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
- 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 Hughess 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 Chiefs 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 Irelands 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 Harts
personal loss - “Whod tell me what I needed
to hear tomorrow? Whod keep an eye on me, or spare me
a thought?” - reflect the conditions of a society
hit by the credit crunch: unmoored, atomized, adrift.
Hughess 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 authors
wit enliven this bleak narrative, it stands at its thematic
centre. In contemporary Ireland, says Hart,
we were defined by what we werent
- not married, not fertile, practising, prosperous,
no longer political, no more brave rebels ...What we could
not be without is laughter - the thing austerity couldnt
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 Hughess
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
Chiefs 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 fathers
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, ones 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 Hughess prose answers that question resoundingly
in the affirmative.
—Available at Times Literary Supplement
] - 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 Ive
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 isnt only local or familial, but belongs
to a larger cultural circumstance: the fall of the father
Statues toppling might come to mind, but Im speaking
of another emblematic father: the breadwinner. This father
figure hasnt been torn down by the masses, but by the
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
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 peoples
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 countrys 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 werent 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 couldnt 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 wasnt 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 didnt
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.
With Irelands 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 Irelands 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
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 Economists
Famine editorial might well have been reprinted.
In 2010, then minister for finance Brian Lenihan said
on RTÉs 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 wasnt real, just as collateralised
debt Obligations werent real. Yet, the latter sort of
debt made a profit ... just not for tax-paying, bread-winning
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 neoliberalisms 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 isnt this patriarch. He is its subject, who
has internalised the oppressors lesson. He believes himself
to have failed his history and his family. He has been morbidly
—The Irish Times (15.07.2020);available online.)
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