Patricia A. Lynch
University of Limerick, Ireland | Published: 15 March, 2013
ISSUE 8 | Pages: 177-194 | PDF | DOAJ |

Creative Commons 4.0 2013 by Patricia A. Lynch | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Reflections on Irish Writing in 2012

In the Ireland emerging into 2013, some important facts of Irish life are still similar to the preceding years.  The severe recession is still there, and in some ways has tightened its grip on the population, but there are green shoots to be seen in the form of slightly increased employment, a deal on the national debt which will save the country some billions of euro, and a manifest improvement in the performance of the United States; as an American friend said to me many years ago: “Whatever happens in America will appear in Ireland three-quarters of an hour later!”  So there is some reason to hope.

In this recession, literature and critical writing still flourish, book launches take place almost as often as before, associations continue to hold their annual conferences, and journals make their regular yearly appearances.   An example of this was the Dublin Book Festival in November, the fifth in succession, therefore coterminous with the recession, a fact that speaks for itself.  I had the great pleasure of attending the annual conference of IASIL (International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures), taking place for the first time in Concordia University, Montréal, another achievement for the burgeoning Irish Studies programme in this University.  Edna O’Brien finally brought out her memoir, aptly Country Girl, with Faber and Faber.  Of the newer faces on the scene, Kevin Barry brought out his second short-story collection Dark Lies the Island.

Of course there have been losses too.  Many academics took the option of early retirement just a year ago, leaving departments of Irish Studies often with depleted staff and resources.  The death took place of the greatly loved author and doyenne of Irish popular literature, Maeve Binchy, but nonetheless her latest and last book came out this year.  Another great loss was that of the late Caroline Walsh, literary editor of the Irish Times, who was commemorated on many occasions, including in two of the books which I am reviewing below.

Some other positive upcoming events include what is called The Gathering.  Taking its inspiration from a similar Scottish event, members of the Irish diaspora are invited to visit Ireland in 2013, and there are many events and functions planned for this purpose.  While some people, notably Irish actor Gabriel Byrne (cultural ambassador for Ireland in the US 2010-2011), are rather cynical about the financial expectations of the organisers, others perceive it to be mutually beneficial to both the Irish at home and to the Irish visitors to the home of their ancestors.  Let us look forward to all who choose to come back, let us make them truly welcome, and join with them in commemorating the great events which brought about our nation’s independence. This year sees the centenary of the lockout of the workers by the employers in 1913, leading to many recruitments to the British Army in the First World War, and the formation of the Socialist movement that culminated in The Irish Citizen Army, which was to play a significant part in the Easter Rising of 1916.  All of these events led to rich literature output which we will also commemorate.

The first recent work which I read in 2012 was Maurice O’Callaghan’s novel In Their Dreams of Fire.  This fiction is set in West Cork, home of the author, who is a lawyer, novelist, and both writer and director of a movie.  The chronology of the book is the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent civil war, covering the period 1919 to 1923, the same period which featured in his earlier movie.  The novel opens with a detailed description of an Anglo-Irish gentleman walking in a beautiful landscape which is far older than his family’s possession of the estate.  Sights and sounds of the countryside are lovingly depicted:

The trees were very old.  Their branches spread outwards and up as if they would embrace and shelter all living things.  In the wood there was birdsong, the pop of ladyfingers in the heat, dogs’ distant barking across the river, a fringe of ghosts in Jasper’s old walled estate and manor house.  There was the shimmer of leaves and a fluttering downwards of white and pink-petalled flowers.  Twigs crackled under the feet of squirrels and rabbits (O’Callaghan 2011: 3).

The style is slow, luxuriantly descriptive, and reminiscent of late nineteenth-century fiction, particularly that of Thomas Hardy.  There is the appearance of action with the meeting of Jasper with a gentleman friend, then later with two workers picturesque as any of Wordsworth’s peasants.  However the mood and style change rapidly with the appearance of the next actors on the scene, British soldiers known familiarly as ‘Black and Tans’, drunk on whiskey and spoiling for a fight.  Their journey in an army vehicle from the town of Bandon into the countryside is described with a wealth of local detail which gradually gives way to a sense of menace.  A young woman named Elizabeth coming with food to the two workers becomes a target for the soldiers, and in the ensuing struggle the older worker is killed for coming to her defense.

With this incident, the action of the novel takes off.   An idyll has been shattered.  The younger worker, brother to Elizabeth, is set in train to become the hero of the novel, as soldier of the Irish resistance and as lover.  This beautiful countryside, seen at first as the rolling acres of the aristocracy, is now to become the setting for guerrilla warfare, ambushes, marathon treks across rugged ground, and fear in all homes, great and small, as old divisions of planter and planted, old and new religions, are re-opened.  The more lyric descriptive style still appears from time to time, but fields and roads are now mainly described from a military tactical point of view.  Ambushes in particular are narrated with an almost topographical detail, to the extent that the reader feels as if he/she is there and can envisage it all; it would be possible to draw or sketch the scenes at a pinch.  It is a historical novel, then, and this is clearly indicated by the two lists set out at the end, those characters who are fictional and the vastly greater number which are historical.  The author’s research is thorough; he uses as background not only formal histories but also autobiographical works such as Ernie O’Malley’s On Another Man’s Wound (1936).  The immediacy that characterises O’Malley’s account is also found in O’Callaghan’s work, but the latter is neither history nor autobiography; it is fiction.  After the initial ponderousness of the work, I was held by the story and my interest was riveted until the end.

