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the cruelty men

This epic novel explores Ireland's history during a century of hurt and shame

The novel, by Emer Martin, explores the fate of one Irish family.

AT 435 PAGES, Emer Martin’s new novel The Cruelty Men is an epic read – and it’s also an epic journey through Irish history: from Cromwell to mother-and-baby homes, farming to servant life.

The story of an Irish family has been called “a Bible of fucked up Irishness” by Irvine Welsh, and it truly is a dark and fascinating read. Its author, Emer Martin, fled Ireland at the age of 17, tired of the suffocating nature of the country. So it’s not surprising to see that she has effectively managed to interrogate the nature of family, Irishness, and identity.

Martin’s first novel, Breakfast in Babylon, came out in 1995. Since then, she’s written More Bread or I’ll Appear, and Baby Zero. Though she has long looked at the lives of Irish people through a feminist lens, for this book she’s taken things to another level.

Given how long it took for the book to be written, it’s remarkable that it comes at a time when the issues discussed in it – Ireland’s colonial past, family legacy, abuse, institutionalisation, treatment of women – have been interrogated and at times dismantled here in recent years.

“It took me seven years to write and then another three years of editing it and shaping it,” Martin tells Did she realise the topics would be so pertinent? “I had no idea. Just watching it all unfold as the book came out was quite phenomenal because there’s been so many stories told but there hasn’t been too much fiction written about it yet. Because it seems like everyone is just processing [Ireland's history].”

The book was partly inspired by the Murphy and Ryan reports into child abuse and the Catholic church, what Martin calls an “unfolding of stories”. “It was as if we hadn’t heard them before, or hadn’t been able to listen to them. Suddenly we were listening,” she says. “Even within my own family people were telling stories that were astounding [and] that they had kept secret until they were in their 70s.”

The beginning of the book opens with an Irish family – the O Conaills – who are practically forced to move from their home in rural Co Kerry to a new Gaeltacht area in Meath by the Irish government. When the man from the Land Commission arrives, the locals in Cill Rialaig welcome him in, thinking he’s there to gather folklore stories from them. Instead, he encourages them to move to what would become Ráth Chairn, to help promote the Irish language. The family move, but it proves to be a devastating decision for them.

Martin is interested in how the Irish State treated its citizens in the name of independence, and in particular how women were treated in a country where church and state had such a symbiotic relationship. She explores this through the story of Mary O Conaill, the eldest daughter, and her siblings Seamus, Bridget, Maeve and Padraig. One sibling ends up in a Magdalene laundry; one brother becomes a Christian Brother; another is mistreated because of a disability.


Money and power

Martin says that where there is money to be made and power to be had, people will suffer – and this idea is explored multiple times in the book.

“When I was looking back on it I was thinking whenever anybody is given a lot of power if there is no limits to it, humans will naturally abuse power. So the idea is we should always make sure everybody’s power is limited and power is diffused throughout society, otherwise we are always going to have this exploitative situation,” she explains.

The Cruelty Men in particular looks at the relationship between gender and power. “Women were so disempowered,” says Martin.

She says there was “always a sense women didn’t have value, they were there to serve men” in Ireland.

It was written into the Constitution, women’s role in the home. Then we went on to become a capitalist materialist society which said if you are not producing capital you aren’t valuable.

The Ireland of 2018 is different to the Ireland in her book in many ways. What does she think about the recent Eighth Amendment referendum?

“It’s incredible, it’s a very healing moment in Ireland to do that and address the hurt,” she says. She says steps are being taken towards equality, but it’s not fully achieved: “If you ever want to look around and see if there is true equality, you look at who’s holding the wealth, look at who is sitting in the boardrooms, who is managing country, who is in government.

Ireland is making the right moves, a lot of positivity there -but it’s a beginning. It’s certainly not ‘brush your hands and say we’re done’.

“In my book I write about the two parallel Irelands – they’re still there,” she adds. “There is a beautiful way of life in Ireland, a very comfort idyllic way of life, one of the best lifestyles you can have on the planet probably, and then there is a huge underclass who don’t get this type of life and who are shut out completely from the economy.”

“There are forgotten people we push out our towns and cities and give them very few services. We have a huge underclass that we just ignore their lives completely, I think that’s a huge problem, I don’t think we’ll ever be whole as a country until we address it.”

‘I don’t feel like I’m indoors anymore’

emer-1 Emer Martin

She currently works between Ireland and California, where she has taught children affected by Trump’s immigration stance. Today, she reflects on the changes that have occurred at home since she first left.

“I fled a very depressing Ireland,” says Martin. “It’s almost because my generation has one foot in both Irelands. I remember that very repressive, very Catholic, stark, bleak insular Ireland very well. It’s not the Ireland it is now.”

She has lived in Paris, London, and Israel, and loves that when she walks around Dublin now she sees a diverse capital city.

“I don’t feel like I’m just indoors anymore. I remember stepping off in Paris and walking through Paris for the first time after escaping Ireland and thinking ‘I’m outdoors’.”

Has Martin faced criticism for the darkness of her book? “There are a lot of people who say to me ‘you are blaming the Church and the State’,” she says. “[But] there are a lot of good people inside the church and State… but it was that unfettered power that turned it toxic. I am not against religion or against the State, it’s against the idea that they are unquestioned as they were.”

She hopes that telling the stories she does will help in Ireland’s collective healing, and show that victims have been listened to. “I think it’s time to acknowledge all of their stories and acknowledge what happened here to us in Ireland, and every family has a story.”

She adds later: “Nothing in the book is an exaggeration. Stories are medicine for the soul that we need to heal.”

Martin is currently working on the book’s sequel – because there’s still much more of Ireland’s story she needs to tell.

The Cruelty Men, published by Lilliput Press, is out now.

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