Claire Keegan’s much anticipated new novella is framed by two historical events: an excerpt from The Proclamation of the Irish Republic which declared the resolve of the signatories, ‘to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.’ The second historical event is the fulsome apology made in the Dáil in 2013 by the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny admitting to the State’s abject failure to follow through on its earlier solemn promise.
In January 2021 further apologies were issued following the publication of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into some of the Mother and Baby Homes. It concluded that ‘for decades, Irish society was defined by its silence, and, in that, its complicity in what was done to some of our most vulnerable citizens.’ In television and radio interviews Taoiseach Michéal Martin repeated the idea that as a nation we all shared in the blame. It seems to me that Keegan has taken that idea to heart and in Small Things Like These her hero, Bill Furlong, shoulders this heavy responsibility on our behalf in an exercise of ‘what might have been’.
The treatment of women and young girls in the Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes was horrendous and no amount of redress or restitution or official report can assuage it. One of the most notorious of those institutions was Sean Ross Abbey outside Roscrea in County Tipperary. It opened its doors in 1931 and closed in 1969 and was run by the nuns of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary. One of the 6,414 admitted there to have her baby was Philomena Lee from Newcastle West in County Limerick. Her baby son was forcibly taken from her and adopted by US parents in the 1950s. Her experience in Sean Ross was later turned into the award-winning film, Philomena.
Ironically, or maybe not so knowing Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These is set in New Ross (as opposed to Sean Ross – the word ‘sean’ in Irish means ‘old’). We get the weather, the season, the name of the town, the River Barrow ‘dark as stout’. It is ‘raw cold’ and relentlessly bleak in the lead up to Christmas 1985 and “chimneys threw out smoke which fell away and drifted off in hairy, drawn-out strings”. The country is in the grip of recession and everyone is struggling to make ends meet. Many businesses are closing and being boarded up; redundancies are common even in large firms such as Albatross. Those still in business are walking a tight rope and carrying out delicate balancing acts each working day.
The setting is Dickensian in many ways and despite being set in 1985 it does have a much earlier feel to it – for me, it is closer to the Ireland of the 50s and 60s. Bill Furlong, the main protagonist, has been raised on Dickens – he received a copy of A Christmas Carol from Mrs. Wilson one Christmas and learns to read using the book as a guide. When asked by his wife Eileen what he wants for Christmas he asks for a Walter Mackin novel or maybe David Copperfield. This novella has many of the Dickensian traits of a morality tale and if you look closely, and if you are wise you will, you will also hear echoes of McGahern’s love of small details in That They May Face the Rising Sun.
It is a story we think we know well. Claire Keegan sets it in 1985 to give us a jolt into realizing that the Magdalen Laundries, and the wrongful incarceration of women, is not something shameful from another century but is still a reality in Haughey’s Ireland. Small Things Like These is yet another attempt to shine a light on an awful period in our collective history. Despite its extreme brevity, it is insightful and written with a striking economy of language; it is, in fact, a tightly edited narrative of fear, uncertainty, hope, heroism and love.
Keegan captures a particular time and place, while also setting out the pitfalls that lie ahead. Furlong and his wife Eileen have just enough money to keep their family going. Many of their customers can’t afford to settle accounts. The wealthier ones, such as the priest and the local convent, are a lifeline. The Christmas envelope from the Good Shepherd nuns, one of Furlong’s biggest accounts, is anticipated and appreciated. Eileen is a great character, not quite shrewish, but canny and practical, a mé-féin mentality that represents the community as a whole. Her motto is, “Stay on the right side of people and soldier on”. She tells her husband that it is “only people with no children that can afford to be careless,” a line that has stunning resonance in a book about the laundries.
Bill Furlong sells ‘coal, turf, anthracite, slack and logs’ and is the kind of man who lies awake at night reflecting on the small things. He is plagued by doubts about his own humble origins and almost feels like an imposter because of his good fortune and his success in business.
Furlong has a wife and five daughters to support. Like the rest of the town, he has plenty of worries, but over the course of this short novel, it is his concern for the welfare of strangers that sets him apart. His wife, Eileen, chides him because he gives away the change out of his pockets to the young boy of the Sinnots. He feels that he has been consigned to knock on doors, particularly back doors, to see into warm, homely kitchens and well-to-do sitting rooms while also witnessing at first hand the poverty and misery brought about by the economic recession.
Furlong is 39, and is a hero in the classical sense, flawed, uneasy, and afraid, but ultimately noble. He goes quietly about his business, in much the same way as John Kinsella does in Keegan’s earlier novel, Foster. The trouble that Furlong faces is introduced incrementally after we’ve gotten to know his world. His first meeting with the Mother Superior of the convent is all smoke and mirrors, beautifully choreographed by the author. The dialogue is full of tension and ice. The nun remarks on his daughter Joan’s participation in the local choir: “She doesn’t look out of place.” The words that go unsaid linger.
Essentially, however, he is a good man who will no longer stand by and see evil triumph – he gradually steels himself, despite being aware of the possible consequences, and eventually, he heroically takes a stand. Mrs. Kehoe and her distinctly Irish aphorisms are an example of the insidious pressure being applied by the people of the town when they sense that Furlong may be about to break ranks. She and the other townspeople have long been complicit in allowing the situation in the local convent to continue. Her attitude is like Heaney’s ‘whatever you say, say nothing’:
Tis no affair of mine, you understand but you know you’d want to watch over what you’d say about what’s there? Keep the enemy close, the bad dog with you and the good dog will not bite. You know yourself.
The cumulative effect of these pieces of advice is to show the silent complicity of all in the town, and the fear which has them all browbeaten into subservience.
It is possible to see that there are many similarities between Claire Keegan’s earlier novel, Foster, and Small Things Like These. Both are set in the South East of Ireland and while the sun shines continually in Foster, here the weather is anything but benign,
‘And then the nights came on and the frosts took hold again, and blades of cold slid under the doors and cut the knees off those who still knelt to say the rosary’.
For me, personally, the idea of people kneeling as a family to say the rosary in Ireland in 1985 is jarring and not credible. Both novellas have very strong male protagonists and indeed there are many comparisons that can be made between John Kinsella in Foster and Bill Furlong in Small Things Like These. Interestingly, the young girl who is fostered out to the Kinsellas in Foster lives in Clonegal while the young girl in this novel, Sarah Redmond, also hails from ‘Clonegal out past Kildavin’.
There are many unusual images throughout the novel – one of the early chapters begins, “It was a December of crows.” Later, Furlong again encounters these crows and he describes them as ‘dapper’,
‘striding along, inspecting the ground and their surroundings with their wings tucked in, putting Furlong in mind of the young curate who liked to walk about town with his hands behind his back’.
There is another troubling image used earlier when Furlong describes the level of poverty in the town:
And early one morning, Furlong had seen a young schoolboy drinking the milk out of the cat’s bowl behind the priest’s house.
Indeed, and I am saddened to say this, it seems to me that priests and nuns are caricatured here as malign and evil characters like ogres of old. I fear that this will be their lot in Irish literature for some time to come not least as a result of their role in the Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Baby Home debacle. Meanwhile, it seems the State has escaped the same level of opprobrium and has come away relatively unscathed.
Local politicians are on hand to lighten the gloom and arrive to ceremoniously turn on the Christmas lights in early December. In my mind’s eye, I visualized Michael Darcy or Brendan Howlin, or even Brendan Corish “wearing his brasses over a Crombie coat”.
Keegan uses another unusual image near the end as Furlong approaches the convent with its foreboding high walls topped with broken glass to repel intruders or maybe to deter those wishing to escape:
Turning a corner, he came across a black cat eating from the carcass of a crow, licking her lips.
The enigmatic Ned tells Furlong of a strange incident where he was giving a neighbour hay from Mrs. Wilson’s barn until one night, ‘something that wasn’t human, an ugly thing with no hands came out of the ditch, and blocked me – and that put an end to me stealing Mrs. Wilson’s hay.’
I hope I haven’t given away too many details, particularly of the cloistered world of the convent as this would spoil your enjoyment of the novel. And, believe you me, it is an essential stocking filler this Christmas.
The ending to this novel is not a fairytale happy-ever-after one. Indeed, as we approach the end we sense that Furlong’s troubles are just about to begin. We are encouraged to brood on the consequences of Furlong’s action. Keegan presumes that we too know how things work in our little Republic so we come away from the novel fearful for his family, his business:
The worst was yet to come, he knew. Already he could feel a world of trouble waiting for him behind the next door, but the worst that could have happened was also already behind him; the thing not done, which could have been – which he would have had to live with for the rest of his life.
To say that this new novel by Claire Keegan is long-awaited is an understatement. However, I would caution against believing all you read in the pre-publication reviews which are universally positive and exaggerated in their praise of her new novella. Small Things Like These will, however, follow the earlier Foster onto school syllabi and will be studied by generations of our young people in the coming years. It will hopefully help them answer this deceptively simple question relating to Ireland’s past: “Why were the things that were closest so often the hardest to see?”
Rebel Acts: Patrick Kavanagh, John Montague and Michael Hartnett
The Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture, 2 October 2021
I have always been interested in the fact that Ireland’s era of supreme literary achievement – the time of Yeats and Joyce – coincided with its age of political transformation in the opening decades of the 20th century. This has given me an interest in what I call ‘history poems’, poetry that addresses issues of a political or societal nature.
Was this really a coincidence, or was the flowering of Irish literature in the first third of the 20th century somehow bound up with Ireland’s torrid escape from external rule in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. Were Irish literature and early 20th century Irish history two sides of the same coin?
During my student days in Cork, I was friendly with a number of up-and-coming poets who emerged there under the guidance of John Montague, who taught English at UCC. I refer to Tom McCarthy, Sean Dunne, Theo Dorgan and Pat Crotty. Although I could never write a line of verse myself as I do not have the gift or the courage for self-revelation of the kind that good poetry requires, I had an interest in poetry. It was through that interest that I met Michael Hartnett briefly when he came to UCC to do a reading there in the mid-1970s.
That was about the time when ‘A Farewell to English’ was published and I was intrigued by his caustic evocation of the ‘paradise of files and paper clips’. That seemed especially pertinent to me as I was about to join the Irish civil service. At the time, I was writing an MA thesis which explored the borderlands between literature and history. I made use of ‘A Farewell to English’ in that study in order to point out that our writers continued to have an awkward interface with Irish society and politics in the 1970s. Some of the lines from Hartnett’s poem have stayed in my mind throughout the intervening decades.
Hartnett’s poem reflected the disenchantment I had encountered elsewhere in Ireland’s literary canon. It seemed as if our writers acted as a kind of informal opposition to the conventions, pieties if you will, of independent Ireland.
I have long detected similarities between ‘A Farewell to English’ and Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘The Great Hunger’ and John Montague’s ‘The Rough Field’, three public poems that address key themes from experience as an independent country. In this talk, I want to reflect on those three poems all of which exhibit a crusading tone. Between them they offer a kind of potted history of 20th century Ireland, retold by three acute, articulate observers.
In ‘The Great Hunger’, Patrick Kavanagh excoriates the failings of rural Ireland. John Montague’s ‘Rough Field’ explores the sectarian conflicts and tensions that abounded in his home place, Garvaghey in County Tyrone. In Hartnett’s case, disappointment with the Ireland he knew runs through his poem. Between them, the three poets raise dissenting voices, disaffected from aspects of the Ireland they knew. They tell us something about 20th century Ireland. If journalism is the first draft of history as has been claimed, then literature is perhaps its second draft. Literary evidence also lives on in the public imagination in ways that other parts of our documentary archive does not.
The three poems do not, of course, tell us everything about 20th century Ireland, just as ‘Easter 1916’ does not give a full picture of the 1916 Rising, but that poem does capture something of the essences of the Rising. For their part, Kavanagh, Montague and Hartnett give us snatches of commentary on 20th century Irish life. What do they tell us?
The Great Hunger:
Reading it again in recent weeks, it is hard not to be deeply impressed with ‘The Great Hunger’(1942). It’s one hell of an achievement, even if the world it depicts has an antiquarian feel in the Ireland of Google, Starbuck’s and Amazon etc.
In a 1949 interview with The Bell, Kavanagh bragged that he was “the only man who has written in our time about rural Ireland from the inside” and that was fair comment. What I think he meant was that Yeats and other writers of the literary revival had spied rural Ireland from the outside, idealizing it in the process. Kavanagh had written about it at close quarters from his ungainly perch at Inniskeen in County Monaghan. Kavanagh certainly didn’t follow Yeats’s exhortation to ’sing the peasantry’ or to embrace the dream of ‘the noble and the beggarman’.
What we get in ‘The Great Hunger’ is a furiously gritty immersion in what the poet called
the apocalypse of clay
In every corner of this land.
This is what one critic has called an ‘anti-pastoral’ poem. The poet Brendan Kennelly has described ‘The Great Hunger’ as ‘a necessary realistic outburst from an essentially transcendental imagination.’ The tone is this poem is very different from Kavanagh’s better-known short poems, where his attitude to rural Ireland is more wistful. Here it is fierce. He pulls no punches in his evocation of the sexual frustrations of ‘poor Paddy Maguire’ and his fellow potato gatherers who are like ‘mechanised scarecrows’ ‘broken-backed over the Book of Death’.
Maguire is a man whose spirit:
Is a wet sack flapping about the knees of time.
He is not the ‘wise and simple man’ with the ‘sun freckled face’ as in Yeats’s dream of the ideal Irish countryman in his poem, ‘The Fisherman’. This is reality as Kavanagh saw it, a man bound to his fields,
Lost in a passion that never needs a wife.
Now that he is in his sixties and senses that life has passed him by, Maguire is:
not so sure if his mother was right
When she praised a man who made a field his bride.
Kavanagh’s insider’s account of rural Ireland is a stern antidote to notions of a rural idyll. There are those who see Kavanagh’s poem as a counterpoint to de Valera’s famous 1943 speech dreaming of rural Ireland ‘joyous with the sounds of laughter, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age.’ There is nothing serene about the anti-hero of ‘The Great Hunger’ who seems achingly aware of his dismal fate,
In Kavanagh’s version of rural Ireland, ‘life is more lousy than savage’ and those who live there are in ‘the grip of irregular fields’ from which ‘No man escapes.’ For the poet acting as sociologist, at the root of Paddy Maguire’s (and rural Ireland’s) frustrated unhappiness is a socially-enforced suppression of sexuality. In Kavanagh’s view, this is something that Maguire and the people around him bring on themselves.
