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Entries in Ireland (9)


The Dregs of the Day by Máirtin Ó Cadhain

Published in Ireland in 1970; Alan Titley translation published by Yale University Press on September 24, 2019

The scholar who translated The Dregs of the Day from the original Irish tells us that Máirtin Ó Cadhain “is recognized as the foremost author in Irish of the twentieth century.” He primarily wrote short stories, but The Dregs of the Day is long enough to qualify as a novella.

The protagonist is identified only as N. He works in the civil service, although he has taken quite a bit of time off because of his wife’s illness. Now his wife has died and N. is flummoxed. Her lifeless body awaits attention. His wife’s sisters expect N. to make arrangements for someone to prepare the body and then transport it to a church for burial, but N. isn’t sure how to go about doing that and doesn’t really want to spend the money. He needs a nurse and an undertaker and a casket and a priest, but he’s not certain of the order in which he should acquire everything he needs. He stops in a pub for advice, and after a few drinks stops in a department store where there seem to be so many items on sale that he should buy. Sadly, a robber makes off with his wallet before he has a chance.

As N. decides whether to go home and face his wife’s corpse (not to mention his sisters-in-law), he has a number of diverting encounters. He has sex with a woman while pondering his indifference to both the sex and the fact that his dead wife awaits him at home. He chats with a security guard who is charged with beating up clerical students who try to sneak through the windows of a whorehouse. By dawn, he has been kicked out of the department store, kicked out of a charity, kicked out of the property where the security guard finds him snoozing, and kicked out of a church. N. can’t quite bring himself to return home and might not get his act together in time to attend his wife’s funeral, assuming his wife’s sisters arrange it in his absence. He wonders idly whether he might be endangering his civil service position, leading to a funny description of life in the civil service.

As the novel nears its end, N. makes his way to another pub with an American sailor who extolls the virtues of America, where everything is free, particularly for the Irish population of Boston. N. considers whether the life described by the sailor might be better than the one he is living, although it seems clear that N.’s problems do not arise from his country of residence but from his own ineptitude or indifference.

The Dregs of the Day is a dark comedy. The tragedy of death lurks in the background as N. lurches from one preposterous situation to another. N. is a sympathetic character if the reader can forgive him for being appalling. N. doesn’t have an evil heart, but he might not have any heart at all. He seems to have little regard for anyone, including himself, despite being entirely self-absorbed. He could solve his immediate problems rather easily just by going home (where surely his sisters-in-law would tell him how to solve the remaining problems, or simply take over and do it all themselves), but he cannot resist his impulses, none of which lead him in a sensible direction. He is seemingly blown by the winds of chance, unable or unwilling to resist the directions in which he is blown. The reader’s sympathy derives from the sense that N. is entirely lost, not because his wife has died but because he doesn’t know what to make of the world, what to care about, what to do with his purposeless life. We all know people like that (most of them drink too much), and Máirtin Ó Cadhain captured them brilliantly in the character of N.



Country by Michael Hughes

Published in the UK in 2018; published digitally by HarperCollins on Oct. 1, 2019

Country offers different perspectives on the Troubles, as seen by key characters on both sides of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is 1994 and the generation of men who signed up to fight for a united Ireland are sick of the conflict. The IRA is splintering. Peace might finally be at hand — a ceasefire is imminent — but a determined group of Republicans want to continue the fight. Country tells the story of a small group of Provisional IRA fighters as they battle British soldiers, Protestant loyalists, informers, and each other.

A dispute between Pig (the group’s leader) and Achill (its feared sniper) concerning the ownership of the teenage girls who warm their beds at night endangers the group’s goal of unsettling the peace talks between the British and the IRA. The story then follows Nellie as she is enticed by the British to become an informer. She is dating (and eventually weds for the sake of appearances) a member of the IRA named Brian Campbell, but she spends their brief marriage scheming a way to get out of Ireland and begin a better life.

The story follows Pig’s brother Dog before it focuses on Henry Morrow, a captain in the SAS who is tasked with contacting the fighters to get a sense of their willingness to support peace negotiations. The spotlight then shifts to Pig, who feels betrayed by IRA leadership. He feel the tide turning. Locals welcome the ceasefire, yearn for an end to checkpoints. Pig won’t stand to see his years of struggle come to nothing.

The story develops the backgrounds of the IRA fighters — the hardcore few who are determined to thwart peace — in unflattering detail. If they were not killing on behalf of the IRA, they would be finding some other way to channel the violence that has been bred in their bones. One wishes he lived in the age of Braveheart so he could hack the British into pieces with his sword. Others don’t enjoy killing but are so caught up in the cause that they have lost all perspective. They kill their own for the smallest reasons — repairing cars for the police becomes a capital crime. These men have legitimate grievances, but the novel suggests that it should have been clear by 1994 that violence was only delaying the objectives they hoped to achieve.

