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Posts Tagged ‘Ireland’

On the face of it this is a simple story. But at three hundred and eighty pages there has to be more than that. And sure enough, for our setting we have a lovingly painted, highly detailed, and very broad canvas of life. This is rural Ireland, a place that began to emerge from the nineteenth century sometime in the late fifties with the arrival of the telephone, then electricity. But its embrace of the modern led in many ways to its demise, for this is an Ireland that no longer exists. The location is vague – County Kerry, a fictional village called Faha, somewhere on the Shannon river. It’s quiet, remote, and it rains,… and rains and rains, until one day, around the miracle of Easter, the sun comes out, and stays out,…

Our narrator is Noe, now an elderly man, looking back on his time in Faha, when he was seventeen. He had been sent away to train for the priesthood, but abandoned it. Now he’s gone to live with his grandparents Doady and Ganga while he decides on his future, or rather while his future reveals itself to him. The electricity company has also arrived and its men are erecting poles to bring the wires for electrification. They bring with them Christy McMahon, a mysterious, charismatic and well travelled man. He lodges with Noe’s grandparents, and he and Noe form a bond. But Christy has another reason for coming to Faha. He confesses to Noe that he wronged a woman, long ago, and has come to find her, and now, in the autumn of his life, make amends. Haunted by the idea Noe finds himself an accomplice to Christy’s vague plans. Then Noe himself falls beautifully, chastely and intensely in love,…

This is a novel to be read slowly, to be savoured for its depth, it’s wisdom and its richness. If you think reading a half a page describing the different kinds of rain blowing in off the Atlantic will irritate you, then I advise against it. But then again I’d sooner say that to enter the world of Niall Williams is to enter a world so richly layered the ordinary becomes magical. And, with a lyrical prose such as this, that half a page of rain is no bother at all.

There are a bewildering number of characters, as there are in life. Many are passing vignettes, but they linger in the memory, and it’s hard to convince yourself afterwards you never actually met them. As for the central characters, they will grow as close to your heart as your own family. Doady and Ganga, become your own grandparents. Faha is your own fondly remembered place of retreat and healing from tragedy. But it’s a place already under threat from a crass modernity, as symbolized by the coming of electricity, and the promises of “convenience” that threatens to eclipse a slower way of life, one led closer to nature, and to God.

There’s a danger in writing nostalgic accounts of places on the edge of time, like Faha, that we gloss over the terrible hardships and the poverty that underlies the bucolic sheen. This was clearly a tough place to live, and it bred a tough, resilient people. But there is also a wry humour in them, and Williams brings this out beautifully. Doady and Ganga’s house, Ganga says was built in a puddle. This explains the mushrooms sprouting along the line of the dresser. And at the slightest hint of sun, belongings are hauled outside to dry from their exposure to near perpetual damp. But then all memory is selective. It is sentimental and forgiving of hardship when its quest is for the metaphysical origins of love, and the nature of happiness.

It is Christy who nails it one evening as he and Noe are setting out by bicycle along the quiet lanes, in search of pubs and music. Both are trailing their respective tragedies. Noe is looking ahead into what he sees as the abyss of his future. Christy is looking back into the abyss of his past, both men caught also in grip of a possibly doomed love:

“This is happiness,” says Christy. And Noe understands the meaning in it, that it’s true simply by virtue of the fact both of them are alive in the world to say it. Reading this story was a sublime and deeply moving experience and I shall remember it for a long time.

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secret scriptureI’m coming at Sebastian Barry from all angles. I read his earlier novel, “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” (1998) many years ago, fell headlong then into the snare of Irish history, a history that both fascinates and terrifies, the history of Ireland being as violent and as turbulent as my own life has been peaceful and uneventful.

And then I picked up the Last Scripture:

What can I tell you further? I once lived among Humankind, and found them in their generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of two or three or four that were like angels. I suppose we measure the importance of our days by those few angels we spy among us, and yet aren’t like them.

So Rosanne McNulty tells us in the The Secret Scripture. Roseanne is a hundred years old, and has been the patient of an insane asylum since her twenties, but for no reason her psychiatrist, the kindly Doctor Greene can adequately get at. Her records have been lost and no one seems to remember anything about her. And unlike many of the sad demented creatures in his care, he finds Roseanne articulate, and gifted,… but also elusive. Told between the pages of Rosanne’s secret and not always reliable diary, her “accounting of herself”, as she puts it, and the pages of Greene’s daybook, we learn of a woman deeply wronged. We learn of the fiery divisions of the Irish civil war, and of a pathological theocratic religiosity that has turned people into stones of unfeeling cruelty, all in the name of a dubious respectability, and an ungodly godliness.