Later in his life, Patrick Kavanagh sought to disown ‘The Great Hunger’ and its hectoring tone. He insisted that ‘A poet merely states the position and does not care whether his words change anything or not.’ I am not saying that ‘The Great Hunger’ was a harbinger of change, but it was part of a critique of the ‘dreary Eden’ carried out in the 1940s and 1950s through the pages of The Bell edited by Seán O’Faoláin, to which Kavanagh was a contributor.
As a public servant, I tend to trace the roots of modern Ireland to the publication of Economic Development in 1958, which, driven by a desire to stem the flight from rural Ireland that had reached epidemic proportions in mid-1950s, resolved to open up our economy in what turned out to be a game-change for Ireland. ‘The Great Hunger’ helps us to understand the social roots of rural Ireland’s depopulation.
The Rough Field:
The Rough Field was published in 1972, the year I began studying literature at UCC with John Montague as one of my lecturers, but the poems it incorporates were written during the preceding ten years. It has something in common with Kavanagh’s long poem (Montague was an admirer of Kavanagh’s poetry and an advocate for it) in that it explores Ireland’s rural world, in Montague’s case Garvaghey in County Tyrone. It is interesting that Kavanagh, Montague and Hartnett all hail from rural or small-town Ireland, quite different from the urban, and ultimately cosmopolitan backgrounds of Yeats and Joyce, modulated in Yeats’s case by his engagement with Sligo and Coole Park in Galway.
‘The Rough Field’ is a poem of exile and return. Montague, the boy from Garvaghey, having spent years in Dublin, Berkeley and Paris, re-engages with his home place and ‘the unhappiness of its historical destiny’. Like Kavanagh, he doesn’t go all pastoral on us. As he puts it,
No Wordsworthian dream enchants me here ..
But merging low hills and gravel streams,
Oozy blackness of bog-banks, pale upland grass; ..
Harsh landscape that hunts me,
Well and stone, in the bleak moors of dream.
Like ‘The Great Hunger’, ‘The Rough Field’ can be lyrical as remembrance of boyhood wells up:
Those were my first mornings
Fresh as Eden, with dew on the face,
Like first kiss, the damp air:
On dismantled flagstones,
From ash-smoored embers
Hands now strive to rekindle
That once leaping fire.
But the prevailing tone is stark, grim and, as in Kavanagh and indeed Hartnett, there is a side swipe at Yeats, this time his insistence that ‘Ancient Ireland knew it all.’:
Ancient Ireland, indeed! I was reared by her bedside,
Then rune and the chant, evil eye and averted head,
Formorian fierceness of family and local feud.
Perhaps the key line in this collection is when the poet, having brought to light the elemental unpleasantness of sectarian animosities in rural Tyrone, frees himself from the ‘dolmens round my childhood’ that had trespassed on his dreams:
Until once, in a standing circle of stones,
I felt their shadows pass
Into that dark permanence of ancient forms.
Here we have the poet seeking to put his past, and that of his home place, behind him, but can any society ever do that? Creating a kind of ‘permanence’ of historical memory in the public mind, hopefully not a dark one, may be one of the outputs from our Decade of Centenaries, putting our history in a settled place where it can be analysed and debated, but not fought over
Like Michael Hartnett in ‘A Farewell to English’, Montague muses on the ‘shards of a lost tradition’ and reflects on his father’s experience as an exile, one that was all too common to Irish people in the 20th century. He was:
the least happy
man I have known. His face
retained the pallor
of those who work underground:
the lost years in Brooklyn
listening to a subway
shudder the earth.
In the part of ‘The Rough Field’ known as ‘Patriotic Suite’, the poet turns his attention to independent Ireland and its discontents – ‘the gloomy images of a provincial catholicism’. Once at UCC in the mid-1970s, I heard Montague deliver an excoriating putdown of the deficiencies of the Ireland of that time and, drawing on Swift to fillet the ‘yahoos’ he believed were in the ascendant. In this poem he writes that:
All revolutions are interior
The displacement of spirit
By the arrival of fact,
Ceaseless as cloud across sky,
Sudden as sun.
Cheekily, he asks:
Does fate at last relent
With a trade expansion of 5 per cent?
His question is does prosperity help us deal with our demons, a puzzle that is still with us. I celebrate our material advancement as a people since the 1970s, but I accept that things of value can get lost in the process and that economic advancement does not guarantee wellbeing, which is more difficult to measure.
Then Montague brings us into the 1960s, where at ‘the Fleadh Cheoil in Mullingar:
There were two sounds, the breaking
Of glass, and the background pulse
Of music. Young girls roamed
The streets with eager faces,
Pushing for men. Bottles in
Hand, they rowed out for a song.
Puritan Ireland’s dead and gone ,
A myth of O’Connor and O’Faolain.
Montague’s final take on rural Ireland is ambivalent. He acknowledges that:
Only a sentimentalist would wish
to see such degradation again.
Yet something mourns.
It is the loss
of a world where action had been wrung
through painstaking years to ritual.
What, in Montague’s view has gone is:
Our finally lost dream of man at home
in a rural setting!
I recognise the issue of rural Ireland’s viability and equilibrium as a continuing priority for us in this century. What, I wonder, will our experience of the pandemic do to the urban/rural balance of our country?
A Farewell to English
This is by far the shortest of three works I discuss in this talk. It starts with a flourish.
Her eyes were coins of porter and her West
Limerick voice talked velvet in the house:
her hair black as the glossy fireplace
wearing with grace her Sunday-night-dance best.
She cut the froth from glasses with a knife
and hammered golden whiskies on the bar.
Now I know this is not a literary term, but that’s what I call ‘great stuff’. It’s a strong opening pitch. It reminds me of Kavanagh’s ‘Raglan Road’. But the poet’s unease emerges early on as he sinks his hands into tradition, ‘sifting centuries for words’, but the words he reaches for with ‘excitement’ and ‘emotion’ are Irish words.
It is clear to me that the poet’s turning away from the English language, ‘the gravel of Anglo-Saxon’ is a reflection of a more generalized disenchantment with the realities of what he calls ‘the clergy cluttered south’. He conjures up an image of Ireland’s leaders queueing up at Dublin Castle in 1922
to make our Gaelic
or our Irish dream come true.
But this ends up with us choosing
to learn the noble art
of writing forms in triplicate.
As it happens, when I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1978, it was common to make 4 or 5 carbon copies of a letter, while ‘cut and paste’ meant using scissors and gum to cut up old documents and rearrange them!
In Hartnett’s vision, modern Ireland is the offspring of a ‘brimming Irish sow’ and ‘an English boar’. He concludes that
We knew we had been robbed
but we were not sure that we lost
the right to have a language
or the right to be the boss.
The image here is of unrealised national ambition and of materialism eclipsing identity.
In another echo of Yeats (‘Irish poets learn your trade’), he insists that
Poets with progress
make no peace or pact.
The act of poetry
is a rebel act.
Justifying his decision to abandon English, he takes the view that
Gaelic is our final sign that
we are human, therefore not a herd.
For Hartnett, therefore, the Irish language was a precious antidote to the stifling conditions he saw around him.
He concludes with a resounding broadside:
I have made my choice
and leave with little weeping:
I have come with meagre voice
to court the language of my people.
Hartnett’s poem confronts one of the unredeemed aspirations of 20th century Ireland, the effort to revive the Irish language. The Gaelic League helped radicalize a generation of Irish people at the turn of the century and became a driver of revolutionary activity. Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Eamon de Valera entered the world of Irish nationalism through the door of the Gaelic League. But the language revival stalled with independence. It flourished in the pronouncements of the State but not in the practice of the people. For Hartnett, I think it was the gulf between the rhetoric and the reality that spurred him to make the radical stop of abandoning English, the language of the head – ‘the perfect language to sell pigs in’ – in favour of Irish, the language of the heart. The language question continues to be an important issue in discussions about Irish identity, in answering the ‘who are we’ question.
When Michael Hartnett described poetry as ‘a rebel act’, he was not referring to the kind of rebellion that was the subject of Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’. What his words suggest is that a poet’s default posture is dissatisfaction and disenchantment. 20th century Ireland has had a fraught relationship with its writers, Yeats, Synge, Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Sean O’Faolain, Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brien and many others who strained against the nets of conformity.
What can we derive about 20th century Ireland from these three long poems? Three things strike me:
The first is the aura of disappointment surrounding the actual fruits of independence. For Kavanagh, this revolved around the stunted condition of rural Ireland. For Montague, it was the failure to resolve sectarian tensions in Ulster and the dullness of life in Ireland compared with the expansiveness he had encountered elsewhere. And for Hartnett, it was the bureaucratization of Irish life and the abandonment of a vital part of our cultural patrimony.
The second is that rural Ireland is the laboratory in which the poets test what they saw as our national failings. The problems of rural Ireland and attempts to remedy them was the mainstay of the nationalist project throughout the 19th century. If independence was the solution to Ireland’s ills, then that ought to have been in evidence in rural society. In the three poems explored in this talk, all with rural settings, Monaghan, Tyrone and West Limerick, disappointment and disenchantment is the prevailing mood.
My third take away is that are shards of light visible in each poem. In Kavanagh whatever sense of hope the poem contains comes from its the celebration of the natural world despite all its harshness. Take for example his image of ‘October playing a symphony on a slack wire’. In one passage, Kavanagh reflects on the fact that
..sometimes when sun comes through a gap
These men know God the Father in a tree:’
In Montague’s poem, it’s the social loosening of the 1960s epitomised by the Fleadh in Mullingar that gives him hope that ‘puritan Ireland’ is on its last legs. For Hartnett it is the protective glow of Ireland’s language and traditions. Hartnett once referred to Irish as both ‘the soul’s music’ and ‘the bad talk you hear in the pub’. It is ‘a ribald language/anti-Irish’, by which I am sure he meant that its reality confounds traditional images of Irishness.
Given that the default position for these writers is critical, how will Irish literature fare in the more self-satisfied Ireland we now live in? What will the target be of the history poems of our 21st century? Will the present pandemic inspire meditations in verse on the subject of our national condition?
Not all Irish poetry revolves around the ‘bugbear Mr Yeats’, as Michael Hartnett described his eminent predecessor. Far from being an island of bad verse, today’s Ireland continues to produce a good fistful of poetic talent that can shine the light of imagination on our affairs.
Finally, to come back to literature and history, I want to mention a book I will publish in January entitled, Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey. I wrote it to mark the centenary of the publication of Joyce’s great novel and to record my own journey with, and through, Ulysses this past forty years. As a historian, I also see Ulysses as an invaluable portrait of an Ireland on the cusp of dramatic political change, an enduring monument in words to our country as it was a century and more ago. We are lucky to have so many wordsmiths, past and present, delving into our national life for, as Yeats once wrote, ‘words alone are certain good’.
About the Author…..
Ambassador Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s current Ambassador to the United States delivered this year’s Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture during the Éigse Michael Hartnett Literary and Arts Festival which took place from September 30th to October 2nd in Newcastle West, County Limerick.
The Ambassador was following in a long line of illustrious speakers who had previously delivered this prestigious lecture, including Donal Ryan, Theo Dorgan, Nuala O’Faolain, Paul Durban, Fintan O’Toole, Declan Kiberd and President Michael D. Higgins.
Daniel Mulhall was born and brought up in Waterford. He pursued his graduate and post-graduate studies at University College Cork where he specialised in modern Irish history and literature. He took up duty as Ireland’s 18th Ambassador to the United States in August 2017.
He joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1978 and had his early diplomatic assignments in New Delhi, Vienna (OSCE), Brussels (European Union) and Edinburgh where he was Ireland’s first Consul General, 1998-2001. He served as Ireland’s Ambassador to Malaysia (2001-05), where he was also accredited to Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. From 2009 to 2013, he was Ireland’s Ambassador to Germany. Before arriving in Washington, he served as Ireland’s Ambassador in London (2013-17).
In 2017, he was made a Freeman of the City of London in recognition of his work as Ambassador. In December 2017, he was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Liverpool. In 2019, he was honoured with the Freedom of the City and County of Waterford. In November 2019, Ambassador Mulhall was named Honorary President of the Yeats Society in Ireland.
During his diplomatic career, Ambassador Mulhall has also held a number of positions at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including as Director-General for European Affairs, 2005- 2009. He also served as a member of the Secretariat of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation (1994- 95). From 1995-98, he was the Department’s Press Counsellor and in that capacity was part of the Irish Government’s delegation at the time of the Good Friday Agreement 1998.
Ambassador Mulhall brings his deep interest in Irish history and literature to the work of diplomatic service in the U.S., describing the strong, historic ties and kinship between the countries as the basis for a vibrant economic and cultural relationship. He has lectured widely on the works of W.B. Yeats and James Joyce. His new book, Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey, is due for publication in January 2022. He is also the author of A New Day Dawning: A Portrait of Ireland in 1900 (Cork, 1999) and co-editor of The Shaping of Modern Ireland: A Centenary Assessment (Dublin, 2016).
A keen advocate of public diplomacy, Ambassador Mulhall makes regular use of social media in order to provide insights into the work of the Embassy, to promote all things Irish and to engage with Irish people and those of Irish descent around the world. He provides daily updates on his Twitter account @DanMulhall and posts regular blogs on the Embassy’s website.
Poet Michael Hartnett would have been 80 years old on September 18th this year.
He was a native of Newcastle West and was raised among the hustle ands bustle of Lower Maiden Street. In fact, he was a young 58 when he died in 1999. Each year the people of Newcastle West celebrate his memory at Éigse Michael Hartnett, now in its 21st year. This year’s event takes place in the town from Thursday 30th September to Saturday October 2nd.
Remembering Michael Hartnett (1941 – 1999) on the 80th Anniversary of his Birth
By Peter Browne
Many people who knew him and admired his work felt the loss deeply and his creativity lives on richly after him. An old cassette tape which I came across by chance in a cardboard box at home during lockdown brought back particular memories of just one brief period in which I could say I knew him.
This tape contained about 40 minutes of disjointed, poor-quality bits and pieces recordings from a 1985 musical and literary trip to Scotland which we both were on, and it brought back strong and fond thoughts of him even for such a short acquaintance when we were fellow performers touring the Highlands and Western Isles.
The occasion was the annual Turas na bhFilí which was a week-long tour of nightly performances in Gaelic-speaking Scotland organised by Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge. It was a two-way annual process and each year there were return visits to Ireland by a similar group of Scottish writers and artists.
This particular year the Irish travelling group comprised two poets, Áine Ní Ghlinn and Michael Hartnett, a fine singer Cliona Ní Fhlannagáin and myself as uilleann piper. Also travelling as leader, organiser and fear a’tí was Colonel Eoghan Ó Néill, a distinguished Army officer who was by this time Director of An Chomhdháil.
