Climbing the Winding Stair: Philip Casey’s The Fabulists


Heather Cowper: Lunch at The Winding Stair in Dublin, 2014

by Eamonn Wall

A favourite passage of mine from The Fabulists (1994), Philip Casey’s first novel, is this:

He spent a pleasant hour in the book-café, watching the crowds cross the Ha’penny Bridge, listening to the music and sipping tea long after it had gone cold. He had not bought a slice of fruit cake, in case she came after all. Then depression set in as he realized the futility of his vigil and he left, knowing that all he had to do was walk down the quay and knock on her door. But instead he walked home down Great and Little Strand Streets, Arran Street, Chancery Street, past the old, crumbling distillery into Smithfield. (87-88)

It is one of many scenes in the novel where Dublin’s inner city is evoked. Mungo is seated in the Winding Stair Bookshop and Café, on Lower Ormond Quay, hoping that Tess, the woman he has begun a relationship with, will show. Like his tea, Mungo’s life has gone cold: he is disabled and unemployed, guilt-ridden about causing a fire at home that burned his son and estranged him from his wife. Likewise, Tess is estranged and separated from her violent husband; she is Mungo’s equal in misery, sharing with him the sense of being a failure, of drifting grimly and hopelessly through adulthood. Yet, in this remarkable novel, Tess and Mungo find each other, invent and recount stories of adventures in Spain and Germany to add spice, excitement and provide their relationship with an exotic flavour. They enjoy a brief but intense affair that is life-affirming for both of them. Walking the streets of Dublin, they drift towards one another and towards salvation. The city brings them together and is a third-party in their relationship.

The novel is set during the run-up to the 1990 Irish Presidential election that Mungo and Tess, and Philip Casey, see as a turning point in the narrative of contemporary Ireland. At novel’s end, Mary Robinson is elected president of Ireland, the first woman to be voted into this post. Her victory, a break from the established political order, is seen as the harbinger of a better future, one that promises a psychic, moral, cultural, economic and sexual renewal of Ireland. Looking back from the present, one can argue that The Fabulists was prophetic in this regard. Notwithstanding the financial collapse in 2008 and the havoc that it wreaked, the decades that followed the 1980s were more prosperous and livelier than those that preceded them. Ireland got up off its knees, shed its many old skins and rusty shackles, and made a series of leaps forward. The sense of doom that Mungo feels as he sits in front of his cold tea in The Winding Stair, given the lack of opportunity available to him, was shared by many at this time though it is a factor of his life that will pass by novel’s end. The vanity of Mungo’s gloomy vigil of waiting for Tess in the hope that that she might appear in the café calls to mind similar emotions the boy feels in Joyce’s “Araby” when he is unable to buy a gift for the girl he is infatuated with, “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” (24). Both feel trapped and pushed along by a world that they cannot guide or control, and at the mercy of adverse circumstances. Though The Fabulists is partly set in Casey’s rural County Wexford, the urban world is dominant, and it is a work very much written in the understated but elegant style of Dubliners. The Winding Stair takes its name from the title poem of one of Yeats’s later collections; the poet addresses aging and his own sense of failure but ends with a movement towards an alignment between youth and aging, desire and defeat, the present and the past:

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

When we meet Mungo in the café, he is at a low point in his life though this will be a temporary place, thanks to Tess, the election of Mary Robinson as president, and to his own will;  acquiring some confidence, feeling loved again, or blest as Yeats would have it in his poem, Mungo’s life will improve. The great challenge Mungo faces and is able to overcome is one Yeats enunciates in his poem: he must learn how to forgive himself for causing harm to his son. Late in the novel, he recounts the events surrounding the fire to Aidan seeking his forgiveness. Of course, if this were a less complicated and more diluted tale of love during hard times, Tess and Mungo would remain together, looking toward a bright future. Instead, they separate in part because staying together is unworkable. When Mungo’s mother dies, he spends more time in Wexford at a time when Tess has found work in the city and is eager for adventure. The Fabulists is a wonderful novel of the long moment of love, affection, and Zeitgeist, vital for both Tess and Mungo, though it is not fated to continue, and neither is it necessary or desirable for it to work as fiction:

They had made no promises of fidelity to each other. And in reality, or what passed as the real world, in sharing the difficulties and pleasures of ordinary life they had never been close, and never could be. That was sobering, and it was sad. And yet, somehow her fickleness didn’t matter. What mattered was that in telling her his stories, and in listening to hers, a loneliness which he had been barely aware of all his life had gone. (214)

