RTÉ’s recent “Back to Barrytown” series provided a welcome reminder of the wonderful film adaptations of Roddy’s Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy: The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van. The three novels, set in the fictional North Dublin suburb of Barrytown, captured the language and spirit of the city.

Three decades on from the release of The Commitments in cinemas, it is worth looking at Doyle’s work anew, for in it lies signs of how quickly Ireland was changing, indeed, how it had already changed in a way that people outside of the country generally failed to understand.

‘The Commitments’

Published in 1987, and then made into a big-budget film in 1991, The Commitments was easily the most successful of the films.

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Under the guidance of critically-acclaimed director Alan Parker, Doyle’s story of young Jimmy Rabbitte’s quest to form a successful band which would bring African-American soul music to Dublin is captivating, and achieves a perfect balance between the wistful dreams of youth and the hard-bitten cynicism of recession-plagued Ireland.

As made clear by the RTÉ series – presented by the actor Colm Meaney, who starred in all three films – it is also the adaptation which was the most far removed from Doyle’s own writing.

It is no criticism of Doyle’s talent that the influence of the British writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais probably helped the film overall, as some of the best scenes and lines do not appear within the novel. This strong British influence is also of great importance when considering the image of Dublin life which was depicted.

Pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland was a grim place; the filmmakers were spoiled for choice when it came to finding nearby settings blighted by urban decay. The relocation from middle-class Kilbarrack in the suburbs of North Dublin (the inspiration for Barrytown) to the inner city is defensible, even if it did produce an exaggerated depiction of Ireland’s poverty at the time.

Less defensible and realistic was the presentation of Catholicism as an overpowering social influence.

‘Catholic’ touches anachronistic

In the film, the Rabbitte family home contains an oversized picture of the Pope along with several other religious pictures which the British filmmakers considered appropriate for an Irish home. (The Irish actors for the follow-up film, The Snapper, suggested taking down the Pope’s picture which had been placed on the set, on the grounds that a normal Irish family of that generation would not display such an image). 

A badly-misplaced statue of the Virgin Mary appears in the middle of the crowded area where the local women dry their clothes, and young band members are shown having a conversation after leaving Mass.

Departures from the novel such as these clearly irritated Doyle, and he cited two such examples during the interviews for “Back to Barrytown”. In one particularly odd scene, Joey the Lips’s mother sings to a statue of the Virgin Mary while playing the violin. Doyle stressed that it did not represent the Ireland he knew, or wanted to depict.

More interesting was the author’s reaction to another of the British writers’ comedic inventions, in which one of the band members recounts his sins in the confessional, including his abandonment of traditional hymns for more modern musical fare.

I used to sing hymns, now I’m always humming ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ by Marvin Gaye…” the young penitent says.

Percy Sledge – it was Percy Sledge did that particular song. I have the album,” the priest replies from behind the screen.

“The punch line itself was very funny,” Doyle acknowledged, “but he wouldn’t have been going to Confession. That’s much more important.”

As a schoolteacher in the area who was also a perceptive social observer, Doyle was well-placed to know that religious practice among young Dubliners had fallen very significantly, but this fact was lost on British writers, who chose to situate their story against a social backdrop of devout Catholicism which no longer existed by the beginning of the 1990s.

This was not just their mistake.

Over recent years, and particularly in reaction to referendums on social issues, commentators from other countries have looked on Ireland’s supposedly rapid transformation with a combination of surprise and admiration. The surprise has not been so great for those living in Ireland, but it was startling for outsiders whose view of the country was distorted by the same erroneous preconceptions which the makers of The Commitments brought to bear three decades ago.

‘The Snapper’: Ireland and unwed pregnancy

Perhaps it was his experience with The Commitments which led Doyle to maintain a much tighter grip on the film adaptation of The Snapper, which came out in 1993. This time, Doyle wrote the screenplay himself, and although the film is directed by another Briton (Stephen Frears, who participated in the RTÉ series) and British producers, the results of this different approach were obvious.

The film version of The Snapper closely mirrors the book’s storyline, and it too has become a cult classic.

Given the storyline (which concerns a 20-year-old Dublin woman who is faced with the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy) and recent revelations about Ireland’s historically harsh treatment of unwed mothers, it is of special significance, as noted by Meaney and others in the programme analysing it.

There is no getting around it: in both the book and the film, Sharon becoming pregnant without a husband in her life is problematic in a way that contemporary audiences cannot fully comprehend.

But the negative reaction to her pregnancy is not based on religion, nor is it patriarchal in nature.

While Sharon’s rough-mannered but loveable father quickly assures his eldest daughter of his support, his wife is less encouraging. “It’s a terrible…” she says, “the neighbours!” and she later suggests to her husband that they “should tell the [other] girls that what Sharon did was wrong.”