In spite of her great age, there remains sufficient evidence of the beauty she once possessed. Indeed Roseanne’s beauty was always a knife to her throat. Married to Tom McNulty in her youth, but disapproved of by his mother, Roseanne is wrongly suspected of infidelity, and banished by the McNulty clan to a lonely existence in a tin shack on the edge of nowhere.

The parish priest, affronted by her refusal to convert to Catholicism becomes her Nemesis. He petitions Rome and has her marriage annulled, so Tom can wed again. Roseanne is nominally a Presbyterian, though not religious, but identity is everything in the Ireland of the nineteen twenties and the thirties – Catholic, Nationalist, Protestant, Loyalist,… your choice could get you a bullet in the back, or a price on your head. And for a woman labelled “immoral” by the priesthood, the fate could be even worse,…

Tom’s brother, Eneas, haunts the story in the background. Briefly a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, for lack of other work, there’s now a price on his head and he spends his life on the run, but makes a brief appearance in Roseanne’s story, sufficient to leave her with child, before he disappears for good into the conclusion of his own tumultuous history, as told in “The Whereabouts”.

The next thing we know Roseanne is committed to the asylum, the fate of her child unknown. And now the asylum is crumbling, like Rosanne’s own life, stumbling towards it end. Doctor green must oversee the removal of his charges to a new hospital, or put as many as possible out into the community in order to save money. Will Rosanne survive moving to a new place after so long in the old one? And if she has been wrongly committed, as Green begins to suspect, how can she possibly be released at so great an age, and with no one to own her?

Roseanne and Doctor Greene have known each other for a very long time, but for all the natural sympathy and mutual respect between them, he knows very little about her life before the asylum, her secrets held close to a degree he finds almost pathological. Slowly, and in the midst of his own private tragedy, and personal failings, Greene begins to unpick the mystery of Roseanne’s life,…

Winner of the Costa Award in 2008, this is a well loved story, much respected by critics. There is a film version knocking about but I’ve not seen it. It’s not well spoken of and a rotten tomatoes rating of just 32% suggests much subtlety was lost in the translation. If you haven’t encountered the book yet, do look out for it. It’s a deeply moving and life-affirming story, beautifully written.

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history of loneliness

A History of Loneliness is a novel about the abuse of children in the Catholic Church in Ireland. It’s an important and unflinching work exploring the corruption of power on a vast scale, its systematic cover-up, and the devastating effect the scandal had upon the psyche of a nation when it woke up to the truth of its betrayal.

Odran Yates, is a good man, sent for the priesthood by his mother at the age of 17. He’s not sure if he has a true calling. It was simply the done thing and, in common with many other lads of his age, he simply went along with it. But he finds he enjoys the seminary life and excels at his studies. Scarred by tragic childhood events, and abused by the parish Priest – a thing he’s long suppressed – Odran is more damaged than he seems. Is the Church to be his rehabilitation back into  life, or an escape from it?

Reticent and bookish, he begins his career teaching at the Catholic school, thinking to settle into the quiet cloistered life. For decades, he keeps the real world at bay, only to find himself suddenly sent to cover a parish for his old friend and fellow priest Tom Cardle who, after only a short tenure, has been quietly “moved on”. Although promised it’s only a temporary thing, Odran finds himself marooned in the position, a hapless pawn in a grand power-play as the first paedophile cases begin to break, and the church seeks to cover itself. We learn it’s not the first time Tom Cardle has been moved on, and though it’s obvious to us now in hindsight why, to Odran it remains a mystery.

To be a priest in Ireland at the outset of Odran’s career, was to be man highly regarded and trusted. People gave up their seats on trains for him, bought him food and drink and generally prostrated themselves in hope of currying favour with God. But when the scandal breaks, the priesthood becomes at once universally reviled, priests reluctant to go about in their collars for fear of attack. Odran is accused of attempting to kidnap a small boy when he was only trying to help the child who had lost its mother. Such is the paranoia and hatred of the public, he is set upon in the street, punched to the ground, then treated appallingly by the Garda who are quick assume him to be a paedophile “like all the rest”.

