Darragh Martin: “It was August 2012 when Pope John Paul II popped into my head. This was a surprise, as the play I was working on while at a writing retreat– Tom of Athlone, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens set during the Global Financial Crash – wasn’t supposed to feature any Popes. After three slow weeks, however, I was starting to see why Timon of Athens isn’t Shakespeare’s most popular work; when the Pope popped into my head, I was inclined to set aside the searing take-down of global capitalism and say hello.
I hadn’t been around for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979 but I knew how iconic it was: over a million people crammed into Phoenix Park to hear the Pope preach against the dangers of abortion, divorce, and contraception. This speech had an unlikely aphrodisiac effect, or so I liked to think, for nine months later, maternity wards across the country welcomed a fair few ‘John Pauls.’ Growing up in Dublin, I encountered a couple of these lads and was struck by the gap between the babies destined for a chair in the Vatican and the teenagers skipping school or skulling cider; here, perhaps, was material for a story.
Soon Pope John Paul II was joined by a fictional family in my head: Granny Doyle, the indomitable matriarch on a mission to grandmother the first Irish pope; the triplets born after the Pope’s visit – Rosie, Damien, and, of course, John Paul – who would each rebel against her in very different ways; Peg, their older sister whose exile from Ireland would set the story in motion. I left poor Tom in Athlone, and followed the Doyles across three decades instead. I scribbled away as the children destined to be future Popes developed: they fell in love and out with each other; they debated the merits of Nirvana or the Spice Girls; they became Celtic Tiger capitalists or radical eco-warriors; they watched as the Ireland they were born into became almost unrecognizable.
The story took six years to write. In that time, Ireland has continued to change rapidly. I’m delighted that two of the movements that the Doyles get involved with – the fights for gay rights and access to abortion – have recently had major victories.
As a very different Pope prepares to visit, I hope that this novel can play a small part in illuminating the very different Ireland he’ll encounter as it tells the story of children reared to be Popes and all the mischief, mess, and miracles they get up to instead.”
An excerpt from Future Popes of Ireland:
Holy Water Bottle (1979).
It was September 1979 when Pope John Paul II brought sex to Ireland. Granny Doyle understood his secret message immediately. An unholy trinity of evils knocked on Ireland’s door (divorce! abortion! contraception!) so an army of bright-eyed young things with Miraculous Medals was required. Phoenix Park was already crammed with kids listening to the Pope’s speech – chubby legs dangling around the necks of Daddys; tired heads drooping against Mammys – but Granny Doyle knew that none of these sticky-handed Séans or yawning Eamons would be up for the task. No, the lad who would rise from the ranks of priests and bishops to assume the ultimate position in the Vatican would have to come from a new generation; the Popemobile had scarcely shut its doors before the race was on to conceive the first Irish Pope.
First in line was Granny Doyle, armed with a tiny bottle of Papal-blessed holy water. The distance between Granny Doyle’s upheld bottle and the drops flying from the Pope’s aspergillum was no obstacle; this was not a day for doubt. Helicopters whirred above. The Popemobile cruised through the streets. A new Papal Cross stretched towards the sky, confident as any skyscraper, brilliantly white in the sun’s surprise rays. All of Dublin packed into Phoenix Park in the early hours, equipped with folding chairs and flasks of tea. Joy fizzed through the air before the Pope even spoke. When he did, it was a wonder half a million people didn’t levitate immediately from the pride. The Pope loved Ireland, the Pope loved the Irish, the Irish loved the Pope; this was a day when a drop of precious holy water could catapult across a million unworthy heads and plop into its destined receptacle. Granny Doyle replaced the pale blue lid on the bottle and turned to her daughter-in-law.
‘Sprinkle a bit of this on the bed tonight, there’s a good girl.’
A version of this sentence had been delivered to Granny Doyle on her wedding night, by some fool of a priest who was walking proof of why Ireland had yet to produce a Pope. Father Whatever had given her defective goods, clearly, for no miracle emerged from the tangled sheets of 7 Dunluce Crescent that night or for a good year after, despite all the staying still and praying she did on that mattress. Then, all she had for her troubles was Danny Doyle, an insult of an only child, when all the other houses on Dunluce Crescent bulged with buggies. Ah, but she loved him. Even if he wasn’t the type of son destined for greatness, the reserves of Shamrock Rovers as far as his ambitions roamed, he was good to her, especially since his father had passed. Nor was he the curious sort, so much the better for Papal propagation; he didn’t bat an eyelid as Granny Doyle transferred the bottle of water to her daughter-in-law’s handbag. His wife was equally placid, offering Granny Doyle a benign smile, any questions about logistical challenges or theological precedent suppressed. Only Peg seemed to recognize the importance of the moment, that divil of a four-year-old with alert eyes that took in everything: Peg Doyle would need glasses soon, for all the staring she did, and Granny Doyle could summon few greater disappointments than a bespectacled grandchild.