The second and third novels which I read with great pleasure have quite a number of themes in common, as will become apparent in the following paragraphs.  First of these is John Banville’s novel Ancient Light.  It has many echoes of an earlier Banville fiction, the Booker-winning The Sea (2005): a boy becomes friendly with a family who are of a higher social status; in both, the boy falls in love with his friends’ mother; in both, some or all of the family die prematurely.  The actual parents of the two narrators are rather obscure figures in the background, and the narrators as adults recalling their youth have troubled, insomniac daughters in their twenties.  The sea in both is associated with tragedy.  The Grace family in the earlier novel are seen as “divinities” (Banville 2005: 107).  The father in particular seems to have the cruel sardonic regard of gods as he watches the interplay of relationships in his family (121).  This was to be fully developed in Infinities (2009) where Greek gods play havoc with the lives of people, but inAncient Light, while the author still uses many classical references, he is more concerned with human psychology and loves.

A very different take on the past from O’Callaghan’s novel is found in this latest Banville fiction.   There is no intention to use history here, apart from a re-creation of the scenario and feelings of 1950s Ireland.  Descriptions of small towns, household furniture, clothes, beach holiday places and transport are all lovingly sketched.  However, this is not 1950s Ireland as many people know it.  It begins with the stark sentence, a real attention-grabber: “Billy Gray was my best friend, and I fell in love with his mother”.  This becomes even more riveting when it is made apparent that the boys were fifteen years old, and the mother is thirty-five.  The close moral scrutiny of lives and mores in general by mid-twentieth Irish society is not evident here; even though the boy thinks that his secret affair is known about and condemned, this proves not to be the case, as evident late in the novel.  What would nowadays be regarded as paedophilia, the seduction of a 15 year old boy by a woman in her 30s, mother of his best friend of same age, has little or no moral relevance in this book.

While the boy lover adores Mrs Grace from a distance in The Sea, and later transfers his attention to her young daughter, there is a distinctly Freudian character to the full-blown sexual relationship inAncient Light.  The boy in love-making sometimes calls his lover “Mother”; the woman at times adopts the indulgent amused tone of a mother soothing her baby, especially when the boy sulks because she will not accede to his demands.  This is complicated by the fact that he admits to being a little in love with Billy, and at times notes the disconcerting resemblance between mother and son.  When his love affair comes to an end, the boy seeks physical comfort from his own mother, holding on to her finger as he lies beside her bed, as he formerly did when he had childhood nightmares.

Where O’Callaghan calls on the facts of history in the early part of the twentieth century, Banville’s past is a very fluid concept, as the narrator repeatedly reminds us: “Images from the past crowd in my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions.  Not that there is much difference between the two, if indeed there is any difference at all” (Banville 2012: 3).  He repeatedly confuses the seasons, relying more on pathetic fallacy and his own feelings about the episodes by which to situate them in time; he reminds us that biographies are fiction (54), and in the end stars in a film entitledThe Invention of the Past.

There is a repeated preoccupation with deaths: those of the narrator’s father, Mrs Gray’s last baby, her eventual death, his daughter Cass’s death by suicide, the attempt at suicide by the young movie star who is his love interest in the movie they are making together.   Dawn Davenport  becomes for Alex a representation of his daughter, especially as she often evokes her own dead father, and he attempts to save and heal this girl and himself too, by bringing her to the area where Cass drowned herself.  Later his wife takes the girl under her wing, and they attempt to do for her what they could not do for their own daughter − with success, it seems.

There is a lurking sense of immortality and transcendence underlying all of the transience, however.  Some haunting experiences are lightly touched on, of Cass while she was still living, in the troubled months before her suicide, “a sort of ghost-in-waiting” (143), the shade of Alex’s dead father glimpsed in the attic (153), Dawn’s perception of a nameless something when she is technically dead after her suicide attempt(158).  Alex and his wife are atheists but these experiences and the belief of others in immortality open new possibilities to him.  He ponders the nature of coincidence, which might suggest a transcendent process at work “above, or behind, or within commonplace reality.  And yet I ask myself, why not?”(151). On meeting again with Kitty, Mrs Gray’s daughter, who has spent her life as a nun, he ruminates: “If so, in her version of things, Cass is eternally alive, Cass and Mrs Gray, and Mr Gray, and Billy, and my mother and my father, ..”.  But that is not the only or possible heaven which he encounters: there is also the theory of the many worlds as propounded to him by a mysterious South American man in the bar of an Italian hotel, which leads him to think that “somewhere in this infinitely layered, infinitely ramifying reality Cass did not die, her baby was born, … somewhere too Mrs Gray survived” (241).  There are a number of transforming experiences of light, as the title indicates, especially that described at the very end of the novel, when the bereft and terrified boy experiences a type of transcendence in the approaching dawn, and “it was as if some radiant being were advancing towards the house … great trembling wings spread wide” (255) which soothes him and gives him back his sleep.