As the story shuttles back and forth in time, pieces of the puzzle and the all too human weaknesses in Odran’s character are revealed and we are forced to ask: how could such an intelligent man really have been so naive as not to know what was going on? Did Odran, and all the other good men of the Priesthood, simply turn a blind eye? Or were the good men themselves also victims of the institution they so loyally served?

Worse is to come with Odran discovering how the corruption goes to the core of the Church, that rather than work with the authorities in exposing and punishing rogue priests like Tom Cardle, the Church has defended them, covered for them, because the Church could not be seen to be anything less than omnipotent, having set itself above all other authority, save God – above the state, and the law – that Ireland had become up to the time of the crisis a virtual theocracy, the Church unchallenged in its domination over the lives of the Catholic population, and under the cover of which many an appalling abuse took place.

All Odran wants is a return to the quiet life of the school, but as the layers of deceit unfold he looks back and asks himself has he not wasted his life in devotion to an institution that is morally unworthy, indeed responsible for ruining the lives of so many innocents? And as an outraged public turns upon anyone wearing the collar, including Odran, are the good priests not equally culpable and deserving of the public’s anger? But if that’s the case, with so many wrongs in world, who among us is entirely without sin? Who among us has never turned a blind eye to a thing out of a sense of one’s own powerlessness to make any difference whatsoever to a rottenness so deep?

Read this book if you can bear it. Put yourself in Odran’s shoes, then ask yourself, honestly, what would, what could you have done?

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flolI can’t believe it’s twenty years since this book came out. I was in the Lake District on a walking holiday. A bill for car repairs the week before had left me a bit short and I calculated that after food and petrol I’d have about a tenner to spare. I spent £5.99 of it on this book for company in the evenings. It took me close to the wire, but it was money well spent. I don’t remember any of the walking now, I just remember reading this book in the B+B.

One part is set in a rural suburb of Dublin and describes the relationship between young Nicholas and his father, a man who gives up a steady but uninspiring career in the civil service in order to paint. He believes God has called him to do it, but it’s a calling that also plunges his family into poverty. Then we have Isabelle, growing up on a small island off Ireland’s west coast, her childhood overshadowed by an incident in which her musically gifted brother was struck down by a life-changing seizure, and for which she nurses a deep, though irrational, wound of guilt. She’s a bright girl but flounders when away at boarding school in Galway, squanders her chances of university and settles instead with a cloth merchant, Peader. By turns passionate and cold, tender and violent, Peader is not a good match, but Isabelle goes along with it, thinking of it as her punishment for past sins.

For most of the story Nicholas and Isabelle live entirely separate lives, and it seems impossible they’ll ever meet. But we know they must because in the opening of the book we are told, somewhat enigmatically, Nicholas was born to love Isabelle. It’s a mystery why or how, but all that’s just what’s on the surface, the bare bones, if you like, and it’s a tiny fraction of what this novel is about. The author’s characters are drawn from humble lives, the kind of people you wouldn’t second glance on a bus, yet through their struggles they take on such noble and god-like proportions it’s hard to see the world in quite the same way again.

We have Nicholas’s father, on the edge of madness, gaunt, white haired, messianic, striding into the west in broken old boots with his paints and his easel while his family starves back home. Ordinarily we’d dismiss him as a selfish old fool, but through Nicholas’s eyes, though at times he hates his father for what he’s done, his overriding love for him elevates their story to the rank of an Homeric Odyssey. And Isabelle’s father, a small-island schoolmaster, sometime poet, and semi-drunk, raising his pupils with kindness and compassion, and a dedication such that they will not be looked down upon by their mainland peers – another small life, but for all of its obscurity it is also heroically huge and inspirational.

Religion runs strongly throughout the book, God being ever present in the workings of fate, in the lives of the characters and the events that touch them. The characters wait on signs that will tell them what to do, they interpret them as best they can, and they have visions, see ghosts via the medium of dreams or delirium – all of this in the sense of a folk religion that’s been overlaid with a tradition of Catholicism. You can read the universe and your life as a meaningless, or you can see it as something more, something epic in which fate and love are bound together, a visionary experience of life in which we are invited to take our part. The choice is ours. The latter adds colour and meaning to our days on earth, and makes a kind of mysterious sense of things, if only in retrospect, while the former adds nothing.

