Michael Hartnett’s son Niall givesthe keynote speech onthe first night of this year’s festival. “Poetry is my life and my life is poetry,” the words poet Michael Hartnett wrote in a letter to his son, Niall in 1998, the year before Michael died.
Niall read excerpts from that treasured letter on the opening night (Thursday 12 April 2018) of Éigse Michael Hartnett, the literary and arts festival which takes place each year in his father’s hometown of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick.
In a keynote speech which took its title from a line of Michael’s, The Possibilitywe have overlooked is the future, Niall Hartnett spoke movingly about his father and his work:
“He could weave a tapestry of a small town or an epic struggle at the highest level so seamlessly, you could not always tell which was which. Neither could he, I suspect, and did not see the point in separating the two: there is as much drama in Salad Sunday as there is in Sibelius! As much intrigue in Maiden Street as there was in Inchicore.”
“We need to honour this son of Newcastle West and the road less travelled he took to bridge many worlds early on. I feel we can best do this by encouraging ourselves and especially the young to choose unpredictable paths and unexpected destinies. Break the mould and proudly show others that you did. Invite the young, your family and friends to this festival and encourage them to nurture this legacy which will someday will be theirs. The future belongs to the young and they will carry all of this on we hope, but only if we engage them now! As the poet himself said: the Possibility we have Overlooked is the Future!” Niall added.
Officially opening the festival Mayor of the City and County of Limerick Cllr Stephen Keary said: “It is heart-warming to see that Michael is being celebrated in his hometown. Michael was loved by everyone in Newcastle West, who knew him through his words, as the poet, and I’m delighted that his son Niall is here this evening giving us an account of Michael as a father. There are many sides to people, such as Michael and it’s invaluable that we get an insight into these so that we can understand and appreciate the works of Michael Hartnett even more.”
The opening night of Eigse also saw the joint winners of this year’s Michael Hartnett Poetry Award honoured: Macdara Woods for Music from the Big Tent (Dedalus Press 2016) and Mary O’Malley for Playing the Octopus (Carcanet 2016).
“Music from the Tent is a superb orchestra of verbal melodies, a Big Top in which free verse, ballads and haiku sing and cavort,” the judges Jo Slade and James Harpur said in their citation.
In accepting his award Macdara Woods said: “It is delightful to share with Mary O’Malley an award given in memory of my old and dear friend, Michael Hartnett. We had many wild times, and some quiet times, and adventures together, from Dublin to London to Kilkee, but what remains most clearly, and has become even more apparent with the passing of time, is his genius for poetry and the translation of poetry. I intend to take this award as a personal nudge from Michael.”
His fellow award winner Mary O’Malley added: “I am delighted to receive the Michael Hartnett Award, I too knew Michael and he had kind things to say about my young poems, he has remained a touchstone for me.”
Mary O’Malley’s Playing the Octopus was described by the judges as “a beautiful collection of rare gems that sparkle and seduce.” This is a collection that balances beauty and harmony, the poems are restrained but deeply felt, the voice assured, meaning is revealed slowly like an uncovering of essence, something essential and elemental.”
Éigse Michael Hartnett also highlighted readings by authors John Boyne and Mike McCormack, who has just been shortlisted for the 2018 International Dublin Literary Award and young Limerick poet Edward O’Dwyer.
Professor Declan Kiberd delivered the Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture on Saturday 14th, entitled, Honey I shrunk the kids, in which he raised the question of whether there is a children’s literature, or whether the classic works from Alice in Wonderland to Harry Potter are written by adults, published by adults, often to promote adult agendas.
“It will then raise an even deeper question–whether childhood, as we know it through literature, is an invention of recent centuries, perhaps even an image constructed in the age of print and now fast disappearing with the spread of electronic and digital media. These are troubling questions,” Professor Kiberd said.
Éigse takes place each year in Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, Hartnett’s home-town and is supported by the Arts Council and Limerick City and County Council. The continuing support received from Sheila Deegan and her team of Aoife Potter Cogan, Dr Pippa Little and ‘the real boss’ Lizanne Jackman was acknowledged at the opening ceremony. The local organising committee is Vicki Nash, Norma Prendeville, John Cussen Rachel Lenihan, Rossa McMahon and Vincent Hanley.
The Michael Hartnett Poetry Award is awarded in alternate years to books of poetry in the Irish and English language.
Mary O’Malley’s new collection, Playing the Octopus is a wonderful book of finely wrought, delicately woven poems that seduce and excite. The poet has created a world that sustains us, that we recognise and can inhabit. This is a collection that balances beauty and harmony, the poems are restrained but deeply felt, the voice assured, meaning is revealed slowing like an uncovering of essence, something essential and elemental. There is a playfulness and joy in language that at times produces a magical quality – light bounces and refracts – musical intonations interweave with the lyric voice – what is achieved is a virtuoso performance.
This poet is an assured guide through the geography of earth, of body, of soul and she takes us on a journey from her beloved west coast of Ireland to America’s east coast but always beneath an ever-changing sky and always awaiting the hoped-for revelation of light.
There are poems in memory of friends who have died: Firs, for Michael Hartnett where the poet references “Sibelius in Silence”, “From Michael’s book the green gold came: / The name I call them is not their name.” Both poets cherish their native language and music and it is the love of these unique sounds that informs their work.
There are deeply felt, reflective poems: January Aubade, a wonderful meditation on light and life.
“Uilleann”, that takes stories heard and transforms them into a metaphor for life: ‘He has heard the story / Of the octopus who was locked into a room / For a week to practice. / When they let him out the pipes had learned / To play the octopus.”
Women are strong, able, intelligent heroines and Mary celebrates them. There is no hesitation in this poet’s voice, her authority is enhanced by their presence. She has a wry eye that cuts through to the bone, the language is clear and unambiguous, as in: “The Bad Mother Or Bellini’s Pieta”, where the poet states: “She knew the joy he brought / Was mortgaged from the start.”
This is a beautiful collection of rare gems that sparkle and seduce.
Music from the Big Tent
Macdara Woods has honoured poetry throughout his life, consistently rendering the weals and woes of the human condition into poems that sometimes ring from the rooftops, and sometimes whisper with deft subtlety; poems that mix wise and rare insights with a generous heart and an open mind – qualities dear to Michael Hartnett.
Music from the Big Tent is a superb orchestra of verbal melodies, a Big Top in which free verse, ballads and haiku sing and cavort. There are poems that x-ray the body of homo sapiens and reveal the poor, bare, forked animal within; poems that laud the depth and variety of European culture and topography; poems that encapsulate the mysterious beauty of nature – ‘Long dark winter but / See the plum tree in the rain / A sudden whiteness’; poems that never forget the ten thousand things of the city, specifically Dublin, with its smell of ‘Georgian drains’ and where ‘Self serious pigeons / Posture and strut’. And poems that mourn the dead, lament the ailing body, but celebrate the beauty of the human form and the endurance of love.
As, in medieval legend, the minstrel Blondel went from castle to castle singing a song he hoped would be heard and responded to by the imprisoned Richard the Lionheart, so Macdara Woods continues to beat paths along the old green tracks of Europe, a hardy troubadour singing out his enchanting lyrics to the imprisoned imagination.
Note: The judges for the Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize in 2018 were Jo Slade and James Harpur (both former winners of this prestigious prize).
For the week that’s in it The Immortal Jukebox series A Parade of Posts for St Patrick celebrates Ireland’s glorious heritage in Song, Poetry and Painting.
It seems to me that the, ‘Secret Sign’ has been revealed to generations of Irishmen and Irishwomen and that in response they have blessed us with inspiring voices and visions that will always echo through stone and time.
A Song from Luke Kelly
A Poem by Flann O’ Brien performed by Eamon Morrissey
A Painting by Jack B Yeats
Staff in hand let’s set off with Luke Kelly’s magisterial performance of Poet Patrick Kavanagh’s great, ‘Raglan Road’.
Luke Kelly was born to Sing.
Born to Sing.
In his singing there is passion pledged.
In his singing there is grief and rue.
In his singing there is enchantment.
In his singing there is Love and the whisper of old ghosts.
The Iron Bridge referred to here is a commemorative footbridge spanning the Arra River. it has been used for generations to facilitate Mass goers making their way on foot to the parish church in Newcastle West from Maiden Street and in more recent times from Assumpta Park, via The Mass Steps. The bridge was erected by the Devon Estate in 1866 to commemorate Edward Curling JP who had been the local agent for the Estate in Newcastle West in the nineteenth century. It is often referred to locally as the Curling Bridge and following recent restoration, the iconic bridge has once again been restored to its former glory.
Crossing the Iron Bridge
By Michael Hartnett
‘My dear brethren, boys and girls, today is a glorious day! Here we have a hundred lambs of our flock, the cream of the town, about to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, about to become Children of God, and to enter into a miraculous Union with Jesus ….’
Into the cobweb-coloured light,
my arms in white rosettes,
I walked up Maiden Street
across the Iron Bridge
to seek my Christ.
‘It will be a wonderful moment when the very Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ is placed upon your tongues – what joy there will be in Heaven! So many valuable little souls safely into the Fold! Look behind the Altar! There will be angels there, ascending and descending, singing songs of joy…’
Into the incense-coloured light,
my arms in white rosettes,
I walked the marbled floor
apast parental eyes
to seek my Christ.
‘Christ will be standing there in all His Glory, His Virgin Mother will smile and there will be a great singing in Heaven…’
Under the gilded candlelight,
my arms in white rosettes,
my mouth enclosed my God,
I waited at the rail
to find my Christ.
‘There will be the glow of God in your veins, your souls will be at one with Heaven: if you were to die today, angels would open the Gates of Paradise, and with great rejoicing bear you in …’
Back to the human-hampered light,
my arms in white rosettes,
I walked: my faith was dead.
Instead of glory on my tongue
there was the taste of bread.
This is a memory poem and the poet – now an adult – remembers his First Holy Communion Day which probably took place in 1948 or so. From an early age, we can see that the young Hartnett is not overly impressed by the flowery hyperbole, the sense of ceremony and ritual in his local parish church in Newcastle West. He tells us that instead of feeling ‘the glow of God in (his) veins’, he says very simply, without any adornment that ‘my faith was dead’.
There are two contrasting voices in this poem – the eloquent words of the priest who speaks in grandiose, biblical phrases and the very sparse, repetitive voice of a young boy of seven. The poem traces the young poet’s journey from his home in Maiden Street, across the Iron Bridge, up the aisle of the church to the altar rails. The poet, like a painter or photographer, notices the differing lights as he progresses: ‘cobweb-coloured light’, ‘incense-coloured light’, ‘gilded candlelight’, and finally ‘human-hampered light’.
