Review: Prophet Song by Paul Lynch – a chilling story of Ireland’s descent into a fascist regime


By VIEWdigital editor Brian Pelan

Could the Republic of Ireland ever become a fascist state? That is the question which irrevocably flows from the new dystopian novel Prophet Song by Irish writer Paul Lynch.

It’s a powerful, prescient idea to conceive the total collapse of all that is familiar especially in a world where right-wing parties are on the rise. Whether in Italy, Spain, France or Finland, parties that were once outcasts are fast gaining respectability – and power.

The character that firmly roots this story is Eilish Stack, a microbiologist. She is left as the sole parent to her four children after her trade unionist husband ‘disappears’ after attending a protest.

The story is set in contemporary Dublin. A crisis has led to the government passing an act giving the Garda Síochána and judiciary emergency powers, and to the formation of an outfit called the Garda National Services Bureau.

As society rapidly disintegrates, Eilish, middle class to the core of her body, tries to hold onto a sense of normality. When she visits her father who is showing early signs of dementia she berates him for not using the dishwasher to clean his glasses. When her eldest son leaves home to join a rebel army she tries to dissuade him of his desire to fight back – even though – in the circumstances – it is a perfectly rational decision.

Writer Paul Lynch, whose novel Prophet Song has been longlisted for this year’s Booker prize

But it is the language used by Lynch that creates a sense of tension, dread, entrapment, and occasionally, snatches of hope: “It gathers the last of the leaves and the leaves do not resist the dark but accept the dark in whisper.” Or when Eilish looks back on her life: “She walks up the hill by the Magazine Fort wishing this were true. She wipes rainwater of a white bench and sits down with a view onto the Liffey, the college rowers no longer on the water, the giving air, it was here on one of these benches that she sat with Larry and felt the quickening of the child that would be Mark, the first flutterings as though the child were growing wings to take flight from inside her.”

We love her protective mode but are frustrated by her desire to stay rather than flee.

Eilish’s dad, despite his mental condition, is attuned to what is happening: “The NAP (National Alliance Party) is trying to change what you and I call reality, they want to muddy it like water, 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, of course, it really is nothing new, but you’re watching it happened in your own time and not in a book.”

The depiction of suburban Dublin, devastated by airstrikes and divided into rebel-held and regime-controlled areas, is horrifying but totally believable. We have witnessed similar scenes on our TVs in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq. And Nazi Germany only came to an end in 1945.

I was slightly frustrated on Lynch’s decision not to expand on the motives and ideology of the Rebel Army. They are an opposition force to the authoritarian regime but little more is added in the way of context and description.

The present right-wing groups and individuals who attack the housing of refugees in Dublin and other Irish towns and villages show that they live among us. They spill out of the pages of this story with their cries of ‘Ireland for the Irish’.

Prophet Song looks into a dark, brutal world where hope is a fragile thing. It is a novel for the times we live in.

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch is published by Oneworld (£16.99) –