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The Words That Shake the Barley

First he drank so much he had to write a memoir. Then he sobered up so much, he had to write about his childhood. Colin Broderick tells The Fix about Northern Ireland, moms and, of course, drinking.

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What's what? Photo: Random House

Growing up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, Colin Broderick would ask his mother questions, and her response would always be, "That's That." Broderick didn't get much from the statement, aside from the title of his new memoir, out this week. He moved to New York City, drank himself silly for over 20 years, sobered up and wrote a memoir about his drinking: Orangutan. His second memoir, titled after his mother's less-than-positive refrain, ends chronologically where Orangutan picks up. It's not a spoiler to say that the last line of That's That is, "It was time to go to America," and on the first page of Orangutan, Broderick is coming to from a blackout the morning after arriving at JFK airport. Where Orangutan was a rollicking tale of drunkenness, That's That lays bare the territory in which the seeds were planted for that drunkenness—the domestic and national landscape—that made that first-of-many drinks so necessary. Broderick spoke to The Fix in New York's East Village, far away from his mother and homeland, but close to many of the bars where he spent decades gathering material.

It has been said that the stereotype of the Irish alcoholic is the result of hundreds of years of oppression. . .

I think some of the frustration in Northern Ireland comes from the fact that enough people haven't gotten around to saying, 'What happened to us in Northern Ireland was wrong,' the same way the Holocaust was wrong. It’s important as a method of healing, to say first, “It happened,” so that we can move on. I think that part of the process has been completely overlooked in Irish literature to date. It’s this cauldron of unresolved anger, and just because people are not shooting and bombing each other—which they still are by the way—does not mean that people are any happier or healthier. It almost more unhealthy now, because there is no expression of what that anger is. To think that we could move on and never acknowledge it is like asking an abuse survivor to just be quiet about it. We all know what would happen to that abuse victim—they would self-annihilate, they would drink, they would medicate, do everything to deal with the fact that they couldn’t express what happened. Northern Ireland is like an abuse victim, in that way.

And that whole situation can just become normalized, right?

I was 26 years old before I stopped and said, “What is a Protestant?” What is the difference between my religion, then, as a Catholic, and their religion as Protestants, that we hate these people? And I do this research, and I find out that a Protestant is basically a Catholic with more common sense. And I was like, oh my God, all this hatred and anger, and they’re both crazy! But then you get into how it’s inbred, that it’s not about religion, really, that Protestantism is just another name for English and that Catholic is just another name for Irish. It’s about “You’re the other, and we’re better than you.”

I’m broke, my wife’s left me and I’m living in a farmhouse at 40, and there were days when it would be awesome to be able to have a few beers or a joint, just to stop the noise for 20 minutes

It seems from Orangutan that as soon as you came to New York, it was easy for you to get rid of prejudice—you were friends with everyone, from transvestites to Protestants.

It’s funny, you know, transvestites were some of the sweetest people I’d ever met. I look back at my drinking years as educational. My drinking gave me the strength to overcome and get to another place, and it was an important tool for me, as a person, when it worked, until it stopped working.

What do your parents think of the book?

The truth is they read it and they're angry, which is an understandable reaction. My version of how I viewed my life doesn't coincide with theirs, so they're not speaking to me for now. I assume they're adjusting. And that's fair enough. I've had four and a half years writing this thing to deal with it, so they're entitled to their anger. It's a healthy part of the process.

There's a line in your book about Irish men and their mothers . . .

“Every drink poured in an Irish bar leads back to the mother.” This did not start off being a story about me and my mother, it was about growing up, and I only intended to spend a year writing this book. I didn’t realize the depth of the mother thing until a couple of years into the book, and you sit down with any Irish guy, and within five minutes, it’s the mother! You read Angela’s Ashes, Brendan Behan, hear Shane MacGowan, it's all about the mother. There's something about the role of the Irish woman—taking care of that family unit, and being that domineering figure, that maybe ties all the way back to our ancestry before religion. My mother had three sons, one year after the other, by the time she was 25. And it’s not like my dad was at home helping out with the kids. My dad was off working, and he came home and his dinner was on the table.

You write about how alcohol was your first escape but how your mother didn’t have that escape.

She didn’t like how it made her feel, like she was losing control, and she stopped drinking early on. Anything that would take her out of control was just not on. But I loved that loss of control. I still do. I haven’t had a drink or a drug in six years. For the last six months—while I was writing the end of this book, when I couldn't even pay my rent, but I knew I had to finish the book—it was very easy to think, "I’m a fucking lunatic, I’m broke, my wife’s left me and I’m living in a farmhouse at 40," and there were days when it would be awesome to be able to have a few beers or a joint, just to stop the noise for 20 minutes. But when I stopped drinking, I was fully insane, and because I hadn’t written anything for eight years, while I was drinking, I felt like all the stuff I should have written had just backed up in my head, and it was a big bramble patch, and I had to start teasing out all the stories. In the last six years I’ve written two full-length plays, two screenplays, two memoirs, made a short movie, and written a book of poetry that I wrote for my daughter. I finally feel like I’ve caught up to where my head was supposed to be.

You had a choice between fighting the British or not, and you decided, "I’ll just work on killing myself"—with alcohol, and by getting beat up all the time.

I internalized the violence and inflicted it upon myself. I did struggle for years after coming here with guilt, that I'd been a coward while the people I knew had died. At the end of That’s That there’s a scene with my buddy Brian and we get interrogated, and in the first 30 pages of Orangutan, I get the phone call from my mother that he’s been assassinated by the SAS. They wanted me to write that at the end of That’s That and I was like, I’m not doing the shock value thing. I felt for years guilt that I wasn’t there with him, and it’s taken me years to come to terms with that. In fact writing this book brought me to terms with it. I don’t think I’ll ever write another book that’s as important.

The depiction of being an outsider throughout your childhood, do you think that comes from your parents or do you think that’s just how you came into the world?

That’s the big question—Is it the chicken or the egg that came first?—I don’t know. I do feel that I was predisposed to be someone who was bright and misunderstood that maybe that came across as being arrogant. Perhaps I was different and then I was born into an environment and a family that begs conformity and that was a tight cage. They didn’t have any tools, at home or at school, to deal with somebody who needed some kind of creative outlet, and because I didn’t have that I rebelled, and then I got punished and it was just this cycle that got worse and worse so by the time I was 16 I was a fucking madman. It’s taken me only 25 years to get beyond that.

Do you think losing all you’ve lost has been worth it?

Yeah because who I am now is a completely different person than I was five years ago. And because I have a daughter. Because on Friday afternoons she comes along, and I literally can’t wait to see her. The moment I see her, and take her hand, or she puts her arms around me and says “Daddy!” I’m right there, and it’s all about her, and she brings me into her world—I don’t bring her into my world and for two days I sleep like a baby, I read kids’ books to her, we go to the museum, we go out and explore, we go to the park, we go eat pizza, we watch movies together and we take her crayons out and make little books. I get to be a kid, almost for the first time.

What do you think the reaction will be back home when the book comes out?

Some people will be in a murderous rage about it and others will be cheering its success. And if there is a fair balance between the two then I'll consider it a success. Am I nervous about going back home to Northern Ireland after it's published? I don't know. You read it. What do you think? Should I be?

Hallie Hart Hodenfield is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last interviewed Tim Cowlishaw.

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