In one of the strongest scenes, men discuss the pride that drives them. Pride in being Irish, pride in being hard men. Yet Achill knows that the English are proud to be English. Having been humiliated by Pig, Achill is too proud to continue the fight under Pig’s command. Pride causes men to fight and it causes them to stop fighting.

There are times when characters from both sides acknowledge that Catholic or Protestant, Irish or British, they are all members of the human race. They bond over football and ancestry and beer. A man who meets with Henry has grudging admiration for the soldier, while Henry feels the same. On occasion, men on both sides will decide not to kill, but when they believe that killing is necessary, no amount of admiration for the opponent will stop them, regardless of which side of the conflict they support. Violence blinds them to the possibility of no violence.

Country tells a fascinating story, but it has a couple of weaknesses. The IRA members love to give speeches to each other, and then praise each other for “a good spake, not a word out of place,” as if they were all students of rhetorical criticism. And while that may accurately reflect the Irish gift of gab, the endless speechifying becomes tedious at points. At the same time, I gather the novel is supposed to evoke Homer’s Iliad, so the dialog is likely meant to serve that purpose.

I also wonder whether the portrayal of the IRA members as hooligans who quarrel about their collections of 14-year-old girls might reflect the bias of an author who grew up in Northern Ireland. Still, while the IRA members are stereotypes of evil, Hughes does make a point of humanizing them, acknowledging that there is some justice in their cause, if not in their use of violence to thwart peace.

In the end, I tend to soak up the lyrical prose of nearly all Irish writers, and Country is no exception. The prose makes the novel compelling, speechifying notwithstanding, and a steady stream of tension and tragedy add substance to Hughes’ style.



When All Is Said by Anne Griffin

First published in Great Britain in 2019; published by St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne Books on March 5, 2019

When All Is Said is told from the perspective of a lonely, grieving, guilt-driven man who left much unsaid to the few people he cared about. Maurice Hannigan, once known as Big Man, is 84. He starts the novel with a visit to a bar. While he interacts with the staff, his interior monologue tells his life story to his son in New Jersey. He wonders how his son grew up to be “so sure and happy” in his life, given Maurice’s inability to be happy with anything, least of all himself. He has been a widow for two years and just sold his farm outside of Dublin. He misses his wife desperately. Maurice is in the bar “to remember — all that I have been and all that I will never be again.”

His memories begin in Ireland when, apparently dyslexic, Maurice is a poor student but a determined football player. At the age of ten, he is encouraged to drop out and learn to be a farmer. He and his family suffer abuse by the wealthy landowner who employs them; Maurice is also abused by landowner’s son Thomas despite their similar ages. Thomas’ father beats him and Thomas can only gain self-respect by beating Maurice. When the opportunity for revenge in an unexpected form arrives, Maurice seizes it, changing lives in a way he cannot imagine. In the present, he is just coming to understand the consequences of his actions, and his attempt to make amends for his petty vengeance might only make things worse.

The story follows Maurice through a life that is materially successful and emotionally cabined. He falls desperately in love with Sadie, marries and has children, but he will experience multiple losses and will never acquire the tools to address them. By the end of his life, he prefers solitude. He cannot abide the thought of opening himself to others. Others see him as a mean and unyielding man because that is the only face he shows; few can guess that his heart longs to be open and humane.

The novel’s other key character is Emily, part of Thomas’ family and an unintended victim of Maurice’s small act of revenge. Maurice sees Emily as a gracious and courageous woman, the kind of woman he hopes his own daughter would have been. Maurice's interaction with Emily is a form of atonement, although not everyone in the novel sees it that way. Surprising facts that have shaped their relationship are unknown to Maurice until the are revealed in the final chapters.

At times, the narrative is not written in a persuasively male voice, but that flaw is not often noticeable. Most of the time the voice is appropriately gruff while elegantly expressing the regrets that Maurice admits to himself when drunkenness encourages insight. In its best moments, when Maurice’s monologue addresses his failure to open himself to his son, when he recalls awkward moments and details his failings, the story perfectly captures his masculine heartache, his inability to express his the warmth he feels. The novel is so rich in the layers of personality that define Maurice, and is told with such conviction, that it is difficult to believe this is Anne Griffin’s debut novel.



Himself by Jess Kidd

First published in Great Britain in 2016; published by Atria Books on March 14, 2017

I’m a sucker for novels by Irish writers who populate small Irish villages with eccentric residents. Himself is sort of a murder mystery, but Jess Kidd’s delightful prose and quirky characters, some of whom are dead, set it apart. The plot is engaging but almost beside the point.