There was a minibus driver whose name is long gone from me and we were a happy group on the road for that week. Sadly, as well as Michael Hartnett, Colonel Ó Néill and Cliona have also left us. For the fairly obvious reason – if there weren’t separate B & B bedrooms on offer – Michael and myself were usually put sharing a room together and we had good conversations – usually on everyday life or the incidental happenings of the tour.
I do recall that he was enthusiastic about folklore and traditions in his own area of West Limerick like dancing and the wrenboys and he also mentioned his respect for Seán Ó Riada.
A printed programme had been prepared in advance of the tour and distributed to the audience at each night’s performance. It contained explanations, translations etc… meaning that the material, including the poetry, would be the same each night. I used to look forward at each performance to hearing the same poems, the same songs – they grew on me.
Cliona sang Úna Bhán, Dónal Óg, Bean Pháidín. Áine had a beautiful poem about a young boy who was lost to cystic fibrosis and of Michael’s poems, I remember two – one for his daughter “Dán do Lara” with the line “…even the bees in the field think you are a flower” and another especially sad, moving one in which he addressed his father, trying to persuade him not to die but to remain on this earth.
I can clearly remember the soft richness of his words and speaking vioce. I used to play ‘Amhrán na Leabhar’ on the pipes nightly out of deference to the literary nature of the occasion.
Michael’s skills and agility in his use of words meant that his humour and wit were a bright feature during the trip – prompted by random events along the way. When we flew out from Dublin, we had an excellent welcoming night in Glasgow and the following morning went to the airport to fly to Stornaway. And there, as we waited for the flight, Michael bought a bottle of Scotch whisky with the bracing brand name of ‘Sheep Dip.’
This unusual drink became something of a recurring conversational theme for the remainder of the tour. He seemed to use the same mug all week for drinking it. I partook a couple of times as well and it tasted ok – I notice that it’s still for sale on the market.
Later that same first day of the tour when we were travelling in the minibus on the dual island of Lewis and Harris, there was some incident with the minibus and a loose goat which I just can’t recall, and then we were brought to an interpretive centre and souvenir shop with a large selection of teddy bears on sale – they occupied all the shelves of one entire wall.
At that evening’s performance Michael began by telling the audience: ”…I’ve had a very trying day, first of all I started off by discovering a drink called Sheep Dip, then I met a goat on a bus and then I narrowly escaped being introduced to 25,000 teddy bears all wearing Harris tweed!”
In another town called Roybridge we were led by a kilted piper into the room and up to the top table in a ceremonial procession. Michael had already said to Áine Ní Ghlinn that his own father had once described the sound of the pipes as like being in a submarine with a flock of sheep, so…this wasn’t a good portent. As we sat down, the piper stepped onto the small stage, which was a concave, parabolic inset into one of the walls of the room.
The sound of the píob mhór was therefore propelled with some force outwards towards us. I watched Michael and I could clearly see his discomfort. He took a beermat, wrote on it and passed it around. Each person smiled as they read it and when it came to me, I saw that he had written: “I’m glad my new false teeth are made of plastic, not china.”
But there was seriousness in all this as well; there could be lengthy silences in the minibus as we travelled along narrow roads, and later that evening in Roybridge as he was reading the poem about his father, there was guffawing from a group of people on barstools at the counter who clearly weren’t there to hear the performance.
The local MC on the night asked them to stop talking or move to another establishment in the town where there would be, as he put it, “…a welcome for all sorts of inane conversation”. They were momentarily silenced but when Michael started again, so did the noise. He simply closed his book, said “is cuma liom…” and left the stage.
His poem about his father was special – for the subject matter, the beauty of the language and the sound of his reading voice. There was a sensitivity, decency and dignity about him and, I think also, a vulnerability.
Although I only ever met him again on one other occasion by chance, it may be the case that a lasting impression and respect for someone can be created over a short time such as this as well as by a lengthy acquaintance.
“…and please, my father, wait a while, there is no singing after death, there is no human sighing – just worlds falling into suns. The universe will be a bride, a necklace of stars on her gown – dancing at every crossroads, tin-whistles spitting music. Father, take your time, hang on. But he didn’t.”
Peter Browne is a piper and a former RTÉ presenter and producer.
Tarry Flynn is a novel by Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, set in 1930s rural Ireland. The book is based on Kavanagh’s experience as a young farmer-poet in Monaghan. The novel itself, however, is set in Cavan and is based on the life of a young farmer and his quest for big fields, young women and the meaning of life.
Kavanagh began writing Tarry Flynn in 1940 under the title Stony Grey Soil. It was, however, rejected. After his collection of poetry, A Soul for Sale, containing the poem The Great Hunger, was published to great acclaim in February 1947, he set about revising the novel and spent the summer of 1947 working on it.
At the time the relationship between Church and State was very close and one of the victims of this were the many works of literature, including Tarry Flynn, which were banned. The politicians and church authorities were fearful that outside influences might adversely affect Catholic morality and so they combined to enforce a very vigorous opposition to liberal ideas and all works of art and literature that were considered at odds with Catholic values. Central to this policy was the passing of The Public Dance Halls Act 1935 which regulated people’s entertainment and which also included a prohibition on jazz music which was seen to be a bad influence on the Irish people.
The 1937 Constitution had granted a special place to the Catholic Church in the life of the nation and recognised the role of women as mothers and home-makers. In his speeches and broadcasts De Valera eulogised the role of women and painted an idealised picture of life in the Irish countryside. As one of the rural, Catholic poor, Patrick Kavanagh knew that the social realities of life for poor, farm families was radically different to this Utopian idyll of self-sufficiency and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. In his poetry and in his fiction Kavanagh introduced his readers to male characters who were trapped by religion, by the land and by their mothers. When works such as The Great Hunger (1942) and Tarry Flynn (1948), were published Kavanagh showed his increasing alienation from the Catholic Church and the artist in him was affronted by the official version of rural Ireland which was being sponsored by the government. As a consequence, Tarry Flynn was duly banned by the Irish Censorship Board for being, in their words, ‘indecent and obscene’ and it remained out of print until the 1960s.
Tarry Flynn is rural Ireland’s answer to Joyce’s APortrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Similar to Joyce’s work the novel is loosely autobiographical, an account of the life and thoughts of an imaginative young man fettered by his family circumstances and his cultural and intellectual milieu. Eventually he leaves his native Drumnay to find the full freedom of self-expression for which he longs. In A Portrait Joyce’s hero Stephen Dedalus decides that love of one’s country can best be achieved by being absent from it (‘the shortest way to Tara was via Holyhead’). This anticipates the advice given to Tarry by his wandering uncle that the best way to love a country like this is from a range of not less than three hundred miles!
However, Tarry, unlike Stephen Dedalus, does not go into exile. He is content to practice his craft in Ireland, though at a distance from his native place. His reasons for going have to do not only with his desire to write his poems in an atmosphere of freedom but also with his dislike of the attitudes he finds among his Catholic neighbours. He loves the fields of Drumnay, poor and unproductive as they are. He loves his mother too and would like to stay with her but his problem is that he cannot enjoy his rural paradise in peace because it has become associated in his mind with unpleasant individuals who constantly irritate him, and whose values he can never share. This is how he presents this dilemma to us:
He was sorry for his mother. He could see that she was in her way a wise mother. Yet, he had to go. Why? He didn’t want to go. If, on the other hand, he stayed, he would be up against the Finnegans and the Carlins and the Bradys and the Cassidys and the magic of the fields would be disturbed in his imagination.
What is most striking about the novel is the conflict it depicts between Tarry’s hostile, even savage, view of his uncongenial neighbours, and his deep love and reverence for the fields of his youth. An evening’s walk through these fields is a ‘mystical adventure’. His uncle wonders how he endures the place, and can scarcely believe that any human being could live his life in so backward a spot. Tarry, on the other hand, expresses an almost religious devotion for the commonplaces and banalities of farm life. Standing in the doorway of a stable, his mind sinks in the warm, joyous thought of the earth: ‘The hens standing on one leg in the doorways of the stables and under the trees made him love his native place more and more.’ This deep attachment to the physical realities of the farm is a constantly repeated motif as the time comes for him to make his decision to go with his uncle. His uncle, ‘did not realise how beautiful Tarry thought the dunghill and muddy haggard and gaps and all that seemed common and mean.’ This very same attitude is found throughout Kavanagh’s poetry. In the poem, ‘Advent’, for example, the poet’s delight in the simple, everyday things is constantly breaking through, ‘the heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges’ and even the banality of barrowing dung ‘in gardens under trees’ is glorified.
However, in stark contrast to his love of rural sights, sounds and smells, we have his distaste for rural humanity. Those who populate Drumnay are as diverse and perverse a group of grotesques as were ever assembled in a work of fiction! Collectively, as when gathered in the local church for Mass, they are repulsive. Tarry sees them as squalid and grey-faced, with parchment faces and wrinkled necks, their skin the colour of clay, with clay in their hair and clothes. Looking at them he has the impression that the tillage fields themselves are at Mass. Individually, they are even worse. Molly Brady is a ‘fat slob of a girl’ whose characteristic utterance is a wild animal cry. Tarry staring half-vacantly at his sisters, finds little to choose between them. All three are about five foot two inches, ‘low-set, with dull clayey faces, each of them like a bag of chaff tied in the middle with a rope – breasts and buttocks that flapped in the wind’. A neighbouring farmer, Petey Meegan, is a suitor to one of Tarry’s sisters, Mary. He presents no more flattering an image than Mary. As he approaches, he has to straighten his humped shoulders and quicken his ‘plough-crookened step’. He looks to be any age between fifty and the ‘age of an old oak’.
The attitudes of Kavanagh’s neighbours are no more attractive than their appearance. Their outstanding quality seems to be a profound dislike of each other, an ingrained resistance to helping each other succeed, and a determination to prevent gain or advantage accruing to anybody else. When Tarry has legal problems arising from the purchase of a few acres of land, he knows instinctively that his friend Eusebius is pleased. In this he is reflecting the delighted, begrudging response of a rural community to a neighbour’s misfortune:
Eusebius danced along the road kicking the pebbles before him. Tarry had to admit to himself that had their positions been reversed he would have been happy too. Hating one’s next-door neighbour was an essential part of a small farmer’s religion. Hate and jealousy made love – even the love of land – an exciting adventure.
A major concern and theme in the novel is Tarry’s inability to establish any lasting relationships or friendships because of his contempt for those around him. Even his relationships with members of his own family, apart from his mother, are not close, to say the least. He can look at his sisters in a detached, cynical way, finding in them more to criticise than to praise. He poses in the novel as a man apart, not only from his family but from society as a whole. He seems to rejoice in the idea of being an outsider. In Tarry Flynn, there is a sense in which Kavanagh explores at length the theme of the isolated individual at odds with his society as well as with its members. Tarry enjoys posing as a minor rural intellectual, daring to be at odds with the dominant parties, in this case, the ceremonies and rituals of the Catholic Church. It must be acknowledged that his liberal stance takes somewhat childish forms: being deliberately late for Mass, falling asleep during the Rosary, and saying shocking things about priests. He also enjoys being the local bard, secretly reveling in the isolation of his room in his creative power, safe from hostility, ‘from the net of earthly intrigue’. In his role as poet, he is pre-eminently the alienated young man, practicing a mysterious craft in which nobody else in the district can participate, not even Mary Reilly. He imagines her standing before him ‘listening with all the enthusiasm of the convent-bred girl who never fathomed the design behind it’.
Another factor in Tarry’s isolation is his failure to establish a decent natural relationship with any girl. He entertains lustful thoughts about Molly Brady, but his base desires remain unfulfilled. His friendship with Mary Reilly is marred by his bumbling awkwardness, his lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. In his relationship with her, the only girl in the locality he can fully respect and admire, he is inhibited by his disabling sense of being out of the ordinary, and by his defensive pride in his own worth. He cannot believe that she could possibly value him for what he is, even though her attitude and tone of voice suggest that she can see through his working-class appearance to the worthwhile reality beneath. He has been labouring for her family when she meets him dressed in the ragged clothes of a farm labourer. It is clear that she is interested in getting to know him better, and she goes more than half-way to bring this about. From his reading he knows that ladies had often fallen in love with their workmen, and also knows that he would be happy if he could apply this hopeful scenario to his own case. In the end, this proves impossible:
What the girl said to him he hardly knew.
He was listening to his own divided self raising a bedlam in his imagination.He knew that he had insulted her.
‘Will you be at the dance on Sunday night?’ she asked.
‘Dancing is an eejit’s game’, he said. And he went on to expatiate on the folly of dancing.
‘What would you say to a bunch of horses that after a hard day’s work spent the night galloping and careering round the field? I wouldn’t dream of wasting me time at a dance.’
‘I’d love you to come,’ she said sweetly.
‘I wouldn’t bother me bleddy head,’ he said with a loud laugh.
‘Still – ‘ She gave him a gentle smile but he was determined
‘It’s only an eejit’s game,’
‘Sunday night will be a big event, Tarry. I could see you there.’
‘Indeed you couldn’t and don’t be pretending you could,’ he shouted. He kept in a twist to conceal as much of his patched clothes as possible.
‘You’ll probably be there all the same,’ she said.
‘I wouldn’t be seen dead at that hall.’
… My God! My God! My God! He cried in his heart when they had parted. He knew that he had meant nothing of what he had said. It was all the bravado of a man in ragged clothes.
At moments such as this, Tarry realises that, as he puts it, ‘there was something in him different from other men and women.’ This difference lies not merely in his superior artistic awareness or his advanced intellectual views. It also has to do with the fact that on vital occasions he always does some peculiar thing that spoils his chances of happiness.
His social failures encourage Tarry to strike various self-pitying poses. At times he tries, with somewhat ludicrous effect, to present himself as a tragic or sub-tragic hero. In one of his bouts of self-pity, he sees himself as a star-crossed romantic sufferer, a belated Shelley bleeding upon the thorns of life:
‘I have to carry a cross. He did not want to carry a cross. He wanted to be ordinary. But the more he wanted to shake the burden free, the more weighty did it become and the more it stuck to his shoulders.’
Elsewhere, he sees himself in the image of Joyce’s Dedalus:
‘Some day, he, too, might grow wings and be able to fly away from this clay-stricken place.’
His lapses into self-dramatisation weaken the novel. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the account of his departure from his mother which is embarrassingly sentimental:
‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost! Where are you going in the good suit?’ cried the mother the next morning when Tarry came down for breakfast.
‘As far as the village.’
‘And with the good suit?’ She eyed her son with a look of annoyance, and then suddenly her eyes flashed in scalded grief. Her lips moved in prayer. She spoke in a low whisper. ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ Her lips went on moving but there were no words. Her eyes were wide, soft – and as he stared they darkened in brown earthly sadness.It was her wordlessness smote him.
