Sally Barr Ebest
University of Missouri-St. Louis

Creative Commons 4.0 by Sally Barr Ebest. 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.

Emer Martin

The Lilliput Press Ltd, 2023. 352 pages.

ISBN: 9781843518631

When I finished reading Emer Martin’s The Cruelty Men (2018), I was bereft. I wanted more stories of the resilient O’Conaill siblings. I was entranced by Martin’s voice, which melds painful Irish history with political insights, personifies tragedy through the heart-wrenching stories of abandoned children and heartless clergy, and – despite the children’s perilous existence – contextualizes it with humour mixed with ancient myths in language bordering on the poetic. Perhaps because he is both the cruellest and the dumbest of the O’Connaills, most of the humour revolves around the karmic accidents experienced by the mean-spirited Seamus, so miserly that he sent his sisters out to work and put his younger siblings in the Laundries and Industrial Schools rather than pay for their keep.

Despite the Troubles and the scandals inside and outside the Church, Thirsty Ghosts contains less humour, virtually nothing on the priest scandal, and just one attempt at a joke:

Q: How did the priest find the boy in the long grasses?

A: Eminently satisfying.

No need for more. As Fintan O’Toole famously noted, during this period in

Ireland, the priest scandal was an open secret (167).

And now the stories continue: Martin’s fifth novel, Thirsty Ghosts, the second of a proposed trilogy, was released on September 14, 2023. Whereas The Cruelty Men ended in the mid-1950s (with detours into the mythic past and under the ground to seek out their sources), Thirsty Ghosts picks up these stories as Ireland muddles through the Troubles and begins to catch up with the rest of the world’s social, religious, and economic progress. Two of the six O’Conaill children – Sean and Padraig – have perished, thanks largely to machinations of the Church; the remaining four have grown up and established families of their own. Mary is the housekeeper for the Lyons family, Seamus has remained on the family farm, Bridget and Maeve have presumably moved to America. Seamus has produced a son, Ignatius, known as Iggy to his family and Zoz to his disreputable friends. He married Esther, a Jewish woman with whom he sired Cormac, Fionn, and Etain, who move into the spotlight formerly held by their aunts and uncles. These children hang out with two offspring from the Lyons and MacInespie family trees – Deirdre and Orla – while their parents, Baby (née) Lyons and Paddy MacInespie, socialize with Iggy. They are all brought together by Mary O’Conaill, whose love for Baby ensured her a permanent home with the Lyons family. Confused? Luckily, Martin provides a family tree.

Ireland’s movement through the latter twentieth century periodically detours into the distant past to remind readers of its influence. The Hag, who represents Ireland, begins and ends the novel. She starts with a warning and a bit of hope:

Because you loved – you feared. Because you feared, you screamed. Because you screamed, you spoke. Because you wanted a shape to outlast you, you told a story. To send messages to those not yet born. And those stories mean the pain will not always kill you. (4)

She ends on a cautionary note: “The affection of a hag is a cold thing” (340).

In addition to the Hag, the character Caitriona appears periodically out of the late 1500s and 1600s to remind the reader that the British, who massacred her children, have always been the enemy. All she has left is her stories, her only sustenance (55). Indeed, whereas The Cruelty Men primarily blamed the Catholic Church for the country’s problems, Thirsty Ghosts focuses on the psychic damage caused by the British. Natural outgrowths, the Troubles are subtly interwoven.

The British are excoriated throughout with stories of their savage duplicity through the ongoing story of the Earl of Essex, who travelled to Rathlin Island off the coast of Ireland, where he massacred men, women, and children, cut off their heads, threw them into bags, took them to Dublin, placed them on spikes – and claimed the island for England. Iggy refers to the heads as “thirsty ghosts” because they were not buried. But that term also applies to the book’s characters who had been sent to Industrial Schools and confined in the Laundries; they too are thirsty, “full of holes never to be filled, unquenched needs” (239).

