Caoilinn Hughes


1985- ; b. Galway; dg. of farming father who worked commercially in England and returned to do farming and informatics in the Celtic Tiger; educ. QUB (BA and MA); PhD in English from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand; issued Gathering Evidence (2014), a poetry collection and winner of The Irish Times Shine/Strong Award in 2015; issued Orchid & the Wasp (2018), winner of the 2019 Collyer Bristow Prize; winnner of The Moth Short Story Prize with “Psychobabble” in 2018, and an O. Henry Award with “Prime” in 2019; issued The Wild Laughter (2020).

Caoilinn Hughes [Irish Times]

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Poetry, Gathering Evidence (Carcanet, 2014); Fiction, Orchid & the Wasp (Oneworld / Hogarth [Penguin Random House Imprint], 2018); The Wild Laughter (Oneword 2020), 208pp.

Maastricht University Research Publications lists ...

  • Orchid & the Wasp: A Novel. Hogarth (Penguin Random House 2018).
  • Group of poems. In The Future Always Makes Me So Thirsty: New Poets from the North of Ireland, ed. S. Morrissey, & S. Connolly (Belfast: Blackstaff Press 2016).
  • Interview & poem “Complaints Procedure”, in Poetry Ireland Review, 118 (2016).
  • Apple Falls from the Tree. in CyberGenetics: Health genetics and new media, ed. A. Harris, S. Kelly, & S. Wyatt [Genetics and Society](London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group. (2016), pp.27.
  • He Alone Shall Be Called Weather, in PN Review, 228 ((2016). (42-4) - available online.
  • Preventive Measures. In CyberGenetics: Health genetics and new media, ed. (pp. 117). (London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis (2016)
  • “Sorry is the Child”, in Tin House, 67 (2016).
  • Complete section (several titles “Estuary”, “Catechism”, “On Bringing the Common Cold to Tahiti”, “We Are Experiencing Delay”, “Apple Falls from the Tree”, “Transverse Orientation”, “Communion Afternoon”, “God Always Geometrizes”, “Harmony of the Spheres”, in New Poetries VI: An Anthology, ed. M. Schmidt, & H. Tookey (). Carcanet Press 2015), pp.43-54.
  • Intelligence, Wit and Social Engagement: Caolinn' Hughes Best Books by Women [Web publication/site](London Review bookshop 2015) - available online
  • “Boundary Condition ”, in Poetry magazine, (September 2015).

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Oliver Eagleton, review of Caoilinn Hughes, The Wild Laughter, in Times Literary Supplement (13 July 2020).

Literary responses to the 2008 financial crisis have shared a striking common feature: dead or absent fathers. Ella Hickson’s Precious Little Talent (2009) and Dennis Kelly’s The Gods Weep (2010) examine the mental deterioration of patriarchal figures; the fathers in John Lanchester’s Capital (2012) and Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (2014) both die before the novels begin; Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets (2009) and Lucy Prebble’s play Enron (2009) depict fathers in danger of losing their children; and the failure of John Veals to fulfil his paternal function is a central plot point in Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December (2009).

The pattern continues in Caoilinn Hughes’s stirring tale of recessionary Ireland, which surveys the boom-to-bust noughties through the eyes of a Roscommon farming family. Hart, our narrator, watches while his father - mythically referred to as “the Chief” - is lured into a speculative property investment amid the Celtic Tiger gold rush. When the housing bubble bursts, the Chief’s financial ruin coincides with his physical deterioration; he works doggedly, despite his failing health, to service his debts and settle his accounts. Then, having clawed back a modicum of stability, he asks his loyal sons, Hart and Cormac, to euthanize him.

All of this is compressed into the first forty pages of The Wild Laughter, giving Ireland’s recent history the roiling atmosphere of a fever dream. The resultant sense of disorientation creates a link between the collapse of the economy and that of the Chief. Both events threaten to destabilize the other characters and deposit them in uncharted waters. The crisis of paternal authority and the isolation instilled by Hart’s personal loss - “Who’d tell me what I needed to hear tomorrow? Who’d keep an eye on me, or spare me a thought?” - reflect the conditions of a society hit by the credit crunch: unmoored, atomized, adrift.

