Neil Jordan, Author and Screenwriter

The Imagination of Transgression

by Bertrand Cardin (Author)
©2023 Monographs XII, 274 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 113


Neil Jordan is immediately associated with the successful films he has directed (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire, Michael Collins...). And yet, he is also a man of letters. His literary work, composed of eight novels and a collection of short stories, is rich, dense and complex. It shows an interest in Irish history and politics, but also in the supernatural and the irrational. It creates a universe where time and space can abolish themselves, the material and the spiritual merge, the visible and invisible interpenetrate. Jordan’s fiction also transgresses the borders in more than one way. Both realistic and fantastic, it establishes numerous connections with psychoanalysis, Christian religion, mythology or cultural tradition, and revisits them in an original way. The present study approaches Neil Jordan’s literary work in all its diversity. It focuses primarily on the novelist, but also on the short story writer and the screenwriter, as his film making cannot be ignored. This book, devoted to the writer, aims to do justice to a major figure in contemporary Irish cultural life, whose artistic creation remains largely unexplored.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Part I: Putting Realism to the Test
  • Chapter 1 Night in Tunisia and Other Stories: A Mysterious Collection between Tradition and Innovation
  • Chapter 2 “There’s a kind of truth in fiction, isn’t there?” Family Memory and National History: The Past and Michael Collins
  • Part II: Zoomorphoses
  • Chapter 3 Demons of Darkness at Work: The Dream of a Beast and The Company of Wolves
  • Chapter 4 The Fictitious Fulfilment of Oedipal Desires: Sunrise with Sea Monster
  • Part III: On the Fringe of Literature: Scripts and Screen Adaptations
  • Chapter 5 Troubles Never Come Singly: The Crying Game and Breakfast on Pluto
  • Chapter 6 From the Page to the Screen: Interview with the Vampire, The Butcher Boy and The End of the Affair.
  • Part IV: Displacements and Dislocations
  • Chapter 7 Shade: A Beheaded Actress’s Narrative
  • Chapter 8 Mistaken: Division, Duplication and Usurpation
  • Part V: When Ghosts Cling to the Living
  • Chapter 9 A Necrophilic Romance: The Drowned Detective or the Magic Spell of the Cello
  • Chapter 10 Through the Looking-Glass: The Marvellous World of Carnivalesque
  • Part VI: As Everything Ends with a Song
  • Chapter 11 “Drink, to the obliteration of all distinction!” and Sing The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

←x | xi→



The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small




The Dream of a Beast


The Drowned Detective




Night in Tunisia




Sunrise with Sea Monster


The Past

←xxi | xxii→

←xxii | 1→


“Ye Powers

And Spirits of this nethermost Abyss,

Chaos and ancient Night, I come no Spy,

With purpose to explore or to disturb

The secrets of your Realm, but by constraint

Wandering this darksome Desert, as my way

Lies through your spacious Empire up to light,

Alone and without guide, half lost, I seek,

What readiest path leads where your gloomy bounds

Confine with Heaven”

– John Milton, Paradise Lost.1

At the boundary between land and sea, on the Northwest coast of Ireland, county Sligo is a harsh territory. Its rugged windswept coastline offers grandiose panoramas. The town of Sligo, nestled at the end of the bay, is not without charm. The landscape of the inland county is made of imposing hills overlooking the ocean, of steep heights on which flat tables have been added by mythical giants or spirits, of large plains littered with standing stones, but also holy wells or buried mounds. Of course, these fascinating, mysterious monuments developed popular imagination and aroused many legends; on this moor, local gods, the Firbolgs, were defeated by invaders, the Tuatha Dé Danann. Maeve, the queen of Connaught, who incited western men to fight against the troops of Ulster, rests forever below a huge cairn; whoever might attempt to desecrate her tomb would be under a curse, according to old superstitions. Nearby, the peaceful churchyard at Drumcliff is the final resting place of William Butler Yeats who is commonly regarded as Ireland’s greatest poet. The latter makes Co. Sligo the backdrop of his inner life. ←1 | 2→He draws his inspiration from this part of Ireland which is, as he puts it, “a locale unusually rich in fairy lore and tales of hauntings, ghosts and eerie happenings”.2 Such a supernatural universe, which may be the realm of the dead, is intermingled with our own visible real world. There is constant interaction between them both. As a matter of fact, it is also in this region, at Rosses Point, a coastal village sitting a short distance from Sligo town, that Neil Jordan was born on 25 February 1950.

