Darragh Martin’s debut novel Future Popes of Ireland tackles love, loss and life’s contrasting moments. The book opens to Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Ireland, and is fundamentally based on how ‘the Popemobile has scarcely shut its doors before the race was on to conceive the first Irish Pope’. Humour mixes with tragedy as Grandma Doyle’s desperate desire to have her grandchild become Pope is contrasted and opposed in a constantly shifting narrative.
The novel spans 40 years of Doyle family history, centring around the Doyle children. In the contemporary timeline, older sister Peg is a graduate student in New York after fleeing Ireland to get an abortion. The triplets born after the Pope’s visit have grown up: John Paul is a YouTube-famous Pope imitator; Rosie a blue-haired environmentalist; and Damien a semi-closeted Green party politician. None of the siblings have a functioning relationship, and only two are in contact with the aging grandmother who raised them. The novel’s political aspirations are obvious, and the book is largely successful in combining the private and political by ascribing different issues to the Doyle siblings.
The contrasts defining life in Ireland between 1979 and today are the binding element of the book. The morning after the Pope’s visit, for example: the film roll with pictures of the Pope is filled up with naked pictures of the expecting and soon to be deceased mother of the Doyle children. This interconnection of sin and virtue, the everyday and the elevated, asks what really matters, and who gets to decide.
Martin makes bold moves with Future Popes of Ireland. The greatest thing about the book is the constantly changing narrative structure. The book moves back and forth in time, gradually revealing how the siblings’ relationship came to be as fractured as it is. In chapters portraying Peg’s teenage infatuation with a posh boy, the narrative is structured around the French phrases they read together. When Rosie despairs about the sisters’ relationship, her frustration takes the form of magazine quizzes. Towards the end, the chapter length rapidly decreases, their urgency underlined by the desperation of never having enough information. This is a clever ploy, as it allows Martin to underline how the political changes affect actual humans. The novel’s form fractures and resettles, underlining the fragility and permanence of family ties.
Future Popes of Ireland takes its reader from 1979 and Pope John Paul II to Barack Obama’s visit in 2011. The novel is an excellent consideration of a tumultuous period in modern Ireland through the eyes of a turbulent family. While largely outstanding, the book sometimes tries to do too much at once, and occasionally swerves on the predictable and obvious. However, the novel’s wit in observations like ‘shortly after her First Confession, Peg Doyle succumbed to the first sin that every Catholic girl commits once she reaches the age of reason: unbridled vanity in the face of one white Communion Dress’, and ability to see the humans in the situation carries it through. Martin has written an impressive debut examining recent Irish history with abundant charm, humour, and affection.
Future Popes of Ireland is published by 4th Estate