they’re all conservative, I’m just saying that they tend to be more conservative. I was very nervous about it, but I have to say I was very well received. The book got very well reviewed in the Irish press and in the Irish magazines. So it was very heartening, as I felt that it was dealing with a serious subject matter; a subject matter that really needed to be aired, and both communities accepted that and saw what I was trying to do.

BB: Well I felt that part of the book was very enlightening for me. I’m sure everyone who reads the book will feel the same. But lets talk about sex, and about Gabriel’s experiments with his friend Noel in the hay loft to start off with, and then how they move on to other things and Gabriel, when he’s first told the facts of life by his mother on page 134 that, “Sex between men is an abomination in God’s eyes and men don’t do that sort of thing.”  When he comes back feeling guilty and remorseful and wanting to change his ways and he confronts Noel, and Noel says to him, “Well that’s not true.” I am wondering how could Noel say that so definitively?  Where was Noel coming from?

"It's what you believe about yourself that matters. You mustn't allow these other people to ruin your life." Pg 132 ASCG

 

DMN: I suppose we should say how old the characters are at this point. Gabriel is basically six or seven when this starts, and it's basically the game of doctors and nurses that Noel has engaged him to play in the hayloft, first by introducing him to pornography and then asking him to touch him.

Noel is about ten or eleven years of age, so he’s a little bit more seasoned. But one must remember that they’re growing up in this very, very conservative Catholic environment where sex education is non-existent and it’s basically being picked-up by overhearing conversations, or through the other schoolboys.  Noel is a very shrewd boy and he recognizes Gabriel’s innocence and basically takes advantage of it.  He sees Gabriel, or rather Gabriel's conscience at a very early age, saying that this is wrong. Something innate tells [Gabriel] that it is wrong to be doing this act, whether it was with a boy or a girl, and Noel very quickly expunges that guilt-complex that Gabriel could be developing in order to satisfy his own ends, which is to get [sexually] satisfied. He is shrewd, and takes advantage of Gabriel’s innocence.

BB: Ok that’s the point you were making, because I recognize that [Noel] was more precocious, and obviously the age difference would explain part of that but I there were other references like your mother he called yer auwl doll and when he was so firm about there being nothing wrong, I wondered if it was being intimated that there was something that he was being exposed to in his own family?

DMN: I didn’t go into that aspect of the novel, but that is certainly open to interpretation. Absolutely. But I didn’t investigate that because the plot revolves around Gabriel’s experiences. But I leave that for the reader to—that’s the subtext. 

BB: Right. But what it plays into for me is the whole idea of nature and nurture…

 

PART V Preditory Nature

 

BB: …and experience, and the fact that you say in another part of the book about the boys being able to pick-up something different about Gabriel just as the scent of an injured dog could be picked up by another dog, that sort of predatory instinct.  And then it’s repeated when Father Cornelius takes advantage of Gabriel and keeps him after school and so what I was sort of looking at was the sort of experience that a gay person would go through in trying to understand who they were and how they would go about in the world, and how they are affected by these various instances of people picking up that there is a subtle difference of taking advantage of it, or just going with it because it’s the only natural thing that they can do.

"Yes, I had committed a terrible sin.  But I hadn't known it was a sin." Pg 132 ASCG

DMN: That is very real. I took parts of my own life from that and portrayed them in the book. Because I went to an all boys school and absolutely those senses and those feelings come very much into play at that age, where if it’s a sensitive boy, and the boy may not necessarily be gay. The bullies can always pick out a sensitive boy or a boy who may indeed be gay in the same way a do can detect another dog that's injured and attack or shun it. 

Boys are very cruel at that age, as are girls; my sisters have told me, because they went to Catholic convents for schooling, and the girls really ganged up as well on the girls that were the more sensitive ones. Horrid behavior like that can destroy a sensitive person’s ego for many years. 

Gabriel was different, and like the dog, they could sniff out that he was different because he wasn’t a rough and tumble boy, he was too bright for his years and they really made his life miserable for years until he finally becomes strong enough.

 

PART VI   *WARNING SPOILER AHEAD*

 

BB: Now the climax at the end of the book and we’re going to speak about “spoiler” aspects to the novel, so if anyone doesn’t want to hear the ending we’ll give them a bit of an opportunity to tune-out here.  But the novel does speak about the necessity for truth in one's life.  And at a certain point Gabriel discovers that he is not the child of, who he believed to be, his mother and father; that his uncle is in fact his real father and his mother died right after childbirth and there are some very poignant parts when his mother is talking about the bonds of love as developing in a mother [in utero] and through the whole process of pregnancy.  I wanted to ask you about the whole cover-up. It was about the social stigma attached with an unwed pregnancy.

DMN: That’s right, coupled with the fact that Father Brendan had had a relationship with a woman even though his family were pressuring him to become a priest. He really felt the need to conform to what his deceased father desired and he did kowtow to his demands. Nor did the family want Gabriel to be adopted by strangers because they had concerns for his upbringing, so they decided to keep Gabriel within the family.

So the patriarch being really strong, came up with this solution that Gabriel’s [adoptive] parents should raise him as their own and Brendan went along with it because it seemed to give everyone an out. And then of course his natural mother died in childbirth, so that compounded it – or in a way it really very much fit into their plan, because he was absolutely eligible for adoption. I tried to portray the social morals in a small town environment, the keeping up with appearances at all costs.

 

BB: Yes. But I think it was really interesting to see how the mother desperately wanted to, she loved him, as the birth mother would have.

"It's love and lifetime of experiences that makes a mother, not just an act of intercourse and birthing." pg. 330 ASCG

 

DMN: In a way I was very intrigued by that question because we want to believe a child that is adopted becomes as though he was the flesh and blood of the [real parents]. Gabriel’s adopted mother felt that, passionately. The father, in as much as men can be–I don’t think a man can be as bonded to a child as a woman–that’s my personal point of view,  the father really did try very much try to be his father. He deserved kudos for that, given the ear. But Mrs. Harkin really did believe that she did not have to have had Gabriel inside of her, for him to be her child.

 

BB: Right, she bonded with him the moment she saw him…

 

DMN: Gabriel is really dealing with that issue of adoption towards the end, I didn’t want to explore it as a mjor issue in the novel because it was not the prinicipal thrust of the work. I very much left that open how Gabriel was going deal with that and accept that, you know, let the reader decide now that he or she knows Gabriel intimately. 

 

BB: And that is very realistic and appropriate, but I was really interested to see how the thing draws the reader to continue reading is we want to have an answer to the question, but what is the question? In my mind I thought that what was going to be revealed to Gabriel is that his uncle had also been gay, and that was why he was expunged and had to go off to Africa and when it turned out that that was not it, it was actually a wonderful tool to add tension and I was just interested in that literary technique you have of drawing the reader through, wanting to understand, to find this piece of information that we need to know and that we want to find out, but what is it?

 

DMN: Yes and what I had started back in the first few pages of the novel, I think at page 10 you know that the story lies around Gabriel and there are going to be issues of his sexuality as he grows older. I wanted to explore that and to take the reader on a journey involving all these characters. 

So many people were telling me that they expected uncle Brendan to turn out to be gay, and that was running throughout the novel. I never said that! But that was how people were interpreting the novel, and they were thinking that because the boy was growing up gay that this was going to be the revelation, but really I had other intensions, and I’m so pleased that people didn’t guess the true ending.


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