The priest’s homily is worthy of our attention. Firstly, we have to remember that for the young listeners and their parents, family and friends these are the only words that they would have understood on this special day because Latin would have been used by the priest for the remainder of the ceremony. Secondly, while the majority of the homily uses classical biblical symbolism the poet impishly has him mix his metaphors here: ‘Here we have a hundred lambs of our flock, the cream of the town’. It is highly unlikely that the priest would have used the phrase ‘the cream of the town’ in this context. However, the allusion to ‘a hundred lambs’ is taken directly from the New Testament parable of the Lost Sheep or The Good Shepherd. Ironically, in the context of the poem the priest is already down to ninety-nine. The poet at seven casts himself as The Lost Sheep of the parish. Little wonder then that later in his seminal poem, ‘A Farewell to English’ he would boldly declare:
Poets with progress
make no peace or pact.
The act of poetry
is a rebel act.
As the poem develops, the exaggerated, formulaic words of the priest are interspersed with the young poet’s reactions – in a word, he is not impressed. The exaggerated language, the sense of ceremony, the ‘white rosettes’ on the sleeves of his good clothes all fail to impress. For months now he had been led to believe that as this day unfolded he would not only ‘seek’ but ‘find’ his Christ. As the ceremony ends his sense of disappointment and anti-climax is palpable.
Instead of glory on my tongue
there was the taste of bread.
As he makes his way on foot with his family across the iron bridge in the early morning he is conscious of the ‘cobweb-coloured light’. This is soon replaced for the young, observant First Communicant by scenes of grandeur in the church with ceremonial incense wafting through sunlight beams and ‘gilded candlelight’. As he makes his return journey, deflated and unmoved by the experience in the church, he is aware of the troubling juxtaposition. Once more he leaves the church, crosses the road and the iron bridge again on his homeward journey to Lower Maiden Street, ‘Back to human-hampered light’.
The poem could be interpreted as Hartnett’s equivalent of Stephen Dedalus’s ‘Non Serviam’ in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; his retrospective rejection of organised religion. Stephen had often trod the maze of Dublin streets seeking escape of one kind or another, and it is only when he crossed the bridge to Bull Island and stared out to sea that he finally glimpses the vision of true fulfilment. He cannot find this fulfilment without flight. So Stephen sets out, ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’ Hartnett also seeks to escape and in ‘A Farewell to English’ we read his own declaration of intent:
I have made my choice
and leave with little weeping:
I have come with meagre voice
to court the language of my people.
So Hartnett, too, rejects the nets which confine and constrict him and in an article written for The Irish Times in 1975 where he endeavoured to explain his reasons for changing to Gaelic, he declared that ‘I have no interest in Conradhs, Cumanns or churches’ – rejecting at one fell swoop well-meaning Irish language organisations, all political parties and the Catholic Church. Years later, in December 1986 in an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll he makes the rather bold, even outrageous, tongue-in-cheek assertion:
I was never a Catholic …… I was fortunate to be born in a house where my father was not a Catholic. He was a socialist with Taoist leanings – though to say this is to talk with hindsight; like all poets, I can foretell the past.
Indeed, his poetry and other writing often contain unflattering references to the Catholic clergy, long before this became de rigueur. In Section 7 of his great poem ‘A Farewell to English,’ he confides in us that his voice is ‘nothing new’. He is not alone in trying to hew out a place for culture ‘in the clergy-cluttered south’. However, for those familiar with his poetry it has to be said that he reserves an even greater opprobrium for bishops!
In St. Michael’s Church
a plush bishop in his frock
On his homeward journey after the First Communion ceremony the young Lost Sheep again crosses the Iron Bridge and for him, it is akin to crossing his first Rubicon. Even then at that tender age of seven, like Stephen Dedalus, he has already decided to fly the nets of organised religion and in crossing the iron bridge he symbolically turns his back on all that this entails.
 Michael Hartnett. Why Write in Irish? The Irish Times (26th August 1975).
 The interview first appeared in Poetry Ireland Review (Autumn 1987).
Memories of the Past – Episode 80 filmed by the late John Joe Harrold – First Communion Day in Newcastle West.
like black harpoons, fail against the whaleskin sky.
Wasps in this skyless summer have no place,
small quarrels swell to great and flooded rifts;
lime trees, prematurely old, decide to die.
The heavy steel-wool curtain never lifts.
Many cling to rafts of music but I,
I am not happy with the human race
aching for its sun-god – he kills as well –
I skip dripping in the shining rain
and feel the minute fingers tap my face
and breathing in St. Bartholomew’s bell
I look up to the sky and kiss the rain.
This sonnet appears in Hartnett’s 1988 collection Poems to Younger Women published three years after Inchicore Haiku which signalled Michael Hartnett’s return to Dublin from the fastnesses of West Limerick. It is a troubled and troubling collection of love poems which appeared after the breakup of his marriage to Rosemary Grantley. John McDonagh, co-editor with Stephen Newman of the commemorative collection of essays entitled Remembering Michael Hartnett, states that,
The collection displays all the emotional contradictions of Hartnett’s poetry, visceral images of separation, rejection and isolation juxtaposed with the indescribable delicateness and beauty of the natural world. 
On the back cover of the collection published by The Gallery Press, Hartnett tells us that ‘in the main, they were written out of love’.
Knowing what we know, it has to be said that it is very difficult to find signs of lost love, separation, regret and recrimination in any first reading of this poem. Maybe what we eventually find is a poet finally coming to terms with the new reality in his life and a poet becoming more at peace with himself. The sonnet begins with a beautiful evocation of September weather – a virtual tour de force by the ever observant poet. The chestnuts are falling to the ground ‘each a small green mace’; they fall on the soft brown cushion of ‘rusted chainmail leaves’. Already in the first septet we are given the image of a medieval armour-suited Knight of Desmond patrolling the autumnal chestnut trees in the Castle Demesne in the poet’s native Newcastle West. What imagery, what a metaphor!! Then the simile – ‘the swifts / like black harpoons’ – is unleashed. What follows is a superb description of the autumnal sky – ‘the whaleskin sky’. The juxtaposing of ‘harpoons’ and ‘whaleskin’ is masterful, a masterclass in three lines! This, indeed, is a perfect example of the ‘indescribable delicateness and beauty of the natural world’ to which McDonagh refers to.
The poet is surrounded by intimations of mortality and loss – the leaves are falling, the wasps are dying and the ‘skyless summer’ doesn’t help them have their final fling. There are other images of death and decay and the lime trees too ‘decide to die’. The poet is grieving the breakup of his closest relationship and all that it entails. The poet remembers how a throwaway word or phrase has mushroomed out of proportion and led to another great argument or marital row:
small quarrels swell to great and flooded rifts;
The grey autumnal weather is depressing the poet’s mood and in a return to the earlier imagery he concludes that ‘the heavy steel-wool curtain never lifts’.
The sonnet form is inverted here by the poet and instead of the usual octet followed by sestet we have a septet followed by another septet. The grey gloom of an Irish autumn is perfectly depicted in the opening septet and replaced by a qualified joy and exhilaration of sorts in the closing septet. Ironically, this may coincide with the poet’s return to the city because while there are clues that the earlier lines could well have been written in or about Newcastle West the final lines refer to ‘Bartholomew’s bell’, the historic bells of St Bartholomew’s Church in Ballsbridge, Dublin. So he finds himself at sea, alone, forlorn; his life now governed by the relentless, metronomic pealing of bells.
There is also an egocentric focus in the closing septet – ‘I’ is mentioned four times. There is no ‘we’ or ‘us’. The earlier depressing mood has been lifted somewhat but it is still raining! The poet suggests that to relieve the September blues many turn to music or head for the sun but he instead skips ‘dripping in the shining rain’. There is one last troubling thought about the passing of time as he breathes in the tolling of ‘St. Bartholomew’s bell’ which chimes every fifteen minutes to remind the hearers of their mortality. Indeed, there is a lovely association of thought in the final three lines between the ‘minute fingers’ of the rain and the pealing of those church bells. The poem ends with the poet, as in a Hollywood movie, singing in the rain or maybe crying in the rain. Despite this very clichéd ending the sonnet manages to capture the poet’s mood by focusing, like Austin Clarke, on the Irish weather. The season of Autumn is evoked by broad brush strokes and lightning strikes of epiphany – autumn leaves, grey skies, and rain are used to signify new beginnings, and Summer endings.
This whole underrated collection again shows off Hartnett’s technical mastery. Again, John McDonagh has high words of praise for the collection:
It certainly stands as one of the most overlooked of his collections but it equally holds its own in any interpretation of his life’s work, a testament to the honesty of his difficult and troubling emotional responses to life as well as a fearless determination to face down the innumerable demons that haunted him throughout that life. 
The poet is back in Dublin trying to come to terms with the two great recent upheavals in his life – the breakup of his marriage and separation from his two children and the abandoning of his great experiment announced back in June 1974 from the stage of the Peacock Theatre. These poems, including Water Baby, are therefore a form of therapy, a catharsis of sorts. The collection itself helps explain further the brilliant and gifted and complicated poet that was Michael Hartnett. We also have his reassurance that in spite of the evident turmoil and upheaval in his life ‘in the main they (the poems) were written out of love’.
Author’s Note: I have to say I’m at a loss as to the significance of the title, ‘Water Baby’. Firstly, I’m not sure if the title originated with the poet or was it added by the editors in The Gallery Press? Anyway, it is beyond a literary allusion which I’m missing – is there a connection to Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1862)? Ironically, Brendan Kenneally wrote the rather pompous ‘The Man Made of Rain’ in 1998. All your suggestions and explanations gratefully received!
McDonagh, John., and Stephen Newman, (editors), Remembering Michael Hartnett (Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2006).
 McDonagh John. (2006) ‘No Longer Afraid’: Michael Hartnett’s Poems to Younger Women. (Book Chapter) PDF. p.43.
In one of her many interviews after the publication of ‘Foster’ in 2010, Claire Keegan challenged her would-be readers:
“It’s essentially about trusting in the reader’s intelligence rather than labouring a point. To work on the level of suggestion is what I aim for in all my writing.”
More than likely you will be studying this text as part of your Comparative Studies module for Leaving Cert English Higher Level. Your first task is to read the short story/novella (all 88 pages!) and begin to form your own opinion as to what is happening in the story. Trust your own judgement and use or discard the following notes as you judge them to be useful (or not) to you in your comparing and contrasting this text with at least two others from the suggested list given to you by your teacher.
All page references are from the beautifully produced Faber and Faber paperback edition
About Claire Keegan
Born in County Wicklow in 1968, she is the youngest of a large family. Keegan travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana when she was seventeen and studied English and Political Science at Loyola University. She returned to Ireland in 1992 and later lived for a year in Cardiff, Wales, where she undertook an MA in creative writing and taught undergraduates at the University of Wales.
Keegan’s first collection of short stories was Antarctica (1999). Her second collection of stories, Walk the Blue Fields, was published in 2007. September 2010 brought the publication of the ‘long, short story’ Foster. American writer Richard Ford, who selected Foster as winner of the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009, wrote in the winning citation of Keegan’s ‘thrilling’ instinct for the right words and her ‘patient attention to life’s vast consequence and finality’.
Keegan has won the inaugural William Trevor Prize, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Olive Cook Award and the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009. Other awards include The Hugh Leonard Bursary, The Macaulay Fellowship, The Martin Healy Prize, The Kilkenny Prize and The Tom Gallon Award. Keegan has twice been the recipient of the Francis MacManus Award. She was also a Wingate Scholar. She was a visiting professor at Villanova University in 2008. Keegan was the Ireland Fund Artist-in-Residence in the Celtic Studies Department of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in March 2009.
