Saturday 19 November 2022

Ireland: a lively history and a rich novel

Picked up a copy of Frank Delaney's Ireland in Hodges Figgis when I was last in Dublin, seeking to know more of my new found land in prose that was rather more eloquent than I'd found in the history books on the shelves in Fitzwilliam Street. It seemed unlikely that Delaney would make the novel wrapped around the numerous 'storytellings' work as well, but a brief flick through suggested the semi-mythic embroideries of the facts would be reward enough.

I was wrong: the journey of two souls, the Storyteller's and young Ronan O'Mara's, is no less compelling than the takes on everything from the stone-age miracle of unpromisingly-named Newgrange, via vivid lives of saints and warriors, to the Easter Rising of 1916. Delaney rings the changes on the chief narrator's word-magic by having Ronan himself try his hand in the schoolroom, and then by introducing the donnish playfulness of his tutor at Trinity College, T. Bartlett Ryle, whose didactic quality is actually useful - or at least I found it so - in reinforcing the injustice of centuries of English rule, where (thus Ryle) 

the state, that is to say the ruling body, that is to say the monarchy - and later the elected Mother of Parliaments - felt and exercised the right to interfere in people's lives in a minute, everyday way. To put it differently, it paved the way for oppression on a personal scale, because it struck at the personality of a people. And that is the hallmark of true prejudice, of true despotism.

The don returns at a later stage to reinforce what the Storyteller has had to say about Daniel O'Connell with his personal take on Charles Parnell, reinforcing the important notion that the first took as his cause the abolition of the Penal Reform laws, the second Land Reform, both acknowledging 

this pattern of failure on both sides. The English hadn't succeeded in their different eradication attempts, which ranged from assimilation to would-be genocide, because somehow the Irish clung on to who they were. And the Irish failed to throw them out because the country was simply too small to get anywhere by force of arms.

This is all very useful for a novice in Irish history like myself. But the imagination is what counts in terms of both the novel and the retelling, in many cases the mythologising, of the Irish past.
Clearly both Delaney and our Storyteller have some very fanciful chronicles of the saints to help them make the legends of Patrick and the Devil, Brendan and the New World, flavoursome. But the language is pure poetic prose, especially in the marine flavouring of Brendan's home in the west and his long odyssey. 

And the wanderer's observation of exquisite detail in nature chimes with where I am now. On, then, to the third volume of Jaan Kross's Between Three Plagues trilogy, A Book of Falsehoods. It's been a long wait for Merike Lepasaar Beecher's translation - Volume Two appeared in 2017, when I first wrote about my excited discovery of the Estonian genius - but last week the treasured tome arrived in the post from my dear friend Katharina Bielenberg of MacLehose Press. More anon.


Liam mansfield said...

Good to see you back . Irish history can become a life long occupation. France Delaney's approach allows him to express views from a different angle.. You should visit the presidents web site where there are links to a number of very interesting debates. Best wishes Liam

David said...

I'll give that a go when I have time. And good to see you here again, too. Have you read this Delaney or any other of his novels or history books?

Liam mansfield said...

I have read some of his history books,মনু years ago. He writes very clearly.
Best wishes for your medical event.