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Blood on the Border

Nothing Happens in Carmincross

by Benedict Kiely
Godine, 279 pp., $16.95

This is a funny book, always skirting the edge of horror, and finally going over the edge, but still mainly a funny book. Indeed what I find most impressive about Mr. Kiely is his capacity somehow to put horror in its place: that place remains terrifying, but it isn’t allowed to take over everything. It was important for Tolstoy that, even in the presence of death, two and two still make four. It is important for Mr. Kiely that, even when terrorists are in the neighborhood, a person should still be able to laugh.

Nothing Happens in Carmincross is about an Irish writer, Mervyn Kavanagh, who comes back to Ireland after spending some time in the United States. He has been away, it seems, long enough to feel a bit of a stranger, but not long enough really to have become one. Early on in a bar—most of the action, and inaction, goes on in some bar—he bumps into a celebration, which he guesses to be a wedding or a christening but which turns out to be an ordination. Someone makes a mildly anticlerical joke, and Mervyn refrains from making one himself:

He has been so long away from a Catholic church, in Ireland or anywhere else, that the thought of an ordination has not occurred to him. He knows now, for the first time since the disorientation of flying, that he is really back at home in Ireland: the fleering abrasive talk is only a sort of mask for a half-ashamed reverence. As a stranger in that particular place he is careful not to join in the mockery: by saying, for instance, that he thought they’d given up making priests altogether these days, not only in Ireland but in Rome itself, that the ones they made now seemed to suffer from planned obsolescence. His new merry friends might not assault him, but the fun might fade or the topic change.

Staring at a leaflet about the ordination Mervyn “goes into one of those trances that are the product of a mind disordered by odd information and aimless interests and reading.” But it is a trance in which he recalls something that actually happened, in the late nineteenth century in Tipperary:

Seventy-eight years ago on an Irish hillside a man and his friends, in all a party of thirteen, burned the man’s wife to death and buried her charred body in a nearby marsh. Some people who don’t know much about it call it a case of suspected witchcraft. But it wasn’t anything of the sort. One or more members of the sad thirteen thought that the woman was not the real woman but a changeling: that the fairies (a fatally corrupt word nowadays) or the Good People (as country folk in fear of their vengeance used politely to call them) had come out from their dwelling place under the ancient earth-mound or rath, close to the hillside farmhouse, and taken the real woman with them and left one of their own in her place.

Why did they think she was a changeling? Once, from reading the records of the court case, I thought it was because she was pale and wasting away with consumption. But a learned man who came from the place and knew the local lore told me it was because she was a somnambulist. To simple country people sleepwalking could be a very strange thing.

One of the ways to detect and banish a changeling, and bring the true person back from the other world, is to swing the suspected changeling back and forward over a fire, while repeating three times: Are you so-and-so in the name of God?

In this case the unfortunate woman’s name was Brigid Cleary.

The evil forces and the attempt to frustrate the evil forces are the same thing. The image of the fairy fort or lios (traditional stronghold of evil in the Irish countryside) as imaginatively relevant to Ireland’s present troubles haunts at least one other living Irish writer, as well as Mr. Kiely. It is the theme of “An Bhean ón Lios” (“The Woman from the Fairy Fort”), a powerful poem by one of the most interesting of today’s young Gaelic poets, Nuala ni Dhomhnaill.

Mervyn travels through Ireland, from party to party, or in perambulating parties, having quite a lot of fun though not all the time. When not haunted he is Rabelaisian, with an innocent gusto and wit, rare in the twentieth century. The bawdiness ranges from mild to less mild. A sample of mild: “So I read my book and might have dozed a bit as the Kerryman said in the confessional when the priest asked him had he slept with the girl.” A sample of the less mild:

In this rural place a penurious young bank clerk has established good relations with the daughter of a rich farmer. One night when there is snow on the ground he leaves her home from a dance. Next time he calls, the father has him thrown out. So, somewhat shaken, he asks for an explanation.

FARMER: You left my daughter home that snowy night?

YOUNG MAN: I did. So what?

FARMER: You stopped to talk under the chestnut by the avenue gate?

YOUNG MAN: We did.

FARMER: You peed on the snow and wrote your name in pee?

YOUNG MAN: What if I did?

FARMER: It was my daughter’s handwriting.

Good clean fun. Sometimes the fun is turned in the direction of “the patriot game,” the culture that gives us the Provisional IRA. A conversation beneath the statue in College Green, Dublin, of the nineteenth-century patriotic writer, Thomas Davis:

—Well, if you knew the great surgeon Dolan you will know that the man up there isn’t Thomas Davis at all. Delaney foxed us all. That man up there is Surgeon Dolan.