An impulse to cry out touched his throat. Words came to her again. They came in a spurt, on their own, like he had once seen blood spurt. ‘God help me and every mother.’ And then a storm of sobs swept her and words came in a deluge. ‘Your nice wee place; your strong farm; your wee room for your writing, your room for your writing.’
‘How will she carry on?’ he kept mumbling. ‘How will she carry on?’
Kavanagh thought highly of Tarry Flynn as a work of documentary fiction. Indeed, he claimed that it was ‘not only the best but the only authentic account of life as it was lived in Ireland this century.’ The self-praise may be somewhat heightened, but there is no denying the documentary realism of the book, its fidelity to even the most minute detail. In his autobiography, The Green Fool, he recalls the same rural world of his young manhood, so faithfully rendered in Tarry Flynn:
‘The Parish Priest was the centre of gravity, he was the only man who was sure to go to Heaven. Our staple diet was potatoes and oatmeal porridge. Porridge had only recently taken the place of potatoes and buttermilk as the national supper. Though little fields and scraping poverty do not lead to grand flaring passions, there was plenty of fire and an amount of vicious neighbourly hatred to keep us awake.’
There is much of this ‘vicious neighbourly hatred’ in Tarry Flynn. Tarry’s family is bitterly at odds with the Finnegans. Their land dispute involves a bloody brawl between Tarry and Joe Finnegan. The power of the Church in a rural parish is also well rendered in the novel. Even the reading material available to Tarry is prescribed by the Church authorities: the standard work, The Messenger of the Sacred Heart, features the edifying story of a young girl with a religious vocation being sabotaged by a bad man. A missioner warns him about reading the works of George Bernard Shaw. Tarry’s mother warns him to attend the mission every evening, reminding him that when the Carlins failed to attend, their luck ‘wasn’t much the better of it.’ The priests set the moral tone of the parish and keep miscreants in check with uncompromising ferocity. They even preside over the parish entertainment and decide who is to be admitted and excluded. Like his neighbours, Tarry lives a life of unremitting drudgery.
Even though Tarry is frequently tempted to escape from the claustrophobic environment of Drumnay, and although he finds much to irritate and frustrate him in the way of life he is obliged to lead, the narrative of his early life is not entirely a bitter one. The harder he works, for example, the more he seems to enjoy it. He does many backbreaking jobs, but the achievement involved fills him with ‘a profounder passion’ than his love for Mary Reilly. The ownership of land also fills him with delight, as do his wanderings through the summer landscape:
‘He loved the fields and the birds and the trees, stones and weeds, and through these, he could learn a great deal.’
There is much of this kind of celebration of the joys of nature in Tarry Flynn. However repulsive Tarry may find many of the humans living in his rural landscape, nothing they say or do can ever quite dim his enthusiasm.
As you may have guessed, there is a considerable variety of tones in Tarry Flynn: satirical, sentimental, celebratory, reverential, self-pitying, but I have to say that the overall impulse is comic. Much of this comedy derives from Tarry’s reflections on his own enigmatic personality. His naïve understanding of how other people, especially women, see him is endearingly comic. He could not understand, he declares, ‘why he was ignored by young women, for he knew he was attractive’. He comes to the conclusion that women fearfully sense ‘primitive savagery and lust’ beneath his poetic appearance. To counteract this unfortunate impression, he makes his virtuous nature more obvious, but realises too late that women prefer primitive savages to virtuous men! His ideas of stimulating conversation with women are equally comic: ‘With women in general he was truthful and sincere and would talk philosophy or Canon Law to them on the slightest provocation.’ Little wonder that he ruefully concludes that ‘women cannot understand honesty in a man.’
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Recent high-powered reports and investigations into institutional abuse culminating in the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes which was published by the Irish Government on 12 January 2021 reinforce the grim reality that what have long been termed, particularly by our parents and grand parents, as ‘The Good Old Days’ weren’t that good after all. Tarry Flynn tried in its own way to enlighten people at home and abroad and as a result Kavanagh suffered the ultimate artistic sanction by having his novel banned. The novel sets out how life was lived in rural Ireland in the 30s and 40s and Kavanagh endeavors to capture this reality in a warts-and-all exposé which contains some very acerbic social commentary. There has always been a perceived difficulty when non-Irish readers encounter this text because many fail to appreciate Tarry Flynn’s dilemma or they believe that he is merely exaggerating, but it has to be realised that even modern day Irish readers also have this difficulty. The passage of time has not been kind to Kavanagh here and indeed, in his poetry in general.
The stark opening sentence of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between (1953) has great relevance here. It tells us bluntly that, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. As a reviewer writing this introduction to the novel, I was very aware that not many modern Irish teenagers coming to this novel for the first time would know, for instance, what a ‘missioner’ was or, for that matter, what a parish mission in the 1940s entailed.
By the 1940s Kavanagh didn’t have to go into exile like Joyce and others before him in order to gain creative perspective because by then Mucker in Monaghan and Pembroke Road in Dublin’s leafy suburbs were already oceans apart. When the novel was published in 1948 it presented readers with a vivid insider glimpse of the real austerity and deprivations which were widespread in rural Ireland in the 30s and 40s. Life was hard, uncompromising and suffocating and if we are to believe the narrator he was both inspired and imprisoned by the small fields of his native place.
The novel’s difficulties in interpretation have also been exacerbated by the mesmeric pace of change in Ireland over the past seventy-five years: we have gone from the pony and trap to Hiace vans and lavish SUVs; from rustic bye-roads to urban ring roads, from railways to Greenways. Our new reality of social media and smartphones and blogs and podcasts, not to mention Covid Lockdowns, have made even the recent past more remote than Neolithic times. And yet even a casual glance at our newsstands on any given day reinforces the notion that rural tranquility is still a myth, another modern urban legend.
So, perhaps it is again pertinent to revisit the past, the years before yesterday, to experience again the flickering sepia villages and townlands where mud and drudgery mingle with the body’s stirrings and the olive-green humming of Tarry Flynn’s world. I would highly recommend it, especially to those of a similar vintage to myself!
Murray, Patrick. Modern Fiction, The Educational Company, 1991.
The half-parish of Clouncagh/Cloncagh nestles in the heartland of rural West Limerick. It was formerly part of the Barony of Upper Connello and is bounded on the north by Rathkeale; on the east by Ballingarry; on the south by Kilmeedy and the west by its other half-parish, Knockaderry and Newcastle West. The townland and former civil parish extended over 4,540 acres of level pastoral land in the heart of West Limerick.
Clouncagh, in the recent past, was probably best known for its famous Creamery. The Co-Operative Movement had been founded by Sir Horace Plunkett in 1889 and had very strong roots in West Limerick. It was not surprising then that farmers in the Clouncagh area came together and formed the Clouncagh Co-operative Dairy Society in 1890. Gradually Clouncagh began to develop its butter-making skills and in 1939 they won the Read Cup, the most prestigious prize available to the butter-making industry in all of Ireland.
The first manager of the creamery was David O’Brien from Clonakilty. His son, Donnchadh O’Briain later served as Fianna Fail TD for West Limerick for 36 years – having the honour to serve as Parliamentary Secretary to Taoiseach Eamon De Valera for a number of years and also to Taoiseach Sean Lemass. He was one of the founding members of Fianna Fail and served as its General Secretary for many years and was first nominated to stand for Fianna Fail in the ground breaking General Election of 1933. He also served as Chief Whip for many years. He retired from politics in 1969.
The Creamery and Donnchadh O’Briain helped put Clouncagh on the map but, if the truth were told, there has always been a certain amount of confusion as to whether the place should be known as Clouncagh or Cloncagh. The placename has taken on several variations down through the years: Clouncagh, Cloncagh, Clooncagh, Cloencagh and Clonki. There are even greater variations in the Irish version with Cluain Catha, Cluain Cath, Cluain Coimdhe, Cluain-Claidheach and also Cluain Claidheach-Maodog, Cluainchladh-bhaith, Cluain-claidhblaim being some of these.
According to Donal Begley, another native of Clouncagh and former Chief Herald of Ireland until his retirement in 1995,
‘the oldest of those forms is Clonki which is formed from the root elements ‘cluain’ (a bounded area), and possibly ‘Coimdhe’, meaning the Lord, God. On that basis Clonki would signify ‘God’s enclosure’ – surely an appropriate name to describe the location of a monastery, abbey or church, such as we have in Clouncagh.
The Black Book of Limerick, a 13th– Century topographical survey of the Diocese of Limerick has a reference to a church in Cluonkai, and this is surely a reference to present day Clouncagh.
The more generally accepted, though not necessarily correct, form of the placename in Irish is Cluain Catha which would translate into English as ‘The Meadow or Enclosure of the Battle’. Meanwhile, for some time now, the anglicised versions ‘Clouncagh’ and ‘Cloncagh’ vie with one another for preference locally and the reality is that Clouncagh and Cloncagh seem to be interchangeable to this day on official documents, local signposts and in local usage.
Donal Begley, a firm believer that the correct version is Clouncagh, tells us that, traditionally,
The civil parish or state parish is written as ‘Cloncagh’, and under this form are classified such records as census and valuation returns. In short ‘Clouncagh’ designated the Catholic parish and ‘Cloncagh’ the civil or state or Protestant parish.
Rather mischievously the Wikipedia entry for Knockaderry claims that ‘during the ministry of Canon Timothy J. Lyons as parish priest, (1964 – 1994) the “u” in Clouncagh was dropped, although it can still be seen on some of the signs entering the parish’. As Donal Begley points out the ‘u’ in Clouncagh was dropped long before Canon Lyons came to the parish.
The monastic church in Clouncagh, nestling as it did within the graveyard and centrally located within the larger fort enclosure, was a centre of worship for the local Christian community until around 1700 when public Catholic worship in Ireland was proscribed by the Penal Laws. The present parish of Knockaderry – Clouncagh (bringing together the previous parishes of Cloncagh, Clonelty and Grange) seems to have come into being around 1700 when Knockaderry began to be used as a Mass venue. The village was also granted a patent for a fair in 1711 and so it became the new centre of economic activity in the area and the old monastic sites in Cloncagh and Clonelty and Grange, which had been the focus of activity for the previous one thousand years began to fade in importance. In the 17th and 18th Century the church in Cloncagh continued in use as a Church of Ireland church. By the early 19th century the church lay abandoned and in ruins.
Diocesan and Parish’ boundaries were established at the Synod of Ráth Breasail (also known as Rathbreasail) in 1111. This Synod marked the transition of the Irish church from a monastic to a diocesan and parish-based church and many present-day dioceses trace their boundaries to decisions made at the synod. Our earliest records show that Fr Hugh Conway, who resided in Gortnacrehy, was registered and appointed Parish Priest of the former medieval parishes of Clouncagh, Clonelty and Grange, the rough equivalent of the present-day parish, in 1704. However, it wasn’t until 1853 on the death of Fr James Quillinan that Fr Denis O’Brien, who was Parish Priest in Knockaderry at the time, became the Parish Priest of the united parishes of Knockadery and Clouncagh.
In the 19th Century the Catholic Mass House in Clouncagh was situated just off the byroad, behind the present day church in land owned by the Begley family. This Mass House was severely damaged on the night of January 6th, 1839, ‘The Night of the Big Wind’. The roof was blown off and the wooden structure suffered other damage and yet amazingly within a year this Mass House had been replaced with a new church, St. Mary’s, which was officially opened in Clouncagh in1840. This is the church which still stands today having undergone numerous renovations down the years.
Over the gothic entrance to the church carved in limestone is the original inscription: Clouncagh RC Church Erected 1840. Inside the church there are also inscriptions to past parish priests who were revered by the local parishioners for their pastoral work in very difficult times. In the early nineteenth century the supply of priests improved and two priests were appointed to the parish, Fr James Quillinan for Clouncagh and Fr Denis O’Brien for Knockaderry. When Fr James Quillinan died in 1853 he was buried before the altar in Clouncagh as he had been the main driving force in the construction of the new church in 1840. Fr Denis O’Brien, who had built St Munchin’s Church in Knockaderry also in 1840, then took over as the parish priest for the united parishes of Knockaderry and Clouncagh. Both priests are buried in Clouncagh where there is also a separate memorial to Fr. O’Brien to the left of the nave near the altar. This reads:
This monument has been erected
By his devoted sister to the memory of
Rev. Denis O’Brien P.P.
Whose long and zealous pastoral charge
For 36 years has endeared his name
To his numerous and admiring friends.
He died 19th March 1868
Year of his age 60
Requiescat in Pace. Amen.
The Rev. Cornelius McCarthy is also buried within the church. He was ordained in 1848 and served in the united parishes of Knockaderry and Clouncagh and died on Christmas Day 1885. A commemorative plaque on the wall to the right of the nave reads:
Of the priestly virtues
And sterling patriotism
Of the Rev Cornelius McCarthy
Who ruled for eighteen years
As the much beloved pastor of these parishes.
It became accepted practice within the parish that the Parish Priest resided in Clouncagh and the curate, if there was one, resided in Knockaderry.
The site of the Old Graveyard and ruined church at Cloncagh, from which the area gets its name, was the site of an early monastic establishment possibly dating from the 7th – Century. Some have credited its foundation to St. Maedoc of Ferns, who died in 624AD, while others say that he may just have been its patron. The graveyard and ruined church is contained within a large circular enclosure, formed by an earthen bank and an exterior ditch (some of which has now been dismantled but visible in earlier OS maps). The diameter of the enclosure is 220 metres and it encloses an area of 9.38 acres. The church and graveyard are located centrally within the enclosure and the present day local roadway bisects it east to west.
Further evidence that the site is an early monastery is provided by three holy wells recorded in the vicinity, Lady’s Well (Tubbermurry or Tobar Muire), Sundays Well (Tobar Rí an Domhnaigh), and St. Patrick’s Well. Only St. Patrick’s Well survives. Caoimhín Ó Danachair, the prominent Irish folklorist wrote about St. Patrick’s Well in 1955 in Holy Wells of County Limerick:
St Patrick’s Well was celebrated for curing blindness. Visited especially on 17th March. The Legend goes that while praying at Leacht Phádraig (a rock about 1000 yards from the well, associated in tradition with the saint) St Patrick saw a serpent approaching the church, and banished it by throwing his prayer-book at it. The well sprang up where the book fell. A fish is seen in the well by those whose requests are to be granted. (p. 204).
There is a record of the burning of Clouncagh church in 1326 by the Irish in their war with the Normans. There are at least two burial chambers still visible today in the graveyard – one belonging to the D’Arcy family, local landlords and the others for members of the Tierney family.