Though his affair with Tess is not fated to continue, and Mungo is caught in a loveless marriage, and has not yet been told by his son that he is forgiven, he is still a man, and Tess a women, who have come alive again in the world serendipitously and though deep contact with another human being. Briefly, on the novel’s final pages, they unite to witness the new president’s cavalcade processing down Dame St.:

Then the cavalcade came into view and she saw the old presidential Rolls-Royce, and the cheering began. Tess was shaking, but waved frantically as she spotted the President waving and smiling in her direction, and in the instant that she passed their eyes met and the President’s smile and wave was especially for her, she knew.

For a moment she was stunned.

“Did you see that?” she shouted, turning to Mungo, “she waved at me!”

“At you?” he laughed. “I thought she waved at me.” (235)

This scene that ends the novel calls to mind the conclusion of “The Dead”, also set near the Liffey and Dublin’s that parallel and crisscross it. In Joyce’s novella, people are brought together by the snow falling on one and all while in The Fabulists the cavalcade is a magnet that attracts people along its route. Gabriel and Gretta are the couple caught in a complex relationship in “The Dead”, and Mungo and Tess Casey’s equivalents in The Fabulists with both narratives offering moments of breaking away and renewal. As Colm Tóibín has pointed out The Fabulists is “a stunningly truthful and perfectly pitched novel,” and I understand this to indicate both the quality of the narrative and how it is framed, as well as the sweet pitch of Casey’s language, all ideally suited to its time, place, themes, and characters.

Neil Howard: Halfpenny Bridge, Dublin, 2016 (CC)

Throughout the novel, Tess and Mungo walk through the inner city in the manner of Lenehan and Corley in Joyce’s “Two Gallants”, mapping Dublin for us. However, the vision that Casey promotes in The Fabulists is more hopeful than what one observes in Dubliners. Casey’s is illuminated by the growth of Mungo and Tess as well as by the elevation of Mary Robinson to the presidency whereas the characters in Dubliners have difficulty avoiding the traps that the city and country sets for them, and Joyce’s political vision of Ireland, in contrast to Casey’s, is guided by the fall of his great hero, Parnell. Casey’s characters find agency whereas Joyce’s don’t. The two writers are exploring two different Ireland almost a century apart.

The brief passage quoted at the outset also evokes Philip Casey’s own Dublin: he lived close to The Winding Stair Bookshop, visited it often, and he too walked the streets that Mungo walked accompanied by “the clack of [his] crutches,” as he wrote in a poem. The upstairs section of the café provides a great view of Dublin’s quays, old buildings, the Liffey, and the iconic pedestrian Ha’penny Bridge. These scenes that occur upstairs in the café provide a small overview of a part of the city as counterpoint to the ground view of Dublin that Casey provides in the novel. The episodes belong to the novel as markings along the road, or as poems in a collection, or short stories within a book. When Mungo and Tess are off the feet in the café, taking a breath from walking, and pause from the activity of their lives, we too are given time to think about what has unfolded in the novel. We are a floor above the action in a building a step back from the footpath. The Fabulists is an omniscient third-person narrative: the teller of the tale explores and examines in a manner not unlike the tea or coffee drinker looking down on the city and its walkers through a first-floor window of the Winding Stair. For The Fabulists, Casey received the Kerry Ingredients/Listowel Writers’ Week Novel of the Year award in 1995, at the time the most important award for an Irish novel available to writers. The Fabulists was widely praised by both critics and readers.

When Philip Casey passed away in 2018 the many tributes to his life and work were led by Irish President Michael D. Higgins who noted that “it is with great sadness that I have learned of the death of Philip Casey, one of Ireland’s finest poets and novelists, and a distinguished member of Aosdána.” Born in London in 1950 and raised on a farm in Hollyfort, Gorey, Co. Wexford, Casey spent an extended part of the 1970s in Barcelona before settling in Dublin in the inner-city on Arran Street, near the quays, the Four Courts, and the Fruit Market. Through his career, Casey published five collections of poetry, a trilogy of novels, and a novel for children. A digital media pioneer, Casey was the creator and curator of Irish Writers Online an early digital platform for the promotion of Irish writers and their writing. Though poetry was his first calling, it is as a novelist that Philip Casey is best known as the author of The Bann Trilogy: The Fabulists (Lilliput Press/Serif, 1994) The Water Star (Picador 1999), and The Fisher Child (Picador 2001). Casey was one of a gifted generation of novelists that includes Sebastian Barry, Dermot Bolger, and Colm Tόibín, all of whom contributed to the page in his memory that was curated by The Irish Times. Everyone who contributed to this tribute wrote warmly of Casey’s prowess as a writer, and of his generosity to others.

