Snapshots of Modern Irish Life

Lee Henry chews the fat with Darragh McIntyre and finds out what it is to be Irish

Darragh MacIntyre’s book Conversations: Snapshots of Modern Irish Life offers up an image of Ireland that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. It is a remarkable collection of the personal stories of 49 individuals living in Ireland today, and it’s better than any fiction you’ll read this year.

At a time when our bookshops are brimming over with political biographies, one-sided histories and a whole raft of sensationalist exposés that manage only to deepen the old wounds without ever presenting an accurate picture of what it is to be Irish and what life is like outside of the sectarian goldfish bowl, Conversations expresses the impartial opinions of the people themselves, be they high or low, Catholic or Protestant, Nigerian, Lithuanian or Chinese. 

Sometimes eccentric, often tragic, but always compelling, MacIntyre’s many and varied subjects tell it like it really, really is.

Anyone who knows the work of the American broadcaster Studs Terkel will understand the premise behind Conversations. Terkel sought to provide a forum for the little man, the man with the pick in his hand and the debt on his mind. He talked to thousands of Americans about their own experiences and opinions of modern America, and it was he who inspired MacIntyre to do the same in Ireland, his own homeland.

‘The first time I met Studs Terkel was three years ago in a hotel lobby in Chicago,’ recalls MacIntyre. ‘He was ninety then and extraordinarily alert. He started to speak to me about Sean O’Casey, quoting from his plays. He talked about Martin Luther King, and as a journalist and a writer, I came away in complete awe of the man.’ 

On his return to Ireland, MacIntyre’s ideas started to take form and soon he began his own search for subjects. His journalistic instincts led him back to some of the people he had met through his work as producer and reporter on BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme, whilst friends recommended others.

The final inventory is a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous, with everything from an eccentric Irish Lord hosting Paul McCartney’s wedding to a gay employee of the Housing Executive dealing directly with Johnny Adair. The pace is startling, the voices unique. And on almost every page there is a revelation or an insight into what life in Ireland was, is and can be in the years to come.

‘Fact is always stranger than fiction,’ MacIntyre says. ‘With fiction you’re anticipating the twist. The true story is always the one that knocks you back on your feet.’

He proceeds to tell me the story of Tom Wilson, the last voice in the book. Wilson had been brought up in the strictest of Unionist families, and his father – an East Belfast man - had helped to organise Loyalist resistance to the IRA and the Sunningdale Agreement. But it wasn’t until his grandmother took ill that his father’s background truly came to light. In the words of Tom himself:

The first thing was when she spoke about seeing the Virgin Mary in her room. That was quite a shock for a good Protestant family. Then she asked to see a priest. Shock, horror. The next minute she got out of bed, went to the wardrobe, and from her many boxes of trinkets pulled out a set of rosary beads and started saying the Rosary.’

‘It just shows you the effect that keeping something secret can have,’ explains MacIntyre. ‘If they had been open it probably wouldn’t have been an issue, but it had a profound impact on the family. And when you read that you think it’s not true, it’s not true. But, of course, it is true.

‘Here you have this family of diehard blue men from East Belfast suddenly discovering that the Ma is a Catholic from South Armagh.’ MacIntyre almost chocks on his orange juice laughing. ‘Bang,’ he says. ‘Everything changes in an instant.’

The recurring themes of political persuasion and religion continue throughout, but it is the increasing significance of Irish multi-culturalism that really captures the imagination. Whether it be a Nigerian in Portlaoise, a Lithuanian in Monaghan, or a Chinese couple in Tralee, the book shows us that there are lessons to be learned from all sections of society. Conversations teach us to listen.