In truth, it was her mother’s handbag that had Peg’s attention, not the bottle of holy water. After a long day of disappointment, when it became clearer that the Pope would not be throwing out free Lucky Dips or My Little Ponys into the crowd, Catherine Doyle’s handbag was Peg’s only hope. It might have a Curly Wurly hidden in its folds. Or Lego. Perhaps, if Peg was lucky, there might be a book with bright pictures, which her mother would read to her, squatted down on the grass while meaner Mammys kept their kids focused on the tiny man on the tiny stage. Peg knew it definitely wouldn’t contain her copybook, which was the one treasure she really desired. Since she’d started school a few weeks ago, Peg had come to love her slim copybook, with its blank pages waiting for Peg’s precise illustrations to match her teacher’s instructions. My Home and My Mother and the gold star worthy My Street were lovingly rendered in crayon, letters carefully transcribed from the blackboard, Very Good, according to Peg’s teacher. It would be weird to take homework on a day out, Peg’s mother said, as if squishing into a field to squint at a man with a strange hat wasn’t weird at all.
Peg sighed: the holy water bottle disappeared into the handbag, one quick zip cruelly thwarting Peg’s happiness. Her mother didn’t notice her gaze, looking instead in the direction of the stage, like all the other grown-ups. That was the way of Peg’s parents: they looked where they were supposed to, straight ahead, at the green man, at the telly. Granny Doyle had different kinds of eyes, ones that explored all the angles of a room, eyes that glinted at her now. Peg avoided that gaze and focused on her new leather shoes, both consolation and source of deeper disappointment. On the one hand, the bright black school shoes were the nicest Peg had ever owned. She had endured multiple fittings in Clarks before they found a pair that were shiny enough to impress a Pope and sensible enough not to suggest a toddler Jezebel. They were perfect. Except they would be better in the box. They looked so pretty there, Peg thought mournfully, remembering how nicely the tissue paper filled them, how brightly the shoes had shone, before the trek across tarmac and the muck of Phoenix Park had got to them. The morning had contained more walking than Peg could remember and not a bit of it was pleasant: a blur of torsos that Peg was dragged through, the grass an obstacle course of dew and dirt. Only the thought of the shoebox – the smell of newness still clinging to the tissue, waiting for Peg’s nose once she ever got home – kept Peg’s spirits up; soon, she would be back in 4 Baldoyle Grove, in her room with its doll’s house and shoebox and soft carpet.
‘Come on, you come with me. We’ve a long drive ahead of us.’
The shoebox would have to wait; Granny Doyle had other plans for Peg. The grown-ups had been negotiating while Peg had been daydreaming and it suddenly became clear that Peg’s feet would not be taking her back to 4 Baldoyle Grove that night. Peg looked forlornly up at Granny Doyle’s handbag. She knew exactly what it contained: wooden rosary beads and bus timetables and certainly not a Curly Wurly, some musty old Macaroon bar, perhaps, which Peg would have to eat to prove she wasn’t a brat or some divil sent to break Granny Doyle’s heart, an organ that Peg had difficulty imagining. It’ll be a great adventure, Peg heard Granny Doyle say, the slightest touch of honey in her voice before briskness took over with Come on, now and Ah, don’t be acting strange. Acting strange was a popular pastime of Peg’s, never mind that most of the grown- ups paraded in front of her deserved such treatment. Peg looked up at her parents. They were useless, of course; they couldn’t refuse Granny Doyle anything.
‘Come on, now,’ Granny Doyle said, in a softer voice, feeling a stab of affection for her odd little grandchild. A calculating creature with far more brains than were good for her, perhaps, but Peg could be shaped into some Jane the Baptist for a future Pope. There was no doubt that such a child was coming – 29 September 1979 was not a day for doubt! – and Granny Doyle felt a similarly surprising wave of love for the crowds that only a few hours ago had been intolerable. Euphoria trailed in the air and Granny Doyle clung on, sure that this was the date when all the petty slights of her life could be shirked off, the superiority of Mrs Donnelly’s rockery nothing to the woman who would grandmother Ireland’s first Pope. Even the plod of the brainless crowd could be handled with tremendous patience, especially when she had her elbows at the ready.
‘We’re going to have a great weekend,’ Granny Doyle said, cheeks flushed.
Peg had no choice but to follow, a long line of grown-ups to be pulled through as her shoes sighed at the injustices of outside.
Later, when Peg scoured photos of the Pope’s visit to Phoenix Park, she found it difficult to remember the crowds or the stage or even the man. She had a nagging uncertainty that she could not remember this moment at all; perhaps she had come to realize the significance of the event for her life and had furnished a memory shaped from fancy and photographs. Later, there would be the jolt that here was perhaps her first mistake; in her darker moments, Peg Doyle would wonder if everything might have uncoiled differently had she never taken her grandmother’s hand.
But Granny Doyle’s grip was not one to be resisted and Peg found herself pulled into the crowds before she could wish her parents goodbye. Something else that Peg would always wonder about: did she remember her parents extending their arms at the same time before she was whisked off? A gesture hard to read, half-way between a wave and an attempted grab, nothing that was strong enough to counteract the pull of Granny Doyle or the tug of the future.
Future Popes of Ireland is out now.