The Unsinkable Agnes Browne

The Chisellersby Brendan O’CarrollPlume 190p $11.95 (paper)

Agnes Browne is a Dublin widow with seven children (six sons) struggling to see her offspring into maturity in the Dublin of the early 1970’s. It was the time of the first lurch toward prosperity that would anticipate the present era of the Celtic Tiger, in which the standard of living of Ireland would become higher than that of Great Britain. Created by Brendan O’Carroll for the Irish radio show "Mrs. Browne’s Boys," Agnes appeared in his first novel, The Mammy, and now she is played by Anjelica Huston (herself reared in Dublin) in the film of the same name. Like Ireland, Agnes has come a long way from James Larkin Court in center city Dublin.

Brendan O’Carroll works in the same urban Irish territory occupied by Frank McCourt and Roddy Doyle (and a long time ago by Sean O’Casey). If his books lack the searing literary realism of Doyle’s, they are singularly free of the self-pity and the self-hatred that spoil McCourt’s work. The Mammy, The Chisellers and The Granny are "warm-hearted" tales of life and death and life in Dublin slums, stories in which Agnes and her clan triumph over poverty—Irish soap opera perhaps, but soap opera that no one will want to put down. The book was a huge success, as one might have expected, in Ireland. Irish Americans love it too. Who does not want to enjoy the success of a family against which the deck seems to have been stacked? And who is not glad that one did not have to rise at four in the morning to push a cart into the wholesale fruit market and then into the Moore Street markets at 6:00 a.m.?

In this second volume of the trilogy, her eldest son becomes the managing director of a small furniture company, her daughter marries an officer in the Garda (about whose job Agnes has some reservations), another son dies a junkie in London, a third son is gay (though Agnes, blessedly, does not know what that means), and yet another son emerges as a gifted artist. Agnes at the age of 40 finds a new love for her life. Lots of laughter, lots of tears, lots of Guinness, lots of song and lots of courage and faith. The story is simple, the plot complications straightforward, the characterizations anything but elaborate. Yet the reader does not want to put the book down as it moves toward its bittersweet (but much more sweet than bitter) foregone conclusion.

Whence the magic of such a story? Why would Anjelica Huston want to make a film out of it? What is its secret? Brendan O’Carroll is an Irish storyteller, a seanachie, a man who spins webs of light-hearted and occasionally deadly serious entertainment. Those who lament that prosperity will dry up the old Irish cultural heritage miss the point. Some Irish women today must struggle as many like Agnes Browne did 30 years ago, but many fewer. It does not follow that without poverty the Irish storytelling tradition will fade away.

Not a chance.

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