Rónán Hession writes for Culture about Leonard and Hungry Paul, which has been selected as the One Dublin One Book for 2021...
It is a tremendous honour to have my debut novel Leonard and Hungry Paul selected by Dublin City Council as this year's One Dublin One Book. As a writer, it feels like I am being claimed by my home city. It also means that for the first time I have had to think about the book in terms of its, and my, relationship with Dublin.
Having lived in Dublin for 45 years, I have always taken my identification with the city somewhat for granted. I’m a bit like a fish that has no concept of wetness, having always lived under water.
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Listen: Leonard and Hungry Paul - Ronan Hession talks to Ryan Tubridy
For all that, I should own up to the fact that Leonard and Hungry Paul is not set in Dublin. In fact, it is not specifically located anywhere. Its themes are intended to be universal, and so everything takes place in an unidentifiable 'everywhere.’ It should feel not far from here and now, wherever that is for the reader. In order to focus on traits of human nature that are easily overlooked – or crowded out – it was important for me to make space in the narrative, and so there are no locations, no surnames, few physical descriptions and a sparing use of idiomatic expressions.
But perhaps on a more subconscious level, this approach appealed to me because Dublin is such a big literary character. Including it would have changed the gravity in the book, dwarfing these quiet characters and putting them under pressure to have their own authentic relationships with the city.
My Dublin is full of anecdotes, personal history and a degree of received understanding.
I have always had two Dublins in my head. First, there is the centre – An Lár as the buses call it – or ‘town’ as everyone else calls it: the area somewhere between the Five Lamps and across the river as far as St Stephen’s Green or thereabouts. A walking city, the European capital of jaywalking, where I seem to be forever crossing the road. It offers both anonymity and the possibility of bumping into friends. But my favourite thing about it is its countless oases of downtime: bookshops, churches, galleries, parks, and coffee shops with free Wi-Fi. It is a great place for wasting time well.
The second Dublin I know is the suburban one, where I grew up. It’s where the football pitches are, where the housing estates lead into one another, where the boundaries are unclear and debatable, and where local identity is not particularly centred on anything obvious to the outsider. It is this Dublin that is closest to the setting for Leonard and Hungry Paul. The Dublin where all the living goes on.
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Watch: Music, Writing and Creativity - Rónán Hession, aka Mumblin' Deaf Ro, in Conversation with Leagues O'Toole
Before the pandemic, I used to spend my lunchbreaks walking around the north inner city, eating at Chinese and Korean cafes, and forgetting myself among the diverse range of nationalities that now make up the city’s population. I have been waiting for these voices to break through into the Irish literary world, considering what their perspective on Dublin might be. I wonder about the writers now living here who come from countries like Albania, China, Poland, Bosnia and Lithuania. I think of the writers I admire from those places – Ismail Kadare, Can Xue, Olga Tokarczuk, Faruk Šehić and Grigory Kanovich – and reflect on how they might filter and present the Dublin that I know. I think that perhaps our next step as a literary city is to find, make room for, support and nurture the writers from those communities.
My Dublin is full of anecdotes, personal history and a degree of received understanding. My city story, if I told it, might have the charming appeal of familiarity. But my instincts tell me that I would be in the way; that other untold Dublin stories would be more interesting and deserving of readers.
After all, if writing Leonard and Hungry Paul has taught me anything, it’s that we can easily miss what we are not looking for.
Celebrating Leonard and Hungry Paul is a free online event taking place on Tuesday 20th April at 7.30pm, featuring author Rónán Hession in conversation with Nadine O'Regan, with excerpts from the book performed by actor Emmet Kirwan and music performances by Irish folk singer Brigid Mae Power - find out more here.