Hughes’s writing has an austerity that befits its subject matter. But it also has a dry, dark humour that recalls figures such as Samuel Beckett, J. M. Synge and Brian Friel - all referenced throughout the book. Not only does the author’s wit enliven this bleak narrative, it stands at its thematic centre. In contemporary Ireland, says Hart,

we were defined by what we weren’t - not married, not fertile, practising, prosperous, no longer political, no more brave rebels ...What we could not be without is laughter - the thing austerity couldn’t touch. O-ho, the wild laughter! And what would we be without that but a grassland blackened by scarecrows

The narrator has been literally and figuratively disinherited - his debt-burdened father gives everything to the banks, while his bailed-out homeland forgoes its historical self-conception (coloured by republicanism and Catholicism) to become a de facto EU troika colony. Yet the laughter remains - a laughter founded on alienation, revelling in displacement, which has resounded in Irish pubs, pews and poetry over centuries of colonial subjugation. It is this laughter that elevates the Chief above the grassland on which he labours: he will pass down the former if not the latter, such that the black comedy emanating from this unstable situation will itself become a venerable tradition, or patrilineal bequest.

This paradox, in which one inherits a feeling of disinheritance, explains the contradictory position of the father in Hughes’s story. After the gut-wrenching ordeal of his assisted suicide, the family are forced to account for their actions, whereupon scenes from earlier in the novel - and earlier in the Chief’s life - get rehashed in the courtroom. Far from marking a new beginning, then, patricide initiates a regression in which the past is forensically unpicked. The father’s death causes him to loom larger than before, as if to spotlight a central feature of the postcolonial condition: as anyone familiar with the Irish literary canon will know, one’s heritage becomes more powerful, inescapable, even oppressive, precisely when it is eclipsed. The Wild Laughter meditates on this dialectic of paternity, asking whether we can anchor ourselves in the past without being consumed by it. Taking its cues from a grand comedic tradition, yet asserting its originality with every line, Caoilinn Hughes’s prose answers that question resoundingly in the affirmative.

—Available at Times Literary Supplement [TLS] - online; accessed 11.19.2020 [directed by the author].

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The patriarch is still at large’, in The Irish Times (15 July 2020)
The Wild Laughter explores how history and culture shapes the father figure.

My second novel has just come out, and it usually takes some time post-publication before I can clearly see what I’ve really written about. But, as The Wild Laughter was eight years in the making, I can already see that at least one of its themes isn’t only local or familial, but belongs to a larger cultural circumstance: the fall of the father figure.
 Statues toppling might come to mind, but I’m speaking of another emblematic father: the breadwinner. This father figure hasn’t been torn down by the masses, but by the few.
 Set on a bankrupt farm in Roscommon, the novel is told from the perspective of the son who works it, in desperate fear of losing his ailing, beloved father. A potato farm is an inevitably auspicious setting and, when I revisited the editorial on the Famine published in The Economist in 1847, the doctrine seems to have stuck around longer than we might hope:

That the innocent suffer with the guilty is a melancholy truth ... Every breach in the laws of morality and social order brings its own punishment and inconvenience. Where there is not perfect security, there cannot be prosperity. This is the first law of civilization.

 After the imperial stranglehold loosened in 1922, it still took (and is taking) a very long time for the culture to be free of disciplinarian father figures. Thanks in part to the second taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, State affairs became as embroiled with the church as education had long been.
 The Archishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, allegedly summoned ministers from the cabinet to give them a carpeting regularly during his office from 1940-72, especially in his early tenure. In an authoritarian manner, the church entrenched patriarchal structures throughout Irish society. The people’s deference to such powers might be described as a byproduct of colonialism, but poverty and precarity would surely have debilitated people too. The context of radical insecurity and vulnerability mattered.


 That the country’s productivity had been exported for hundreds of years meant the young State had no money or resources, and scant infrastructure and industry: it was a very rural society with large families, so there was enormous emigration through the 1930s-50s. Large-scale farmers known as “strong farmers” became a kind of bourgeois, as land was a means to a livelihood.
 Entering the priesthood, too, was a means of attaining social mobility, authority and security; an alternative to the demands of breadwinning. Those who weren’t famers or priests (eg teachers, shopkeepers or even civil servants) might rent a patch of ground to grow vegetables. The marriage bar meant that married women couldn’t be hired on permanent contracts (with some exceptions) and single women had to resign upon getting married, until the ban was lifted (in 1973 for the public sector and 1977 for the private sector). So the role of breadwinner was enforced on married men.
 In the 1970s, the prospect of joining the EEC accelerated a change in focus. But Oliver J. Flanagan, an anti-semite ultraconservative politician who claimed that “there was no sex in Ireland before television”, served as minister for defence. Described by musician Christy Moore as someone who holidays in the holy sea, Flanagan was literally “Father of the Dáil” until his retirement in 1987.
 So it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the hegemony of the church foundered as unconscionable abuses came to light. Garrett Fitzgerald became taoiseach, campaigning for more socially liberal policies and pushing for alignment with the EU, opening up new markets for indigenous industries. Though Ireland didn’t have manufacturing or coal mining like England, foreign direct investment and the Industrial Development Authority fostered economic activity and productivity with grants, incentives and supports, an expanded market, and infrastructural investment from the EU enabled new ways of life.