The story is set in rural Wexford and is a perfect example of a Bildungsroman novel. Foster is narrated by a young girl who is fostered out to another family, the Kinsellas, ‘her mother’s people’, for the summer months. There is constant juxtaposition between her own family and her new foster family. Her expectations are influenced by what has already occurred in her own family. The Kinsellas are kind and caring, the epitome of all that is good in foster parents, giving the girl the space to develop and feel valued. It is a coming-of-age story and one that illuminates the contrasting lives of the families, one struggling and overcrowded, the other contented but childless, the rural community that they live in and, by extension, Ireland itself.
Blessedly, Keegan’s Ireland is not the familiar land of misery, abuse and constant drizzle, but a place of community, common decency and, most surprising of all, sunshine – we are treated to an idyllic summer in the Sunny South East. The narrator leaves her homeplace after Sunday Mass in Clonegal and is driven by her father towards the coast somewhere between Gorey and Courtown. Claire Keegan explains:
“For me, the fact that the story unfolds in summer was primarily a practical matter. For her to go away, it would have to be a summer. I made it hot because, given that it is so long since we’ve had [a hot summer] it was pleasurable to write about, but because it also deepened the happiness of the summer.”
Though it seems, in its depiction of the slow rhythms of rural life, to take place in a much older Ireland, Foster is set in 1981. The reader only finds this out when Kinsella tells his wife, in passing, of a news report about the death of an IRA hunger striker. It is an arresting moment, one that makes the story seem suddenly both more contemporary and more ominous.
“It’s an examination of home and an examination of neglect. I don’t trust that home is necessarily where one finds one’s happiness. Families can be awful places, just as they can be glorious and loving. Also, I’m very interested in what we can do without, what we can go without. To a child, for instance, the difference between being able to be well-fed when you are growing, and not, is enormous.”
The little girl, no more than seven or eight arrives at the Kinsellas farm and discovers that for once she is the centre of attention because the couple are childless. Also in sharp contrast to her own home in Clonegal here, ‘there is plenty of food and money to spare’. The girl is uneasy at first but soon grows to feel comfortable in a household where she finds love and affection, something she’s never encountered before.
The reason she is being temporarily fostered is that her mother is near the delivery of another in a long line of children. She is not told how long she will stay here. Over the course of what, in effect, was her summer holidays from school, this charming, precocious, needy child is exposed to a life far different from what she has had at home. Brilliantly, though, Keegan does not always clearly tell what is different; her subtle suggestions are, perhaps, even more potent. The Kinsella home is supposed to be one where “Petal” is assured that there are no secrets, but she does, in a most realistic manner, eventually learn that there is one. This secret is revealed by a neighbourhood gossip and it threatens to destroy her childhood idyll. By summer’s end, her mother’s letter arrives, and she is driven home.
Foster is a story of love and loss, of how familial grief can be transformed into tenderness, of how hope endures and, with it, kindness. It is, at times, almost unbearably poignant in its evocation of childhood innocence and adult stoicism. It also explores the age-old dilemma of what constitutes a secret and what should be told and what should remain forever untold.
THEMES AND ISSUES
There are a number of themes and issues raised in the novel and these can be compared and contrasted with the other texts on your Comparative Course. The main themes dealt with here are:
The Theme of Family
The Theme of Growing up/Childhood
This short story or novella has all the classic elements of a Bildungsroman novel. In its classic form, it entails a young, uneducated person being forced to face the harsh realities of life before they would normally be expected to do so. It is a coming of age novel where the young narrator is taken from her home and ‘fostered out’ to Aunt Edna Kinsella and her husband John for the duration of the school summer holidays in 1981.
It is a fast-moving cinematic type story and is narrated by a young seven or eight-year-old girl (her actual age is never mentioned). When we meet her first she is nameless, one of many children in her family. She is referred to at different stages throughout the novella as ‘Child’, ‘a Leanbh’, ‘Girleen’, ‘Long Legs’ and finally John Kinsella calls her ‘Petal’ three times towards the end of the story. We are not told whether this is her real name or his own pet name for her. Nobody else refers to her by the name Petal except John Kinsella. We are never given her family surname during the course of the story.
The novella is a journey of discovery for the girl who appears to the reader as very observant, charming, precocious, and needy. As she journeys from her parents’ home and comes to be comfortable in her temporary foster home she is exposed to a life far different from what she has been accustomed to.
As she journeys towards her new foster home for the summer she imagines opposing and contrasting scenarios in her head:
The man will be her size. He will take me to town in the tractor and buy me red lemonade and crisps. Or he’ll make me clean out sheds and pull ragweed and docks out of the fields (P. 4).
She is keenly observant and when she arrives at her new home she notices the way her Da, Dan, and John Kinsella interact. They indulge in a classic Irish form of verbal non-communication, talking about the weather and ‘the price of cattle, the EEC, (and) butter mountains’. She notes that ‘it is something I am used to, this way men have of not talking’ (p.6). She also notices early on that here in her new temporary home ‘there is no sign, anywhere, of a child’ (p.8).
She is also very aware of the lies her Da tells Aunt Edna about the hay saving. She tells us that ‘he is given to lying about things that would be nice if they were true’ (p.10). She notices the difference between her father and John Kinsella who helps his wife to lay the table in preparation for lunch. She tells us that her mother is always busy:
With my mother it is all work: us, the butter-making, the dinners, the washing up and getting up and getting ready for Mass and school, weaning calves, and hiring men to plough and harrow the fields, stretching the money and setting the alarm (p.13).
She quickly realises that her new temporary home ‘is a different type of house. Here there is room and time to think and grow. There may even be money to spare’ (p.13). All comparisons are made for us from her own limited experience of home. For example, she is glad to notice that John Kinsella and Aunt Edna ‘sleep together’ (p.17). Declan Kiberd comments on this keen vigilance of the child and says, ‘it suggests something not quite right, a fear that past traumas may be repeated in the present with the Kinsellas … the feeling of past and possible hurt hangs in the air’. This vigilance in her new home also suggests to us a child forever on guard.
One of the central themes and motifs running through the story is that of family secrets; what needs to be told and what should be left unsaid. Aunt Edna tells her that ‘there are no secrets in this house’ because ‘where’s there’s a secret … there’s shame, and shame is something we can do without’ (p.21). The young girl finds herself wishing ‘that this place without shame or secrets could be my home’ (p.24).
She wakes on her first morning ‘in this new place to the old feeling of being hot and cold, all at once’ (p.28). It turns out she has, not for the first time, wet her bed during the night and this introduces the notion of a troubled child. This is one of the strong, undeveloped undercurrents in the story. Aunt Edna notices straight away and handles the situation with admirable tact. Indeed these new foster parents quickly turn all stereotypes on their ear. They are both model parents and Claire Keegan even manages to dispel some of the notions we have about wicked foster parents – this is particularly true of John Kinsella. The narrator realises that they both want the best for her and that Aunt Edna, in particular, ‘wants me to get things right, to teach me’ (p.30).
Aunt Edna cleverly devises a scheme to cure the bed wetting. She tells the young girl that she has a secret recipe to help improve her complexion. The secret remedy consists of eating Weetabix which the young girl says ‘tastes a bit like the dry bark of a tree’. She eats five while watching the Nine O’Clock News on RTE. She wakes the following morning and ‘the old feeling is not there’ anymore. Aunt Edna tells her that her ‘complexion is better already’ and ‘all you need is minding’ (p.36).
The Kinsella household is a busy, busy place and is sharply juxtaposed with the narrator’s home place:
She showed me the big, white machine that plugs in, a freezer where what she calls ‘perishables’ can be stored for months without rotting. We make ice cubes, go over every inch of the floors with a hovering machine, dig new potatoes, make coleslaw and two loaves, and then she takes the clothes in off the line while they are still damp and sets up a board and starts ironing … (p.32).
It is obvious to us that her own home has few of these modern labour saving devices and she notices how both John Kinsella and his wife work hard all day as a united team. Her view of men has been coloured by her mother’s experience and she declares to Kinsella at one stage ‘Mammy says I shouldn’t take a present of a man’. He, however, reassures her and says ‘Still and all, there’s no two men the same’ (p.33).
The young girl settles into a routine at her new home and sunny day follows sunny day. She visits Gorey where she ‘is togged out’ in new clothes and she is given some pocket money for the first time ever. One evening she is taken to Michael Redmond’s wake in the local area and she observes the local customs, the close community and the support for the family by their near neighbours. She experiences many epiphany moments throughout the novella – it’s as if she has an expectation that she will soon awake from a dream or that these good times can’t continue. As she walks to the wake with John and Edna she has a premonition that there is, ‘something darker in the air, of something that might come and fall and change things’ (p.49).
Later, one of the neighbours, Mildred, volunteers to look after the young girl and take her to play with her children rather than having her stay on at the wake. She senses straight away that Mildred is ‘eaten alive with curiosity’ and has to suffer a barrage of questions about the Kinsellas. It is only then that she discovers the big unspoken secret at the heart of the story: the Kinsellas had a young son who drowned tragically in the slurry pit and she has been wearing his clothes since she arrived at their house. Mildred adds a melodramatic flourish to the end of her story: their hair turned white overnight which is a Gothic touch worthy of David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’! The narrator is left aghast:
I wonder at the clothes and how I’d worn them and the boy in the wallpaper and how I never put it all together (p.57).
When the Kinsellas come to collect her they soon realise that she has discovered their secret. Innocently she informs them what Mildred has revealed to her:
‘She told me you had a little boy who followed the dog into the slurry tank and died, and that I wore his clothes to Mass last Sunday’ (p.60)
Eventually, the summer draws to an end and the shops begin to display Back to School items. The weather turns and the letter arrives from her mother to say that there has been a new arrival at home and that she is to return home to prepare for school. She makes a final trip to the well down the fields and as she bends down to fill her bucket, in another Gothic moment, ‘another hand just like mine seems to come out of the water and pull me in’ (p.76). Luckily, she makes her way back to the farmhouse but develops a chill after her near-disastrous escapade. Her return home is postponed for a day or two while she recovers:
I doze and have strange dreams: of the lost heifer panicking on the night strand, of bony, brown cows having no milk in their teats, of my mother climbing up and getting stuck in an apple tree. Then I wake and take the broth and whatever else I’m given (p.78).
She arrived at the Kinsellas on a Sunday and fittingly she returns home on a Sunday also. They retrace their journey from the coast to Gorey, through Carnew and Shillelagh to home. Immediately she notices the differences: she has grown, matured and changed – as in nature anything which has been neglected thrives with attention and loving care. Again we notice the sharp contrasts: the house ‘feels damp and cold’, her mother notices that she speaks differently. Her sisters look at her ‘as though I’m an English cousin’ while she notices that they ‘seem different, thinner and have nothing to say’ (p.81).