Whereas the characters in The Cruelty Men personified the evils of the Catholic Church and its hold on Ireland, Thirsty Ghosts recounts Ireland’s growing pains via the extended O’Conaill family. As in Martin’s other novels, the primary narrators are women: Mary, Dymphna, and Deirdre. Just as in The Cruelty Men, Mary O’Conaill (based on Martin’s parents’ housekeeper) is the glue that holds the various families and their childer together through her care-giving and her stories about fairies – fairy rings, pookas, ghosts, banshees (drawn largely from Ella Young’s Celtic Wonder Tales) – and British invaders. These stories are in turn passed down by her sister Maeve, lost in the Laundries, who the nuns have re-named Teresa. Another inmate, Dymphna, has heard the tales so often that she memorizes and retells them to her children and their father. “The stories were a link to the first of our people”, she explains, “and no one could steal them or beat them out of us” (69). Like the ancient Caitriona, the stories are all she has.

Dymphna, “the Patron Saint of the Mad”, personifies the public and private woes of women in Ireland. As she says in a classic line, “I was born in Gestapo Ireland in the 1950s – where men weren’t allowed to think and women didn’t exist” (5). Her mother feared the girl would disgrace the family because she wrote poetry, so she put her in the Laundries. The only positive result is that she learned the O’Conaill family stories from fellow inmate Teresa and passed them on, for they were “a link to the first of the people, and no one could steal or beat them out of us” (69). After she escapes, she walks the streets of Dublin, where she meets Iggy, or Zoz as he is known there, and eventually gets hooked on drugs. Her story represents a new scourge, the epidemic of heroin addiction in inner-city Dublin which began in the 1980s.

Deirdre, daughter of Baby and Paddy MacInespie, embodies the discontent of the rising middle class. Her mother is a schoolteacher and her father a professor at UC-Dublin; they live in one of the new suburban housing estates and enjoy central heating. As a child, Deirdre had a habit of hiding behind sofas and eavesdropping. There she learned that by joining the EEC, Irish women gained the rights to equal pay and to work after they married, that bombings by the UVF and IRA heralded the Troubles, which were exacerbated by the British army, and that the Gardai were no less violent with their own citizens. She discovers this first hand when, hidden again behind the sofa, she witnesses family members being slaughtered by the police for providing guns to the resistance. Not surprising, for as Iggy says, “put an Irishman on the spit and you’ll find two others to turn him” (63).

Deirdre has a crush on Cormac, Iggy’s son. To get Cormac’s attention, she decides to become a punk rocker. Her mother, Baby, allows it because she too thinks of herself as a punk because of her pro-choice stance. Through her, Deirdre introduces one of the primary social issues facing Ireland in the latter twentieth century: the anti-abortion movement, exemplified by the “wee gold foetus feet” her schoolmates must wear on their uniforms (241). Deirdre rebels against the nuns’ parochialism, the priests’ demands to vote down the abortion amendment, her parents’ desire for success, and the sad Irish economy: “Boring boring boring Ireland. Fifty percent of the population under twenty-five, no work, no future, priest riddled . . . . Home Rule is Rome Rule” (245). Teenage angst leads to drinking, drugs, and the self-mutilation endemic among depressed teens at the fin de siècle: Deirdre cuts herself because the pain “was like an anchor that tethered me to the world” (317).

Ironically, Deirdre is saved by her uncle Iggy. Although he appears as a ne’er-do-well to his family since he cannot hold a job, he is well known in the mean streets of Dublin where he has taken the alias Zoz or Zozimus, a legendary Irish street rhymer, because he too is known for his stories. Iggy notices Deirdre among the junkies, buys her a drink, and makes her hand over her stash – then advises her to leave Ireland: “Scoop up my sons, take a boat, take a plane, build a raft, learn to swim, grow your own wings but get on the fuck out of here to somewhere where they have shorter memories, and don’t let me see you in Marlborough Street ever again” (321). With that she leaps up to call her cousin Cormac to persuade him to escape with her to London.

This is not the book’s conclusion; it is followed by six quick chapters, suggesting that other characters may escape as well, thus laying the groundwork for Book III. When it emerges, we can be sure that Martin will continue her efforts to give voice to Ireland’s silenced women by telling the stories of their families, their suffering, and their perseverance.