Future Popes of Ireland began as procrastination. I wasn’t supposed to be writing a novel about popes. I wasn’t even supposed to be writing a novel. In the summer of 2012, I had the luxury of a month’s writing residency in idyllic upstate New York and I’d been clear about how I planned to use it: I would work on Tom of Athlone, a new play inspired by Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens and the Global Financial Crash. My application to secure a spot on the residency talked a good game: the play would mix Shakespearean tragedy with a searing critique of capitalism; it would recuperate the little performed Timon of Athens as a text of our times.
After three weeks, one small problem loomed: the first draft of Tom of Athlone was terrible. I was starting to suspect that there was a reason why Timon of Athens hadn’t quite reached Hamlet levels of recognition. I had the horrible feeling that I had managed to squander the extraordinary opportunity to spend a month focused on writing; I stared at my laptop and tried to read books about economics and went on hikes but nothing seemed to bring Tom or Athlone to life. I procrastinated with side projects – edits of The Keeper, my children’s fantasy novel which was to come out the following year; fragments of other plays – but as the final week arrived, I felt certain that I hadn’t used the time well.
And then, one morning, the Doyle family popped into my head alongside Pope John Paul II. I hadn’t been around for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979 but I knew how iconic it was: over a million people crammed into Phoenix Park to hear the Pope preach against the dangers of abortion, divorce, and contraception. This speech had an unlikely aphrodisiac effect, or so I liked to think, for nine months later, maternity wards across the country welcomed a fair few ‘John Pauls.’ Growing up in Dublin, I encountered a couple of these lads and was struck by the gap between the babies destined for a chair in the Vatican and the teenagers skipping school or skulling cider; here, perhaps, was material for a story.
The story that emerged took shape remarkably quickly. Granny Doyle set it all in motion – an indomitable matriarch on a mission to grandmother the first Irish pope, aided by a Papal-blessed bottle of holy water that she urged her daughter-in-law to sprinkle onto her bed like a good girl. The ‘future popes’ bound to disappoint their grandmother took shape swiftly too – observant Peg; rebellious Rosie; cautious Damien; and, of course, charismatic John Paul, the Doyle least suited to the Vatican and the one whom all Granny Doyle’s hopes rested upon. I left poor Tom in Athlone, and followed the Doyles across three decades instead. Aware that I only had a few days left at the residency, I wrote in a bit of a fever, churning out 20,000 words in four days. Much if not most of those first words don’t appear in the final novel but quite a lot was cemented in that first week – the characters, basic plot, title, the first sentence – and when I left on the train, the Doyles came with me, asking when their story might be finished.
It would take a while. A novel for adults was the last thing I was supposed to be working on. I had a PhD to finish; I should be thinking about articles and job applications, my advisors said. I had a children’s book about to be released; I should be trying to build a reputation as a writer for 8-12 year olds, my agent said. It seemed somewhat foolish to dive into writing a family saga. Yet, I couldn’t help myself – Future Popes of Ireland became a guilty treat, something I worked on when I could snatch the odd free hour. I continued to work on the things I was supposed to – diligently finishing my dissertation and grading student papers and writing some short stories for children – but, against most advice, I stubbornly returned to the Doyles when I could, eager to follow their tribulations.
It wasn’t until the end of 2015 that I had a first full draft of Future Popes of Ireland. I was staying with friends in Edinburgh and had that lovely moment where a walk manages to unlock a different part of your brain. At the summit of Arthur’s Seat, the final sentence clicked into my head and I bolted back down the hill to transfer it to my laptop before it disappeared. Though this final sentence remains intact, much of this draft didn’t and the next couple of years brought a series of major revisions as I searched for the right shape for the story. I wrote an epic 113,000 word version that I immediately realized was far too long, followed by a sparser 95,000 word draft that turned out to be a bit too spare. Happily, the Bent Agency agreed to represent the novel and it found its way to the desk of an excellent editor at 4th Estate, whose probing questions helped to sculpt the story tremendously and whose belief in the novel’s interest in the personal and the political made me confident that it had found the perfect home.
It seems fitting that a very different pope prepares to visit Ireland as the book is released. In the six years that I’ve been working on Future Popes of Ireland, I’ve been delighted to see that two of the movements that the Doyles get involved with – the fights for gay rights and access to abortion – have recently had major victories. I hope that this novel can play a small part in illuminating the very different Ireland that Pope Francis will encounter, as it tells the story of children reared to be popes and all the mischief, mess, and miracles they get up to instead.
(c) Darragh Martin
Originally from Dublin, Darragh Martin now lives in London. He has written several plays and a children’s novel, The Keeper, which was shortlisted for Children’s Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2013. Future Popes of Ireland is his first adult novel.
About Future Popes of Ireland:
A big-hearted, funny, sad, dazzlingly ambitious novel about the messiness of love, family and belief – and how nothing ever turns out quite how we plan.
‘Hilarious and timely, a dazzling debut’ John Boyne
In 1979 Bridget Doyle has one goal left in life: for her family to produce the very first Irish pope. Fired up by John Paul II’s appearance in Phoenix Park, she sprinkles Papal-blessed holy water on the marital bed of her son and daughter-in-law, and leaves them to get on with things. But nine months later her daughter-in-law dies in childbirth and Granny Doyle is left bringing up four grandchildren: five-year-old Peg, and baby triplets Damien, Rosie and John Paul.
Thirty years later, it seems unlikely any of Granny Doyle’s grandchildren are going to fulfil her hopes. Damien is trying to work up the courage to tell her that he’s gay. Rosie is a dreamy blue-haired rebel who wants to save the planet and has little time for popes. And irrepressible John Paul is a chancer and a charmer and the undisputed apple of his Granny’s eye – but he’s not exactly what you’d call Pontiff material.
None of the triplets have much contact with their big sister Peg, who lives over 3,000 miles away in New York City, and has been a forbidden topic of conversation ever since she ran away from home as a teenager. But that’s about to change.
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