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Nights Beneath The Nation

By Denis Kehoe

The debut novel from Dubliner Denis Kehoe is narrated by Daniel Ryan, born in 1930 and raised in rural Ireland, who has returned to Dublin to revisit scenes from his young manhood, after an absence of nearly forty years spent developing a successful hairdressing business in New York. His narrative alternates cleverly between 1950/51 and 1997/98, since Daniel has rented a house overlooking the sea at Seapoint in order to write a memoir of a pivotal year in his development, when as a clerk in the Civil Service he tasted his first forbidden fruits of bohemian freedom in the big city. The Dublin of those days may frequently be characterised retrospectively as a stifling provincial backwater, but as Daniel tells it there was still shenanigans to be got up to, even if it was swept under the carpet. Having encountered the enigmatic theatre director Maeve O’Donnell in Bewley’s, she takes Daniel under her wing and helps him locate his nascent sexual identity: at one of her wild parties he kisses a boy, and finds he likes it.
The book is particularly good at capturing the manic energetic adrenalin rush of newly liberated youth, especially when contrasted with its portrait of small town life, where middle aged men ‘became the fathers they had once defined themselves against.’ This heady atmosphere is fuelled in no small measure by the life-changing thrill of first love, for Daniel has met dashing UCD student Anthony, and they fall for each other in a big way. Meanwhile, back in the near present, the older Daniel has become embroiled in a wary friendship with the shadowy Gerard, a twenty-something he met in The George, who also happens to be researching and writing a book about an actor and Spanish Civil War veteran (Republican side) who ran with the same crowd as Daniel did in those days. How much does Gerard already know about Daniel, if anything, and how much does he want to find out?




The book is very well plotted, with the dual time perspective doing the trick, and even becomes something of a page turner, when a murder mystery element is added to the mix. Daniel and Anthony are happily rehearsing their parts for Maeve’s version of Lorca’s Blood Wedding, of which telling use is made as a mythical underlay, and Anthony is swatting for his finals, when the repressive rigidities of the real world intrude, and things take a turn towards the dark side. Anthony’s right-thinkingly uptight parents discover his affair, and threaten him with the asylum, where they had already had him committed for six months for a previous relationship, unless he gives up Daniel. They’ve even thoughtfully arranged a sham marriage for him, to the daughter of friends of theirs knocked up by a long vanished tourist, doubtless otherwise destined for a Magdalene laundry, and her child for an ‘orphanage’. The nexus of church/state control, bolstered by collusively villainous shrinks intent on pathologising and ‘curing’ homosexuality, is subtly rendered, with reference even being made to Dr. Noel Browne’s abortive Mother and Child scheme. Small wonder the next generation of gays took to the streets. Love in a dark time, indeed.
But Daniel is a queen of the old school, and, like Victor Maskell in John Banville’s The Untouchable, feels only derision for those noisily marching for the right to do it in the street. Even so, if there is a criticism to be made of this fine first outing, it is that sometimes Daniel sounds younger than his 67 years. Also, given the time and place, he seems relatively guilt-free about his then frowned upon and illegal orientation. But, there again, he is an individual, as well as being representative; and few of us were around at the time to know exactly what it was actually like, and even those among us who were might well have been inhabiting vastly different milieux.
What Kehoe has done brilliantly is to examine the ramifications of a gay life, bases on the life experience of an older gay man, and evoked the cruel hypocrisies of a time which condemned homosexuals to a lifetime of public toilet or bathhouse assignations because gay pair-bonding was vigorously discouraged, by family and society. He has also told a good story, and will hopefully tell many more.

First published in The Sunday Independent













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