 Financial services

With Ireland’s new positioning as provider of financial services, nominal corporate tax and featherlight regulation, the perception of wealth in Ireland fundamentally changed. The role of patriarch was being recast and recostumed. Agriculture comprised approximately 20 per cent of GDP in 1970, rapidly declining (relatively) during the Celtic Tiger to approximately 1 per cent in 2018. Cattle and cassock had less sway, though land still mattered, because of the property developers’ magical mathematics of subdivision.
 The dizzying change in Irish life and livelihoods in the late 1980s through the 90s and 00s needs no laying out, nor does the crash that followed, but I wanted to abridge this trajectory of the father figure in Ireland during the 20th century because it engendered a very particular national contradiction: fear of the father figure, and the desperate fear of losing him.
 My own father had begun as a farmer, but later emigrated to London with the aim of gaining commercial experience. When he returned to Ireland, he worked for a software firm alongside running the farm, and eventually formed his own company. My parents were both self-employed with five children when he first fell ill. A decade or so later, the prospect of his returning to work was moot.
 As a teenager then, even in the midst of unprecedented upward mobility - a little more widely distributed than in other western nations - I became conscious of how unstable the bridge we were on felt as a newly middle-class nation. I wondered which men had built the bridge, and who really owned it. Was it a bridge to England, or America, where - I had read about time and again across 20th-century Irish literature -all the downtrodden brooding sons of rural Ireland had threatened to go?
 As both of my novels portray the global financial crisis through its impact on Irish families, it has been put to me many times in interviews that Ireland’s boom-bust was unique in scale and cause. But perhaps what set it apart is the beanstalk haste with which certain neoliberal policies became enrooted.
 Ireland checks many of the boxes for that policy reform. From the 1980s, Ireland underwent deregulation of banking, property and capital markets; lowering of trade barriers; privatisation (or part-privatisation) of State assets and public services; reduction of State influence in the economy; and an increase in corporate influence on government coupled with “globalisation” thanks to the 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate, bringing so many jobs to Ireland as to make the country a Silicon Valley/Big Pharma outpost that could, without warning, withdraw from the country.

 Neoliberal policies

All of this drove the massive reduction of agriculture as a proportion of GNP, and the workforce in agriculture dropped from 31 per cent in 1966 to 4.5 per cent today. Everything would continue to thrive as long as everything continued to grow, watered lavishly with credit, derivatives, tax cuts and political concessions.
 Neoliberal policies penalise those most at risk from labour insecurity, which tends to disproportionately impact women. In one sense, neoliberalism is the patriarchy that followed the coloniser and the church. The strong farmer barely had a look-in. The breadwinner, by and large, was broken by circumstance.
 When Ireland awoke from the fever dream boom years in 2008 and 2009, the rhetoric and conversation taking place in Irish media and in the culture generally was that, yes, the banking and development sectors had been highly irresponsible but that Irish people were complicit in the rampant borrowing and acquisitive greed of the Celtic Tiger and its downfall.
 There seemed to be an immediate consensus that the crisis was not just economic, but political and social, and that some sort of collective admonishment had to ensue. There were uncomfortable echoes of Catholic teachings, that guilt must be atoned for via abstinence, discipline, self-deprecation and self-denial. There would be penance, and a collection, too.
 The post-colonial shame emerged that, when left to govern ourselves, we were too juvenile and wild. The Economist’s Famine editorial might well have been reprinted.
 In 2010, then minister for finance Brian Lenihan said on RTÉ’s Prime Time: “We all partied.” Liveline, sounded to me like a secular confessional. So many people were ready to acknowledge their culpability and foolishness: that they had bought into the promise that capital begot capital, and that debt wasn’t real, just as collateralised debt Obligations weren’t real. Yet, the latter sort of debt made a profit ... just not for tax-paying, bread-winning citizens.
 While there was palpable anger, instead of directing grievances towards the unregulated banking and finance and corrupt politics, some Irish people took that final, quintessential tool of neoliberalism - austerity - and internalised it.
 Austerity is neoliberalism’s remedy for self-disgust, suggesting that disciplinary self-regulation will be redemptive. But a country is not a household. Instead of hardening up and taking the knocks, a new approach would prioritise listening, valuing caregiving and education, investing in people and an ethical, sustainable future.
 The Wild Laughter shows the patriarch to still be at large. However, the beloved, beneficent father figure in the novel isn’t this patriarch. He is its subject, who has internalised the oppressor’s lesson. He believes himself to have failed his history and his family. He has been morbidly misguided. [END]

The Irish Times (15.07.2020); available online.)

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