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Trouble on the Mountain

Brian O’Doherty is an art historian and critic who has taken to writing fiction during the past decade. As if this uncommon versatility were not enough he is reported on the jacket of this beautifully printed book to have graduated as a medical doctor from University College, Dublin. His novel of 1992, The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P., is based on an actual and strange episode involving a blind young pianist who is treated by Anton Mesmer, the creator of the theory of animal magnetism. The then-fashionable Viennese doctor effects a temporary cure, and Mlle. P. regains her vision. But she loses her musical ear, and under the spell of her autocratic father, turns against the restorer of her sight.*

The Deposition of Father McGreevy involves a strange case, too, set in the recent period in Irish history to which the Irish give the somewhat enigmatic name “The Emergency.” Emergencies do not usually last six years but this one did, from September 1939 to August 1945—that is, for the entire extent of World War II. What was peculiar to the Irish war situation was that the Twenty-Six Counties (Eire), under Eamon De Valera as prime minister and foreign minister, chose to remain neutral. The Allies, meaning mainly the Americans and the British, were not pleased. Churchill, for one, had expected to take back for the war’s duration certain of Eire’s deep-water harbors and sea lochs, places from which Allied naval craft could sally out to escort American and Canadian merchant convoys for the final part of their perilous voyaging through U-boat-haunted waters. The North, of course, had followed Britain into the war but the North, to Churchill’s way of thinking, wasn’t enough. He needed the South.

One consequence of Allied displeasure was that Ireland suffered until war’s end under a number of embargos. The British restricted Irish shipping in its scheme to influence Eire into supporting the Allies. Gasoline supplies were 20 percent of normal, there was no coal, and the tea ration was cut by stages to the measly allowance of one half-ounce per person per week. Many of the ordinary amenities of life were missing, from razor blades to garter belts, though there was a thriving cross-border smuggling trade even in such items. The Emergency is remembered as a time when everyone, including people of means and some with titles of nobility, made forays into the countryside to cut their own turf (peat) for fuel, and Dublin taxicabs were being replaced by horse-drawn vehicles of eccentric character. A few good things happened, as when Southern fire brigades rushed north to help Belfast during the devastating bombing raid of Easter 1941. And a few not so good, as when De Valera made a call on the German ambassador, Dr. Edouard Hempel, to offer his condolences upon the death of Adolf Hitler.

It could have been worse. The Allies realized that Ireland showed a definite tilt in their favor, with 150,000 Irish men and women in the British armed services and perhaps an equal number at work in British war industries or as agricultural laborers.

So the Emergency was dark and bleak, but nowhere more so than in the tiny hamlet halfway up a steep Kerry mountain where the deposition Father McGreevy makes to the police is laid. What he has to relate is a frightful disaster, or rather, a chain of disasters. Ordinarily the tiny mountain community has connections with a large village in the valley below, where the mountain children attend school, and where there is a small medical clinic and even, within a few miles, the palace of the diocesan bishop. But things go haywire on the mountain when an unprecedented winter of deep cold, endless snow, and savage storms arrives, lasting through April. There are five women in the community, apart from the priest’s harridan housekeeper, Mrs. Biddy McGurk. By the end of winter all five are dead of a flu-like disease that never attacks the men. Although the district medical board eventually arranges for an exhumation and autopsy of one of the women (chosen by lot because of the peasants’ strong taboo against disturbing the sleeping dead), no report of what killed them is ever made.

When decent weather finally returns, the priest finds himself under pressure from his religious superiors to close down his chapel of worship and lead his tiny flock down the mountain for good. There is particular concern for a young man turned idiot in late adolescence owing to a devastating head injury and who needs institutional care. A community of farmers without women, moreover, is no longer viable, if it ever was. Father McGreevy is reluctant to agree. These few mountain families have been together for over a hundred years, raising vegetable crops and herding their sheep and cattle. He asks to stay one more winter—the weather of this second winter is bound to be better, he thinks—and with reluctance the bishop’s adjutant relays the bishop’s unenthusiastic permission.

The weather of the second winter is worse. The farmers’ children are safe at a convent school in the valley while on the mountain the farmers themselves are in another desperate struggle for survival. The idiot youth alone seems to be acclimatized as he frolics in shoulder-deep drifts and makes light of his frostbitten hands and frozen cheeks. He takes over the abandoned house of a farmer who has moved down below to get married and whose wife has refused to live on the mountain. The priest’s housekeeper seems to enjoy the idiot’s company as she becomes strangely witchlike and more and more insolent toward Father McGreevy, especially after he catches her making sexual advances toward the boy.

The father must be one of the more faithful priests depicted in modern literature. Though he grows ever more scandalized by what he hears in the confessional and by events he can bear witness to—acts of bestiality, rumored and actual, an appalling accident that kills the idiot, a mad evening of drinking poteen in which a ram is killed and its entrails “read” by the drunken housekeeper and a house is burned to the ground, causing a huge burst of flames on the dark mountain visible to all below—his faith continues unwavering:

Whatever happens fits God’s plan. In our exile we can’t see its dimensions. We move in the cycles of our free will on the continents of His mercy, and the tragedies visited upon us we will comprehend in Paradise.

That is beautifully put. The priest is no saint, however. Of the English at war he says, “I wanted them to win but not before they suffered,” and he is not above striking Mrs. McGurk when her behavior angers him.

At the end of the second winter, the survivors make their way down to the valley, never to return. For Father McGreevy there is little ahead but humiliation, the interrogation by the police official that elicits his testimony—and remember that much of what he knows is under the seal of the confessional—and, ultimately, suspension for life from his priestly functions. This suspension, no doubt initiated by the bishop, remains unexplained.

The lowlanders are convinced that the people of the mountain have fallen into unspeakable practices, while Muiris, father of the amadán, the Irish word for a person with deep mental handicaps, speculates that his own continuing misfortunes may arise from his having unintentionally annoyed the . The are Yeats’s Sibh, disdainfully aristocratic spirits who travel in hosts and are lethal to human beings by whom they fancy they have been insulted.

Eventually Father McGreevy’s deposition finds its way into the hands of an Irish editor working in London in the late 1950s. He makes the story of the lost community into a research project and is rewarded by discovering two survivors, Biddy McGurk and Muiris. Both have been confined to insane asylums in different parts of the country. The housekeeper in her madness remains frightful in her appearance and depraved in her speech, while Muiris remains the stoic and decent-hearted countryman he has always been.

O’Doherty’s powerful and sometimes magical writing keeps a reader closely involved. To say that something written is magical may introduce for some readers a doubt of its authenticity. But not here. One believes that Dr. O’Doherty has given the true facts of his “case,” even when the case itself is presented as fiction. There is a sadness in this book that seems to lie beyond tears. Just as the period of the Emergency was a throwback to the old Ireland of want and starvation, so is Father McGreevy a throwback to an earlier type of Irish priest, who held both secular and spiritual power in the countryside, sometimes with whip in hand. Though he doesn’t carry a whip, he remains an anachronism operating within an anachronism. His punishment at the hands of the Church is severe, considering the trials he suffered during his two winters on the mountain. Exactly what did he do wrong? The Church does not say. As with other large, impersonal organizations it has a low tolerance for failure—good intentions and purity of heart counting a little but in this case not enough.

  1. *

    The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. has been reprinted as a Penguin paperback (1993).

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