A lifetime of striving for authenticity in a world which rewards anything but, has been poured into Irish author Brendan Gill’s latest work The Fall of El Pantera. A modern-day morality tale, the thriller’s key plotline is an inadvertent ‘skills swap’ between Luis ‘El Pantera’ Firpo, a spoiled genius of a superstar footballer who has everything money can buy, and GoGo Martin, a factory worker who authentically lives for the game. But this isn’t a ‘football book’ and the themes of meritocracy (or lack thereof), unchecked celebrity, corruption and authenticity, are themes which are rooted firmly in Brendan’s worldview.
Brendan Gill grew up in Muihevna Mor, a working-class ghetto in Dundalk in the Northeast of Ireland. During the 1980s the area experienced great depravation, and while there was plenty of love in his family, there was little else, and all that was expected of him was to grow up and find work, preferably something pensionable like in the local Post Office. Brendan said: “The area was completely decimated by the Troubles and then wiped out by economic recession.
Writing came a bit later, but I was always into history and the history of Ireland, the stories of people. My father is a brilliant storyteller so I was always hearing fantastic stories and was very conscious of Irish culture. I was always fascinated by the difference between rich and poor, the reasons why people are rich and people are poor and the cycle of poverty. Then as I got older, I started to think about that more, and that’s one of the big ideas behind this book.”
Because of the deprivation surrounding him during childhood, it was hard for Brendan to break the mould, but eventually, he did so by studying to become a teacher. After school, like some of his friends, he went to work in local factories and described an ‘epiphany moment’ where he knew that he had to at least try for something more. He said: “I was one of the people for whom school completely failed, I’m obviously quite intelligent as I’ve been able to work as a teacher and have a masters in history etc, but in school, I just fell through the cracks, I was bored silly and it just didn’t do anything for me. And then when I was about 19 I ended up working in a factory in Dundalk and it was just soul destroying, it just used to kill me, and I ended up realising one day that this was my future and I was going to end up there for the rest of my life. I was very conscious of my father too, because when he was about 44 he lost his job in the factory he was in and because he had no skills that he could cross over with, he never had a full-time job again. So on this day, one of the managers was shouting at me over something ridiculous and I just looked at her knowing she had all the power, and I realised that was my future, standing there and taking abuse from this woman with no more intelligence than me. I was just the grunt on the ground and would be treated like cannon fodder in a war. I had an epiphany, ‘this is never going to happen to me’, so I went back into education and went to university.”
And so Brendan’s ascent began, and he achieved a degree as well as an MA, before becoming a teacher of History and English in his hometown of Dundalk. As one of Ireland’s most hard-hitting and socially aware writers, his short stories have been shortlisted for the Michael McLaverty Award, The Sean O’Faolain Prize and The Fish Short Story Competition. He said: “It’s all about who you know in this world, and especially where I’m from I knew nobody who could help. It was also striking at that time that there was nobody from Muirhevna Mor, who had ever been to university or who had qualified as a teacher or anything like that. We didn’t do that, if you put the place where I’m from on your CV when I was younger you wouldn’t get the job. In Ireland, people deny that there is a class system but it exists and things like this happen. Where I am from it was unthought of to go to university, people thought ‘What the hell is he doing?!’ We are born to work in a factory and we are born to use a pick and shovel and I’ve had that thrown at me over the years, even from people who are from where I’m from. People think you have pretensions of grandeur.”
While firmly satirical, The Fall of El Pantera has a lot to say about the lives that we lead today, not least the way that we view celebrity and status. And how those who possess it can seek to exploit others. Speaking about writing the book, Brendan said: “The world should be a meritocracy, regardless of the colour of your skin, your creed, your sexuality, all of those things should be completely irrelevant. I’ve used football as a plot device but it’s the classic story from a time in Memorial, the hero’s journey. I tried to use that in the book to highlight people who are getting away with everything: property scandals, child abuse, murder. I use football as a vehicle to push the story along and to examine all these important social themes. People who love football will love this book, and people who hate football with love it too.
When I was writing this book I used humour and over-exaggeration to show the stupidity of how the world is run. One of these days you will have a football player who is a billion-pound player, and that’s why football is a perfect device to use.
GoGo Martin in the book becomes famous overnight and sells his soul to a celebrity. He endorses everything from toothpaste to condoms. He becomes like a religion and is worshipped everywhere. He completely loses it and becomes the biggest dickhead known to man and in the process, the friends who loved him are falling by the wayside. I suppose in a way I’m obsessed with social justice because I come from poverty and I felt very conscious of this growing up. Celebrity has affected everything, just look at the word old: being old, getting old is a dirty word now, America was like this for years but it’s come across the Atlantic and everyone is photoshopped, and plastic surgery is taking over. The root cause of it all is capitalism, and in the eyes of big business we are not even human beings anymore, we’re consumers. I’ve tried to explore this. I didn’t want the reader to be bored for one-second reading this book, not one second!”
Brendan lives with his wife and two sons near the Northern Irish Border in County Down, close to the mountains of Annaverna and Slieve Gullion.