Reviewed by Laura Marriott
As Ireland commemorates the events surrounding the 1916 Easter Rising this timely novel teases out what this event means to the youth of today.
Citizens is set in Dublin 2011. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, Ireland is held in the grip of recession and austerity, and for apathetic 26 year old Neil it often feels as though his country has failed and the time is coming to leave. On the cusp of emigrating to Canada with his ambitious girlfriend Kathy, Neil finds his plans are put on hold when his grandfather dies. Neil delays his flight to Canada in order to receive his grandfather’s legacy. He is now stuck behind in Dublin, aiding his grieving grandmother, in the dole queue, and spending most of his free time at the gym or partying.
The legacy is a surprise to Neil. His great grandfather left behind written memories of the Rising. During the Easter Rising of 1916 Irish volunteers took over government buildings in Dublin, in the hope that it would trigger a national uprising against the British colonialists. In this sense the rising was a military failure. However the strong reaction of the British administration – holding trials for the leaders in secret before executing them – led to mass outrage, setting the desire for and path to independence alight.
In the midst of this Neil’s great grandfather Harry is to be found. A Pathe newsreel cameraman armed with a cinemachine to capture the birth of the new republic for posterity. Harry fully understands the importance of recording the events, people, successes and disasters he often comes across. This is an inventive and brilliant way of drawing the reader into the events of 1916 and is particularly relatable due to the current obsession with photographing and recording everything around us. Neil’s story is intercut with sections of Harry’s memoirs, but will Neil realise the value of the legacy?
Neil and Kathy are not often the most likeable of characters; shallow and selfish, they care only about themselves. Kathy, who has gone ahead to Canada and is waiting for Neil to catch up, helps to propel the narrative forward, but she is often a greedy, manipulative character who is difficult to like. The main characters are all fully rounded and recognisable, but there has to be something else for the reader to hold on to, to care about. Curran provides this in Neil’s growing relationship with his great grandfather’s diaries. Partially based on real letters and diaries they feel authentic and Curran skilfully avoids the trap of idealising or mythologising the past.
Neil’s relationship with his grandmother is particularly well drawn and many a reader will be able to relate to the love and frustration that the two feel for each other. The two characters also represent the different value systems they were born into and the movement that has taken place over the decades from idealism and nationhood to monetary value. As Neil says to his Gran: ‘wealth is what defines you, not your passport of where you are from.’ However his Gran does not agree with this: ‘Not everything of value has monetary worth, dear.’
Neil embodies the disappointment and weariness that seems to typify Ireland’s youth. As Neil explains: ‘he doesn’t belong. There is an accent in Irish television he never hears: his. Or ones like it. There is a type of person he never sees on Irish television: him, or people like him. Desperate, disillusioned, angry, annoyed’. The cynicism and theme of emigration also touch a nerve in a country where thousands of young people are leaving every year.
The title Citizens chimes in with the general theme of the commemorations which have been emphasising that it was the individuals, ordinary people, who did extraordinary things. Further, Curran explores what it means to be a citizen, good or bad, in both 1916 and modern Ireland. He explores the frustration many millennials feel when the traditional routes of education and hard work ultimately lead nowhere, well, except back to the dole queue. Neil seems more able to deal with this shifting economic climate, whereas Kathy does not.
As Neil works his way through his great-grandfathers legacy he gains a deeper understanding of the rebellion and the ideals that led individuals to take the action that they did. This is a journey the reader goes on with Neil. Citizens brings to life this extraordinary time in history in a vivid and personal manner. Curran frames the Easter Rising in a modern narrative which is a fresh way of delving into the events that shaped modern Ireland. By using two relatable, ordinary characters Curran draws the reader in until they feel closer to the events as they were, and as they are remembered. The book’s cover reflects this. Its dark shades of black and blue, images of contemporary and twentieth century O’Connell Street at night with the GPO (General post Office) building standing tall. Still riddled with bullet holes from 1916 it is a symbol of Ireland that reaches through the decades.
This is the second novel from Curran and has been listed as one of the Independent’s top 10 novels that reflect the spirit and legacy of the rebellion. Citizens has quickly become a top seller in Ireland and as the centenary progresses this success is likely to continue. Curran is a confidant writer, in tune with his city and the characters he has created. This is an enjoyable and important read.
Laura Marriott is a historian, theatre critic, writer and poet.
Kevin Curran, Citizens (Liberties Press, 2016). 978-1910742259. 314pp., paperback.
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