Broderick, John (1924–89), novelist, was born 30 July 1924 in Athlone, Co. Westmeath, only child of John Broderick, baker, and his wife Mary Kathleen Broderick (née Golden). His year of birth is often wrongly given as 1927, an error in which he acquiesced. Broderick's father represented the third generation to own Broderick's Bakery, which traded extensively in Connacht and the midlands; an alcoholic, he died in 1927, leaving the bakery to his wife. She was assisted in maintaining the business by her brother and by the bakery manager, Patrick Flynn, whom she married in 1936. Her second marriage was troubled and underwent periods of separation, though she was constrained by the need for her husband's assistance in managing the bakery. Broderick detested his stepfather, though they shared the same house for long periods.
Broderick was educated at St Peter's infants' school, Dean Kelly Memorial national school, Athlone (1931–5), the Marist Brothers' secondary school, Athlone (1935–6), Summerhill College, Sligo (1936–8), and St Joseph's College, Garbally (1938–41), where he passed the intermediate certificate with honours but left without taking the leaving certificate. His attitude to his education was mixed: he described himself as ‘self-educated despite the efforts of six schools’ (Sunday Independent, 4 June 1989). In his Athlone schools he was isolated and sometimes bullied by other pupils; he found Summerhill harsh, but retained a strong and affectionate connection with St Joseph's. On leaving school Broderick considered a priestly vocation, but this was not encouraged by his mother. He was apprenticed in a Dublin bakery before returning to Athlone to assist in running the family business. He showed little aptitude for this task, though he made occasional visits to the bakery as a means of asserting that he, rather than his stepfather, was in charge.
Broderick preferred to act as his mother's companion at social events (where both were conspicuously groomed and well-dressed) and in extensive foreign travel, and to develop his taste for books and music. He was active in local dramatic and musical societies, and helped to organise a commemoration for John McCormack (qv) in 1953. He had a large record collection and presented several music programmes on Radio Éireann. This brought him into contact with the novelist Francis MacManus (qv), whom he respected but saw as stifled by self-censorship undertaken for the sake of job and family. Broderick also took an interest in art and collected paintings. He regretted that Irish painters' preference for wild, western scenes blinded them to the quiet beauties of midland landscapes.
As old-stock native and businessman, Broderick was an inside observer of Athlone, commenting on the intimate mutual surveillance and dissimulations of small-town society – ‘as watchful as the jungle’. His fellow townsfolk regarded him as an outsider because of his wealth and self-conscious cultivation, his solitude, and other eccentricities. Broderick's orientation was homosexual and he prided himself that his novels challenged ‘pathological’ Irish attitudes on this subject. His personal favourite among his novels, The waking of Willie Ryan (1969), revolves around a man consigned to a mental hospital because of his family's desire to conceal his homosexuality – partly the result of childhood molestation – to rid themselves of the embarrassment of his publicly declared unbelief, and to forestall any possible claim on the family property. In The pride of summer (1976) a pietistic pimp associated with the IRA combines incest and child prostitution with self-righteous denunciations of homosexuals. In later life Broderick described himself as bisexual and ‘a complete sensualist’, though he evaded close enquiry, claiming ‘most men are bisexual – as are most women’ (Kingston, Something in the head, 80). Broderick apparently never had an extended sexual relationship (he claimed confusingly that he had never been promiscuous and also that he denied himself no indulgence). His novels show a semi-voyeuristic preoccupation with the sexual underworld of prostitution, marital infidelity, incest, extramarital pregnancy, and homosexual pickups found in Dublin and also in Athlone and other provincial towns; a recurring theme is the degeneration of relationships (initially loving or otherwise) into sadistic power struggles.
Broderick began attempting to write novels as a teenager and in his twenties set himself to learning the writer's trade ‘as a baker learns his’. From 1956 until 1988 he was a regular – often opinionated – reviewer and travel writer for the Irish Times, Irish Independent, and Hibernia. In 1951–3 he lived in Paris, where he encountered various French and American writers. He had previously read French literature extensively in translation; his portrayals of catholic bourgeois life and the tension between personal faith and conformist pietism were strongly influenced by French authors, notably François Mauriac and the Franco-American catholic homosexual novelist and journal writer Julien Green, with whom Broderick maintained a long-standing friendship. His own command of French is unclear; many acquaintances believed him capable of writing in French, but his biographer maintains that he could neither speak nor read it fluently.