She sneezes then and her mother realises she has a cold. She has decided that she will not recount her misadventure at the well, that her parents don’t need to know, and she tells her mother ‘Nothing happened’ – she didn’t catch a cold. She knows, however, that her mother will not be satisfied with this explanation and as a mark of how much she has matured and grown she tells us:
This is my mother I am speaking to but I have learnt enough, grown enough, to know that what happened is not something I need ever mention (p.86).
Then, echoing the earlier conversation with John Kinsella on the beach she tells us:
It is my perfect opportunity to say nothing (p.86).
The uneasy moment passes and the Kinsellas prepare to leave for home. She races after them, thoughts flooding through her mind and she lists the things that will remain locked within her forever:
Several thoughts flash through my mind: the boy in the wallpaper, the gooseberries, that moment when the bucket pulled me under, the lost heifer, the mattress weeping, the third light…. (p.86).
The ending is dramatic, cinematic, and climactic. She races into Kinsellas embrace and feelings of sadness, of loss, of gratitude flood over her. She sees her father, Da, walking down the lane towards them and yet she holds on to Kinsella ‘as though I’ll drown if I let go’. She looks over at Aunt Edna ‘the woman that has minded me so well’ and silently promises that ‘I will never, ever tell’. Looking over Kinsella’s shoulder she calls out to her father, calling him by his new name:
‘Daddy,’ I keep calling him, keep warning him. ‘Daddy’ (p.88).
This is, in effect, the climax of the story. Our young narrator has benefitted from her experiences over the summer and she has been given the space to blossom – hence her name, Petal. However, she now finds herself in a dilemma: she would love to have Kinsella as her father because she knows her own father doesn’t really care for her or his family. She has come to admire and be fond of Kinsella and his wife. So, when she sees her father coming down the lane towards them, it’s very natural for her to say ‘Daddy’ but because she’s in Kinsella’s arms she’s actually saying it to him. So even though she’s warning Kinsella that her father is coming to get her, what she’s doing in that moment is she’s calling Kinsella ‘Daddy’ which is something she’s wanted to do and couldn’t do until this moment. She didn’t plan it, and the moment enabled her to say something that she wanted to say even though she didn’t intend it. She has never before called her father ‘Daddy’ during the course of the novella, so this is also putting him on alert that all is now changed, changed utterly. She has now experienced what it feels like to be truly valued and there can be no going back to the way things were before.
The Theme of Family
Foster introduces us to two very contrasting families. The young narrator of the story has been raised in a poor, rural family. She has numerous brothers and sisters and is effectively anonymous, without a name, when we first meet her. The reason she is being fostered is that her mother is expecting again and she will be looked after by her Aunt Edna and her husband John Kinsella until the new baby arrives.
The young girl’s father is a feckless alcoholic. He is shady, lazy and rude. Declan Kiberd in reviewing the novel describes him as ‘poor, improvident, coarse to the point of being abusive’. He is untrustworthy and he regularly lies as the story unfolds. We learn that his name is Dan but like his daughter, we never learn the family surname. We presume that his wife Mary is Aunt Edna’s sister. Early on we learn that he is a gambler and that he ‘lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five’ (p.3). He also appears to be very sexist and old-fashioned as he waits for Aunt Edna to pick up the stalks of rhubarb he has let fall from his arms as he prepares to drive home after delivering his daughter to the Kinsellas for the summer months (p.14). The child continually refers to him as Da until the very final moments when she calls him Daddy.
Her mother, Mary, is harried and at her wits end. Her husband, Dan, is no help and she has to find money to pay people to plough the land and mow the hay and do the other jobs that her husband should be doing. The young narrator’s view of men has been coloured by her mother’s experience and she declares to Kinsella at one stage ‘Mammy says I shouldn’t take a present of a man’. He, however, reassures her and says ‘Still and all, there’s no two men the same’ (p.33).
In sharp juxtaposition, the Kinsella household is completely different. The young girl quickly realises that her new temporary home ‘is a different type of house. Here there is room and time to think and grow. There may even be money to spare’ (p.13). All comparisons are made for us from her own limited experience of home. The Kinsella household is a busy, busy place and is sharply juxtaposed with the narrator’s home place:
We pull rhubarb, make tarts, paint the skirting boards, take all the bedclothes out of the hot press and hoover out the spider webs, and put all the clean clothes back in again, make scones, polish the furniture, boil onions for onion sauce and put in containers in the freezer, pull the weeds out of the flower beds and then, when the sun goes down, water things (p.37-38).
Her new foster parents quickly turn all stereotypes on their ear. They are both model parents and Claire Keegan even manages to dispel some of the notions we have about wicked foster parents – this is particularly true of John Kinsella. She notices that he and his wife, Edna, work hard all day as a united team and she realises that they both want the best for her and that Aunt Edna, in particular, ‘wants me to get things right, to teach me’ (p.30).
At first Aunt Edna doesn’t give the child a name. We sense that she doesn’t want to become too attached to the new arrival. After all, she has suffered a great, tragic loss with the drowning of her young son. She is also keenly aware that this is a very temporary arrangement and that she will have to return this young girl to her parents at summer’s end. It is clear that both Kinsellas have dealt with the loss of their son and have coped with the loss in their own separate ways. She sets out to teach the young girl as much as she can about running a home and introduces her to a range of chores. She also eventually buys the young girl new clothes rather than have her wear her dead son’s clothes which haven’t been touched since his tragic death. Mrs Kinsella is quite realistic about the girl: she knew that she would go back to her family at summer’s end and this explains why Mrs Kinsella didn’t let herself get as fond of this child as her husband did.
John Kinsella emerges as the unsung hero of this novella – he is according to Declan Kiberd, ‘the sort of loving father the girl never had’. He grows in stature as the story develops. Despite the awful tragedy which has befallen the household both himself and his wife are coping as well as can be expected. There is a sharp juxtaposition between John Kinsella and Dan, the young girl’s father. He is hard working and his fields are well laid out. We can see again the young girl comparing her home place to this new well run farm:
Kinsella’s fields are broad and level, divided in strips with electric fences she says I must not touch unless I want a shock. When the winds blows, sections of the longer grass bend over turning silver. On one strip of land, tall Friesian cows stand all around us, grazing…. (p.21).
He is a good neighbour and people come for his help to dig a grave for a neighbour or help if a cow is having difficulty calving. He, in turn, is protected by the neighbours and they are sensitive to the couple’s loss of their only son and they admire their stoicism in dealing with their terrible tragedy.
He treats the young girl as if she was his own daughter and on a visit to Gorey he buys her books and then later helps her with her reading. When he delivers Petal back home he tells her he wants to see gold stars in her copybooks when he next comes to visit. During their night walk on the strand he gives her valuable fatherly advice:
‘You don’t ever have to say anything,’ he says. ‘Always remember that as a thing you need never do. Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing’ (p.64).
This is probably the most important sentence in the whole novel. Declan Kiberd says ‘it reverberates, forwards and backwards, through the tale’. It contradicts his wife’s earlier assertion that there can be no room for secrets since secrets imply shame. The events of the novel help us to realise the distinction: a secret is something one hides while the unspoken is something that doesn’t need to be told.
Another emotional moment for me was a scene at the beach where the girl was taken by her foster father. On the way back he is trying to retrace his steps but he can’t find his own footprints, only the girl’s. It is obvious that he finds support in the young girl’s company so he says:
“You must have carried me there” (p.66).
As the story develops we become more and more aware of John Kinsella’s good qualities: he is caring, loving, generous, affectionate and kind. He is, in effect, the epitome of what it means to foster a young damaged and neglected young girl.
The final emotional scene between Kinsella and the young girl is a very powerful and dramatic finale to the novel. She has come to admire and be fond of Kinsella and his wife. So, when she sees her father coming down the lane towards them, it’s very natural for her to say ‘Daddy’ but because she’s in Kinsella’s arms she’s actually saying it to him. So even though she’s warning Kinsella that her father is coming to get her, what she’s doing in that moment is she’s calling Kinsella ‘Daddy’ which is something she’s wanted to do and couldn’t do until this moment. She didn’t plan it, and the moment enabled her to say something that she wanted to say even though she didn’t intend it.
Meanwhile, Aunt Edna is sobbing uncontrollably in the car. The young girl looks over at Aunt Edna ‘the woman that has minded me so well’ and silently promises that ‘I will never, ever tell’. Aunt Edna is crying with sadness and with relief. After all, this young girl nearly drowned at the well and it is only now after she has left the young girl back with her parents that she fully realises the near tragedy that could have occurred. We often cry out of relief. For me, that is what she was suffering from or experiencing at that moment. Remember, she could have been driving up that lane to tell those people that their daughter had drowned. I think that she was living with that and also, of course, the incident had brought back the loss of her only son to drowning also.
The young narrator, Petal, has blossomed over the summer months with her temporary family, the Kinsellas. She actually came of age while under their care because she was minded. Nothing flourishes so much as that which is neglected, and is then minded. The one thing you can say about the ending is that is inevitable. Good stories always end inevitably: after they finish you feel there’s only one thing that could have happened, and that is the thing that happened. And I think it’s inevitable that the young girl would return home, and that the Kinsellas would go back to their home with no child.
It is a fitting ending to the novel and hopefully the beginning of a relationship which will develop in the coming years. She has learnt much in the Kinsellas home, including the gift of reading:
It was like learning to ride the bike; I felt myself taking off, the freedom of going places I couldn’t have gone before, and it was easy (p.74).
We hope she’ll find her way back to the Kinsellas again for many more idyllic sunny summers in the sunny South East!
The story is based on events which take place in Ireland during the Summer of 1981. The setting is rural County Wexford. There are very few cultural markers provided in the short novella and one could be excused for thinking that the events took place at an earlier time. The slow rhythms of life are based on rural and agricultural activity of what seems an earlier generation. The young girl, the narrator of the story, is fostered out to a home which has a freezer, ‘a hovering machine’, and other mod cons yet, incongruously, they have to go to the well down the fields to fetch water for the tea. There are also shopping visits to the local town and the child is taken to a local wake during the course of the novel.
The notion of fostering has a long history in Ireland. The old Gaelic chiefs used fostering to create alliances and maintain peace accords with local rival chieftains – they were less likely to attack a neighbouring chieftain if they realised that their young son or daughter was being raised there. In essence, the child was seen as a kind of hostage but as Declan Kiberd points out in his book After Ireland, ‘the more positive motive was the hope that the second family might educate the child more fully than might the first, in the ways of the world’. In more recent times parents of large families often fostered one or more of their children to relatives or grandparents to help rear them. Michael Hartnett, the poet, tells the story that he was fostered out to his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, in the mid nineteen forties because ‘times were hard in Lower Maiden Street’ in Newcastle West and food and sustenance were more plentiful in nearby rural Camas.
The story is set in the Summer of 1981, the summer when week after week the news broke of yet another death from hunger strike in Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. In all, ten IRA hunger strikers including Bobby Sands lost their lives during those turbulent times.