Philip Casey was a great friend of mine. I loved him like a brother and miss him dearly. My collection of his work is not only a personal treasure, but it is also a narrative of a friendship, and of my own life. We first met in 1974 at the Gorey Arts Centre in Co. Wexford where our first poems were published in magazines and chapbooks edited by James Liddy. Though we rarely lived in close proximity, we kept up a correspondence by letter and email. I visited Philip at his house on Arran St. East whenever I was in Dublin and we supported each other by attending readings, launches, and events in which one of us was participating. I was humbled when he chose lines from a poem of mine as the epigraph for The Fisher Child. On my first visit back to Dublin after he had passed away, I walked to his home, stood across the street from his front door and wept. These were tears of heartbreak but also of gratitude for his friendship and the many kindnesses he had shown me through forty years. Reading the many tributes to Philip that grace the Irish Times, it struck me how many others had made the walk that I had to his house and who had, both men and women, left him feeling elevated by Philip’s humour, support, and the warmth that he exuded. Though he was kind to so many people, I always felt that Philip had a particular personal project and that was to support the work of women writers and of women who hoped to become writers. In this regard, Mary Robinson’s campaign and election must have energised and delighted him.

Once when I was speaking to Philip, I described the Irish Writers’ Center on Parnell Sq. as a good venue for a literary event. At that time, the venue did not have an elevator. Philip answered, “Not if you have a disability.” Though this was not the result he had intended, I felt like an idiot for saying something so careless and stupid. As an infant, Philip was diagnosed with cancer of the groin. At the Royal Northern Hospital in London, he received intensive radium treatments that while curing the cancer resulted in a lifetime of complications and interventions. The Irish Times notes that he spent “three years in the mid-1960s in Cappagh Orthopedic Hospital, undergoing several operations … In 1983 further complications from his childhood radium treatment resulted in his leg being amputated below the knee. Problems persisted, requiring a further amputation in 1993.” He lived with disability for his lifetime and made a point of working for the rights of people with disabilities. Recently, with the advent of Disability Studies, disability has begun to be taken seriously by literary and cultural scholars. Writers who live with disabilities have been able to speak of their experience. Barbara Rosenblum has written that “when you have cancer, you have a new body every day, a body that may or may not have a relationship to the body you had the day before,” a comment that clearly illustrates the degree of difficulty that the disabled face in their lives. Reading the work of these writers has given me fresh insight into the worlds the disabled inhabit. It is information I would have liked to have had the opportunity to discuss with Philip when he was alive. Of course, I can’t pretend to understand Philip’s own deepest thoughts on his disabilities and the issues he had in dealing with them, but I did observe how he dealt with them in the public sphere. In one of the studies of disability, the writer Mark O’Brien asked Stephen Hawking if he felt “frustration, rage at being disabled,” to which Hawking replied, “I have been lucky. I don’t have anything to be angry about.” Philip Casey shared Hawking’s attitude.

The Winding Stair Bookshop and Café had been a gathering place for writers, bohemians, and people in search of a book or a coffee or love from the 1970s to the 1990s. When it was announced that it would shut its doors for good in 2005, the restaurateur and businesswoman Eileen Murphy took it over. Today, the bookshop is still on the ground floor where, in addition to selling books and literary magazines, it hosts readings and book launches. It is a bookshop beside a famous river in a renowned literary city; anytime I walk into or notice it  from the opposite side of the Liffey, I am reminded of its twin – Shakespeare & Company in Paris., the enterprise that brought Ulysses into print. Does the Winding Stair have an elevator? I can’t tell you. Philip Casey would surely know.

About the Author

Eamonn Wall is an Irish writer who lives in Missouri. He is the author of From Oven Lane to Sun Prairie: In Search of Irish America (Arlen House/Syracuse University Press, 2019) and Junction City: New & Selected Poems 1990-2015 (Salmon Poetry, 2015). Recent poems, essays and reviews have been published in The Irish Times, Cyphers, Reading Ireland, and other publications. He works as a professor of Global Studies and English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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