Is Paul Lynch’s novel ‘Prophet Song’ a tale of things to come?

On November 23, 2023, Dublin bordered on the brink of anarchy. The riots fuelled by far-right propagandists and lit by criminal opportunists, racists and anarchists engulfed Dublin for a few scary hours. Scary, not by virtue of scale or duration, but because something like this, was happening in Ireland. Three days later, Paul Lynch became the fifth writer from the Republic of Ireland to win one of the most prestigious prizes in literature – the ‘Man Booker Prize’. He topic – Ireland ruled by a right-wing totalitarian government and the breakdown of law and order.

I read his novel ‘Prophet Song’ before the riot and before he won the award. I remember thinking it was farfetched and didn’t work in an Irish context. Of course, Lynch is a great writer and his style, as much as anything, has won him great acclaim, but I couldn’t help being unconvinced by the Irish setting for a complete breakdown in civil order. Then the riots happened, and the country took a collective gasp.

Despite the serendipity of those events, I’m still skeptical that we have to fear the far right (or far left for that matter) taking power in Ireland. This country has the 15th oldest democracy in the world out of 195 nations. That’s something we should not take for granted. Lynch’s book examines the emergence of a right-wing government that uses its political power to silence the opposition. It starts gently, targeting ordinary trade unionists who want to protest publicly, before escalating to arrests and ‘disappearing’ people like something from a south American dictatorship of the 1970s. Inside a very small timeframe within the book, a war breaks out between the totalitarian government and the rest. There are battle zones and no-go areas.  No one intervenes – the EU, UK, USA. I just couldn’t buy into it. Sure, there’s a lesson in there about the preservation of democracy and Lynch’s timing is superb. Throw in the Booker prize judge’s penchant for choosing novels that portray originality in style and structure, and you’ll find a match in ‘Prophet Song’. But like anything in life, some love the Beatles, others ask what’s the fuss? Taste is subjective, but I could never find myself suspending my disbelief enough to believe in the book. The end is fantastically written, and Lynch does manage to draw his reader into the horrors and reality of forced migration, but I won’t say too much more, in case you intend to read it.

Far right and far left movements don’t believe in democracy. Hitler and Lenin both used the democratic model before they quickly dismantled it. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu has formed the most right-wing government in Israel’s history and lest we forget, had attempted to curb the power of judges, from limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to review parliamentary decisions – an outrageous attack on democracy. Danny Morrison speaking at the 1981 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, famously declared the best strategy for their party was to pursue their cause with “an Armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other”. Seven years earlier Yasser Arafat, former leader of the  PLO, declared to the United Nations that, “I come bearing an olive branch in one hand, and the freedom fighter’s gun in the other. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” Napoleon used the neoliberalism of the French Revolution to ride in the wave that unshackled France from monarchism. Once he crowned himself the French Emperor, he ruled as mercilessly as any despotic king.  

The far right and its followers have no interest in debate, discourse, democracy and nation building. Instead they aim to deconstruct the nation and remould it in their image – which usually amounts to being purely: ‘INSERT NATION/Irish/British/French’ – i.e immigrants out. As long as we have had nation states, this has existed. The ‘No Knowing Party’ (made famous in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Gangs of New York’ movie) emerged in the 1840s as an anti-immigration party, whose aims were to preserve the ‘American way of life’ and for a decade, they were a significant force in the ballot box and in the street brawls. They played on the fears of mass immigration of the ‘ungodly, uncivilised and filthy Irish’ that were emigrating en masse due to the Famine and poverty found in Ireland. The party thrived up until the forces of pro and anti-slavery of the 1860s polarised around the more established Republican and Democratic parties. What happened in Dublin and Ross Lake House in Galway is an age-old process that gets played out time and time again. Its main weapons are fear and ignorance. They want you to believe that groups of immigrants come to the country unvetted – incorrect. They want you to believe that taking in migrants impoverish us – incorrect. Ireland, according to the CSO taken from 2021 figures, has the second highest GDP per capita in Purchasing Power Standards in the EU. Yet somewhere in the dark ether of fear, immigrants somehow make us poorer individually?  Again – incorrect. Our democracy is healthy enough to ask relevant questions and must do so without accusations of racism. People are asking relevant questions such as what happens to our tourist industry if hotel spaces are limited?  Should immigrants who move from one EU state to Ireland be offered the same welfare benefits? Should a means test be introduced? I don’t have the answers but unlike the mindset of the far right, let them be debated dispassionately and without bias or pejorative accusations.

What has made headlines in recent months has been the current ‘concern’ at numbers of Ukrainian immigrants. Ironically, if the Ukraine succeeds in its accession as a member of the EU, the problem disappears, as they will be entitled to be here like any German or Polish person for example. I remember when poorer nations, Romania and Bulgaria, succeeded in joining the EU community; there were noises being made about the influx of improvised peoples, troublemakers, gypsies, criminals. More fear, more racism and more misinformation. I think we should realise by now that an incoming tide floats all boats and Ireland more than any country in the EU has benefitted from our interdependency with other European countries and migration. Without immigration we would sink.

The whole concept of controlled immigration is a relatively new one in humanity. From the time Homo sapiens left Africa and colonised Europe, humankind has been on the move. Borders were malleable and unfixed for centuries, Empires expanded and shrank. Rutger Bergman in his book ‘Utopia for Realists’ begs the question, should we just get rid of borders? Indeed passports were not generally used and it wasn’t till a 1920 conference in Paris, that the international community agreed for the first time on the use of passports. This was a result of the insecurity and fallout after WW1. After all, borders are costly to maintain and guard. Processing and deporting costs are huge. The United States, the Europe Union, the former Soviet satellites, to take but three examples, all have freedom of movement and the right to work within land on a continental scale. Yugoslavia, which meant united ‘Land of the Southern Slavs’, was deemed one of the few communist success stories, and when it ceased to exist and create  borders, the nationalists in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia stirred up the fear factor again resulting in years of violation of international law and ethnic cleansing. That was in the 1990s – not some dark corner of a forgotten ancient past.

The far rights claims, always centre around loss of jobs to migrants, loss of wealth, loss of identity, increase in criminality. The reality is only three per cent of the world’s population live outside their country of birth.  Are they responsible for all the above? The far rights are not  simple, marginalised, or just working class either. Be aware. The Nazi party, contrary to popular belief, was not filled with henchmen and thugs, but educated people, doctors, PHD students. Educated people are unshakeable in their convictions more than anyone and have the tools to defend their position. That’s why the far right have and still use politics to ascend to power and can be quite able and adept at doing it. Can I see them succeeding here? I still don’t think so. Enough of us have emigrated or have some family members abroad, and that creates empathy. Emigration is part of our DNA.

I’ll leave the last word on the topic to our award-winning writer, Paul Lynch, from his novel ‘Prophet Song’.  It can be applied to the misinformation and unverified sources regarding immigrants. 

‘If you say one thing is another thing and you say it enough times, then it must be so, and if you keep saying it over and over people accept it as true – this is an old idea’.

Kieran Doyle

Kieran Doyle is a playwright, a historian & author, and the produce of the History Show on

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