Liam Harte, review of The Pilgrimage and The Waking of Willie Ryan by John Broderick
in The Irish Times (15 Jan. 2005)

Details: Liam Harte, ‘A Man Apart’, review of Madeline Kingston, Something in the Head, with rep. edns. of The Pilgrimage [by John Broderick and The Waking of Willie Ryan [reps.], in The Irish Times (15 Jan. 2005), Weekend, p.13. [Available at Irish Times Archive.]

When asked what he did for a living in the late 1960s, the novelist John Broderick coyly replied, “I bake buns”, an allusion to the fact that the Broderick name had been synonymous with baking in Athlone since 1840.

Indeed, so popular was the bakery’s Sunshine brand in the 1940s that children would mockingly chant: “Broderick’s bread would kill a man dead / Especially a man with a baldy head.”

Sole heir to the family fortune, Broderick himself succumbed to the effects of alcoholism and loneliness in 1989, aged 65, having long since failed to fulfil the early promise that saw him publish four accomplished novels between 1961 and 1965. The best of these, The Pilgrimage and The Waking of Willie Ryan, have been reissued by Lilliput to coincide with the publication of Madeline Kingston’s biography, the title of which is taken from a letter in which the novelist told the poet Desmond Egan: “It is not that I am really cold-hearted: it is simply that life for me is something in the head, and almost never in the body.”

Broderick’s cerebral disposition was one of the marks of his solitary outsiderness. His characteristic pose seems to have been that of a man in some way set apart, conspicuous by his independent wealth, his dandyish appearance, his literary ambition, his ambiguous sexuality. A friend recalls how, even at a fancy dress party, Broderick’s expensive hired costume stood out among the home-made outfits of others.

Unable to cope with the stresses and expectations created by his initial literary success, Broderick turned to alcohol in the late 1960s, which soon staunched the creative flow. After several “lost” drinking years, he made a spectacular return to form with An Apology for Roses, which sold 30,000 copies in the first week of its publication in 1973. A year later, however, the sudden death of his mother, with whom he had lived for virtually all of his 50 years, shattered his brittle equilibrium. This trauma overshadowed his later years, which, though productive - he published four novels between 1982 and 1987 - were marked by increasing unhappiness and ill-health.

In the early 1980s, Broderick moved to Bath for reasons which, Kingston admits, “are as elusive as so much else about him”. A fugitive from biography, Broderick both covered his tracks and cultivated an air of mystery, bequeathing little in the way of self-revelatory material. Kingston is often left chasing shadows, therefore, and ultimately fails to bring her subject fully to book. The best she can offer is a series of vignettes of a complex personality torn between conformity and dissent: a Mass-going Catholic who fulminated against the post-Vatican II changes in religious practice; a self-proclaimed hedonist (“I did everything I wanted in every conceivable way”) who was appalled by England’s “moral dissipation”; a writer who liked to represent himself as “an Athlone businessman”, yet once appeared in the town clad in black leather, clutching a handbag.

Broderick’s desire to hide his homosexuality appears to have been at the heart of his evasive, obfuscatory ways. As early as 1946 close friends noticed that he had lost his “natural sunshine and spontaneity” and “seemed to be hiding something”. But whereas Kingston is reluctant to pronounce definitively on his sexual proclivities, having found “no evidence of any sustained relationship at any time of his life”, David Norris shows no such reserve. “He was a heavy drinker and a homosexual,” he bluntly states in his foreword to The Waking of Willie Ryan, the novel Broderick rightly considered to be his best.

Reading it and The Pilgrimage 40 years after their first (banned) publication, one is struck by both the derivativeness and the originality of the writing. Broderick’s dissection of religious hypocrisy, spiteful intolerance and emotional entrapment in small-town Ireland, a place that stifles individuality and breeds destructive neuroses, owes much to Balzac, Hardy, Lawrence and Brinsley MacNamara. Yet there is an edgy, daringly innovative quality to his portrayal of subterranean gay culture in 1950s Ireland and his searing indictment of the homophobia of the Catholic bourgeoisie.

So even though both novels deal in stark homosexual stereotypes that are very much of their time - the closet gay who commits suicide, the “notorious queer” who prowls the Dublin docks, the family member who is locked up in a mental asylum following a homosexual affair - they make a strong case for Broderick to be reconsidered as an important contributor to the buried tradition of Irish homoerotic writing, though one suspects that a writer who resented being labelled a “provincial” or “midlands” novelist would forcefully repudiate any such literary revisionism.

[Liam Harte is lecturer in Irish and Modern Literature at the University of Manchester; Something in the Head: The Life and Work of John Broderick by Madeline Kingston Lilliput Press, 175pp. €12.99; The Pilgrimage by John Broderick Lilliput Press, 191pp. €10.99; The Waking of Willie Ryan by John Broderick Lilliput Press, 240pp. €10.99.]

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