Author escapes Catholic fatwa over his book on 'sheep, murder and madness' in Ireland

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The author of a novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize has narrowly escaped becoming the subject of an Irish "fatwa", over claims that his work associates the inhabitants of Co Kerry with bestiality.

The author of a novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize has narrowly escaped becoming the subject of an Irish "fatwa", over claims that his work associates the inhabitants of Co Kerry with bestiality.

The Deposition of Father McGreevy, by the American-Irish author Brian O'Doherty, has prompted fierce controversy in the county where it is set, due to its depiction of villagers having sexual relations with sheep. Enraged by the "disgusting" portrayal of the local population, a councillor, Michael Healy-Rae, last week called for a fatwa, similar to the one imposed on Booker prize-winner Salman Rushdie, to be placed on Mr O'Doherty.

"The Muslims put a fatwa on Salman Rushdie for insulting them [allegedly in The Satanic Verses] and I am calling for a fatwa on this guy," he told the local newspaper, Kerry's Eye. Although he later withdrew the religious ruling, after speaking to the author personally and deciding he was "a nice fellow", he is now calling for the book to be banned, a view that is polarising the local population.

The book, one of six shortlisted for the prize, the winner of which will be announced on7 November, revolves around a village near Dingle in the Forties, in which all the women mysteriously die, leaving the priest, Father McGreevy, to cope with the resulting problems.

Mr Healy-Rae, son of the Irish politician Jackie Healy-Rae and himself a sheep farmer, said the novel was all about "sheep, murder and madness", and did not give a true picture of life in the county. He complained that it depicted Kerry farmers "as going around after sheep with their trousers down around their ankles groaning and grunting behind the bushes". (Curiously, in local newspaper reports, he was later photographed reading a copy of the book to his own sheep.)

His is not an entirely unfair description. Readers, while admiring Mr O'Doherty's prose, are certainly unlikely to look at roast lamb in the same way again. A key section of the book describes Fr McGreevy's revulsion at finding a local man, who had been brain damaged, engaged in intimate relations with a sheep. The priest later discovers that not only do other villagers share his predilection, but that the local doctor excuses it.

Mr O'Doherty, speaking from his home in Long Island yesterday, said he was surprised at the controversy his book had generated, and unsure what a "Catholic fatwa" might comprise. "Perhaps they would geld me and throw me out with the sheep," he said. "I'm a man of peace, and don't condone violence, and a fatwa was a rather dangerous thing to call for."

He believed his book, which he said had been rejected by a "score" of publishers, honoured the people of Kerry and an old-fashioned way of life, rather than shamed them.

Local newspapers and radio are now crackling with the debate, with the local Dingle Bookshop selling out all its copies three times and professing itself unable to keep up with demand.

"We're down to our last five," said the owner, John Wilford. "A lot of the flap comes from people who have read about it but never actually read it, like the Salman Rushdie book. When people read it they recognise it for a great work of fiction." (Mr Healy-Rae admits to having read only "29 filthy pages" and turned down Mr O'Doherty's offer of a free copy.)

Mr Wilford said the last time a literary row of this kind took place was over the 1942 book, The Tailor and Ansty, Eric Cross's earthy depiction of a husband and wife living in Bantry in the early part of the last century.

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