Usually a fort, especially one as big and imposing as the one in Clouncagh would be referred to as a ráth or a lios or a dún in Irish. We have to wonder why this is not the case with the great fort in Clouncagh. Indeed, within the parish there are examples of townlands with names such as Lisanisky (Lios an Uisce) or Rathfredagh, while the neighbouring parish to the north is Rathkeale (Ráth Caola). However, Clouncagh seems to be an exception to the rule, probably because of its vast size. In his extensive writings on the ancient churches and ring forts in County Limerick, noted Irish antiquarian, folklorist and archaeologist, T.J. Westropp M.A. M.R.I.A., mentions ‘the great fort of Dromin at Clouncagh’. He classes it as the largest ring fort in County Limerick. This fact is interesting in itself because Limerick has 2,147 ring forts taking up approximately 317 acres. P. J. Lynch who surveyed the parish of Knockaderry – Cloncagh in 1944 as part of the Irish Tourist Association Topographical and General Survey tells us that ‘locally it is considered to have been a seat of Government in ancient times’.
The Irish version of the name Cluain Catha, seems to imply that it is named after a battle but as Donal Begley has already pointed out this is but one possible translation of the placename. There is very little reference to be found in official sites of any significant battle and very little in local folklore although we do have the reference to the fact that the then wooden church was ‘destroyed by war’ in 1326 and was rebuilt.
The following account is found in the Schools Folklore Collection (1937 – 1939) from the Convent National School in Ballingarry. The teacher’s name is Sister Mary Treasa. In my opinion, it is a perfect example of local folklore stepping in with its own narrative in the absence of any concrete historical evidence to the contrary and there may also be some evidence of nationalism insinuating itself into the mix!
One young contributor to the Collection wrote:
Clouncagh means Cluain – Cath. The Meadow of the Battle. It derived its name from a great battle fought there in the 17th century between the Irish and the English. The Irish were successful in that Battle. The victors followed the retreating army from Clouncagh across the country to Ballinarouga. Ballinarouga means the town of the rout. It got its name from the fact that the English troops were put to flight there.
However, while this claim is at best very fanciful it is true that the townland of Ballinarouga (‘The Townland of the Rout’) lies directly to the east of the ring fort enclosure in Clouncagh, and it is also interesting to note that the townland of Gortnacrehy (‘The Field of the Plunder’) also lies directly to the south. So even though there is no historical evidence of major battles being fought there it does seem that, going on the evidence of the local placenames alone, there were a fair few skirmishes in the area surrounding the monastic settlement in Clouncagh. The very fact that the battle, and not the fort itself is remembered in the placename leads us to believe that like many other important monastic sites in Ireland the fort at Clouncagh may have been a great source of dispute and contention in the dim and distant past.Is not the fact that the site was surrounded by impressive defensive ramparts but further evidence of its historic importance in the local area?
As I have already discussed here the renowned scholar and antiquarian, John O’Donovan visited and surveyed the parishes of Clonelty and Cloncagh in the summer of 1840 as part of preparatory work for the 6” Ordnance Survey Map being developed at the time. Dr O’Donovan was a noted historian and the translator of TheAnnals of the Four Masters, an Irish-speaking scholar and scribe, and he was the Ordnance Survey’s overall Names Expert during their survey conducted between 1824 and 1846. It was O’Donovan’s responsibility to enter all the Irish versions of names into the Names Books, in addition to the English spelling recommended for the published maps. In effect, his role was to standardize the translations of the Irish placenames into English and as far as the Ordnance Survey were concerned his word was law.
The vast majority of placenames in Ireland are anglicized versions of Irish language names. In many cases this entailed adapting the original Irish names to a standardized English phonology and spelling. Gerard Curtin in his fabulous book, Every Field Had a Name, tells us that all of the townland placenames in the parish of Knockaderry and Clouncagh were recorded between 1200 and 1655. Curtin tells us that this is the only instance of this occurring in West Limerick and is evidence of a land well-endowed and densely populated. So when O’Donovan surveyed the parish of Knockaderry in 1840 he found a rich vein of placenames containing often mysterious and sometimes unexplained echoes of the past.
His work on this survey was rigorous and meticulous, so much so that the Ordnance Survey of Ireland Names Books are sometimes referred to as ‘O’Donovan’s Name Books’. O’Donovan spent July and August 1840 in West Limerick and he signed off on his work on the parish of Cloncagh and Clonelty on 25 July 1840. He was assisted in his work in Limerick by Padraig Ó Caoimh and Antaine Ó Comhraí (Ó Maolfabhail, xvii). Ó Maolfabhail recognises the validity and status of O’Donovan’s work when he tells us that by 1840 there were only four other counties to be completed as part of this nationwide survey and so, therefore, O’Donovan had huge experience gained already as part of his work on the survey. This experience stood him in good stead in his attempts to standardize the translations of placenames from the Irish to the English and in trying to make sense of the etymology of the various placenames he came across (Ó Maolfabhail, xvii).
The Orthography Section of the Names Books provides the various spellings for each townland or place and the Authority Section gives the source from which these variations were derived. This was a controversial part of the Survey, especially in the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland. Thomas Larcom, the head of the Ordnance Survey, and, John O’Donovan, had a clear policy when it came to the variant spellings and meanings of Irish place-names, which was to adopt ‘the version which came closest to the original Irish form of the name’. O’Donovan is following on from long accepted practice the advice and ground rules laid down by such experts as his friend and fellow academic Patrick Weston Joyce who wrote the book Irish Local Names Explained which dealt with the process of anglicizing Irish placenames. Joyce, a Limerick man from Ballyorgan, near Kilfinnane, tells us that the governing principle in anglicizing placenames from the Irish is that ‘the present forms are derived from the ancient Irish, as they were spoken, not as they were written’. He goes on to say that there had been a long standing procedure whereby ‘those who first committed them to writing, aimed at preserving the original pronunciation, by representing it as nearly as they were able in English letters’. In my view, the over-rigorous application of standardization by O’Donovan fails to take account of local variations of pronunciation and so, to this day, we are left with a dissonance between the spelling and the local pronunciation of Clouncagh.
O’Donovan, in his extensive travels throughout Ireland as part of this nationwide survey, would have come across many placenames with the popular prefix ‘Cluain’ and he seems to have decided that this should be universally rendered as ‘Clon’ in the accepted Anglicised translation. We are very familiar with many of these placenames today throughout the length and breadth of Ireland: Clonmel, Clontarf, Clonlara, Clontibret, Clonmacnoise, Cloncagh, etc. Even though his Name Books refer to ‘Clooncagh’ and ‘Cloonelty’ they would later appear as Cloncagh and Clonelty in the 6” map which was produced by the Ordnance Survey in 1843. So, dare I say it, we have none other than the eminent John O’Donovan to blame for giving us ‘Cloncagh’ despite the mild-mannered objections of many locals to this day; especially those who continue to pronounce the placename with a ‘u’.
Referring to the origins of the placename in his Name Books, he is at pains to balance the two vying possibilities: on the one hand, he acknowledges the monastic site and the possible connection to St Maedoc, while on the other hand, he states that, ‘The name, however, is now pronounced by the natives as if written Cluain Cath, which if correct would signify Battle-Field.’
In his Name Books he also references numerous historical documents which mention Clouncagh and references one story which may be relevant to the origins of the placename. He quotes from, the noted priest and academic, Dr John Lanigan’s, The Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, V.II, p 338:
Maidoc was remarkable for his hospitality and benevolence. On being informed that some relatives of his were prisoners in Hy-Conall Gabhra (141) he went to that Country, although far distant from Ferns, for the purpose of delivering them and did not desist until he induced the Chieftain, otherwise very harsh on this point, to give them up. It is added that this Chieftain was so affected by the Saint’s (p.339) conduct that he granted him a place called Cluain-Claidheach, in which he erected a Monastery (142).
In my opinion, this may go some way to explaining why Clouncagh (Clauin Catha) is an exception to the rule mentioned earlier: the fort was gifted to St. Maedoc and changed from being a fortified place to a place of worship and monastic activity as far back as the 7th century. In a way, the fort was, in effect, a trophy of war and so retained its original name to remind people of its history. Donal Begley seems to agree with this view and he asks the question:
Could it be that Cluain Catha means a ‘trophy’ townland to remind us of a notable victory won by the fort men against an enemy on the ‘battlefield’?
In his beautiful book, Thirty-Two Words for Field, Manchán Magan illustrates the richness and variety which the Irish language bestows on those seemingly anonymous expanses of indistinguishable fields which surround us in our beautiful countryside. He tells us that Cluain is ‘a meadow field between two woods’. This suggests a fenced off or bounded meadow, and would aptly describe the fort enclosure at Clouncagh. Today, we can but surmise as to what took place on this holy site and the significance of the placename associated with it. It may be that it was the focus of local rivalry between warring chieftains in pre-Christian times, or indeed, as was very common in early Irish society, it may have been the location of numerous old fashioned cattle raids like the famous Cattle Raid at Cooley. Or, as John O’Donovan suggests in another one of his references to olden manuscripts it may indeed have been gifted to St Maedoc by the local chieftain as a reward for restoring his daughter to life. He references a story from The Life of St Maedoc:
Before the entrance of that fort the Man of God fasted for three days. The fast being ended, the daughter of the Chief … died suddenly. The wife of the Chief, knowing that this fact was the cause of a miracle, brought the lifeless body to St Maedoc. And the servant of God being requested by her mother and by her attendants, resuscitated her from death. ……. The Chief seeing this now, did penance and left his relatives liberated to St Maedoc, and offered him the place which is called Cluainchladh-bhaith (Cluain-claidhblaim) and the Holy Man erected a Monastery there, and blessing the place itself and the Chief who gave it, retired from thence.
Today as one stands at the gateway to the old cemetery in Clouncagh the semi-circular rampart to the north of the roadway is still clearly visible while the ramparts to the south have been eroded over time and removed by local farmers trying to improve their farmsteads. Today also there is only one well in the fields to the south – St. Patrick’s Well still stands forlornly as a reminder of former glory.
So, we can see that the confusion as to whether Clouncagh or Cloncagh is the correct modern version of the placename is still contentious. Our Ordnance Survey maps, our County Council, other government agencies, indeed the Diocese, all still rely on long-outdated information found in the old civil parishes documentation and so they still refer to the place as Cloncagh while the locals with their generations of lore and accepted pronunciation seem to prefer Clouncagh. As with the etymology and orthography of other placenames in our community, such as Aughalin/Ahalin for example, local lore is often ignored and disregarded as not having sufficient authority.
In reality, I suppose, the more we delve into the blurry past the more we realise that placenames don’t correspond to a single event and are more often the accretion over time of mundane common speech which is finally calcified by someone of the calibre of John O’Donovan who stops the spinning wheel of discursive meaning and sets it in amber for future generations as he did in July 1840. Mixed metaphors aside, I suppose, we must seek forgiveness for our desire to ascribe heroic meaning to a placename if at all possible and human nature being what it is if we can entwine some simplistic nationalism in the knot then more’s the better!
Meanwhile, the locals, including such esteemed scholars as Donal Begley continue to plough their lonely furrow and seek to have restored the only version of the placename acceptable to them: Clouncagh (Cluain Catha). However, whatever our preferences the reality is that it is impossible to know with absolute certainty what the correct version is and that ensures that the original etymology of many of our placenames will always be up for discussion and debate.
Bailiúchán na Scol, Imleabhar 0500, page 171
Begley, Donal. A Wayside Farm by the River: Clouncagh Remembered, Privately Published by the author. Printed by Reads Design, Print and Display Dublin. 2015.
Begley, Donal. John O’Byrne Croke: Life and Times of a Clouncagh Scholar. Print and Design: Modern Printers, Kilkenny. 2018.
Curtin, Gerard. Every Field Had a Name – The Place-Names of West Limerick. Sliabh Luachra Historical Society, 2012.
Joyce, P. W., Irish Local Names Explained (1923). Scholar’s Choice Edition, Creative Media Partnership, LLC, 2015.
Knockaderry Clouncagh Parish Annuals
Lanigan’s, Dr John (1758 – 1825), The Ecclesiastical History of Ireland.
Manchán Magan, Thirty-Two Words for Field: Lost Words of the Irish Landscape, Gill Books, Dublin, 2020.
Ó Danachair, Caoimhín, Holy Wells of County Limerick, in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. LXXXV, 1955.
Art Ó Maolfabhail, Logainmneacha na hÉireann Imleabhair: 1 Contae Luimnigh, (Baile Átha Cliath, 1990).
O’Donavan, John. Ordnance Survey Name Books
Quilty, Pat. Knockaderry Clouncagh Graveyards, a West Limerick Resources grant aided project, 2014.
Westropp, T.J., “A Survey of the Ancient Churches of the County of Limerick”, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, XXV, 327 – 480.
This semi-autobiographical play by Brian Friel was first performed in the Abbey Theatre in 1990. In 1998 the play was adapted and turned into a very successful, award-winning film, directed by Pat O’Connor. The film competed in the Venice Film Festival of 1998. It won an Irish Film and Television Award for Best Actor in a Female Role for Brid Brennan. It was also nominated for 6 other awards, including the Irish Film and Television Award for Best Feature Film and the Best Actress Award for the American actress, Meryl Streep, who played the part of Kate.
Like many other of Friel’s works it is set in the fictional town of Ballybeg and tells the story of a family unit being torn apart by the many strong forces in society. It is a memory play told from the point of view of the adult Michael Evans, the narrator. He recounts the summer in his aunts’ cottage when he was seven years old.
This play is loosely based on the lives of Friel’s mother and aunts who lived in Ardara, a small town in the Glenties area of County Donegal. Set in the summer of 1936, the play depicts the late summer days when love briefly seems possible for five of the Mundy sisters (Maggie, Chris, Agnes, Rose, and Kate) and the family welcomes home the frail elder brother, Jack, who has returned from a life as a missionary in Africa. However, as the summer ends, the family foresees the sadness and economic privations under which they will suffer and all hope seems to fade.
The play takes place in early August, around the Festival of Lughnasa, the pagan Celtic harvest festival. The play describes a bitter harvest for the Mundy sisters, a time of reaping what has been sown.
In the play, the adult narrator, Michael Evans, recalls the summer of 1936 when as a small boy of seven, he lived with his mother Chris, and his four aunts – Kate, Maggie, Agnes and Rose – in the fictional village of Ballybeg, the setting for many of Friel’s finest plays. His uncle Jack, a missionary priest, had recently returned from Africa to live with them. He is suffering from the after effects of malaria and some other more mysterious mental ailment that has made him forgetful and frail.