Neil was the second child of Michael and Angela Jordan. His father was a teacher, his mother a painter. The family appreciated artistic disciplines – painting, literature or music. Michael was an amateur violinist and occasional choirmaster. He encouraged his five children to play a musical instrument. The family circle is described by Neil as relatively strict, particularly concerning Christian values. Michael and Angela Jordan were Catholics and their sons were members of the choir in the local parish.

A few years after Neil’s birth, the family left Co. Sligo to settle in the suburbs of Dublin, in Clontarf, next door to the house in which Bram Stoker lived as a child. Neil was educated at the local primary school in Belgrove; there, one of his teachers was the writer John McGahern. He received his secondary education at St Paul’s College, Raheny, where he won a prize for a short story he wrote. Neil Jordan read a lot and started writing fiction when he was 15. Television was unavailable at home, but visits to the cinema were facilitated once every two weeks. He went to University College Dublin (UCD) where he staged shows and plays with his friends Jim and Peter Sheridan who, like him, subsequently won fame in Irish cultural life.3 At university, Neil Jordan studied English literature and medieval history; his minor thesis was on the lives of the saints. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1971. That year, he married Vivienne Shields, a law student with whom he later had two daughters, ←2 | 3→Sarah and Anna. Due to the severe economic recession of those days, the couple migrated to London where Neil worked as a manual labourer while writing short stories. On his return to Ireland in 1973, he was a teacher and night watchman. Once his wife became a lawyer, Neil stayed at home to raise their two daughters. In the course of his life, he had three other children with two other women.4

Neil played the guitar and the saxophone in a showband which gave public performances in pubs and theatres. He also wrote a radio play – Miracles and Miss Langan – which was later broadcast on RTÉ and the BBC. This play was also made into a television drama in 1979; it was directed by Pat O’Connor from Jordan’s script. Other television work by Jordan includes writing four of the thirteen episodes of the RTÉ production Sean, based on Sean O’Casey’s autobiographies. As some of his short stories were published in magazines, his first collection appeared in 1976: Night in Tunisia. This set of ten stories brought Jordan to the attention of film director John Boorman, who, like many others, highlighted the literary style and visual quality of Jordan’s writing. He subsequently invited him to collaborate on the script of his film Excalibur in 1979. In view of the success of the film, two years later, Neil Jordan directed a documentary about it, The Making of Excalibur: Myth into Film (1981). In between, Jordan published his first novel, The Past. From then on, his books alternate with films, which confirms the hybridity of his talent.

So far, Neil Jordan has been the director of about twenty films, the screenwriter of fourteen of them and the author of nine books. His fame experienced a boom with successful movies such as The Company of Wolves (1984) and The Crying Game (1992). It reached its peak in the early 1990s when Neil Jordan directed great actors such as Sean Penn and Robert de Niro in We’re no Angels (1989), Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in Interview with ←3 | 4→the Vampire (1994), Liam Neeson and Julia Roberts in Michael Collins (1996), Jeremy Irons in the TV series The Borgias (2012), Isabelle Huppert in Greta (2018), or Diane Kruger and Jessica Lange in Marlowe (2022).

Neil Jordan is an important figure in contemporary Irish cultural life, but his twofold creative output is not equally recognized. His literary career is overshadowed by his film activity. The artist is mostly known as a film-maker, a producer and director as various websites, articles and interviews show. He is not spontaneously identified as a man of letters. And yet, he has been a screenwriter, a short story writer and above all a novelist for over four decades. This focus on one part of his artistic production is noticeable among critics and interviewers to whom Neil Jordan feels sometimes obliged to remind: “You’ve got to realize I’m also a novelist”.5 Similarly, a certain number of Irish writers do not consider him as one of them, as if his Hollywood blockbusters had effectively expelled him from the Irish literary world.

This lack of interest is also observed in the small number of academic works dedicated to his fiction. As Neil Jordan’s cinema is the subject of a variety of monographs, his literary work is not much studied. The critical apparatus is very limited: The Fictional Imagination of Neil Jordan, Irish Novelist and Film-Maker by Marguerite Pernot-Deschamps (2009) deals with the way Neil Jordan explores human condition. It adopts an essentially stylistic approach to the work.6 Paul McGuirk’s short book, Neil Jordan: The Literary Fiction (2016), summarizes each text of the author and sets it in the context of the twentieth-century literary movements, particularly modernism and postmodernism.7 These studies are interesting, ←4 | 5→but they use a very specific approach to Jordan’s literary fiction. In the latest academic book published in 2022, Neil Jordan: Works for the Page,8 Val Nolan examines how readers and critics see Jordan’s work. It contemplates fundamental questions of Irish history and identity throughout the author’s career. This study, while definitely a significant contribution to the exploration of Jordan’s fiction, does not pay tribute to each of the novels.9