There is only one priest in the story, and he shuns the idea of miracles, is afraid of them, would rather the Bishop had the pleasure of them, and when the miracles start to happen, the protagonists literally shut him out. It’s more that God is in every stone of Ireland, in the breath of the wind, in the mist over mountain and bog, a God that is immediate and personal. It’s a book that stirs the spirit and ravishes the senses. It is not a romance, but it is deeply Romantic, and the language is lyrical, pellucid, utterly mesmerising. This is one of the most powerful and compelling works of fiction I have read, and I have re-read it several times now, always something fresh leaping out – a passing observation, a few lines of description triggering an avalanche of revelation.

The moment when the author reveals how Isabelle and Nicholas are finally going to meet will take your breath away and it’ll have you laughing as much out of relief as anything else. But this is not your usual “will they won’t they” kind of story, the kind to be forgotten as soon as the last page is turned. The ending is subtle, powerful and, like the rest of the book, rich with meaning, and it leaves you wondering.

It’s a story you’ll be carrying around in your head for a long, long time.

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An Irish Cottage - Helen Allingham - 1840-1926I have found the disintegrating remains of my grandfather’s birth certificate. It tells me he was born in 1875, in County Mayo. This I already knew, but what I did not know is that his father, John, a farmer, was illiterate. He signs with a cross and his name is inked in by the registrar. My grandfather’s mother, Catherine, was from County Sligo. This also I did not know. She signs for herself, is literate, as are all her children.

I searched the Irish census of 1901 and found their names, but the facts gleaned are few; I now have the Gaelic translation of the place they lived: Trian na cailligh; I know both were bilingual – Irish and English; that they lived in a stone-built dwelling consisting of three rooms and a roof that was either thatch or turf; that there were two adult children living with them: the eldest son, John, who would take over the tenancy on the death of his father in 1918, and a daughter, Bridget.  Beyond that, I know nothing of their lives. No photographs survive, if indeed they ever existed. Their story is lost. Time has erased them.

Of course their story is of no interest to anyone but me, and all I can do is imagine them, weave them into myth. But in doing so, in colouring  the blanks this way, I’m aware I’m also colouring in what I perceive to be the blanks in myself. Indeed I believe there’s a danger genealogy feeds a dissatisfaction with the story of our own lives, that through our imagining of the past lives of our ancestors, we are searching for something we might use to frame our own lives differently.

So,… I trace one branch of my ancestry to a three roomed rustic farmhouse in Trian na cailligh, County Mayo. I imagine a thatch roof, imagine my great grandparents, imagine hard lives as landholders in nineteenth century Ireland. I like this image because there’s a romance to it, also an inverse snobbery in flaunting one’s humble origins. But then I imagine their sadness at the leaving of my grandfather for England in the 1890’s and with that sadness comes a sense of their humanness – the first and perhaps the only substantially meaningful connection I can make with them. Then I imagine all the links of fate and love that led from them to me, and I wonder if there’s anything more of them in me than just the traces of our DNA.

I think there is.

I’ve noticed how my children have taken up an interest in things I’ve dallied with in the past myself – yet they do this without encouragement, and sometimes even without the knowledge of my own former passion. Also I note things that fascinated my father are being reborn this way.  So yes, I think there is a passing on of  ideas, of artistry, of curiosity – all the intangible things that define us as human beings,  and which are the more important artifacts of our ancestry, travelling through time to be reborn in our descendants.

As for the more tangible details that await the genealogist,… they tell a different story, and it’s never true because it can never scratch any deeper than the surface. What is my story? My children’s birth certificates do not have their father’s occupation down as writer, so I can see some future genealogist, for whom perhaps I shall be great grandfather, getting me all wrong, because I am a writer first and foremost in my life.

Yet I did not go to London, did not elbow my way into the literary set, did not make my living by the publishing of novels. I found an ordinary job instead and have lived and loved and worked all my life within walking distance of the place where I was born. And the writing? In my middle years, I was to create a cloak of anonymity for it, then cast my words into the clouds for anyone who happened to be passing by – like deliberately leaving my notes on a park bench. My true story, indeed all our stories, are more complex and mysterious than can ever be recorded by the registrar’s pen.

Of course none of this matters. Time will erase all our stories, and we have to be accepting of this if we are ever to frame our own lives accurately. Yet to John and Catherine, imperfectly imagined, living their  lives out in the fields of County Mayo,  I say this: I will never know your real story, just as none who follow me will ever know mine, but I give thanks for your lives all the same.

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