The novel was published in 2010 shortly after the publication of The Murphy Report and the Ryan Report. The Murphy Report was the brief name of the report of a Commission of investigation conducted by the Irish Government into the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. The Report was released in 2009 by Judge Yvonne Murphy, only a few months after the publication of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Report) chaired by Seán Ryan, a similar inquiry which dealt with abuses in industrial schools controlled by Roman Catholic religious institutes.
Ironically, one of the earliest reports into clerical sex abuse claims was one conducted in the Diocese of Ferns which includes most of County Wexford. The Ferns Report was presented to the Irish government on 25 October 2005 and released the following day. It identified more than 100 allegations of child sexual abuse made between 1962 and 2002 against twenty-one priests operating under the aegis of the Diocese of Ferns.
The novel was published in 2010 and by that time also Ireland was experiencing one of the biggest recessions in modern times brought about by the collapse of its banking system after a decade of affluence and Celtic Tiger excess. The novel Foster tells the story of a character’s brief sojourn in a wealthy household and that character’s predicted return (wiser and more mature) to a more austere life. Maybe, as Declan Kiberd states, ‘Claire Keegan (in Foster) was writing the secret history of her country’.
Be that as it may, these historical incidents are barely mentioned in the novella. We are introduced to a quiet, secluded part of County Wexford during the summer of 1981. We witness the daily lives and dramas of an ordinary farming community as they go about their seasonal occupations. It is a rural backwater, a favourite setting for novelists, it is 1981 but it could be any year. The major changes affecting the outside world are barely noticed here in this idyllic setting.
This is a novel of social realism, which is written in the continuous present tense by a first-person omniscient narrative voice. It can, therefore, be classed as a social document that is set in Ireland in the turbulent period of the Northern Ireland troubles. These troubles even visited rural County Wexford on the 13th October 1980 when Garda Seamus Quaid (a native of Feoghanagh, County Limerick) was killed in the line of duty by the IRA.
It has also been described as a ‘long short story’ and Claire Keegan is one of the great modern writers who use the short story to great effect. She is very much influenced by the writing of Frank O’Connor. In effect, this is a short story with chapters added. The fast-moving story leads to a dramatic climax at the very end.
As well as Frank O’Connor she is also influenced greatly by another O’Connor, Mary Flannery O’Connor whose gothic short stories were read by her during her stay in New Orleans and her studies at Loyola University. During the course of the novel the young narrator is taught by Kinsella to read books: Heidi, What Katy did Next, The Snow Queen. She tells us that reading is like riding a bike; it allows her to go to new places and to make up endings different from those in the books. This notion is also very similar to Seamus Deane’s young narrator in Reading in the Dark. She also makes the analogy that learning to read is like learning to read her new family.
All past events are narrated by the girl in a continuous present tense. This suggests that whatever unrevealed trauma was experienced in the past is still being dealt with in the present. Early on in the novel, we are aware that the young narrator feels ‘caught’ between two different families. She wants her father to leave because ‘this is a new place and new words are needed’ (p.18).
The short story or novella has all the classic elements of a Bildungsroman novel. This genre of novel is best described as a novel of maturation. In its classic form, it entails a young, uneducated person being forced to face the harsh realities of life before they would normally be expected to do so. Here the young narrator is taken from her home and ‘fostered out’ to Aunt Edna Kinsella and her husband John for the duration of the school summer holidays in 1981.
The title of the novella, Foster, causes some problems for me. Normally the title may give some clue as to the content, what the potential reader can expect to find, but not here. For me, the title and the photograph used on the front jacket bore little relation to what had been revealed inside. Fostered or The Fostered Girl or Foster Child might have been better options – to me, Foster suggests a person’s name and the title is, therefore, somewhat misleading.
The story contains many gothic elements and there is also an ominous undercurrent created because of what is unsaid and also because of what is not fully understood by the child narrator. This is akin to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. We are left with the feeling that there may be other secrets that the young girl has decided not to reveal along with the incident at the well.
GENERAL VISION AND VIEWPOINT
This is a realistic novel, which explores the dynamics of two Irish rural families over the course of the school summer holidays in 1981. The narrator is a young girl and we are privy to her observations and account of her childhood – or two months from that eventful childhood. Like Heaney in his poem, ‘The Harvest Bow’, we are often left ‘gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’ i.e. often what’s unsaid is as important as the spoken word.
We are introduced to a world where people are trying their best to cope with the difficulties that life has thrown at them. One family is trying to cope with poverty and neglect, largely as a result of a feckless, alcoholic father while the other family is trying to come to terms with the loss of their only son to drowning in a tragic farm accident. This is filtered to us through the lens of a very young, neglected girl who tries to make sense of it all. Despite this bleak subject matter the backdrop to the story is rural County Wexford which, unusually for Ireland, is bathed in continuous summer sunshine.
Foster is a story of love and loss, of how familial grief can be transformed into tenderness, of how hope endures and, with it, kindness. It is, at times, almost unbearably poignant in its evocation of childhood innocence and adult stoicism. The locals have noticed the way the Kinsellas have dealt with their family tragedy and admire the way they have accepted disaster and tried their best to cope with it. The night of the card playing when two men came selling lines the proceeds of which, they said, would go towards putting a new roof on the school is a good example of the neighbours being sensitive. However, Kinsella will have none of it:
‘Of course,’ Kinsella said.
‘We didn’t really think – ‘
‘Come on in,’ Kinsella said. ‘Just ‘cos I’ve none of my own doesn’t mean I’d see the rain falling in on anyone else’s’ (p.39).
The ending is dramatic and allows for many interpretations as to what happens next. It is not the traditional happy ending – this ending is neither happy nor sad. Overall, the novel provokes a myriad of mixed emotions and truly upsetting feelings in the reader. There is sympathy felt throughout for the young narrator. As readers, we are not satisfied with how the novel ends but perhaps this realistic ending was the author’s way of showing us that life does not always have a happy ending. However, we also sense that something has happened in those final dramatic moments. There is slight hope that things will change for the young girl. This is dependent, of course, on others changing also, especially her father’s behaviour.
The one thing you can say about the ending is that is inevitable. Good stories always end inevitably: after they finish you feel there’s only one thing that could have happened, and that is the thing that happened. And I think it’s inevitable that the young girl would return to her own home, and that the Kinsellas would go back to their home empty-handed. Declan Kiberd sums it up succinctly when he says:
.. the tale is told about people who are shy of exposing themselves to the passing moment and shyer still to narrate themselves. Their stories are mysterious enough to resist a further telling or an absolute silence.
Keegan, Claire. Foster. London: Faber and Faber, 2010.
Kiberd, Declan. Chapter 27 Claire Keegan: Foster in After Ireland: Writing the nation from Beckett to the present. London: Head of Zeus Ltd, 2017.
(For those of you who would like to revisit the novel in your own time all page references are from the Faber and Faber paperback edition.)
That They May Face the Rising Sun was published in 2001 (published in the United States as By the Lake) and is a portrait of a year in the life of a rural lakeside community. It mirrors McGahern’s own return to his rural roots and is his paean to place. I recently tucked this gem away in the hand luggage to reacquaint myself with the master’s work. Don, my son, mentioned when he saw me reading it again that he would challenge me to date it – in other words, when exactly is it set?
The structure of the novel is unique and yet deceptive. There are no Chapters or other recognised breaks in the novel – the story slowly evolves and is told in a circular, repetitive manner, a kind of stream of consciousness novel, beautifully crafted and told by a master storyteller. McGahern throws some light on this layering and repetition in an interview given to James Whyte, ‘I see the whole function of writing as circling on the image […] To try to pick the image that’s sharp, that can dramatise or bring to light what is happening, be it a wedding ring, a Coca-cola bottle, or someone rolling an orange across the floor.’ 
The setting is one McGahern knows completely. It’s his own place, a remote and sparsely populated corner of Fenagh, County Leitrim, between Carrick-on-Shannon and the border near Enniskillen. There are a few houses by a lake, a bog stretching away to the distant Iron Mountains, a small town with two bars and a roofless abbey with the remains of a monks’ graveyard called Shruhaun. This setting is described meticulously and repeatedly, just as it appears in stories like ‘High Ground’ or ‘The Country Funeral’. The novel is dedicated to Madeline Green, his wife and support in those final productive years by the lake.
In response to Don’s challenge, the novel is hard to tie down time-wise – there are hints dropped here and there and we get outside references to ‘Fords of Dagenham’, ‘the death of de Valera’ (1975), ‘the escape from Long Kesh’ (1975), ‘the hunger strikes’ (1980’s), ‘the ring road round Roscommon’ (1980’s), ‘Blind Date’ and All Ireland Finals on the television and ‘the massacre at Enniskillen’ (1987), etc. However, McGahern is continually moving from the present to the past and much of the farming practices described are throw-backs to the Seventies, and Eighties – haymaking, single bar mowers, square bales, and the use of the buck rake are all redolent of this era. However, they are characteristic of ‘small’ farming practices on small holdings in poorer regions to this day. This muddies the waters when trying to accurately date the text. As a fictional work accounting for the final years of the author’s life and his return to his native place, my guess is that it took a number of years to write. Therefore, my best guess is that it was written over time but no later than 1990.
However, it is not of vital importance that we accurately pinpoint the time of writing – it is a beautifully layered piece – it is akin to O’Faolain’s ‘A Nest of Gentle Folk’ – describing the locals, their relationships, their hardships, their foibles and peculiarities. The lake itself is even reminiscent of Chekov’s ‘magic lake’ in The Seagull. This is mixed in with often poetic seasonal observations from the surrounding nature – the hills, the fields, the swans, the herons, the dogs and cats, the sheep and cattle of the small townland – and of course the lake which takes on the mantle of an ever-present vital character in the novel:
‘The banks were in the full glory of the summer, covered with foxgloves and small wild strawberries and green vetches. The air was scented with wild woodbine’ (p.15).
‘Around him was the sharp scent of the burnished mint. Close by, two swans fished in the shallows, three dark cygnets by their side. Further out, a whole stretch of water was alive and rippling with a moving shoal of perch. Elsewhere, except where it was ruffled by sudden summer gusts, the water was like glass’ (p.15).
In this place all news is local. The daily visits to each other’s houses bring the usual banter:
‘Have you any news?’
‘No news. Came looking for news.’
‘You came to the wrong place. We are waiting for news’ (p. 126-127).
The outside world does not intrude to any great extent – McGahern is reinforcing the notion that all politics is local, that community is everything. He is painting a picture of a disappearing world, of a close-knit rural community, cut off from the great earth-shattering events we see described on Sky and CNN – here all that matters is news of John Quinn’s latest conquest or other trivial local happenings which have been reported in the local Observer. The one significant ‘international’ story is the continuing ‘Troubles’ North of the border. What, I wonder, would the locals in this small backwater Border area make of Brexit when it comes to the shores of the lake?
