I saw Breakfast on Pluto a few years ago, and made a mental note to look out for Patrick McCabe’s books if I ever saw them. Fortunately, The Dead School was to be found in a second hand bookstore I go into sometimes, and I picked it up. A good year and a half ago. In my defence, I moved overseas, and didn’t have access to it for a long time – but excuses no longer. I finally picked it up, and set myself up for some depressing Irish fiction.
Malachy Dudgeon and Raphael Bell are two men born in different times in different places, but with similar upbringings. Both are born in small Irish towns, and both eventually becomes teachers. And yet, they couldn’t be more different. Their attitudes to life, learning and their students are worlds apart. As their lives slowly intertwine and interact, there is no doubt about the effect each will have on the other – this is a make or break relationship.
What is it about the Irish that makes them write depressing, dark novels? The weather? Needless to day, McCabe follows in the grand Irish tradition, and gives us two main characters who find themselves in a world for which they are thoroughly unsuited, though in completely different ways.
I found Raphael less likeable, but in the end, a far more fascinating character. A perfect young child grows up into a perfect young man, and eventually grows into an outdated dinosaur, scared off by the feminist movement. His inability to see that his own living in the past – listening to hymns on the radio on a Saturday afternoon with his perfect housewife, caring for his students through corporal punishment – is causing his own insanity is quite fascinating.
Malachy is a whole separate kettle of fish. While it is built up that Raphael is almost destined from birth to be a perfect boarding school headmaster, Malachy seems to fall into becoming a teacher. He treats his teaching college days as a joke, and when he finally becomes a teacher, it is clear he has no idea what he’s doing. But his desire to prove to Raphael that he’s not an idiot – driven by either fear or anger, we’re never really sure – causes him to place pressure on himself, though this only helps in making his personal life a living hell. Having grown up with teachers all around me, I can’t help but understand the pressures of being a teacher. It’s hard work. And that many, many people are unsuited to it. Malachy is one of them.
In the end, though, there doesn’t seem to be hope for either of these characters. Raphael is driven to insanity by being forced to leave the school – his entire life’s work gone. And Malachy is so obviously a bad teacher, we can’t help but agree that people like him – people who want to be best friends with their students are clearly never going to make it. Their descents into loopiness are well drawn, and their worlds becoming increasingly bizarre, with Raphael in particular becomingn certifiable. He takes to teaching drunk classes in his own apartment, filled with boys who don’t even exist. And as Malachy is eaten up with guilt, he too turns to drink. Perhaps this is an Irish thing?
A word on women. This book is depressingly, relentlessly misogynistic. All the women here are presented in less than glorious terms: loose wives, who spend their time sleeping around with everyone except their husbands; “feminazi” style women (some of who have !shock! had abortions) who want to change everything that good society stands for; or the meek, supplicant housewife, who always has a warm dinner on the table when the husband gets home. Do not read this book if you want to feel good about the position of women in society.
There’s a lot of stuff going on in The Dead School, but what struck me most about the whole thing was the question of generations, and the way old and young people interact with each other. By giving us two teacher who have similar spatial backgrounds, but different temporal ones – and who work with yet another generation every day - McCabe is able to show us how Ireland has changed over the last fifty or so years, and how it is continuing to do so. Neither side comes off better – instead of resorting to attacking the “youth of today”, McCabe provides a far more balanced, and therefore interesting, piece of work.