Review: Blindboy Boatclub’s Topographia Hibernica

For those unacquainted with the enigmatic Blindboy Boatclub, delving into the world of this Limerick-born artist is essential to fully appreciate his latest collection of short stories, as his writing is filled with many layers of post-modern intercontextuality and irony that can alienate new fans of his work. Understanding the man—his background, influences, and sense of humour—serves as the key to unlocking the depth and enjoyment embedded in Topographia Hibernica.

Blindboy initially gained popularity in the early 2010s as one half of the Rubberbandits, a comedy music duo recognized for their iconic masks made from plastic Spar shopping bags. Their provocative and politically charged songs ranged from Irish drug culture and the IRA to exercises in absurdism, such as songs about horses at weddings and hawks with learning difficulties.

Transitioning from music, Blindboy became widely known for his podcast, the Blindboy Podcast, where he explores an array of topics—art, music, literature, mental health, philosophy, and current events. Engaging in conversations with guests like Spike Lee, Johnny Marr, and the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, Blindboy’s signature dark comedic style takes on a more humanistic tone compared with his earlier music career. The Guardian even hailed his discussions on food as “some of the best food writing being published anywhere right now.”

Venturing into the realm of short stories, Blindboy released his second collection this November: Topographia Hibernica. The title refers to a 12th-century manuscript used as English propaganda to dehumanise the Irish people and justify an invasion; an early source of negative Irish stereotypes. Blindboy subverts this original purpose, delving into a cast of strange and dark characters grappling with emotions like rage, passion, envy, and depression. Through this he contemplates ideas of mortality, identity, and religion.

In contrast to Topographia Hibernica’s historical inspiration, which set about fostering hatred and bigotry, Blindboy’s compassionate writing dismantles stereotypes and fosters cultural understanding. His empathetic writing style, influenced by Jungian psychoanalysis, invites readers to connect with characters who may be interpreted as neurodiverse. Each story is written in an incredibly sensory style, although the odd nature of Blindboy’s writing makes these senses seem uncanny in a way that seemingly bridges the gap between how neurodiverse and neurotypical people perceive the world. Notably, Blindboy has publicly discussed his recent autism diagnosis, shedding light on the neurodiversity he portrays in the stories, as it comes from first-hand experience.

Inspired by Irish literary giants James Joyce and Liam O’Flaherty, Blindboy seamlessly joins the esteemed tradition of Irish writing. While embracing Joyce’s use of symbolism, stream of consciousness, and parody, Blindboy infuses his writing with his own distinctive and darkly satirical craft to forge an inimitable style, incorporating outright bizarre but impressionable imagery (his use of cat urine as a motif to represent repressed childhood trauma springs to mind).

Blindboy’s language and dialogue displays a versatile range, effortlessly switching codes, dialects, and styles depending on each story’s setting. This dynamic approach is reminiscent of Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House, a collection of short stories that Blindboy has previously acknowledged as a significant inspiration for his exploration of the short story format.

Despite Topograhphia Hibernica being idiosyncratically Irish, its themes resonate universally, making it accessible and enjoyable for non-Irish readers. The book also offers opportunities for readers to delve into elements of Irish history and folklore woven throughout its pages. Stories such as ‘the Donkey,’ and the ‘Pistil of the dandelions’ will make readers well up with feelings of deep melancholy, while ‘the Potion Maker’ and ‘St Augustine’s Suntan’ contain gothic and horror elements. There is also grim humour to be found in stories such as ‘i’ll give you Barcelona’ that will have you laughing through feelings of disgust.

Overall, Topographia Hibernica is Blindboy’s most complete and mature work to date and a collection of short stories that is easy to recommend to anyone attracted to the odd things, people and places in life.

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