The Mundy family are not well off. Kate, a teacher, is the only wage-earner. Agnes and rose make a little money knitting gloves at home, a cottage industry at the time. Maggie and Roselook after the hens and household duties, as does Christina, Michael’s mother.
Michael’s abiding memories of that summer are of his Uncle Jack’s return to the family home, linked forever in his mind with hearing dance music on their first ever radio, and the two visits of his father, Gerry Evans. The play depicts the complexity of the relationships of the adults around him and the changes that came over their lives in that crucial summer, against a deeply traditional and rural backdrop.
The action of the play takes place in August, (the Irish word for August is Lughnasa – the ‘Lughnasa’ of the title), traditionally a time when the pagan Celtic god of the harvest, Lugh, was commemorated and celebrated. The play is divided into two acts, reflecting the two particular days that stand out in Michael’s memory. He narrates the action from an adult vantage point, and is, therefore, both part of and distanced from it. As the illegitimate son of Christina (Chris) Mundy and Gerry Evans he is both a source of joy and shame – all of the sisters have a great affection for him, but in the Ireland of the 1930s a child born to a couple who were not married was seen as a source of shame in the community.
Summary of Act 1
Act 1 depicts four of the sisters as they wait for their sister Kate to return home. They carry out their everyday tasks – knitting, ironing, making mash for the hens – and they talk in a light-hearted way about ordinary things, a broken mirror, lipstick, the erratic behaviour of the radio that they have nicknamed Marconi, after the famous inventor. Their relationships are affectionate, occasionally exasperated as in any family.
When Kate returns she brings news of the forthcoming Harvest Festival of Lughnasa that everyone in the town is preparing for. The excitement of that seems to unsettle the women. Against Kate’s better judgement they even consider going to the harvest dance, like most of their neighbours. Another unsettling moment is when they discuss Father Jack’s strange behaviour since he came home from Uganda. He has returned home to Ballybeg as he is suffering the after effects of malaria, but he also appears confused as to his own whereabouts. He cannot remember ordinary English words and makes constant references to pagan rituals he seems to have practiced while in Uganda.
Michael’s father, Gerry Evans makes one of his infrequent visits to see him and his mother Christina. Chris is still in love with him but it is clear that he, an irresponsible charmer, full of empty promises, has no intention of staying in Ballybeg with her and her son. By the end of Act 1 we learn that Gerry intends to go to Spain to fight with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. By the end of the Act we have also learned a great deal about the lives and personalities of the five sisters and also about their brother, Father Jack.
Summary of Act 2
Act 2 takes place in early September, three weeks later. Michael still waits for the bike his father, Gerry, has promised to buy him. Jack continues to speak of strange pagan rites. He seems to have no interest in Catholic rituals such as the Mass. This is now becoming a problem for the sisters in the village, especially for Kate as the schoolteacher.
Slowly but surely events begin to unfold and we hear that she will lose her job. Agnes and rose will also lose their jobs as home knitters, due to the opening of a knitting factory in the area. Gerry abandons Chris again, this time forever. Money is scarce in the household.
Michael then narrates what transpired in the following weeks. Rose and Agnes have to leave Ballybeg and go to London to find work. He tells us that they lose contact with the family and it is twenty-five years later when he tracks them down – Agnes is dead by then and Rose is dying in a hospital. Father Jack, who doesn’t resume his ministry as a Catholic priest as was expected, dies of a heart attack a year after the action of the play. Gerry Evans is wounded in Spain, but survives to form a new family in Wales. Chris spends the rest of her life working in the knitting factory, and hates it. Kate finally gets a job as a private tutor.
The play ends as it began, with Michael remembering what happened that summer, particularly the sights and sounds of his mother and his aunts dancing in the kitchen.
THE HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL SETTING OF THE PLAY
Dancing at Lughnasa captures a time and place where great changes are about to take place – both in the Mundy household and in the wider world where all is about to change forever with the ominous rumblings of war to be heard in many parts of Europe. The unspoken backdrop is Ireland and its emerging Republic which at the time was dominated by very strict social morality and the repressive influence of the Catholic Church. The play seems to suggest that this traditional rural society, dominated for so long by communal values, will be changed forever by the power of the radio.
From a twenty-first century vantage point giving the radio a name – Marconi – seems absurd, but it highlights the point that the radio will be like another presence in the play, giving people a window to what is going on in the outside world probably for the first time. It is interesting that the predominant political movement in Ireland in the previous quarter of a century before 1936 was that of Sinn Féin which translates as Ourselves Alone – Ireland could survive on its own, isolationism was a good thing. Ironically, a century later and our near neighbours have stolen our ideas with their obsession with Brexit.
It is significant that the tune to which the sisters dance so wildly to at the beginning of the play is the old Irish reel, The Mason’s Apron. Towards the end of the play, however, the tune that plays when Gerry dances with Chris and her sisters is Anything Goes, with its faintly shocking lyrics:
In olden times a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
Now heaven knows
This may indicate that the old traditional moralities are also changing fast.
Michael, the narrator, tells us at the beginning of the play that he is remembering ‘that summer of 1936’ and the events that took place in Ballybeg. As a boy of seven at that time, he clearly had very little understanding of the historical and political context in which he lived. Throughout the play, however, Friel alludes to several specific events that took place in 1936 in both Ireland and Europe.
In Act 1, rose, one of the five Mundy sisters, sings,
‘Will you come to Abyssinia will you come?
Bring your own cup and saucer and a bun.
Mussolini will be there with his aeroplanes in the air
Will you come to Abyssinia will you come?
Shortly afterwards Maggie joins in with, ‘Will you vote for De Valera will you vote?’, to the same tune. They are both referring to highly topical issues at the time: the invasion of Abyssinia by the Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, and the success of Eamon de Valera, leader of the Fianna Fáil Party in the Irish General Election of 1933. There was another General Election in the offing and this took place on 1 July 1937. A plebiscite on whether to approve the new Constitution of Ireland was held on the same day. This was a very significant event and it is interesting that here in Dancing at Lughnasa as in Philadelphia Here I Come the important date to remember is 1/1/1937. This was the day the new Irish Constitution came into effect and some critics suggest that Friel is here passing a harsh judgement on the Ireland that had emerged under that Constitution.
Many critics and scholars also suggest that Friel is here giving a barbed rebuff to De Valera’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day radio broadcast of 1943 in which he fantasised about a rural Ireland ‘joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age’.
Later in the play, Gerry Evans, Michael’s father, decides to join the International Brigade, a group of socialists who opposed Franco in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. All these events point to the fact that in the world outside Ballybeg great change and upheaval is happening – the Mundy family can’t but be caught up in and affected by these great changes also.
However, the most important change, according to Friel, is the rise to power in Ireland of Eamon de Valera. De Valera’s celebrated view of Ireland as a predominantly rural society, peopled by frugal, contented people, clearly applies to the lifestyle of the five Mundy sisters – in fact, they are the very epitome of de Valera’s vision for the new Republic: comely maidens dancing at the crossroads or in their frugal kitchens.
The limited opportunities available to the five Mundy sisters was typical of Irish society in the 1930s. Conversation revolves around local gossip – who’s marrying who, the forthcoming harvest festival for the Festival of Lughnasa – and family issues; Father Jack’s strange behaviour since his return from Africa; the visit of Chris’s ex-lover Gerry Evans, the father of her child. Their activities are equally confined to looking after the hens, baking, knitting and ironing. They are barely making ends meet. Crucially, it is Kate who does the shopping. Their only source of entertainment is the radio, which fails to work more often than not.
From their conversations it is clear that the society of Ballybeg is small, not only literally but also metaphorically. Michael tells us that Ballybeg was proud of his uncle and his work in the Ugandan leprosy hospital. The local newspaper called him ‘our own leper priest’. As he says:
‘it gave us that little bit of status in the eyes of the parish. And it must have helped my aunts to bear the shame my mother brought on the household by having me – as it was called then – out of wedlock.’
The Influence of the Catholic Church
Religion had an enormous influence in 1930s Ireland. In 1932 the great Eucharistic Congress took place in Dublin and it is obvious that religion directly affects the lives of the characters in the play. To have a priest in the family, especially a missionary priest, was considered a great honour. It is Kate who expresses the most orthodox religious views for most of the play. Indeed, Friel deliberately juxtaposes those views with the paganism associated with the Lughnasa festival bubbling away beneath the surface. Early on Kate thinks it would be ‘sinful’ to give the name of the old pagan god, Lugh, to the new radio. Any talk of the ‘pagan practices’ that take place back in the hills during the Festival of Lughnasa are not to be heard in ‘a Christian home, a Catholic home’, which for her is the ultimate ideal. She reminds the others that ‘this is Father Jack’s home – we must never forget that – ever’.
Going to the harvest dance, as her sisters suggest, is for young people with ‘nothing in their heads but pleasure’. In Catholic morality of the day, the idea of ‘pleasure’ was associated in a negative way with sex. In the 1930s, attempts were made to prevent people going to what were called ‘pagan dances’. These rigid attitudes extended to anything that might encourage personal vanity or loose behaviour and we can see from the play that the Mundy sisters have only an ‘oul cracked thing’ of a mirror to see themselves in.
Although he does not appear directly in the play (and only fleetingly in the film version), the power of the parish priest to fire Kate from her job in the village school because her priest brother does not conform to religious expectations, is another measure of the desire of the Catholic Church authorities to exert control in society.
Friel returns to this theme many times in his plays. In Philadelphia Here I Come! for example, religion is represented through the figure of the Canon. It is clear that he is an inept and ineffective one-dimensional character. Gar satirises his ineptitude when he comes in one evening to play his usual game of cards with S. B.,
“Sure Canon what interest have you in money? Sure as long as you get to Tenerife for five weeks every winter, what interest have you in money?”.
In Philadelphia Here I Come!, the Canon is seen as a very shallow man who is constantly being ridiculed by Gar Private. He is not a pastor, he waits until, ‘the rosary’s over and the kettle’s on.’ And, in the end, he proves to be as predictable and one-dimensional as S.B. Indeed, both men are cruelly caricatured by Friel and the priest, in particular, is seen as a sad figure without influence or a constructive role to play in modern society.
We can also sense what a blow it must have been to the Mundy household when Chris became an unmarried mother. De Valera and the Catholic Church at the time emphasised the role of marriage and the nuclear family – mother, father and ‘sturdy’ children – as a force for moral and political stability. This ideal was best expressed in De Valera’s radio broadcast to the nation on St. Patrick’s Day 1943 when he said:
The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live. With the tidings that make such an Ireland possible, St. Patrick came to our ancestors fifteen hundred years ago promising happiness here no less than happiness hereafter. It was the pursuit of such an Ireland that later made our country worthy to be called the island of saints and scholars.
It is clear from the concern of the five Mundy sisters that they too value marriage and family. Circumstances have caused them all to be single. Only Chris has had sexual experience. Given their ages – from twenty-six to forty – it appears that they have lost their chances of finding suitable men to marry. But that does not mean that all desire for romance or sexual relationships has been crushed. In different ways, each of the women in the play reveals a longing for love that goes beyond their actual circumstances. Chris is still very much in love with Gerry Evans, the father of her child. His visits cause emotional havoc to all in the household but especially to Chris and her young son. He represents for all of them a different sort of life – there are hints that Agnes too is in love with him – even if Kate sees him as a sort of threat. In her jokes and songs such as ‘The Isle of Capri’, Maggie reveals a sentimental side to her tough exterior. Even Rose, described as ‘simple’, has a romantic interest in Danny Bradley, a married man. Later in the play she joins him in ‘the back hills’, although we do not find out what, if anything, happens between them. Even Kate, who is described as ‘a very proper woman’ and more negatively as a ‘self-righteous old bitch’, has had some hopes of attracting the attentions of Austin Morgan. However, we later learn that he goes and marries a ‘wee young thing from Carrickfad’.
Dolores Keane sings ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’ backed by the Irish Film Orchestra … and then the climactic dance of wild and free women.
The Dancing Metaphor
Throughout the play the metaphor of dancing is used to suggest romance, escape and sexual freedom. For a short while the sisters entertain ideas of going to the harvest dance as they used to in their youth. Kate, the authority figure in the family, makes it clear that this is out of the question, ‘do you want the whole countryside to be laughing at us? – women of our age? – mature women, dancing?’
Maggie has fond memories of going to dances with her friend Bernie O’Donnell, when she was sixteen and in love with Brian McGuinness, who later went to Australia. The relationship between Gerry Evans and Chris is also depicted very much in terms of dancing. And of course, the wild dance that the sisters engage in in their kitchen is a crucial moment in the play. It allows them to get in touch with their inner selves, the sensuous side of their nature that is held in check by the dominant social attitudes of the Ireland in which they live.
Conflict in the Play
As already mentioned Friel juxtaposes in Dancing at Lughnasa the conflict between the repressive social and religious attitudes of Ireland in the 30s with an older, freer pre-Christian way of life. This pagan way of life was one of celebration, wild dances and rituals held in the ‘back hills’ far away from the influence of the Catholic Church. The Festival of Lughnasa traditions that Rose describes take place ‘up there in the back hills’, among people that Kate refers to as ‘savages’. There are numerous references to Lugh, the pagan god, to voodoo, to omens of good and bad luck, to the devilish faces that Michael has painted on his kites. Sweeney (the boy who was burnt in the festival bonfire) bears the same name as the legendary Sweeney who defied Christian authorities and was punished by being condemned to fly around like a bird for the rest of his life.
Father Jack embodies this conflict too. His experience as a missionary in Africa has caused him to lose his sense of what is appropriate in the context of Ballybeg. From an Irish cultural point of view, sending priests as missionaries to Africa was seen as benefitting the native Africans by teaching them and enabling them to participate in the rituals of the Catholic Church. But Father Jack no longer appears to believe that Christian ritual is superior to the rituals he observed in ‘pagan’ Africa. In fact, after his time spent as a missionary, he now sees Catholic rituals such as the Mass as synonymous with the sacrifice offered to ‘Obi, our Great Goddess of the Earth’. Rather amusingly, he fails to live up to his expected role as moral judge of Gerry Evans (‘Father Jack may have something to say to Mr. Evans’ says Kate at one point). Instead, he sees Michael as Chris’s ‘love-child’ and he asks her if she has any more ‘love-children’, and he pronounces that in Uganda ‘women are eager to have love-children’. He even suggests that if they were in Uganda he would be able to provide at least one husband for all of his sisters, ‘That’s our system and it works very well’.
