B orn May 8, 1958, in Kilbarrack, Ireland; son of Rory (a printer and teacher) and Ita Bridget (Bulger) Doyle; married Belinda Moller (an arts publicist), c. 1989; children: Rory, Jack, one daughter. Education: Graduated from the University College, Dublin, c. 1980.
Addresses: Office—Penguin Group (USA), Inc., c/o Viking Press Publicity, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.
G reendale Community School, Dublin, Ireland, English and geography teacher, 1980-93; formed King Farouk publishing company and published his first novel, The Commitments, 1987; full-time writer, 1993—; wrote first television play, The Family, BBC, 1994; co-produced film, When Brendan Met Trudy, 2000; also served on Irish Film Board.
Awards: Booker Prize for Fiction, for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, 1993; Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, for Paula Spencer, 2007.
B est known for such novels as The Commitments and the Booker Prizewinning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Irish author Roddy Doyle has built a solid career as a novelist writing with honesty about his native country, especially its working-class people. Doyle also turned several of his novels into screen-plays and wrote several plays as well. Considered the most famous author living in Ireland and sometimes compared to James Joyce by American critics, Doyle worked as a school teacher in Dublin before becoming an author.
Doyle was born in 1958, in Kilbarrack, Ireland, a few miles outside of Dublin. He was one of four children of Rory and Ita Doyle, who raised their brood there as the town became engulfed by the growing city. His father worked as a printer for the Irish Independent and later as a teacher of printing at a trade college, Dublin’s School of Printing. Doyle had a happy, middle-class childhood, but was often treated poorly at school by his teachers at nearby Sutton’s St. Finton’s Christian Brothers School. After graduating from University College in Dublin, Doyle began working as a teacher himself, at Green-dale Community School in Kilbarrack in 1980. He taught English and geography at the grammar school for the next 13 years.
While working as a teacher, Doyle began his writing career. His first efforts were plays and an unpublished novel, Your Granny’s a Hunger Striker. He produced his first novel to see print, The Commitments, in the late 1980s. He wrote it in six months while living in a one-room apartment. The novel was about a group of working-class teenagers in contemporary Dublin who form a soul band. It centered around the band’s organizer and leader, Jimmy Rabbitte, and the other seven members of his family who played a significant role in the plot.
Because publishers were not initially not interested in the novel, Doyle borrowed £5000 (about $10,300) and with a friend created a company, King Farouk, to self-publish The Commitments in 1987. Doyle then sold the initial 1,000 copy run himself. Within two years, the company was dissolved as Doyle’s book was picked up by British and American publishers. The Commitments received much critical praise and was translated into a number of languages, including Japanese and Czech.
Other members of the Rabbitte family took center stage in Doyle’s two subsequent novels. The Snapper focuses on Jimmy’s single sister, Sharon, as the 20year-old deals with being impregnated by a married, middle-aged neighbor. It also explores the effect of the pregnancy on her father, Jimmy, Sr. Next, in 1991’s The Van, Jimmy Sr. starts a mobile food business with a friend to supplement the family’s income in the face of chronic unemployment. This novel made the short list for the Booker Prize.
The three novels formed the “Barrytown Trilogy,” as each was set in this fictional working class area of Dublin. The books also consisted nearly entirely of dialogue, rich in local slang and cursing that some reviewers considered almost lyrical in its execution. While many in Ireland praised the book and Doyle’s depiction of their country and its people, others were not as impressed. He told Diane Turbide of Maclean’s “I’ve been criticized for the bad language in my books—that I’ve given a bad image, and it’s always somebody else’s definition of what is good.”
While writing the trilogy, Doyle built on the success of the novels by moving into screenwriting. He co-wrote the script for the film version of The Commitments, which was directed by Alan Parker. It was released in the United States to much acclaim in 1991. Doyle also wrote the screenplay for the film based on The Snapper, which was directed by Stephen Frears and came out in 1993. Doyle wrote the script for the screen take on The Van as well.
As Doyle’s secondary career took off, he resigned from teaching to focus on writing full time in 1993. That same year, he published his fourth novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. In this book, also set in Barrytown but in the 1960s, Doyle explores the life of the title character, a ten-year-old boy, and the way he perceives the world. For example, one scene involves Paddy and his friends holding a funeral for a deceased rat, while others highlight his ideas for taunting his younger brother.
More complexly, Paddy Clarke explores his parents’ tense marital problems as he sees their relationship fall apart. Though not explicitly about Doyle’s own childhood, he drew on his own memories of what it was like to be a child in the time period. The depth and strength of Doyle’s writing led to him winning the prestigious Booker Prize for the book in 1993.
While novels continued to be Doyle’s main creative outlet, he also continued to work in other genres. In 1994, his four-part television play, The Family, was produced by the BBC and aired on the Irish network, RTE. In the short series, he explored alcoholism and domestic violence in working-class families in his native country. While a creative success, the television event proved important to Ireland and was said to help sway Irish voters to approve the legalization of divorce later that year.
Doyle followed Paddy Clarke with 1996’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. In this novel, Doyle moved into even darker territory by describing the life of a housewife who is trapped in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage and is also an alcoholic. Paula Spencer, the primary character, pours out her sad life story aware of her own self-pity, through Doyle’s usual acute ear for dialogue. Of the novel, Carmen Callil wrote in London’s Financial Times, “The Woman Who Walked into Doors throbs with what it must really be like to love a man who beats you almost to death, and what it must be like to be a man who loves his wife but who, with the smallness of heart dictated by his circumstances, cannot stop his own violence.”