A year’s cycle frames the lives on the lake: haymaking, market day, lambing. We move at one level from Bill Evans’ daily visits to the Ruttledges and his trips to town on Thursdays to the Shah’s arrival round the lake on Sunday’s. We then move to celebrations of Christmas, Monaghan Day in February, Easter and the arrival of Johnny Murphy on his annual visit home from England. Food, drink, seasons, weather, the grey heron, the black cat, are re-created continually, different each time, with intense, eloquent simplicity, as if a painter (or a poet) were returning over and over to the same scene:
The surface of the water out from the reeds was alive with shoals of small fish. There were many swans on the lake. A grey rowboat was fishing along the far shore. A pair of herons moved sluggishly through the air between the trees of the island and Gloria Bog. A light breeze was passing over the sea of pale sedge like a hand. The blue of the mountain was deeper and darker than the blue of the lake or the sky. Along the high banks at the edge of the water there were many little private lawns speckled with fish bones and blue crayfish shells where the otters fed and trained their young (p.44).
As we read, we encounter the ones who stayed, the ones who left and return once a year and the blow-ins who come to live in this magical backwater of a place. The story is told in cycles of time, the seasons melding into each other, Christmas and Easter given their rightful place. Even the title echoes the Resurrection at Easter-time and helps explain why every Christian graveyard faces the rising sun! The novel may not have Chapters in the accepted sense but as we read we are lulled by the benign, repetitive rhythms and cadences of rural life: On Sundays the Shah’s black Mercedes rolls round the lake, on Thursdays Billy Evans goes to the local town in the yellow minibus, each summer Johnny comes from London on his holidays and each evening the heron rises out of the reeds and flaps ahead leading Jamesie round the shore.
Joe Ruttledge and his wife Kate ‘came from London in the spring’ having abandoned the mayhem of London’s high life and glamour and purchased a small cottage by the lake. The auctioneer, Jimmy Joe McKiernan is brutally honest about their prospective purchase telling them that it is little more than a site, ‘a site above a lake, on twenty acres’:
The small fields around the house were enclosed with thick whitethorn hedges, with ash and rowan and green oak and sycamore, the fields overgrown with rushes. Then the screens of whitethorn suddenly gave way and they stood high over another lake. The wooded island where the herons bred was far out, and on the other shore, the pale sedge and stunted birch trees of Gloria Bog ran towards the shrouded mountains….. Swans and dark clusters of wildfowl were fishing calmly in the shelter (p.19).
They learn quickly the native ways and discover a place where they belong – all temptations to return to the centre are gently refused. Through them, we are introduced to the motley crew of neighbours, the mad, the bad and the sad. Their foibles, their character and flaws are keenly observed – mainly through Joe’s eyes. Their neighbour, Patrick Ryan remarks:
‘Strange to think of all the people that went out to England and America and the ends of the earth from this place and yon pair coming back against the tide’ (p.80)
They are blessed with their neighbours – particularly Mary and Jamesie Murphy. From the very beginning, Jamesie and Mary befriend the new arrivals, Joe and Kate, and made them welcome. Mary is a very deep reflective character, the real strength in the Murphy household. She had grown up at the edge of the lake and when she married Jamesie she left her father and brother and moved to her new home at the far side of the lake. Her home place is described as being idyllic:
Cherry and apple and pear trees grew wild about the house, and here and there the fresh green of the gooseberry shone out of a wilderness of crawling blackthorn. Hundreds of daffodils and white narcissi still greeted each spring by the lake with beauty, though there was no one near at hand to notice’ (p.92).
When she marries she is torn between her new home and having to leave her father and brother to fend for themselves. She begins to understand that ‘to be without anxiety was to be without love’ (p.94). Kate Ruttledge recognizes her worth as a friend and compliments her by saying that the spirit of her old home came with her across the lake. Mary and Jamesie live out their life by the lake: her father passes away, her brother emigrates to Boston, she becomes pregnant and Jim is born. He does well in school, winning a scholarship to continue schooling in the local town. He marries and has children of his own. He visits infrequently and holidays in Italy. Mary’s silent reaction is characteristic of her deep and reflective nature:
Completely alone though a part of the crowd, Mary stood mutely gazing on her son and his wife as if in wonderment how so much time had disappeared and emerged again in such strange and substantial forms that were and were not her own. Across her face there seemed to pass many feelings and reflections: it was as if she ached to touch and gather in and make whole those scattered years of change. But how can time be gathered in and kissed? There is only flesh (p.131-132).
Thinking of her brother-in-law, Johnny, who has returned to his bedsit in London she falls into reverie and shares a philosophy which is probably also shared by McGahern himself:
‘People we know come and go in our minds whether they are here or in England or alive or dead,’ Mary said with a darkness that was as much a part of her as the sweet inward-looking smile, ‘We’re no more than a puff of wind out on the lake’ (p. 121).
Jamesie, an inveterate gossip is, however, a great neighbour and, especially in those early days, the difference between Joe and Kate surviving in their new location. Early on he tells Joe, ‘I’ve never, never moved from here and I know the whole world’. As the novel ends, a very emotional Joe acknowledges the debt he owes to Jamesie when he says:
‘You do know the whole world,’ Ruttledge said. ‘And you have been my sweet guide.’ (p. 312).
However, Jamesie and Mary, and Joe and Kate are the exceptions in this novel as the novel is peopled mainly by single men, men who see being single as a state to be coveted and prized: The Shah, Johnny Murphy, Patrick Ryan, Bill Evans, are all single. The only exception to this general rule is John Quinn whose biblical mantra is ‘that it is not good that man should be alone’. Quinn’s numerous efforts at fulfilling this ‘commandment’ are described, sometimes with humour, but his abuse of women is seen as abhorrent and crude. The others are perfectly happy in their bachelorhood and this is one of the social ills that McGahern holds up to inspection in the novel. Joe wonders why Patrick Ryan had never considered marriage:
This good-looking, vigorous man had lived all his life around the lake where nothing could be concealed, and he had never shown any sexual interest in another. ‘I don’t have to even countenance that job,’ he joked once to Ruttledge. ‘John Quinn has agreed to do my share’ (p. 213).
Father Conroy, the Catholic Parish priest is their role model – he lives a comfortable bachelor life, is respected and is seen as a pillar of the community but his power and influence, and the influence of the Church he represents is waning. He is depicted as a peripheral, marginalized figure. No-one has a bad word to say about him. In his defence, he does use his influence in getting Bill Evans reinstated on the Thursday bus to town and he eventually finds a place for Bill in the new independent living accommodation in town – called ironically, Tráthnóna. However, the locals have made their assessment of priests in general and what they represent:
‘Anyhow all the priests in England are sociable. They are not directly connected to God like the crowd here.’
‘Father Conroy isn’t like that,’ Ruttledge intervened.
‘Father Conroy is plain. The priests had this country abulling with religion once. It’s a good job it’s easing off,’ Patrick Ryan said (p.86).
Joe Ruttledge sees Father Conroy as a decent man who tries his best not to offend and to blend in as best he can. Joe realizes that the priest is fighting a losing battle with diminishing levels of religious practice in the community. That They May Face the Rising Sun is one of the last great expositions of a Catholic community moving on into a ‘Post-Catholic’ world and is another non-bitter example of Ireland’s troubled and complex relationship with the Catholic religion.
The novel is suffused with words of easy wisdom – distilled, incisive one-liners that come from a life keenly observed in the solitude and mindfulness of rural existence (and often delivered as banter):
‘He that is down can fear no fall’ (p. 2)
‘The way we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived are often very different’ (p.3)
‘Thought pissed in the bed and thought he was sweating. His wife thought otherwise’ (p.3)
‘You nearly have to be born into a place to know what’s going on and what to do’ (p.3)
‘Those that care least will win’ (p.6)
Jamesie’s wisdom: ‘Enter lightly … and leave on tiptoe. Put the hand across but never press. Ask why not but never why. Always lie so that you speak the truth and God save all poor sinners’ (p.8)
‘They say we think the birds are singing when they are only crying this is mine out of their separate territories’ (p.21)
‘The borrowed horse has hard hooves’ (p.26)
‘Let nobody try to best the guards or the doctors or teachers. They have their own ways of getting back at you. (p.34)
‘There’s too much fucken drink passed around in this country’ (p.46)
‘There’s nothing right or wrong in this world. Only what happens’ (p.58)
‘There are times when the truth is the wrong thing’ (p.98)
‘Lies can walk while the truth stays grounded’ (p.98)
‘There’s a big difference between visiting and belonging’ (p.99)
‘There’s nothing worse than widows. Even priests will tell you that’ (p.105)
‘With people living longer there’s a whole new class who are neither in the world or in the graveyard’ (p.155)
‘The greatest country in Ireland was always the world to come’ (p.210)
Finally, my favourite! It is Christmas Day and Joe Ruttledge is visiting his neighbour Patrick Ryan. Patrick has a few cattle but they are not well taken care of. He passes a very pessimistic comment to Joe that ‘I suppose no more than ourselves, lad, it doesn’t make all that much differ whether they live or die’. Joe disagrees but doesn’t express his thoughts out loud – we, the readers, are the lucky ones with this beautiful, unspoken Christmas epiphany: ‘What do we have without life? What does love become but care? Ruttledge thought in opposition but did not speak’ (p.216).
One of the major episodes in the novel is the annual summer ritual of haymaking. This was often a very hectic, stressful and frenetic time for farmers who, in Ireland at any rate, are open to the vagaries of the Irish weather. This is beautifully rendered by McGahern in the novel and the various mundane tasks of saving the hay crop are punctuated with many poetic descriptions of high summer by the lake:
Then the settled weather came, the morning breeze from the lake lifting and tossing the curtains on the open windows to scatter early light around the bedroom walls (p.108).
Outside there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The ripe heavy grass in the meadow was stirring like water beneath the light breeze (p.110).
The morning wind from the lake that lifted the curtains had died. The water was like glass, reflecting the clear sky on either side of a sparkling river of light from a climbing sun. Not a breath of wind moved on the meadows. The only movement was the tossing of the butterflies above the restful grass (p.110).
When all the meadows were cut they looked wonderfully empty and clean, the big oak and ash trees in the hedges towering over the rows of cut grass, with the crows and the gulls descending in a shrieking rabble to hunt frogs and snails and worms. In the corners of the meadows, pairs of plump pigeons were pecking busily at grass seed’ (p.111).
Along the shore a boy was fishing out on the stones, casting a glittering spoon out over the water and then reeling it slowly in. The heron rose out of the reeds and flapped ahead before swinging away towards the farther shore. A glaring red sun was sinking below the rim of the sky (p.117).
The next morning a white mist obscured even the big trees along the shore. Gossamer hung over the pear and plum and apple trees in the orchard and a pale spiderwebbing lay across the grass in the field (p.117).
The very quiet and coolness of the morning was delicious with every hour promising later heat. When the sun had burned away the mist and dried the dew on the swards, the tedding began (p.118).
As the stacks (of hay) disappeared from the meadows and the shed filled, the sun coming and going behind the dark, racing clouds, they were able to stack the last loads at their ease, chatting and idling. The birds had gone quiet. The hum of the insects was still. Swallows were sweeping low above the empty meadows. The wind beats of swans crossing between the lakes came on the still air and they counted seven in formation before they disappeared below the screen of trees (p. 134-135).