Careful consideration and standing back and looking up and walking all around. That man could be Dolan, not Davis. But then we have never seen Thomas Davis. He may in his time have been the living double of the great surgeon who was yet to be.

—Then Merlin, cast thy wizard eye upon this sparkling fountain. Read out to me that inscription.

—A nation once again.

—Then recall for what relaxing and releasing operation the great Dolan was famous.

—The prostate gland.

—And there you have it. Urination once again.

O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves, O Dublin, Dublin.

The bulbous eyes transfix me with a long, unsmiling, maniacal stare.

—It’s talk like that, Jeremiah Gilsenan, has Ireland the way it is.

The last speaker is a supporter of the Provisional IRA, who then offers a catalog of British Army atrocities. This is followed by a parody of the nineteenth-century patriotic ballad “The Bold Fenian Men.” The ballad implicitly contrasts the chivalrous outlook of the nineteenth-century Fenian patriots with the cold ferocity of their twentieth-century emulators, the Provos:

I called on the Judge on a bright sunny morning. I stood at his door, shot him dead without warning. The Brit war machine I was gallantly scorning. But the Judge had no gun said the bold Fenian men.

And: On her bed in the trailer the young girl was sleeping. By her side, her young daughter her dolly is keeping. But we blasted the plyboard and left the child weeping. You’re a shower of shits, cried the bold Fenian men.

Mervyn drifts across Ireland, drinking, talking, listening, remembering, dreaming, with the horror always at his sleeve, until it finally grabs him, in the Northern Ireland border town of Carmincross, at his niece’s wedding, which is ripped apart by four bombs, planted by the Provos.

It would have been better, I think, for the novel if nothing had happened in Carmincross. The horror is more real when it remains at the edge of sight, around the corner of the jokes. It is there, in that Ireland, that Mr. Kiely, as a writer, is uneasily at home, and disconcertingly himself. The catastrophe, on the other hand, seems extraneous and unlived, and Mr. Kiely’s writing, at this point, lacks its usual sureness. As Mervyn Kavanagh himself reminds us, “nothing happens in Ulysses!”

Things are happening now, of course, in Ireland, that were not happening in 1904. Also Mr. Kiely does not come, like Joyce, from Dublin but from County Tyrone, in the Catholic borderlands of Northern Ireland. The things that are happening are happening to him in a much more intimate way than to people (like myself) from south of that border. To Northern Ireland Protestants, Mr. Kiely is by definition a “Fenian”; that is to say a person suspect, because of his religion, of plotting rebellion and wishing to murder Protestants. The suspicion is often well founded, and its existence and manifestations tend to make it even more well founded. Mr. Kiely is enough of a Fenian to make him wonder why he is not more of one. As Mervyn Kavanagh puts it to himself:

After all there may be something to be said for the actions of young men who have inherited a sorry history: and hoarded hatreds. But myself when young had the same inheritance. Why then was I never out robbing banks, shooting neighbours, bombing pubs, or tarring-and-feathering teenage girls: and all for Ireland? Nor even, like my brother-in-law at Eastertime, tying green-white-and-orange flags to the tops of trees?

Mervyn Kavanagh is made in his creator’s image more obviously than is the case with man-in-general.

What I found most haunting about Nothing Happens in Carmincross was the sense of the continuity and inner logic of the culture of Catholic Ireland: the ballads, the folk traditions, the received version of history, the popular assumptions, even the jokes, in a way pushing us unwittingly along in the direction of holy war. We are like that changeling, walking in our sleep, until we wake up over the fire. What it is like already in a border town like Carmincross this book succinctly tells us:

—As suspicious as ferrets in a wee place like that. If you’d say to a Catholic when did you have the last bomb here he’d tell you to enquire from the sojers in the barracks and if you say to a Protestant where the parish priest lives he says he wouldn’t know. People have closed up like crabs.

If you are thinking of going to Ireland this summer, take care to read this book. In its deceptively rambling manner it conveys, better than any other book I can think of, a sense of the relationship of modern Catholic Ireland to its past, and the bearing of that relation on its future. Once you have taken it in, I think, you will realize that a paper agreement between a gentleman from Dublin and a lady from London is hardly likely to transform the realities of life and death in Carmincross.

One minor carp, directed at the publishers, not the author. The jacket cover, which is quite striking in itself, has as its main feature a large green pillar box, in a village street. But Carmincross is in Northern Ireland, where the pillar boxes are red (symbolizing a different attributed allegiance). A red pillar box, in Carmincross, blown up by the IRA, is a prominent feature of the story which carries a green pillar box on its jacket. I hope, and on the whole believe, that many members of the reading public will pay more attention to Nothing Happens in Carmincross than its publisher and his illustrator have bothered to do.

Letters

The Color Red June 26, 1986

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