Father Jack’s view of religion now corresponds more to the goings-on at the pagan festival of Lughnasa than it does to the norms of the Catholic Ireland, ‘the island of saints and scholars’. There is one telling statement he makes about the African people that seems to recognise the underlying truth of this. He declares, ‘In some respects they’re not unlike us’. It is clear, however, that his views would not be acceptable in the Ireland of the 30s to which he has returned. This is sadly borne out by his own forced return to Ireland and the treatment meted out to his sister Kate by the local parish priest.
Change in Society
The over-riding impression we get from the play, however, is that changes are taking place, the world is sliding towards war and the old certainties are losing ground. This is made even more evident with the return of Father Jack from Africa. This event suggests that the domestic world of the Mundy’s faces disruption from the outside. Father Jack brings with him from Uganda hints that Catholic ritual may not have universal appeal. His obvious respect for native Ugandan rituals gives us a reverse view of the traditional role of the missionary priest!
Gerry Evans also brings a sense of the changing world of Ireland when he talks of giving ballroom dancing lessons, or of gramophone sales in Dublin. When he decides to join the International Brigade in Spain, it is seen as part of a desire to experience the big bad world outside of Ireland. There is a suggestion that Ireland’s cultural landscape is beginning to change ever so slowly.
One of the clearest indications of change takes place when Agnes and Rose can no longer make their living from home knitting, due to the opening of the new knitting factory in Donegal Town. As the narrator says: ‘The Industrial Revolution had finally caught up with Ballybeg’. Their subsequent emigration was typical of the large-scale emigration from Ireland that took place in the first half of the twentieth century. As in Philadelphia Here I Come!, Ballybeg is depicted here as a backwater, a stagnant place of despair and routine. Escape through emigration is the only safety valve. Like many an Irish town in the late thirties, forties and fifties Ballybeg has maintained its economic stability at a terrible price, the constant exportation of human beings! It is an example of a town that is alive because the young leave, a town that would most certainly be ruined if those same young people stayed at home en masse.
Faraway hills are said to be greener but when Agnes and Rose leave they possessed little education, few skills, and in reality their opportunities in London were limited to menial cleaning jobs. Sad though this is, the narrator nevertheless suggests that they wanted ‘to get away’, to experience change and novelty, with all their challenges and disadvantages. Someone said once that the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies but there may be a positive side to change as countless numbers of Irish emigrants discovered as they made new prosperous lives for themselves in foreign lands.
Family is important to the Mundy sisters. Within the family there may be disappointment, resentment or anger, but they will always present a united and brave face to the outside world. Kate, in particular, insists that problems with Father Jack must be kept within the family, ‘not a word of this must go outside these walls’.
It is this family solidarity that causes them to unite in the face of the shame that Chris must have brought on them as an unmarried mother in a small town, baile beag, in 1930s Ireland. Throughout the play we see the genuine affection each of the aunts feels for Michael: Kate brings him presents, Maggie jokes with him, Rose even says, ‘I wish he was mine’. Clearly, he has never been made to feel unloved or unwanted. It almost seems as if any or all of them could have been his mother.
Similarly, their love and care for Father Jack outweighs any disappointment they may have felt at his ‘disgrace’. Kate’s surprising acceptance of his religious beliefs and her grief when he dies reveal that family feeling overcomes conventional morality. Each of the family members watches out for ‘simple’ and vulnerable Rose, as we see when she goes missing for an afternoon with Danny Bradley. When Kate is sacked from her teaching job, it is ‘Rosie’ she worries about most.
However, despite the obvious closeness and the obvious loneliness and lack of fulfilment that they all feel, they rarely speak about their intimate feelings. When Kate confides to Maggie that she feels ‘it’s all going to collapse’, for instance, Maggie declines to engage with her fears and simply says, ‘Nothing is about to collapse, Kate’.
Despite this, however, the family is capable of expressing negative feelings. Hurtful things can be said. Kate points out rather meanly to Agnes that neither she nor Rose made much money to contribute to the upkeep of the household. Agnes retorts that she and rose are like ‘two unpaid servants’ in the house. At another stage Agnes calls Kate ‘a damned self-righteous bitch’.
Ironically, the Mundy family of five sisters, one brother and their young nephew would not have corresponded to De Valera’s ideal nuclear family unit consisting of father, mother and their children of the time. Tragically, too, the family grouping will disintegrate, as Michael the narrator tells us:
Poverty and economic change force Agnes and Rose to emigrate to London to find work;
Father Jack will die within a year;
Chris settles for a job she hated, working in the knitting factory;
Gerry Evans will visit less and less, until his visits stop altogether;
Michael himself will leave. As he says, ‘In the selfish way of young men I was happy to escape’.
In many ways, then, it can be said that circumstances in the end have conspired to defeat the Mundy family.
CHARACTER ANALYSIS IN DANCING AT LUGHNASA
Kate is the mother-figure and matriarch in the Mundy household. She is the main bread-winner, respected in the community and the leader of the Mundy sisters. She is a very religious and puritanical woman. She has no time for ‘pagan’ ideas and is very prim and proper. She doesn’t agree that the radio should be given a name, and definitely not the name Lugh because of its pagan origins. She teaches in the local Primary School and would have been seen as a pillar of the community – especially in 1930s Ireland. She had been involved in the War of Independence and she is very firm in her Christian attitudes.
She is very concerned with the way the people in the community view her and her family. She would prefer the Mundys to be viewed as a decent family with a strong sense of dignity and strong religious faith. She is, therefore, embarrassed by Father Jack’s return from Africa and feels that he has brought some shame on the family following his exploits in Uganda. She has also been disappointed and hurt when Chris became pregnant outside of marriage and she does not want people to look down on the family. When it is suggested that the sisters go to the harvest dance she is horrified at first. She is very concerned about keeping up appearances and showing restraint both emotionally and socially.
Despite being part of a large family, Kate feels isolated and lonely in some way. Perhaps she feels that she has to shoulder the burden of looking after the family on her own. When the sisters dance together she dances alone. This highlights her loneliness and isolation as she deals with her feelings by herself.
At first Maggie seems to be the joker of the family. She is always ready with a song, dance or joke. However, on closer inspection we discover why she seems to be so bubbly. Whenever there are moments of tension, or the possibility of any conflict, Maggie intercedes with some humour to help diffuse the situation. In this way she keeps the peace and helps keep the family together because the family bond is very important to her. She is a very likeable character and of all the sisters she is least prone to sarcasm and attempts to hurt others. She is also generous spirited and kind and she adores young Michael.
Behind this apparent happy façade, however, Maggie is hiding deep unhappiness. At one point Kate describes her meeting in Ballybeg with an old friend of Maggie’s by the name of Bernie O’Donnell. It was Bernie O’Donnell who could attract the men that Maggie couldn’t when they were young. Bernie later left Ballybeg and made a new life for herself somewhere else. When Maggie hears this story from Kate she is quiet for once, which is very unlike her.
It is Maggie who is the first to start dancing in the climactic scene in Act 1. She initiates the dance because she feels angry and frustrated with her small, lonely life in Ballybeg. As described in the text her dance is ‘defiant’ as if she is trying to show life that it can throw anything at her and she will bounce back.
She is also a tower of strength for others when they need help. She is there for Kate when she breaks down over her fears of not being able to keep the family together. Maggie is possibly the most emotionally strong of the Mundy sisters, and she hides her secret pain much more effectively than the others.
Chris is a strong-willed character whose one great weakness is Gerry Evans. She cannot help but love him despite all his false and empty promises. Like all the Mundy sisters she fights off despair with humour and a defiant attitude. She tries very hard not to let anything get to her.
When Gerry arrived back for the first time in over a year she tries to resist his advances by refusing to engage him in conversation. He responds by dancing with her and she cannot resist the romance of this. She returns to the house a changed woman, full of life and happiness, having conveniently forgotten what an unreliable rogue Gerry is. She obviously craves romance in her life, otherwise she would not give in to Gerry in this way. There are moments when she thinks back silently on her dance with Gerry, and it is obvious from her happy reaction that it has had a profound effect on her.
Throughout the play, however, she seems to be very jealous and suspicious of Agnes. It becomes obvious to her that Gerry is also attracted to Agnes and visa versa, particularly after they both dance together. This enrages Chris who probably feels deep down that Gerry loves Agnes more than he loves her.
However, her main claim to fame – or infamy – in the play is the fact that she is Michael’s mother. He is obviously the apple of her eye and she is fiercely protective and proud of her son. We have to remember also of course that this story is being narrated to us by her son Michael as he remembers with nostalgia the events of that momentous summer of 1936.
Agnes is the most reserved and quiet of the five sisters, but she is also perhaps the strongest willed and the one with the greatest hidden reserves of strength. She tends to listen when the others banter and poke fun at each other. She is not the kind of person to start a conversation, yet despite her quiet and shy nature she is never afraid to stand up for herself or others. She becomes quite angry when Kate refuses to use Gerry Evans’s name when referring to him.
She is the first to suggest that they could all go to the harvest dance and she is the one who makes the most emotional plea when she says she wants to dance and feel alive while dancing. Despite being very quiet Agnes is not afraid at certain points in the play of revealing what her true emotions are. However, normally she tends to bottle up her emotions and say very little, but when she does let go what she says is usually of great importance. When she dances with her sisters in the famous kitchen scene she is very graceful and proud but also defiant at the same time.
Agnes is obviously very taken by Gerry Evans. When she dances with him she is as graceful as ever and she dances like a woman who has been dancing with this man all her life.
Ultimately, Agnes is fearless despite her quiet nature. She knows that when a crisis hits that hard decisions have to be made. This is most obviously shown in her decision to go to London with Rose. Of all the sisters, Agnes is the closest to Rose and she sees it as her life-long job to look after her sister.
Rose is very childish and innocent. At that time, she would have been referred to as being ‘a bit simple’. She is full of fun and life, but she is by no means a weak character who can be walked all over. She has intelligence when required and like a child who wants something she knows cunning ways and means of getting it!
The other sisters are very protective of her, especially her sister Agnes. They see her as the child of the family and it is their task to make sure she comes to no harm. She takes a fancy to Danny Bradley, a local rascal with a bad reputation. Despite her sisters’ insistence that she shouldn’t meet with him, rose concocts a plan to spend a day with him. The fact that she does this shows her cunning and determination and also shows how underestimated she is, even by her own sisters. Rose’s key character moment arrives when she defiantly stands up to Kate and is honest about her meeting with Danny Bradley. In this moment she appears most adult-like and willing to be independent.
She has no shame, unlike Kate who is obsessed with the family’s good name and status in the community. She is honest and pure and sees no harm in enjoying life. She is a warm and endearing character with many childlike traits, but ultimately she is depicted as a strong, independent woman.
Brian Friel uses both Rose and Agnes to represent a generation of young Irish women (and men) who were forced by limited opportunities, poverty and economic depression top leave their small towns and villages in rural Ireland to seek work in London and elsewhere during the 1930s.
Gerry Evans is feckless, weak and irresponsible. He is a scoundrel and a liar, but he manages to get away with it and gets by on his easy charm and a way with words. This allows him to worm his way back into Chris’s life. Gerry seems to be a drifter: unwilling or incapable of settling down, but later in the play we learn that he has been living a lie, and that he has another family in Wales.
Despite his flaws there is something likeable at times about Gerry. He can get away with almost anything. He is a child unwilling to take on real responsibility and merely puts on a show of enquiring about his son Michael’s well-being.
We also get the sense that Gerry is searching for something. He goes off to fight in the Spanish Civil War but is not sure why he made that decision. Gerry is also quite possibly in love with Agnes and he seems to have a problem asking after her when he is speaking to Chris.
He is a rogue who cannot be depended upon for anything. He is a restless character with a great ability to charm all those around him with his easy words and his dancing skills.
Father Jack has obviously suffered deeply, both physically and mentally, as a result of his time spent as a Catholic missionary priest among the leper colonies in Uganda. Despite his evident weaknesses and illnesses, we get a sense that he was once a great and determined man who deserved his reputation as a great missionary priest.
Father Jack is also quite unconventional. This part of his nature is slowly revealed in the play until we get the ultimate revelation that he almost discarded his own Catholic beliefs to become one with the natives at his mission. Unlike Kate he is tolerant of others beliefs, so much so that he took part in many tribal celebrations and rituals when he was in Uganda. He is a very non-judgemental man who accepts everyone for what they are.
He is a good man with everyone’s best interests at heart. He is a man of great humanity and strength and he quickly regains his physical strength after returning to his home in Ballybeg. He is not a man who feels shame and is quite happy about how his African experiences have changed him.
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring — When weeds in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush; Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing; The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning In Eden garden. — Have, get, before it cloy, Before it cloud, Christ, lord and sour with sinning, Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy, Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
As we know Hopkins wrote The Terrible Sonnets but here we have one of the best of his ‘bright sonnets’ in which he celebrates the beauty of nature and the glory of God. Hopkins loved to use the sonnet because he felt it suited his style. He wrote ‘Spring’ in May 1877 while studying theology in North Wales. ‘Spring’ is a Petrarchan sonnet, consisting of an octet which is primarily descriptive, and a sestet which is typically more reflective. The sonnet can only be described as being quintessential Hopkins.
The octet describes nature and Hopkins’ appreciation of it shines through in his descriptive language. He gives many examples of how beautiful and fresh the world is, such as weeds, birds’ eggs, lambs, blue skies and lush greenery. Many of Hopkins’ poems read like sermons and homilies and this is not unusual seeing as he was a Jesuit priest. So we are not surprised, therefore, when he compares the beauty which surrounds him to the Garden of Eden. The sestet reflects upon the meaning of this wonderful nature. As I said earlier there is always a spiritual dimension to Hopkins’ poetry and in the sestet he reflects on the sorry end of the Garden of Eden and he uses the last lines of the poem to ask God to protect the innocence of spring and also that of young children.
Many of the trademark conventions which define Hopkins’ poetry are to be found in this poem, such as alliteration, assonance, inscape, instress and sprung rhythm. We are presented with an innovative and technically accomplished poem which is written in a unique and distinctive way.
It might be important to define some of these concepts because some of them are unique to Hopkins’ poetry:
Inscape: For Hopkins, every single thing in the universe was unique. Everything contained qualities that helped to define that uniqueness, and to distinguish it from all other things. He called thisinscape. Hopkins believed that God was responsible for each unique thing. For him, inscape was the essential essence of each thing, that unique quality that set it apart from everything else.
Instress: Hopkins also believed that each living thing had its own unique energy which was also derived from God. In the octet of this sonnet, therefore, he tries through language and imagery to capture the instress, the unique energy that defines Spring.
Sprung Rhythm: Hopkins invented this unique kind of rhythm and used it extensively in his poetry. Basically, Hopkins stresses the important word in a line of poetry and this can be surrounded by any number of unstressed syllables e.g. the line ‘When weeds in wheels shoot long and lovely and lush’.