Weather by the lake is also described in detail and is used as a device to show the passage of time. Without exception, these link passages are again powerfully poetic and show McGahern’s exceptional powers of observation:
Autumn: ‘There were many days of wind and rain. Uneasy gusts ruffled the surface of the lake, sending it running this way and that. Occasionally, a rainbow arched all the way across the lake. More often the rainbows were as broken as the weather, appearing here and there in streaks or brilliant patches of colour in the unsettled sky. When rain wasn’t dripping from leaves or eaves, the air was so heavy it was like breathing rain. The hives were quiet. Only the midges swarmed’ (p. 154).
‘The lake was an enormous mirror turned to the depth of the sky, holding its lights and its colours. Close to the reeds there were many flies, and small shoals of perch were rippling the surface with hints of the teeming energy and life of the depths. The reeds had lost their bright greenness and were leaning towards the water. Everything that had flowered had now come to fruit’ (p. 186).
‘The little vetch pods on the banks turned black. Along the shore a blue bloom came on the sloes. The blackberries moulded and went unpicked, the briar leaves changed into browns and reds and yellows in the low hedges, against which the pheasant could walk unnoticed. Plums and apples and pears were picked and stored or given around to neighbours or made into preserves in the big brass pot. Honey was taken from the hives, the bees fed melted sugar. For a few brilliant days the rowan berries were a shining red-orange in the light from the water, and then each tree became a noisy infestation of small birds as it trembled with greedy clamouring life until it was stripped clean’ (p.191).
Winter: ‘The leaves started to fall heavily in frosts, in ghostly whispering streams that never paused though the trees were still. They formed into drifts along the shore….. Traceries of branches stripped of their leaves stood out against the water like veins. Under each delicate rowan tree lay the pale rowan stones, like droppings. In the cold dry weather the hedges were thinned for firewood, the evenings rent with the whining rise and fall of other chainsaws similarly working. In this new weather, sounds travelled with a new cold sharpness’ (p. 192).
‘A river of beaten copper ran sparkling from shore to shore in the centre of the lake. On either side of this bright river peppered with pale stars the dark water seethed. Far away the light of the town glowed in the sky’ (p. 201).
Spring: ‘The fields long sodden with rain hardened in the drying winds. Small flowers started to appear on banks and ditches and in the shelter of the hedges….. Birds bearing twigs in their beaks looped through the air. The brooding swan resumed her seat on the high throne in the middle of the reeds. The otter paths between the lakes grew more beaten. In shallows along the shore the water rippled with the life of spawning pike and bream: in the turmoil their dark fins showed above the water and the white of their bellies flashed when they rolled. The lambs were now out with their mothers on the grass, hopping as if they had mechanical springs in their tiny hooves, sometimes leapfrogging one another’ (p.250).
‘There were primroses and violets on the banks of the lane and the dark leaf of the wild strawberry, dandelion in flower and little vetches. It was too early to scent the wild mint but they could see its rough leaves crawling along the edges of the gravel’ (p. 258).
Summer: ‘The plum trees blossomed, then the apple came and the white brilliance of the pear tree. May came in wet and windy. The rich green of the grass in the shelter of the hedges travelled out over the whole fields. Weeds had to be pulled from the ridges, the vegetable garden turned and weeded. Foxgloves appeared on the banks of the lane and the scent of the wild mint was stronger along the shore’ (p. 263).
‘The water was silent, except for the chattering of the wildfowl, the night air sweet with the scents of the ripening meadows, thyme and clover and meadowsweet, wild woodbine high in the whitethorns mixed with the scent of the wild mint crawling along the gravel on the edge of the water’ (p. 312-313).
As the novel moves to its climax McGahern revisits the annual commemoration of the massacre at Glasdrum. This is embedded in the local folk memory and commemorates an ambush carried out by the Black and Tans during the turbulent War of Independence. The local volunteers had no chance and were mown down in the ambush and their bodies are buried in the graveyard in Shruhaun. Following the massacre, the locals carried out a reprisal killing and the local Protestant, Sinclair, is taken away from his family and shot. Each year the deaths of the IRA volunteers are commemorated by a march and speeches are made at their gravesides. This is orchestrated by the Jimmy Joe McKiernan and is used as a reminder of the brutality and oppression suffered in the past.
The whole area on either side of the Border again suffered greatly during the ‘Troubles’ which divided the people in Northern Ireland during the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. Communities on both sides of the Border were convulsed with acts of brutality and violence. This conflict is close and ever-present; it colours the whole history of the region. Jimmy Joe McKiernan who is also the local auctioneer, publican and undertaker has his finger in many pies.
In the middle of the crowd, Jimmy Joe McKiernan walked quietly, the head of the Provisionals, North and South, with power over all who marched (p.258).
McKiernan’s every move is monitored by a very Irish form of surveillance: two ‘undercover’ detectives sit in their ‘unmarked’ police car in a laneway across from his bar in the village and record his every move. McGahern’s cipher and benign alter ego, Joe Ruttledge, speaks out fiercely against the violence towards the end of the book – ‘They honoured themselves at Enniskillen. How many people did they kill and maim?’ (p.238). We are left in no doubt where the author stands on this important issue – an issue that is raised on the opening page when Joe Ruttledge tells us:
‘We never speak badly about people. It’s too dangerous. It can get you into trouble’ (p. 1).
Throughout the novel, in endless, repetitive descriptions of people and places, McGahern is reminding us all of how people lived in the past and how we should live our lives today before it is too late. There is an old Irish sean fhocail or proverb which states ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na ndaoine’ – we rely on our neighbours for our survival. The pastoral and Edenlike world created by McGahern here in this, his swansong novel, gives us a notion of how this can be achieved; neighbourliness, hospitality, ritual, friendly banter. In capturing this passing way of life he celebrates its rites and rituals with such dignity that the novel has many of the hallmarks of religious worship. But more important than the living world he celebrates is the natural world which surrounds it – the sun, the sky and the lake – which provides order and an everlasting backdrop to the lives of its inhabitants. The time frame of the novel may be blurred and timeless but the constantly evolving and changing descriptions of the lake are a constant reminder of our strictly human scope within the wider canvas of the natural world. As Mary Murphy reminds us we are merely passing through – “We’re but a puff of wind on the lake.” Joe Ruttledge puts it beautifully in his already mentioned Christmas epiphany: ‘What do we have without life? What does love become but care?’
 Interview, quoted in James Whyte, History, Myth and Ritual in the Fiction of John McGahern, NY: Edwin Mellon Press 2002, p.229.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent elevation as Nobel Laureate will surely prompt avid readers to explore his repertoire further. They could do worse than lose themselves in this offering from 2015. The novel took me back to my undergraduate days in UCC in the 1970’s studying classics like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf. Ishiguro’s tale sets out to be a classic Arthurian fable depicting Sir Gawain himself, and others on various quests. Ishiguro exploits the avalanche of recent interest in this genre as seen in Peter Jackson’s cinematic telling of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga. While the novel may not lend itself to a film blockbuster, it does have all the attributes for one of those all-consuming RPG’s (an acronym I’ve just newly acquired!) in which you work your way through various adventures and levels and perils on your journey to eventually achieving your Holy Grail.
The novel is set at a certain indistinct time after the death of the legendary Arthur. Britons and Saxons enjoy a fragile peace: the first tentative steps being taken to assimilate both opposing forces in villages and communities throughout the realm. However, we soon learn that this peace is maintained only because each community is afflicted by a collective loss of memory surrounding their horrendous war-torn past. The she-dragon Querig is said to be responsible for this collective amnesia by the spreading of a mysterious mist which envelops the countryside and the hamlets. Indeed, the novel explores the rather vexed issue of memory, and race memory in particular, in maintaining peace in a fractured – and fractious – post-war political landscape. This idea, of memory and its loss, is dealt with by Ishiguro on two fronts – the geopolitical and the personal.
The novel has a number of narrators, principally Axl and Beatrice – but others including Sir Gawain, Sir Wistan and the various boatmen also provide necessary insights, observations and reveries as the story unfolds. The early chapters introduce us to Axl and Beatrice, his princess. They are Britons who live in an underground, warren-like community, surrounded by monsters and ogres and never-ending mists blowing in from the mountains and fens. They live ‘on the edge of a vast bog’, where ‘the past was rarely discussed’ because ‘it had faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes’. However, they are being increasingly marginalised by their elders in the Great Chamber and eventually decide to leave to seek out their son who has left for some forgotten reason. Thus begins the great adventure.
Early in their journey, they come upon a mysterious boatman. Their conversation with him lays the foundation for their fears that restored memory will bring disaster and a possible end to their solid, loving relationship.
We meet Sir Gawain who has been given a quest by Arthur to slay the she-dragon Querig. He has spent his life wandering the hills getting to know her ways and her guile, so much so, that he eventually becomes her protector. He is mocked by the women for his inactivity in fulfilling his quest, and we find him wandering the foothills on his trusted warhorse Horace, a rather pathetic figure of ridicule – a forlorn relic of a chivalrous past.
We also encounter the warrior, Wistan, and his young protégé Edwin, who it is feared has been affected by a dragon bite. We learn that Wistan has been sent by his Saxon king in the eastern fens, to seek out Querig and slay her. The motivation behind this seems to be that once Querig has been slain and the people’s memory fully restored, the long-suppressed divisions and hatreds will resurface to aid the king in his quest to gain Saxon control over the kingdom.
Axl and Beatrice continue their journey, accompanied by Sir Gawain and the young boy Edwin. They detour to visit the wise Father Jonus who lives in a monastery in the mountains, on the pretext of receiving a cure for Beatrice’s mysterious ailment. The monastery, once a Saxon citadel, holds further dangers for the party as they are forced to escape through secret passages to freedom. They continue relentlessly upward to the Giant’s Cairn, where Querig reputedly has her lair. Once Sir Gawain and Querig have been slain by Sir Wistan, Beatrice and Axl are made aware of the tragic consequences which will follow: memory will soon be fully restored and the dogs of war loosed again, with devastating consequences. Once again Britons will be set upon by their Saxon neighbours, ushering in another period of war and unrest, the fragile peace put in place by King Arthur shattered forever.
Axl and Beatrice make their way from the dragon’s former lair and again meet another boatman. Beatrice reveals – her memory now restored – that in fact, their son is dead and is buried on a nearby offshore island. They undergo the dreaded solitary test administered by the boatman and the novel ends in sadness, as Axl is left on the shore, while the boatman ferries the ever-weakening Beatrice to the mysterious island.
In this novel Ishiguro provides us with a thinly veiled modern allegory – his thesis seems to be that a collective loss of memory is necessary in the various trouble spots around the world where untold savagery and genocide have been unleashed if reconciliation is to take place. We can only imagine the difficulties that daily face communities which were once suffused with hatred and division. The situation in Northern Ireland obviously springs to mind. We see regularly on our televisions and newspapers the efforts made to normalise peace in these communities after almost a quarter of a century of atrocity, a process which requires a near Orwellian stretching of credibility on our behalf. In fact, we may wonder has Ishiguro’s mist been replaced there with the modern version – sterling, euro and dollar? We may also remember other recent trouble-spots such as Israel/Palestine, South Africa, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Syria and question: how can normality be restored, how can society pick up the pieces again? Can Humpty Dumpty ever be put back together again?