The dead take particular note of Mahoney, who as a baby was saved from death by a forest that hid him from his murderous father. That was in Mulderrig, a place Mahoney doesn’t recall, but to which he returns 26 years later, prompted by a letter that was held by the orphanage that raised him, to be passed on to Mahoney after he was grown.

Mahoney’s mother was Orla Sweeney, a name that is still well known in Mulderrig. She might have been a witch, or perhaps was merely mistaken for one. Orla was unjustly regarded as wicked because she passed messages from the dead to the living, and the people of Mulderrig didn’t appreciate the news that the departed revealed. The reader meets Orla in flashbacks.

In the present, Mahoney meets a priest whose face can’t be trusted; a woman who produces plays for the church that the priest considers to be scandalous; a lecherous old man who has his sights set on a widow; the widow he chases, who is anxious for Mahoney to leave the village; a couple of women who are anxious for the handsome Mahoney to stay; a gossipy cat lady; the village police officer; and a variety of ghosts.

Mahoney (like many in the village) assumes that someone did away with his mother. The plot centers on the efforts of Mahoney, assisted by the play producer and opposed by nearly everyone else, as he tries to uncover the truth about Orla’s disappearance. Even a little dead girl warns him away from his quest.

Ireland is a land of folklore, a fact that Irish fiction often reflects. I always like the ghosts in Irish novels. Unlike American ghosts, they tend to be foul-mouthed, gossipy, and quite funny. There are plenty of ghosts in Himself, including a priest who haunts a commode, but most of them are silent. They confine themselves to shaking their heads or drawing their fingers across their throats when they want to communicate. Other supernatural elements include signs and portents for characters to interpret or misinterpret and quarrel about.

Like many modern Irish tales, Himself shines a light on the condition of Ireland, which a scholarly character describes as “a dying civilization, romantic Ireland, the ancient and untarnished imagination of the pure and noble peasant making sense of the harshness and beauty of their life and the landscape.” There is, as that description suggests, a serious undercurrent to Himself, enough to give the novel literary heft, but it doesn’t detract from the novel’s reliance of several forms of humor, including slapstick, farce, burlesque, satire, and parody. The humor is gentle rather than mordant, light rather than dark (despite some gruesome murders).

Himself isn’t really a murder mystery, given that the reader learns at least some of the truth long before Mahoney. But the village is good at keeping secrets from outsiders even as they gossip among themselves. Some things they would rather not to discuss at all, preferring to let the dead rest — which they aren’t about to do after Mahoney’s return stirs them to recall fragments of the lives they once had. While it’s not a mystery, Himself is a tale of good versus evil, of the few village residents who want to expose the truth versus those who have a motive to hide it. But most of all, regardless of its higher ambitions, this imaginative novel is tremendously entertaining.



The Eloquence of the Dead by Conor Brady

First published in Ireland in 2013; published by Minotaur Books on March 15, 2016

Decades after the Famine, the owners of large estates in Ireland have agreed (or been forced) to sell their land to the government, part of a plan to give Ireland back to the Irish. Corruption in that process provides one of the plot threads in The Eloquence of the Dead.

The story begins in 1887 with the murder of Ambrose Pollock, a pawnbroker in Dublin. The police, eager to avoid any actual investigatory work, are quick to blame the pawnbroker’s sister, Phoebe Pollock, who has gone missing. The question soon arises whether she is missing or dead.

DS Joseph Swallow investigates Ambrose’s murder and Phoebe’s disappearance. His investigation requires him to consider a robbery, the origin of rare coins that are turning up in Dublin, and a land fraud scheme. The interweaving of these plot elements is sufficiently complex to hold the reader’s interest without becoming convoluted. The story works its way to a conclusion that is satisfying if not particularly surprising.

Certain that his Catholicism will prevent him from rising above his current rank, Swallow wonders whether he should pursue another profession as he chases down a variety of criminals. Swallow is typical of a crime fiction police protagonist in that he has difficulties with relationships, grievances about being underappreciated, and complaints about cops who are more committed to making themselves look good than to catching criminals.

A number of other characters, including detectives and criminals, are given about as much characterization as they need in a murder mystery. One of the stronger characters is Margaret Gessel who, having sold the family land, traveled from Ireland to London, only to be disappointed that her cousin, a prominent politician, is barely acknowledging her existence.

The politics of the time and place add an extra layer of interest to The Eloquence of the Dead. The novel illustrates that some things never change. Power protects power, whether in England and Ireland of the 1880s, or any other place at any other time.

Conor Brady’s prose is above average for a mystery, although about average for Irish crime writers, and well above the prose wielded by American crime novelists (featuring single sentence paragraphs and single page chapters) who too often dominate the market. The writing, characters, and plot make Brady’s second Joe Swallow novel an entertaining read, although I wouldn’t shelve it with the best examples of Irish crime fiction.