An Extraordinary Tale
Pat Boran’s childhood memoir “The Invisible Prison” belies the now traditional miserable catholic childhood narrative which has become endemic in modern Irish writing and which found its epitome in Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes”.
Indeed the reader, possibly seduced by the title, will be somewhat surprised to find that rather than reading yet another account of physical abuse or repressed sexuality, this is an extraordinary tale of a quite normal happy, yes catholic, childhood and that the prison of the title is something altogether different from the edifice and institution that dominates Boran’s home town of Portlaoise.
This is where the magic, and the challenge, of this somewhat unique and intriguing, not to say inspirational, narrative lies and the reason why the story of an apparently ordinary childhood will mean something different to anyone who reads it.
Born in 1963, Boran grew up with his siblings at 74 (the significance of which number plate will become clear at the end of the book) Main St Portlaoise in the shadow of Ireland’s top security prison which was to become infamous during the 1970s and 1980s.
His father, a travel agent, seems to have been involved in a number of other miscellaneous undefined careers, while his mother played the traditional role countless generations of Irish women did before her and seems never to have strayed too far away from the family kitchen. His was a happy childhood marked by the normal discoveries of life and such dramatic events as an ordinary tonsillitis, a swallowed whistle, trips to Butlins, holidays in Tramore, the gradual incursions of a modern world (such as coloured television, public toilets and car parks) into small town life and the occasional act of rebellion.
These are presented to the reader in a series of apparently random vignettes, some tinged with humour, some inconsequential, as if the author is hopping along haphazardly without rhyme or reason. It is a courageous approach as the author is in constant danger of dissolving into sentimentality and thus losing his audience. However, it is a mark of his undoubted poetic power that, as the book unfolds, the reader is drawn deeper and deeper into the heart and soul of the narrative.
Over all this the prison hovers, a curious irrelevance. The truth that emerges as the reader becomes more and more immersed in the narrative is that Boran, by holding up this mirror to his own memories, is suggesting that our own childhood has an intense influence on what we all become and that, try as we may, we can never truly escape from it or, for that matter, ignore it.
His message is that in exploring our own childhood alleyways and laneways, both bright and dark, we can make our way to a fuller sense of what we are as human individuals and where we are going. As a journey it may be frightening and daunting but, as we watch the now adult Boran at the end of the book unscrewing the number plate from the front door of his family home just before its demolition and giving it pride of place in his mother’s sparkling new kitchen (thus reinforcing the ethos of that ancient Irish proverb “Níl aon tinteáin ná do thinteáin féin”), we come to realise that it is a journey worth making.
Pat Boran’s “Invisible Prison” is not a book that is simply just read; it is an all too rare positive statement of the value of human existence and a book that will stay with you long after you have read it.
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