So too, there is a great deal of irony in this novel, another factor implying a causality outside of human control.  Mrs Gray’s husband is an optician, but in life is manifestly myopic in relation to his wife’s affair.   Cass, in getting her father to walk with her at a dangerously narrow ledge over a sheer cliff is acting out the circumstances of her future suicide. The identity of the mystery lover of the narrator’s daughter’s may possibly be the character called Axel Vander whose life Alex Cleave acts in the movie; there is an acute similarity in these names, especially in the first names.  Dawn in the movie acts as Cora, the wronged young lover of Axel Vander, whose death by drowning he causes.  As Alex looks at Dawn in the hospital after her failed suicide attempt, he wonders: “What turbulent depths had she leaned out over, what windy abyss had called to her?” (134)  Overall, acting is seen as a parallel for real life.

In this incredibly rich novel, there are many lovingly recreated sensuous descriptions of certain nature scenes, which are scattered throughout.  The theme of light and vision is often associated with mirror images, for example when the boy first beholds Mrs Gray’s body in a reflection of a reflection, but these topics are so wide that if I were to detail them in full, this review would never end.

The third novel which I have read from last year’s new fiction is Kathleen MacMahon’s This Is How It Ends.  Like the Banville fiction, this is preoccupied with death, too, which is also closely associated with the sea.  Both writers commemorate the late Caroline Walsh, literary editor of the Irish Times;  Banville’s novel is dedicated to her and she is also warmly remembered in her niece Kathleen MacMahon’s “Acknowledgements”.  Both also use the terminology of painting to describe colours.

Like many Irish works of fiction, This is How it Ends is also a novel about a family.  They comprise a father in his sixties, two adult daughters and the husband and children of the elder one, and even the love interest for the unmarried daughter is a distant cousin who comes from America.  It is in many ways a novel about contemporary life, too, based in 2008 around the first election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, and accompanied throughout by the music of Bruce Springsteen.  Even though the family belongs to the middle class in Southside Dublin, there are frequent reminders of Ireland’s recession, and also farther afield; cousin Bruno has lost his job in Lehman’s Bank before coming to Ireland.  The father, Professor Murphy, is a doctor, and has made many enemies for himself in the hospital, but the daughters, while acknowledging his difficult character, also see how he tried to love and take care of them when their mother dies young.

More than anything, however, this novel is about death.  It carries a strong sense of fatality.  Firstly, the death of the mother has left the daughters damaged even into adulthood; Addie has also suffered from the effects of an ectopic pregnancy, her probable last chance to have a baby.  The coming of their cousin Bruno is a catalyst for her, leading to the first true love of her life; she meets him near the beach where she loves to swim with her dog: “And that was how it started” (MacMahon 2012: 53).   He makes her want to live a more full life, opens her eyes to factors hitherto neglected by her, such as the beauty of various parts of Ireland and the neglected relatives who live in more modest circumstances than them.  However, there are various intimations that Addie will suffer from cancer as her mother did.  While the news of her impending death brings consternation to all the family, in some ways she almost seems to welcome it; “It seemed to her in that moment that she had always known” (333).  For the first time in her life she is the leader and has to be strong.  She feels calm, even elation, and happiness for the good things that have come to her; she regrets only the things which she could have done with her life.  Her approaching death has a redemptive power over her father, as well as Bruno, and she dies while her family experience the joy of seeing the Northern Lights from the balcony just off her room, while she is conscious of the fact: “This is how it ends” (p. 400).

There are some distinct resemblances here to the short story “Happiness,” written by Mary Lavin, grandmother to Kathleen MacMahon.  The mother in this story is preoccupied with the idea of happiness being a value that one works for, that sorrow is not a substitute for happiness.  This was the motto of her own father on his deathbed and she clings to it, in spite of the pain of losing her young husband at a tragically early age.  At the moment of her own death, her daughter reassures her that she does not have to face her troubles any more, and she relaxes into death as she has never been able to do in life, just like Addie in the novel above.  So the mix of death and transcendent experience is hardly new in 2012.

Works Cited

Banville, John. 2005. The Sea, London: Picador.

_________. 2009. The Infinities, London: Picador

_________. 2012. Ancient Light, London: Viking.

Lavin, Mary.  1999. “Happiness”. The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction.  Colm Tóibín (ed.), London: Viking, 650-660.

MacMahon, Kathleen. 2012. This Is How It Ends. London: Sphere.

O’Callaghan, Maurice. 2011. In Their Dreams of Fire. Dublin: Destiny.

O’Malley, Ernie. 1961 (first published 1936). On Another Man’s Wound. London: Four Square Books.