Compared to the community’s reaction, this is gentle. The expectant mother experiences verbal abuse and gossip from locals. Children call her a “slut” in the shop where she works, and her colleagues mock her predicament. While Sharon has a nightmare in which she incurs the judgment of those around her, it is the faces of neighbours – not the local priests or nuns – which haunt her dream.

In his recent book about the decline of Catholicism in Ireland, Derek Scally detects a reluctance for broader Irish society to accept its role in the harsh treatment of unwed mothers and other vulnerable groups. It is much easier to lay this at the Church’s door, but what we see in The Snapper makes it clear how this could, and did, manifest itself without any encouragement from the pulpit.

Curiously, the option of terminating the pregnancy is addressed very directly in the book, less so in the film, and barely at all in the recent documentary. In the book, released seven years after the 1983 referendum in which the Irish people inserted the right to life of unborn children into the Constitution, the exchange runs like this:

Jimmy Sr now said something he’d heard a good few times on the telly.

D’yeh want to keep it?

‘Wha’ d’yeh mean?

D’yeh – d’you want to keep it, like?

He wants to know if you want to have an abortion, said Veronica [the mother]. – The eejit.

I do not! said Jimmy Sr.

This was true. He was sorry now he’d said it.

There’s no way I’d have an abortion, said Sharon.

Good. You’re right.

Abortion’s murder.

It is o’ course.

The assertion by the young woman that abortion was “murder” and the father’s immediate agreement on that point, was not included in the film, which was released a year after the Supreme Court’s X case ruling opened the way for limited abortion, at a time when pro-abortion demonstrators were first appearing on Irish streets.

At no stage in the book or the film are Sharon or her family shown to be devout people whose actions and attitudes were guided by Church teaching. In fact, when she later fears that she is miscarrying, Sharon begins to pray the ‘Hail Mary,’ but stops when she cannot remember the words: “and anyway,” Doyle adds, “she didn’t believe in it.”

Whether she believed or not, a moral consensus about the sanctity of life clearly still existed – her reaction to her father’s question points to this. Post-Catholic Ireland was still influenced by Christian ethics, even if broad swathes of the nominally Catholic population no longer practiced their faith. This could not last however, and it has not lasted.

‘The Van’

Finally, there is The Van – the least well-known book and film in the trilogy. The tale of how two unemployed men go into business selling fish and chips out of a takeaway van, and how their friendship disintegrates under the weight of resentment and jealousy, is darker than the other two storylines.

During the final episode of the three-part RTÉ production, both the director and the producer displayed admirable self-criticism by acknowledging that the film adaptation had not done the story justice.

In truth, although it addressed important issues like long-term unemployment, both the book and the film fell well short of reaching the heights set by Doyle’s first two works. Understandably, it never earned a place in the hearts of Irish film lovers; but The Van did, in its own quiet way, show how Irish family structures were being transformed in the 1990s.

Released in 1996 (a year after the divorce referendum ended in a narrow defeat for social conservatives), The Van’s Ireland is much closer to us chronologically and practically. Here, there are no religious references at all.

While the families in the first two films are large – half a dozen children or more – the protagonist Larry has only one son and one daughter, whose status as a single mother goes entirely unremarked upon. And when time comes for Larry and his business partner to toast their success, they quickly seek out an opportunity to commit adultery (a comically unsuccessful effort).

Thus, it can be said that while The Van was less entertaining, it was more reflective of what Ireland was, and what it was becoming.

A lesson about social change

What the Barrytown Trilogy teaches us is that consequential social changes tend to occur slowly. Though major events in Ireland like the landslide vote in favour of abortion in 2018 attract much attention, massive societal shifts in values do not happen – they cannot happen – quickly.

Yet, as the recently-deceased political scientist Ronald Inglehart made clear in his final book, societal shifts towards what Inglehart called “individual-choice norms” (including acceptance of abortion and a reduced emphasis on the family unit) can sometimes reach a tipping point where these views become dominant, which then produces rapid cultural change throughout society.

This has clearly happened in Ireland, but the roots of the change were self-evident 30 years ago, and perhaps even further back than that.

The fact that foreign observers (such as the filmmakers who produced The Commitments) did not appreciate that their perception of Ireland no longer matched the reality helps to explain why so many people are surprised at what modern Ireland has become.

This is not to say the country was “backward” before these changes. Instead, many outsiders had a backward attitude towards it, and tended to imagine Ireland as it had been, not as it was.

None of this takes anything away from the films, or the books, which brought entertainment to so many people. Taken together, they also showed how one Ireland was already exiting the stage, while a terrible beauty had been born, and would soon come of age.

James Bradshaw works for an international consulting firm based in Dublin, and has a background in journalism and public policy. Outside of work, he writes for a number of publications, on topics including...