As well as the geopolitical implications Ishiguro applies the same thesis to the more private area of marital love. The touching tenderness and faithfulness exhibited by Axl and Beatrice belie the difficulties they have had to face in their long lives together. This has included a period of infidelity by Axl which has been glossed over, and also, the death of their only son. Surely, this mysterious yet fortuitous amnesia has been a Godsend to them in maintaining their closeness and their touching intimacy. Surely their relationship would not have otherwise endured but for the benign balm of amnesia.
Consider then the gargantuan achievement of Ishiguro in The Buried Giant: it is a masterpiece about characters who all suffer from various degrees of memory loss, and yet we as readers are able to piece the story together, to read between the lines…. It is, however, an allegory in wishful thinking. In reality, there are no quick fixes to help us cope with our post-traumatic stresses. We cannot rely on the temporary balm of forgetfulness. If anything, in our world we are left to deal with generation after generation of bequeathed toxic memory. Atrocity on the world stage or infidelity on a personal relationship level are not so easily forgotten, nor forgiven.
Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, offers us great opportunities to explore the world of a young boy who is trying to make sense of the adult world around him. Coetzee’s novel is set in South Africa between 1945 and the 1960’s and indeed, it is amazing how uncannily similar boyhood in South Africa and boyhood in small-town Ireland in the late 40’s and 50’s seems to have been! On every page one experiences successive soft shocks of recognition: BSA bicycles, the Meccano set, Superman and Mandrake the Magician on the radio, The Rover and Reader’s Digest, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, the circus, the head colds in winter and the summer visits to the farm, the secret storms in the heart. As Philip Larkin ruefully has it, in one of his many marvellous poems about childhood, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’
Coetzee is admirably honest in his refusal to romanticise his childhood or to portray it as a time of the trembling veil before the adolescent artist stepped forth in all his glory. There was, it seems, precious little bliss in that South African dawn. The young John in Boyhood defines childhood as follows:
Childhood, says the Children’s Encyclopaedia, is a time of innocent joy, to be spent in the meadows amid buttercups and bunny rabbits or at the hearth-side absorbed in a storybook.
This vision of childhood, faintly reminiscent of De Valera’s 1930’s vision of Ireland with ‘comely maidens dancing at the crossroads’, is utterly alien to Coetzee. Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring the pain and the shame.
School plays an important role in the growth of our young protagonist. The young John (Coetzee) works hard in school, not out of any real love of learning, but in order not to attract attention, to remain unremarked, untouched:
So this is what is at stake. That is why he never makes a sound in class. That is why he is always neat, why his homework is always done, why he always knows the answer. He dare not slip. If he slips, he risks being beaten: and whether he is beaten or whether he struggles against being beaten, it is all the same, he will die.
(Note: Where Coetzee is concerned, for every ‘he’ read ‘I’!)
The school scenes are very good, catching with shiver-inducing accuracy, the intense, humid, faintly indecent relation that exists between teacher and pupils.
He has three favourite books, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson and Scott of the Antarctic. He is unable to work out if Long John Silver is bad or good and, ‘he only likes the bit about Titus Oates (in Scott of the Antarctic), the man with frostbite who, because he was holding up his companions, went out into the night, into the snow and ice, and perished quietly, without fuss. He hopes he can be like Titus Oates one day.’ !!
Race and religion feature strongly in the novel as you would expect. There are many religious categories and they do not live in harmony, ‘That is how Jews operate, says Norman, you must never trust a Jew.’ In one passage, the young John must choose at school between religious affiliations: ‘Are you a Christian or a Roman Catholic or a Jew?’, he is asked by an impatient teacher. From this multiple-choice quiz, the boy from an atheist family picks Roman Catholic and is thereafter (to his relief) exiled from the school’s official Protestant devotions. But now he has to deal with more than occasional persecution by Protestant bullies – he also arouses the suspicion of his fellow exiles, the Catholic boys who want to know why he is absent from catechism!
A strong feature of the culture of Boyhood is people’s belief in old tales and stories. This again, has great echoes for me of the stories picked up by the young narrator in Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark classic. Remember the story told of a local couple who married and the husband went away to sea and was presumed dead? The sailor’s spirit comes back to torment his wife who had taken up with another man while he was away. The priest drove the spirit out, yet at night, the image of a child in pain could be seen in the window. The house concerned was a local one, so people continued to tell that story and the young boy is entranced by it. Similarly, in Boyhood, John welcomes the visits to his grandfather’s sheep farm and the family gatherings that take place there and he listens avidly to the old stories.
Boyhood, I suppose, could be said to be a Portrait of the Artist type novel although the epiphanies are not as major as in Joyce’s work. It is written, like much of Coetzee’s work, in the third person, in the continuous present. In my mind it has great similarities with other favourite novels of mine, Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane and Mark Haddon’s masterpiece The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Indeed, all three novels share a dystopian view of the world but Coetzee more than the other two has a particularly potent brand of stoic desperation in the face of the world! I suppose it has to be allowed that his claim to despair is impeccable: South Africa, after all, where he was born and lives and writes, was until recently a very graphic working model of a dystopian, dysfunctional society. In such richly dreadful circumstances, what novelist could resist writing directly or indirectly about the politics of the day? However, it has to be said that Coetzee’s fiction is also exemplary in the way in which the author flies by the nets of politics and shows, ‘how not to play the game by the rules of the state’. It surely must be both a curse and a blessing for an artist to live in the ‘interesting times’ of a totalitarian regime, as Coetzee is well aware. His real achievement is, however, that all his books are so concentrated, so poised, that they do not solely depend for their power on our knowledge of where and in what circumstances they were written. Surely this is one of the identifying marks of authentic, enduring works of art.
Coetzee recalls the trials and tribulations of growing up in a provincial South African town at a time when apartheid was on everyone’s lips. Indeed, the book could be renamed, Portrait of the Artist as an Afrikaner! South Africa in the 40’s and 50’s was a place very similar to Seamus Deane’s Derry, a place of oppression and cruelty. Coetzee, however, like Deane in the Irish situation, treats apartheid obliquely, distilling its violence in dark fables of devastation that point a finger at South Africa. His themes, like Deane’s, lie where the political, spiritual, the psychological and the physical converge: the nightmare of bureaucratic violence; our forlorn estrangement from the land; and a Shakespearean anxiety about nature put out of its order. Coetzee, in Boyhood, considers it both a curse and a blessing for an artist to live in the ‘interesting times’ of an oppressive regime. Indeed, it can be said that we are given a very subtle ‘Political Education’ in both novels!
For most of Boyhood, the young boy has this sense of being ‘unnatural’, ‘damaged’, and ‘deformed’. But gradually it dawns on him where this apprenticeship in fear and loathing will take him. The young Coetzee is very perceptive and reflective and he has a very close relationship with his mother. Walking one day with her he sees a boy running past, absorbed in himself. The boy is Coloured, as distinct from Native, and is unremarkable, despite having a body that is, ‘perfect and unspoiled, as if it had emerged only yesterday from its shell.’ John knows that if his mother were to call out ‘Boy!’ the coloured boy would have to stop and do whatever she bade him to, such as carrying her shopping basket, and he realises that this boy, ‘who is slim as an eel and quick as a hare,’ is a living reproof to him, and embarrassed, ‘he squirms and wriggles his shoulders and does not want to look at him any longer, despite his beauty.’
He oscillates in his allegiances between his father and his mother. He joins his father in mockery of his mother when she buys a bicycle and tries to ride it, yet he has never worked out the position of his father in the household, and in fact ‘it is not obvious to him by what right his father is there at all’. He wishes his father would beat him, ‘and turn him into a normal boy,’ yet he knows too that if his father were indeed to beat him, ‘he would become possessed, like a rat in a corner, hurtling about, snapping with its poisonous fangs, too dangerous to be touched.’ By the close of the book, when the family has moved to Cape Town, the father has sunk into debt, failure, and alcoholism, and as he sinks, the mother rises: ‘It is as though she is inviting calamities upon herself for no other purpose than to show the world how much she can endure.’
However, the young Coetzee is strident in his acknowledgement that he owes much to his upbringing, especially to the influence of his mother. She has bequeathed to him an artistic vision, an ability to reflect and observe. He hates the dull, uninspiring essays he is asked to do in class and admits that if he could he would write something far darker, stranger, far more mysterious: ‘Like spilt ink, like shadows racing across the face of still water, like lightening crackling across the sky.’
On the other hand, his father is a major disappointment. He has waged war on him from an early age but it is only towards the end of the novel that we realise how serious the situation is. The family are bankrupt as a result of his gambling and alcoholism and he pours scorn on what he considers to be a pathetic figure. His mother continues to support her husband, to the boy’s amazement, defending him with the barbed comment, ‘Wait until you have children’. He comes to realise, however, that she is the rock at the centre of his precarious existence and in one of the many epiphanies in the book he comments: ‘This woman was not brought into the world for the sole purpose of loving him and protecting him and taking care of his wants.’ He has huge respect for her and he says towards the end of the novel, ‘he would rather be blind and deaf than know what she thinks of him.’
Overall, Boyhood presents us with a rather bleak vision. Coetzee has written elsewhere that South African literature is precisely what you would expect from people living in prison. Boyhood gives us a clear insight into the prison that the notoriously private Coetzee has himself inhabited: drab suburban housing estates; an alcoholic, distant father, his business career decaying; an overly intimate long-suffering mother. This is the story of millions of 20th. century families everywhere in the developed world. But Boyhood is more than this. However, it is primarily an internal account, the story of an exquisitely painful – almost autistic – self-consciousness, a subjectivity so sensitive and so tender that it seems like ‘a crab pulled out of its shell, pink and wounded and obscene.’ The novel seems to suggest that the best we can do is to try to keep ourselves sane by continuous reflection. No hope is offered. There is no happy ending and we do not observe an improvement in John’s relationship with his father or his mother. If anything he manages to maintain a cold detachment from both throughout.
Tony Humphreys, a noted clinical psychologist, author and all-round guru, has written a very popular book called, TheFamily: Love it and Leave it. This is the great adventure which the young protagonist in Boyhood undertakes. He is endeavouring to cope with his family situation as best he can. Coetzee ends up writing to make sense of the world he lives in. In fact, he appears to be casting about in his childhood for the roots of his success as a writer: Did it spring from his marginal social position as an English speaker from an Afrikaner background; or from his intensely passionate, sentimental attachment to his father’s family farm; or from the smothering affection of his mother, which made him feel like a solitary specimen, both protected and deformed? Whichever is the correct version, he feels compelled to write his way out of his own South African prison; and we all benefit from his struggle.
About the Author….
John Maxwell Coetzee is a South African novelist, essayist, linguist, translator and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. Before receiving the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, Coetzee was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, CNA Prize (three times), the Prix Femina Étranger, The Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize (twice), among other accolades. He relocated to Australia in 2002 and lives in Adelaide. He became an Australian citizen in 2006.