His first novel The pilgrimage (1961; published in the USA as The chameleons) was banned in Ireland because of frank descriptions of adultery, references to homosexuality, and its provocative culmination in the miraculous cure of an apparently unworthy recipient. In his journalism and private correspondence Broderick displayed outspoken contempt for literary censorship. Despite relatives’ and neighbours’ silent disapproval, his wealth shielded him from the social and economic repercussions suffered by other banned authors (such as his distant relative John McGahern (qv) (1935–2006)). Although he never achieved the wide reputation of an Edna O'Brien (whom he publicly and repeatedly denounced as a semi-literate sensationalist, ‘a bargain basement Molly Bloom’), his work benefited from the paperback revolution and the decline of censorship. (An apology for roses (1972), containing detailed descriptions of a condom-wearing priest's sexual relations with a promiscuous young woman, was not banned, despite widespread expectations that it would be; it sold 30,000 copies in eight days.) By the time of his death The pilgrimage had sold over 100,000 copies. Three more novels appeared in 1962, 1964, and 1969, adding to his reputation as a scathing anatomist of the catholic bourgeoisie and their ‘grocers' republic’. Don Juaneen (1962), in which the ageing middle-class characters' gradual realisation of their moral, financial, and emotional bankruptcy mirrors the wider failure of a post-independence state whose ‘four green fields were in the hands of the receiver’ (the novel's last words), can be seen both as a naturalistic update of James Joyce's (qv) Dubliners and the work of a disappointed romantic embittered by society's failure to match his aesthetic and spiritual yearnings.
In 1968 Broderick was elected to the Irish Academy of Literature, whose annual award for literature he received in 1975. However, the rejection by the publisher in 1968 of an early version of The trial of Father Dillingham (published in French translation in 1974, and in a revised English version in 1982), added to personal problems, inflicted near-terminal damage on his career. The unevenness of his subsequent work and the frequent spite and bitterness he displayed should not overshadow widespread personal testimonies to his genial and stimulating conversation, his encouragement of local artists, and his influence on younger writers (notably Maurice Leitch). Between 1964 and 1967 Broderick experienced a life-threatening bout of the alcoholism that punctuated his later life. After his mother's death in July 1974 he suffered a renewed alcoholic breakdown (exacerbated by taking barbiturates for insomnia) and spent two months in a psychiatric hospital. Patrick Flynn had left the family residence soon after his wife's death and the bakery firm by 1975; less than four years later Broderick sold off the bakery business.
After his mother's death Broderick briefly considered a late vocation for the priesthood. Despite his numerous scathing portrayals of arrogant, simple-minded, superstitious, alcoholic, lecherous, homosexual, prurient, and generally hypocritical clerics and their lay associates, Broderick retained an ambivalent emotional and intellectual attachment to catholicism (though he went through a period of unbelief in the 1970s). He disliked the liturgical changes introduced by the second Vatican council (while welcoming some theological relaxations), and issued periodic broadsides about ‘folk masses’ and similar ritual and musical practices, which he claimed stood in the same relation to the old liturgy as Barbara Cartland to Jane Austen.
Broderick was visibly ill at ease in a changing Ireland; his all-consuming bitterness is evident in The pride of summer (1976), whose failure to attract a libel suit is astonishing. Prominent businessmen, members of Fianna Fáil, labour politicians, catholic bishops, and feminists appear under their own names as gigolos, embezzlers, child molesters, procurers, and associates of the IRA (which Broderick consistently portrayed as an association of sadistic criminals). In 1981 Broderick settled in Bath, which he initially romanticised but rapidly came to dislike. His later novels, with the partial exception of the revised Dillingham, are generally regarded as inferior; he became increasingly resistant to editors, and indulged in lengthy authorial digressions and under-imagined, thriller-style plots. The flood (1987) and The Irish Magdalen (published in 1991 after editing), were intended as part of a trilogy that grew out of a long-standing plan to write a major novel about Athlone. Set securely in the past, they lack the sense of entrapment and the piercing introspection of his contemporary fiction; they were widely criticised as patronising and characterised as superficial ‘stage-Irishry’, but have some admirers in Athlone because of their precise rendition of the local dialect and 1930s townscape. In addition to his twelve novels Broderick wrote several plays. Only one – a radio play from 1980 depicting the persecution of catholicism and the martyrdom of a pope at the hands of a future European federation – was produced in his lifetime.
John Broderick was incapacitated by strokes in 1988 and died in Bath on 28 May 1989. He left his papers to Athlone public library and bequeathed his property to assist Athlone students and promote the arts locally. From 1999 (when Athlone urban district council named a new street after him) Broderick was commemorated by a biennial John Broderick Weekend in the city. His long-term literary reputation outside Athlone is uncertain; he can be convincingly portrayed both as a sensitive and epigrammatic anatomist of faith, provincialism, and conformity and as a prurient, resentful, and malicious sensationalist. He exemplifies, as well as observes, the cultural tensions of Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s.