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Review: Prophet Song by Paul Lynch

09 Dec 2023 6 minute read
Prophet Song by Paul Lynch is published by Oneworld Publications

Desmond Clifford

What do we associate with Ireland? Singing, music, dancing? Pubs, Guinness, the craic? Rugby? Roy Keane? Storytelling, novelists? At its best, Ireland exudes a north European talent for wit, warmth and conviviality. There is much to admire, and even envy.

Paul Lynch sees, or foresees, a different Ireland. Prophet Song is set in a dystopian present. Democracy is collapsing under the authoritarian National Alliance government and civil strife is spreading.

This dictatorship has no Big Brother or clocks striking thirteen, only creeping fear as rights are eroded by the state. That this chilling novel won the Booker Prize only a few nights after Dublin rioted lends it an immediacy and relevance seldom available to literary fiction.

The story centres on Eilish Stack and her efforts to preserve her family in this disintegrating society. She answers the door one ordinary evening. These are not the normal police, but the Garda National Services Bureau set up under an Emergency Powers Act.

They want to speak to her husband, a trade unionist. He is out but this is the moment she understands something has shifted, “that something has come into the house…something formless yet felt.” This “something” is the enmity of the state.


This first encounter preserves a veneer of avuncular and apparent reasonableness. In reality, the world is hardening. When her husband, Larry, finally reports to the station, one of the policemen recalls that he used to play midfield for UCD: “I never forget an opponent.” This is a warning, a literal and menacing assertion as well as a conversational commonplace.

Political activists are disappearing into custody and from public view. Eventually Larry joins them. Eilish can get no information, the state simply refuses to recognise her husband’s existence. Her father notes, “…if you change ownership of the institutions then you can change ownership of the facts…”.

In our times, we’ve grown familiar with fake news. What to do when the state goes further and asserts its own reality (we have alternative facts; we’ve had quite enough of experts)? What to do when the state declares you an enemy? No one expects to face this question in suburban Dublin.

Brutal bureaucracy

Eilish’s situation deteriorates rapidly. Her husband has joined the disappeared and her desperate efforts to find him are fruitless as she is tormented by a brutal bureaucracy. She loses her job at the biotech company where she works. Her son Mark is called up for national service and so goes on the run to join the rebels against the state forces.

The country descends into civil conflict played out in the streets around her home. Her second son Bailey disappears into the conflict with horrible consequences.

With what’s left of her family, Eilish heads towards the border. She spends her savings to pay people-smuggling gangsters. Passing into Northern Ireland represents a step towards safety and a jarring challenge to familiar tropes. Northern Ireland is traditionally viewed from suburban Dublin as a source of strife and violence; here, it is a haven.

The book ends with Eilish, and what remains of her family, as refugee boat people sailing towards Britain and, she hopes, life with liberty.


Lynch gives few political specifics. The regime is authoritarian, populist and ultra-nationalist, but we don’t know more. Nor do we know much about the rebels, whether they want to restore liberal government or replace the National Alliance with a dictatorship of their own.


The plot is unremittingly bleak and offers no comfortable resolution. As Eilish waits at the water’s edge, with her remaining son and daughter, to be trafficked out of Ireland, she thinks, “the end of the world is always a local event, it comes to your country and visits your town and knocks on the door of your house and becomes to others but some distant warning..”.

A century ago, WB Yeats wondered whether a play of his may have fired young men with patriotic fervour and sent them to their deaths. In Prophet Song, Lynch asks a kind of inverse question. Has cynicism and disengagement from politics eroded democracy and opened a dismal pathway to populism?

Rough beast

Dublin’s recent riot was, it seems, partly a result of populist agitation. A single riot scarcely signals societal collapse, but some assumptions are challenged. In recent decades Ireland has been a standard-bearer for liberal values.

Dublin gleams with the HQs of America’s tech titans, banks and pharma; the grandchildren of cattle traders play the foreign exchange markets, write algorithms and harvest aviation analytics.

Once Europe’s poorest country, only Luxembourg is now richer. Arguably, Ireland changed more quickly and completely than any other country in Europe. Can all of this happen so suddenly without political consequence? Has the hour come round at last, is that rough beast slouching towards Parnell Square?


Ireland’s politicians and citizens are deeply engaged in debate, and no doubt there is much to think about. Lynch’s book is set in Ireland, but his point is broader. Prophet Song is a warning. Democracy needs defending. It is not a natural order of things. Freedom, it turns out, is no more natural than its opposite. In a moment of insight at the country’s predicament Eilish realises, “all your life you’ve been asleep, all of us sleeping…”.

Populism is on the rise across the democratic world (actually, Ireland has avoided its explicit political expression better than most) and the case for vigilance is universal. Twenty years back the spread of democracy seemed universal and even inevitable. The outlook today is darker, and Prophet Song invites us to take note.

Paul Lynch’s instinctive first words on winning the Booker Prize were plaintive rather than euphoric, “There goes my anonymity!”. No novice, Prophet Song is his fifth novel. He is a serial prize winner in Ireland and Europe while UK recognition has come more slowly. His days of stealth are truly over.

Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song is available from all good bookshops and is published by Oneworld Publications.

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