Through textual studies, analyses and interpretations, the present book aims at giving Neil Jordan’s talent the recognition it deserves. Its objective is to bridge a gap in academic research by studying Jordan’s fiction with an open-minded attitude, combining various approaches insofar as a literary work is a whole world in itself that deal with the events of a lifetime, with a subject’s dreams, desires and fantasies, with the social and historical determinations of a particular period and milieu, the use of language. Neil Jordan’s texts are read and interpreted here by employing these approaches, which are considered as the mirrors of the writer’s personal life, but also the expression of an era and a society. Their motifs and images provide sensations which make it possible to perceive the artist’s creative imagination. Besides, their structures and rhetorical figures allow us to circumscribe the aesthetic specificities of the writer’s poetic language. There is something polyphonic about Jordan’s fiction insofar as it gathers a diversity of voices and refers to the works of other writers, particularly Irish writers, but also other texts by Neil Jordan himself, even if it is impossible to mention them all. Generally speaking, focusing on specific details implies leaving aside some others. Interpretation necessitates some choices which are inevitably subjective. Besides, Jordan’s texts are sometimes read and explained in tune with his film activity, which cannot be ignored, all the more so as there are many connections between his books and films. Each of Neil Jordan’s books is the subject of a dedicated chapter here, but two chapters also deal with the scripts he wrote, the latter involving cinema and fiction writing.

←5 | 6→

These two artistic fields vouch for the fact that one of Neil Jordan’s favourite topics is an interest in the irrational and supernatural. This is a specificity which can be connected with the “materialization of reveries” fuelled by his native land and the famous local figure – William Butler Yeats – for whom Co. Sligo is an extraordinary territory. Indeed, in Water and Dreams, Gaston Bachelard writes:

Literary creation has certain similarities with the world of dreams. This may be the reason why realism and the supernatural are not incompatible for Jordan or Yeats. In their works, which demand a “willing suspension of disbelief”,11 this world and the other are not generally sundered. There is even interaction between them both. As a result, Neil Jordan’s work – films and books – is realistic, fantastic, gothic and above all, uncanny. Indeed, according to Freud, “an uncanny effect is often and easily produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality”.12

These inspirations contribute to rendering Neil Jordan’s work complex and postmodern. Hybridization, a distinctive feature of postmodern aesthetic, implies a mixture of different things and styles. It suggests exchanges, borrowings and border crossings.13 This specificity can be spotted in the way Jordan’s work summons and includes other artistic means of ←6 | 7→expression – music, painting, cinema or theatre – or diverse social sciences – history, geography, philosophy, psychoanalysis, religion – but also in the way it builds bridges between fiction and reality,14 imagination and verisimilitude or between different genres or subgenres.15 As a result, it seems relevant to approach the work from the postmodern perspective of magic realism. The term is however refuted by Neil Jordan as it only applies to Latin-American literature, according to him.16 Maybe it would be more appropriate to consider his work as falling into the category of fantastic realism. After all, there is nothing stranger than Irish reality, as Jordan himself reckons: “I grew up in Ireland in the fifties. I grew up in Dublin, was born in Sligo, that rural-urban background. I knew that small, strange world quite well […]. If you stay here too much you can get very strange, very weird. It’s a strange country”.17


XII, 274
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2023 (March)
haunting dizziness ballad Neil Jordan Yeats Stoker Ireland culture transgression literature novel short story theater poetry film scenario adaptation truth fiction realism history memory Troubles disorder nation family father tradition mystery fantasy double mirror monster demon vampire ghost darkness desire gothic marvelous strange uncanny carnival Neil Jordan, Author and Screenwriter the Imagination of Transgression CARDIN Bertrand
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2023. XII, 274 pp.

Biographical notes

Bertrand Cardin (Author)

Bertrand Cardin, Professor of Irish literature at the Université de Caen Normandie (France), is the author of several books about contemporary Irish literature, including Colum McCann’s Intertexts. «Books Talk to One Another» (Cork University Press, 2016). He co-edited Ecrivaines irlandaises / Irish Women Writers with Professor Sylvie Mikowski (Presses Universitaires de Caen, 2014). Professor Cardin is the guest editor of a special issue of the Journal of the Short Story in English on «The 21st Century Irish Short Story» (N°63, Presses de l’Université d’Angers, Autumn 2014). He has also published many articles about contemporary Irish novelists and short story writers.


Title: Neil Jordan, Author and Screenwriter
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