The Dead Republic
by Roddy Doyle
Reviewed by Jeff Baker
There's a long fight scene in The Quiet Man, John Ford's 1952 valentine to Ireland. John Wayne and Victor McLaglen fight their way through a village, stop for a drink, fight some more, and end as friends.
Henry Smart, the hero of Roddy Doyle's trilogy The Last Roundup, has a long fight with Ford in The Dead Republic, the concluding volume in the series. Smart is angry at Ford for appropriating his life story and sentimentalizing it in The Quiet Man, and takes his frustration out on the old director, whipping him with a rosary and breaking his fingers while punching him.
(Smart doesn't, however, beat Ford with a wooden leg, the way he did during his Irish Republic Army assassin days in A Star Called Henry. It was his father's wooden leg at the time; he's now got his own, but that's another story.)
Smart and Ford calm down, and Ford explains why he's making "this leprechaun Ireland" instead of a bloody movie about how the country was really born, the way Smart wanted.
"Without our nostalgia we would die," he said. "We'd be nothing. Landless. The place mightn't exist, Henry, but we need it. And the Italians, and the Swedes, the Russians and all of those people. They need the home in their heads. You too."
The difference between the home in their heads -- the misty, evergreen version of Ireland that Ford put onscreen with Maureen O'Hara as the ideal country lass -- and the dead republic Smart finds when he goes back, older and wiser, provides the dramatic tension in Doyle's novel. Henry Smart is a character whose life is twisted up with Ireland's. He's looking for a home that's not in his head and can't find it, not as Ford's pet Irishman and "IRA consultant," not as a caretaker and peacekeeper at a boys school and not as a long-lost hero and figurehead in the Irish troubles.
The Last Roundup is an ambitious trilogy, much more complex and interesting than the three Barrytown novels -- The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van -- for which he is better known in the U.S. Henry Smart is a sarcastic, resourceful fellow -- a typical Doyle character -- but his toughness and ability to appear everywhere, to be the elbow in famous photographs, makes him a little like George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman. The trilogy's scope and tone is more like Gunter Grass' The Tin Drum, and if Doyle doesn't always handle the magic realist and time compression elements adroitly -- Smart's long-lost wife pops in and out of the story at weird times -- he's still completed a most impressive, entertaining set of novels.
And Ford was right about The Quiet Man. Audiences didn't want a movie about revolution; they wanted a hokey love story. The movie locations are tourist sites, where people can come and see the "real" Ireland.