It was supposed to be just a six-part drama mini-series aimed at portraying rural Ireland to a youngish audience and broadcast on RTE Two as part of the autumn schedule in 2005. Of course the truth is that ‘Pure Mule’ became something much more symbolic than that after it was first shown, striking a chord with so many people in Irish life that it soon found its way into modern-day TV folklore – not just down Offaly way where it was first filmed in the shadow of power stations and peat wagons on the bog, but all over the country.
It might be a bit of an exaggeration to say he had a cult following, but ‘Scobie’, the sweet-talking, romancing man about town (and brother of Shamie) was a hugely popular character even from the very first episode of the drama. The role very much set up actor Garrett Lombard for further success in his career. Some said it was mostly down to the on-screen smirking and ‘country boy’ chat-up lines from his wonderful performances as ‘Scobie’ as he wandered from one pub to another in search of alcohol, romance and more in the towns of Banagher, Shannonbridge and Birr. For many others viewers, there was a very definite sign in the series of what was once described to me by a writer as the ‘mirror, mirror on the wall’ effect – a sense in the feedback from the TV and stage audiences that those who loved it had actually recognised somebody or some very familiar thing in the part and the role played by the actor that they actually personally witnessed previously in their own family life or small community.
“There’s a Scobie in every town” the same writer said to me, “and that’s why we all can identify with the role and the very complicated plots it can lead on to. That’s why we love it!”
Moment in time
Garrett Lombard was not the only star of the TV show. Charlene McKenna played the part of the troubled young woman called Jen who also returned to her home town in ‘Pure Mule’ and proceeded into a series of questionable life choices. Her portrayal of mental health issues and other internal struggles also struck a chord with the audience and won her many fans.
The TV series went off our screens back in 2006 but has re-emerged in the form of many repeats over the course of the last 16 years – most recently during the Covid-19 pandemic when it got another run in front of a new and young audience which perhaps knew very little about the Celtic Tiger period in which it was set, the behind the scenes action of small town Ireland at that time, or the mix of emotions that it brought on. The word ‘zeitgeist’ has been used to describe the effects of the series – a moment in time captured so well in a screen production for ever more. It is true that ‘Pure Mule’ did just that – capturing an amazing time of boom and blow-out in Irish life during that swelling Irish construction sector expansion.
The man who wrote the screenplay for ‘Pure Mule’ was Eugene O’Brien – a midlands-based writer who previously brought part of the same backdrop and plots to the stage in his successful play ‘Eden’ (based in Edenderry). I am delighted to say that over the summer holidays I had the pleasure of reading O’Brien’s latest written work – a new novel (his very first) entitled ‘Going Back’. It will be published by Gill Books at the end of this month.
The great thing about ‘Going Back’ is that for ‘Pure Mule’ fans like me, this is actually the updated version of what happened to ‘Scobie’ and some of the other great characters from the TV series in the last 15 years or so. The blurb that came with the book really whetted the appetite too and captured every single memory I had from that moment in time – telling us that “Scobie Donoghue was once the king of Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, famous for the craic and the drink. His twenties were spent working on building sites during the Celtic Tiger, making good money and spending it on wild weekends. A lovable rogue, the lads wanted to be him and the girls wanted to be with him. But now, returning from Australia after the breakdown of his relationship, Scobie is back in the single bed of his childhood home. About to turn forty, burnt out and depressed, he quickly discovers that life in the small midlands town he thought he had left behind has moved on – but has Scobie?”
With a preview teaser like that, this was one reader who couldn’t wait to get stuck into O’Brien’s new book. You know the feeling yourself with a good new novel. You try out the first couple of chapters to see if it’s really going to be the style of writing that made you like the TV drama, and if it’s really the content you had expected. Then, when it delivers, you’re hooked, reading every page at a frantic pace and turning them over in a bit of a panic to see what really happened next.
I have to say I loved ‘Going Back’ with Scobie – the prodigal son of the midlands – returning from Oz after probably the first really serious relationship of his life, the trauma of a miscarriage there for his partner, and then the reality of coming home to a very changed landscape in the midlands. I also loved the way the Covid pandemic was written into the book and the manner in which the writer summed up the desperate choices and scenarios that faced people in remote and rural Ireland during the lockdown and the rather shocking experience of mental health issues, gambling and drug addiction that was portrayed in the book in several chapters and which actually, truth be told, scared the living daylights out of me – such was its ferocity in some parts.
I also loved the way ‘Pure Mule’ scenes were practically updated and modernised in some of the chapters and I loved the same coarse and rural dialect evident there – portraying the reality of a less than glamorous new life for ‘Scobie’ as time moved on. Also admirable is the way O’Brien twisted the plot with new villains and heroes. It all made for a thoroughly thought-provoking read, desperately sad and funny in parts and one that I can wholeheartedly recommend to our readers.
I won’t spoil it for you here by describing the ending, but ‘Going Back’ has a superb climax – with a conclusion that is perhaps a bit predictable but is at least a contented one and one that will certainly please most of Scobie’s biggest fans.
‘Going Back’ will be published by Gill Books on Thursday, September 29th, 2022, priced at €16.99.
*Footnote: I’m sure some people will want to know the origin of the ‘Pure Mule’ title from the TV series. They tell me that in ‘Offaly dialect’ it’s a phrase either to be used to describe what has been a really good experience – or just a really lousy one! Either interpretation works!