Ignoring criticisms that he had grown dark and depressing in his works, Doyle’s next novel, 1999’s A Star Called Henry, continued to explore Ireland’s darker side. A historically based book set in the early twentieth century, Doyle’s central character is born in a Dublin slum to a brothel bouncer and alcoholic mother. A large child, Henry Smart becomes involved in the Irish Rising as a teenager and soon becomes a violent killer in the name of revolutionary Irish political action.
While many American critics praised the book, Irish and British critics were divided on his nearly mythological creation and many found the book offensive. One reviewer who found A Star CalledHenry evident of Doyle’s evolution as a writer was the Independent’s John Walsh. He wrote, “A Star Called Henry is a quantum leap for this cautious and unpretentious storyteller. His earlier naturalism has been replaced by a kind of heartless exuberance, shot through with magic realism, in which the tones of Barrytown and Paddy Clarke are still just as discernible.”
Doyle planned for A Star Called Henry to be the first novel of a trilogy about Henry and Irish history over the course of the twentieth century dubbed “The Last Roundup.” Taking a break from novels after the first installment’s publication, Doyle returned to visual media. He wrote several teleplays and screenplays in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including the light romantic comedy When Brendan Met Trudy, which was released in 2000. In addition to writing the script, Doyle also served as the film’s co-producer.
Still putting his planned trilogy of novels on hold, Doyle focused on other written enterprises for a time as well. Inspired by his three children, he published two children’s books in succession, 2000’s The Giggler Treatment and 2001’s Rover Saves Christmas. Doyle continued to work in the genre intermittently, adding a third title, Meanwhile Adventures, later in the decade.
Amidst the children’s books, Doyle wrote a memoir, 2002’s Rory and Ita, about his parents. In the intimate text, Doyle chronicles the stories of their lives, alternating chapters between the memories of his mother and his father. The chapters had a natural flow because they were based on taped discussions Doyle had with his parents. Of his process, Doyle told the Irish Times’ Donald Clarke, “[I]t’s wholly my book, in that from the beginning it was my idea. I decided on the structures. I decided what questions to ask my parents. I took all these tapes and fashioned a book out of it.“ While Doyle regarded the book as a labor of love which many critics found fascinating, others found the tome more of interest to family members or friends rather than the general public.
Finally returning to “The Last Roundup” trilogy, Doyle published the second novel in the series in 2004. Titled Oh, Play That Thing, it is set in the United States during the Jazz Age because Henry has been forced to live in exile in New York City and Chicago. Doyle listened incessantly to jazz while writing the novel, and even had his protagonist befriend a young Louis Armstrong. The myth of Doyle’s braggart Henry grew larger in the novel, where he continues his wild ways working with gangsters and opening speakeasies.
Instead of immediately completing the trilogy, Doyle moved in a different direction for his next novel. He decided to write a sequel to The Woman Who Walked Into Doors a decade after it went into print. Published in 2007, Paula Spencer: A Novel also picks up the story ten years in the future. Paula’s abusive husband, Charlo, has been killed and she is a widow who still supports herself by cleaning offices. Now sober, Paula fights to stay clean while dealing with the effects of her choices on her family.
The book received praise, with a number of critics commented especially on his still-strong dialogue. Writing in the Financial Times, Callil noted “Doyle’s dialogue, both spoken and stream of consciousness, is the core of the genius of his writing and of the happily politically incorrect imagination he uses to choose each perfectly pitched word.”
For all his success, Doyle worked to remain connected to the real world and ordinary people to retain his human touch as a writer. He understood that he was fortunate to be in the position he was in as an author and Irish celebrity. Doyle told Nicci Gerrard of the Observer, “I have worked very hard for it, but I’m very lucky, yes. It could not have happened. I don’t work to any commissions. I do what I want to do. My novels come from within me; they are things I feel I want to do.”
The Commitments, King Farouk (Dublin, Ireland), 1987; Heinemann (London, England), 1988; Random House (New York City), 1989.
The Snapper, Secker and Warburg (London, England), 1990; Penguin (New York City), 1992.
The Van, Secker and Warburg, 1991; Viking (New York City), 1992.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Secker and Warburg, 1993; Viking, 1993.
The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Viking, 1996.
A Star Called Henry, Viking, 1999.
Oh, Play That Thing, Viking, 2004.
Paula Spencer: A Novel, Viking, 2007.
(With Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais) The Commitments, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1991.
The Snapper, 1993.
The Van, 1997.
Famine, Crom Films, 1998.
When Brendan Met Trudy (also co-producer), 2000.
The Family, BBC, 1994.
Two Lives: Hell for Leather, 1999.
Brownbread, Secker & Warbug, 1987.
War, Passion Machine (Dublin, Ireland), 1989.
Brownbread and War, Penguin Books, 1994.
The Giggler Treatment, Arthur A. Levine Books (New York City), 2000.
Rover Saves Christmas, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2001.
Meanwhile Adventures, Scholastic Paperbacks (New York City), 2006.
Rory and Ita, Viking, 2002.
Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 128, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2004, pp. 112-18.
Financial Times (London, England), August 26, 2006, p. 32.
Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), December 28, 2002, p. H4.
Globe and Mail (Canada), September 11, 1999, p. C7.
Independent (London, England), September 4, 1999, p. 5; September 17, 2004, pp. 20-21.
Irish Independent, May 31, 2007.
Irish Times, December 24, 1999, p. 54; November 2, 2002, p. 73.
Maclean’s, August 30, 1993, p. 50.
New York Times, September 22, 1999, p. E1.
Observer, April 15, 2001, p. 3.
Washington Post, February 4, 1994, p. C1.
Weekly Standard, July 8, 1996/July 15, 1996, p. 37.
“Roddy Doyle,” Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0236486/ (August 11, 2007).