Octet Hopkins begins the poem with a very bold statement of his philosophy. He won’t listen to any debate or argument as he declares with absolute conviction that Spring is the most beautiful season of the year. He then proceeds to give evidence in support of this contention, by presenting the reader with a series of images, which try to capture both the beauty and vibrancy of Spring.
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
He immediately surprises us by celebrating the beauty of weeds, a type of plant we traditionally frown upon. He uses alliteration and sprung rhythm to capture both the essence (inscape) and energy (instress) of these particular plants. The word ‘wheel’ causes us to pause as we try to understand what he means. It may be the way briars and other weeds send out tendrils to curl around other shrubs and plants as they climb or indeed it may be a reference to the cyclical nature of the seasons, each one giving way to the next.
He then describes the thrush in the next few lines. Again he tries to capture for us in words the inscape and instress of the birds as they build their nests and lay their eggs. The bird’s eggs are compared to the heavens, as Hopkins subtly introduces a spiritual dimension to the poem. There are examples of sensuous imagery in evidence also, while the onomatopoeic “wring” further captures that elusive inscape. Notice his constant use of alliteration, ‘rinse and wring’. There is a very clever metaphor in the third line when he compares the speckled thrush’s eggs to the heavens at night. It nearly would have been easier for him to use the simile, Thrush’s eggs look (like) little low heavens, but he resists the temptation!
He does use a simile in lines four and five when he tries to describe the effect of birdsong on the human ear,
… it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing
Further intense images follow, as Hopkins champions this particular season. We are told “that blue is all in a rush,” as he tries to capture the instress, the energy, that defines that season. The final line, with its rather quaint, colloquial language, is also designed to produce a similar effect.
By the end of the octet, the reader has been swept along by Hopkins in his description of nature. His use of sprung rhythm , coupled with the absence of any full-stops in the entire octet, ensure that the reader is made fully aware of the breathtaking beauty and vitality associated with Spring.
Sestet The poem becomes much more reflective in the sestet. Hopkins begins by posing a question: What does all of this beauty of nature actually signify? This rhetorical question signifies the poet’s own confusion and uncertainty. The reader is invited to slow down and contemplate the answer to this question. Hopkins suggests to us that springtime is an image of what the world would have been like in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, before the fall of Adam and Eve and the entrance of sin into our world.
In a series of complex and very theological images, Hopkins manages to suggest what is wrong with the world, provides a vision of the type of world he would like to see, and advocates a return to that time of innocence in Eden Garden. He suggests our loss of innocence by using the image of fruit becoming overripe and decaying.
Traditionally also it must be remembered that May was always linked to Mary the Mother of God – the month of May was Mary’s month. He proceeds to use different images of innocence to present his image of the world he would like to see, and finally, he advocates a return to that world of innocence. In my mind’s eye I can see children innocently dancing around the traditional Maypole on an English village green when I read these final lines. For his English audience there would have been no better representation of childhood innocence!
This darksome burn, horseback brown, His rollrock highroad roaring down, In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth Turns and twindles over the broth Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning, It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew, Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through, Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern, And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
The initial response of a class hearing Hopkins for the first time – in my long experience – can only be described as a kind of muted sniffling, an uneasy shuffling! Indeed, I am reminded of a scene from Roddy Doyle’s novel, TheVan. In the novel, Darren is studying Hopkins’s poetry for his Leaving Cert. He reads one of the poems – probably Inversnaid – and wonders when Tippex had been invented and he concludes, ‘Gerrah Manley Hopkins had definitely been sniffing something.’ Not all students are as negative as Darren but given a chance most conclude that this poetry is old but yet new and surprising. This difference is what opens the paths to further exploration. Here we have someone experimenting and stretching the outer limits of language just like a modern rapper would do.
Inversnaid, while not one of his best poems, shows how he continually explores the possibilities of words. A good class will enjoy puzzling out the images, rather like trying to solve a cryptic crossword. There may even be arguments about which sense of ‘comb’ is intended. However, the average class will need a lot of help with this poem.
Finally, by way of introduction, this poem does not end with a homily like many of Hopkins’ poems but instead takes on a very modern plea and could have been written in 2021 by any one of a range of eco-warriors from David Attenborough to Greta Thunberg. However, while the spiritual dimension, so explicitly treated in ‘Spring’ and other poems, may be hidden from the reader, here one senses that it is never far from the poet-priest’s mind.
The poem was written in 1881 while Fr Hopkins, the Jesuit priest, was ministering to his flock in inner city Glasgow. On one of his rest days he paid a hurried visit to the little village of Inversnaid near the shores of Loch Lomond in the Scottish Highlands and was inspired to write this poem.
The poem was written at the height of the Industrial Revolution in England and Scotland and the poet makes a very prescient and prophetic appeal that such places should not be destroyed forever by man’s search for wealth at any price. The poet praises the special and irreplaceable beauty of the ‘wetness and wildness’ of the world.
Hopkins wrote the poem at a time when the Industrial Revolution in England was beginning to destroy the countryside. There was also a counter move by Victorians to set aside areas of great beauty so that people who could afford it could escape to enjoy the beauty of nature. Victoria herself had her Scottish royal retreat at Balmoral and this is still in use to this day. Elsewhere places of particular scenic beauty such as the Lake District in England and Killarney in Ireland were making a name for themselves as soothing spa resorts where the rich and famous came to relax and enjoy the restorative power of nature in all its glory and wildness. Here Hopkins pleads that such places should be spared and were, in fact, essential. He attempts in the first three stanzas to convince people of the wonder of such areas; this he does by using all his word-power to describe what he sees in an exciting way. In the final stanza he presents his plea in repetitive and almost desperate terms.
The structure of the poem, unlike its language, is very simple. The first three stanzas convey a lively and exciting picture in our minds. The final stanza then is a plea that such beauty be preserved. Each stanza contains four lines, and each line has four stresses. Hopkins stresses the important word and this can be surrounded by any number of unstressed syllables. This unique form of rhyming scheme he called sprung rhythm.
Hopkins is describing a river rushing and roaring down the Scottish hillside to reach Loch Lomond. The river begins high in the hills and flows powerfully down over the rocks, then eases into lower land and flows gently into the lake. There are many pools and eddies filled with froth so dark that they suggest despair. Dew sparkles on the banks beside the river where wild plants grow such as heath and fern and ash trees. The last stanza is a passionate plea to his fellow man to leave such wildness and beauty alone, and let them survive.
Hopkins language can be difficult because he is constantly experimenting. In this poem, for instance, he is obviously infatuated by the Scottish accents all around him and we can see this in the continual use of ‘r’ alliterative sounds throughout the poem. Hopkins tries to capture the inscape and instress of a fast flowing stream in the rural landscape of Inversnaid. He makes use of a number of important techniques to capture the true essence and energy of the stream such as compound words, sprung rhythm and alliteration to great effect. He also invents new words, and makes use of local colloquial and dialect words freely.
To fully appreciate the beauty of the poem you really need to read it aloud in your best Scottish accent! From the very beginning he sets the scene,
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
These lines suggest the river’s steep rush through the highlands. The hard vowel sounds convey the rush and roar of the water over the rocks. The essence and energy of the river (its inscape and instress) is compared in a lovely metaphor to a wild horse careering downhill at great speed.
The final two lines in the first stanza are calmer
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
The poet uses alliteration to suggest a peaceful pool with foam like ‘fleece’ gently circling as in a whirlpool. ‘Coop’ and ‘comb’, ‘fleece’ and ‘foam’ convey multiple images if we allow them in. The energy of the river is now ‘cooped up’ in a rockpool and the water gently ‘combs’ over the rocks and falls with lovely sibilant ‘s’ sounds to the lake.
In the second stanza the focus switches to these stiller shallow pools. The ‘fleece’ of stanza one is now a ‘windpuff-bonnet’ of ‘fawn-froth’. These are lovely examples of compound words made up by the poet to describe the scene before him. The poet is after all trying to describe or inscape a whirlpool and he invents a new verb to describe the motion of the pool – it ‘twindles’. This swirling motion produces very ominous, dark emotions in the poet: the pool is now a ‘broth’, a ‘pitchblack’ soup of seething river in flood. The darkness or shadows of the area also help induce a mood of despair – Hopkins gives it even added importance by giving it a capital ‘D’. ‘Fell-frowning’ has many layers of meaning. Again it is a compound word invented for the occasion: Hopkins often uses ‘fell’ in his poetry and usually it means foul or evil. The stanza is a perfect example of sprung rhythm, a unique Hopkins invention. (Read the stanza again – out loud – to get a feel for this rhythm).
The focus now switches to the banks of the stream and the abundance of plants and shrubs and trees that exist there. He uses a very precise set of words to capture the essence, the inscape of the gorge through which this stream is flowing. It is a glorious description of nature in all its wildness:
Degged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook threads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
We get the sense of the river picking up speed again in the first two lines before it slows again before the stanza ends.
In the last stanza, Hopkins uses many words beginning with the letter ‘w’. This, combined with all the repetition, conveys a mood of anxiety and pleading. The use of the rhetorical question also gives a sense of his uncertainty. He ends by issuing an appeal, asking us to preserve the natural landscape. Yet again, one can detect the intensity of the emotion in his pleading and in his poetry. Hopkins finishes with a rallying cry, almost a call to arms, similar to what Greta Thunberg has done in recent times, in which he champions the natural world and pleads with us to respect it. That call is now nearly 150 years old and, unfortunately, is more pertinent today that ever before.
You might like to have a read of the following blog which explains the various terms such as ‘inscape’, ‘instress’ and ‘sprung rhythm’ used in the above notes. Just click on the link.
This week the Government announced that schools would remain closed until February 1st, and that Leaving Cert students would be able to attend school for three days a week, beginning on Monday January 11th. That Government decision remained in force for all of twenty-four hours! Because of this continuous disruption and uncertainty, no doubt caused by the Covid-19 upsurge in the community, but not helped by Government indecision, I have brought together here in one post links to a series of relevant notes which you may consider useful in your English course studies for 2021. These notes are not exhaustive but focus mainly on Single Text, Comparative and Poetry Sections.
Caveat Emptor! Leaving Cert Student Beware !! These are resources which you should use wisely. They are personal responses to the various texts and you should read and consider them if you find them useful.
IN OTHER WORDS, MAKE YOUR OWN OF THEM, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT. ALSO, YOU MIGHT SPREAD THE WORD, DON’T KEEP THEM ALL TO YOURSELF!
THE SINGLE TEXT AND A SELECTION OF TEXTS PRESCRIBED FOR THE COMPARATIVE STUDY 2021
A FEW OBSERVATIONS ON THE COMPARATIVE STUDY QUESTION IN 2021
MODES OF COMPARISON For each Leaving Certificate course, three modes of comparison will be prescribed. This means that the texts chosen for comparative study must be studied under these particular modes (headings).
This year the modes of comparison at Higher Level and Ordinary Level are as follows:
Theme or Issue
General Vision and Viewpoint
This year there will be two questions on EACH of these modes of comparison. In reality this means that because of the time constraints and limited time given to you to study the syllabus properly you only need to focus on ONE mode of comparison.
FYI the following adjustments have been made to the Comparative Section in the Leaving Cert English Syllabus for 2021: next June the Comparative Section will include questions on all three modes prescribed for examination in 2021 – namely, Theme or Issue, Cultural Context, and General Vision and Viewpoint.
Candidates will be required to answer on one mode only. This will allow you to concentrate your efforts because in effect, if you wish, you can simply concentrate on one mode of comparison only and you can be guaranteed that there will be a choice of two questions for you to answer on that chosen mode of comparison. Remember, the standard required won’t alter but you are being given greater choice this year in your Comparative Study.
The internal question choice within modes will remain the same. Single questions (marked out of 70) will require candidates to refer to AT LEAST TWO texts in their response. The same criteria for assessment will apply to candidates irrespective of whether they refer to two texts or to three texts when responding to 70 mark questions. Two-part questions (marked out of 30 and 40) will require candidates to refer to ONE text in answer to part (a) and to TWO other texts in answer to part (b).
Theme or Issue
This involves comparing texts on a prescribed theme(s). These would have to be themes that were pervasive and central to the texts chosen for study e.g.
Isolation and Loneliness Relationships Family Childhood Fantasy and reality
These themes/issues will be the messages or concerns that the writer or film director wishes to impart to the audience. In most texts, there will be a number of themes/issues worth considering
Your task, therefore, in this section is to compare and contrast the same theme as it is treated by different authors or film directors.
Compare the texts focusing on social rituals, values and attitudes. This is not to be seen as a sociological study of the texts alone. It means taking some perspectives, which enable the students to understand the kind of values and structures with which people contend. It amounts to entering into the world of the text and getting some insight and feel for the cultural texture of the world created. This would imply considering such aspects as the rituals of life and the routines of living, the structures of society, familial, social, economic, religious and political: the respective roles of men and women in society, the position of children, the role and nature of work, the sources and structures of power and the significance of race and class.
Vision and Viewpoint
The term, general vision and viewpoint, may be understood by candidates to mean the broad outlook of the authors of the texts (or of the texts themselves) as interpreted and understood by the reader – excerpt from Marking Scheme, 2003
When approaching this mode of comparison it is important to examine each text to discover what particular vision or view of life is presented by the novelist, playwright or film director. We need to find the overall view of the writer as it is reflected through the themes and issues raised in the text. We will probably realise that we as readers or as an audience have been given a privileged position by the author and that we often know more than the characters in the novel or the actors on the stage or film set. We are, after all, entitled to our own viewpoint also! Commonly, we are expected to judge whether the text is positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic, realistic or dystopian, etc., etc.
When you answer a question in the Comparative Section remember that you have to be selective in emphasising the most meaningful similarities and differences between texts. The more similar they appear to be, the more provocative and challenging it is to contrast them and to draw out differences between them. Remember also that when you draw out surprising or disputable similarities or differences, you require detailed support from the texts.
In a Comparative answer, it is vitally important to compare and contrast these different ways of looking at life, or to examine if there is coherence or a lack of coherence between all these differing viewpoints.
THE POETRY SECTION IN 2021
I include links to SIX of the eight poets on your course here – simply click on the link. Again, in this area, the Department and the Examinations Commission have made very generous adjustments to the Syllabus for 2021. So, this year, ONE additional poetry question will be included i.e. candidates will be required to answer one of five questions instead of the usual four. In reality, therefore, instead of having to have at least FIVE poets prepared for examination, you now will need to have at least FOUR poets studied at Higher Level this year. (Two extra poems will also be included in the Ordinary Level paper).