Certain kinds of fiction seem almost to be commissioned, like official portraits and biographies, to meet an alleged public need. Englishmen used to demand: “Where are the war poets?” Just so, Ireland, it seems has clamored for the Great Irish Novel to signalize her miserable struggle for independence, to give some point and shape to her disillusionment. Like a “war poem,” this novel had to be in a conventional British tradition, not too clever, widely representative of common feelings. With great difficulty, Michael Farrell’s long, sad novel was dragged out of him to meet the bill. It is more of a monument than a story.
Farrell hugged it to himself for more than twenty years, telling impatient friends, “It’s not finished. It needs to be worked over.” When he died two years ago, the book was edited for publication by Monk Gibbon, who says he has removed 100,000 words and added no more than a thousand. It is now a communal effort. “The one thing on which everyone was agreed,” says the editor, “was that the book must be cut.” The author had said, “It isn’t cutting that it needs. It needs boiling down.” But eventually “everybody” had his way. For Farrell’s admirers, it is the theme and the feeling that really count, not his failed design.
Thackeray jeered, in his Irish Sketchbook, “High and low in this country, they begin things on too large a scale. They begin churches too big and can’t finish them…Letters on signboards are too big, and are up in a corner before the inscription is finished. There is something quite strange really in this general consistency.” Equally consistent is the English attitude to Ireland, that wary playfulness. While Thackeray accurately predicted the failure of Farrell’s grand plan, he also expressed that imperial spirit which probably frightened Farrell off publication. His book had to go to London, where English readers might approve, with easy patronage, his anger against their own soldiery; they would pay him for his rage and chuckle over his heroics. Much in Irish nationhood depends on a view of England; and in England’s view, Irish writers are not to be taken seriously unless they are very stark indeed.
Thy Tears Might Cease takes a long time to get stark. The very title has the ring of hammy Irish verse, public speeches turned too smoothly into rhyme and jingling metre. The novel’s hero, Martin Reilly, is intoxicated with this stuff from boyhood (around 1910). He recites “Fontenoy” to assembled aunts and servants.
King Louis turned his rein;
“Not yet, my liege,” Saxe interposed,
“The Irish troops remain!”
And from kitchen steps, dining-room, hall, and parlor, a gasped “Ah!” of satisfaction sighed into the air…”Oh, begob, Fontenoy!”
Young Reilly boasts an ancestor who “died at Blenheim, fighting for France, King Louis, the Fleur-de-Lis and Ireland. God Save Ireland!” He calls his enemies “slave-hearts” and his head is ringing with grand jingles:
They rose in dark and evil days
To right their native land.
In the ten years of his youth recorded in this long novel, he seems set to develop—through disillusionment with schooling and religion, and through partisan warfare—from romantic dreamer to grim cynic. In fact this never quite happens. In his blackest humor, he can still look in the mirror and tell himself:
“Yes, you will die young, like Byron and Mangan!
Tell thou the world when my bones lie whitening
Amid the last homes of youth and eld…”
The historical background, in the author’s view, is roughly this. Sensible Irishmen enlisted against Germany in 1914, confident that England would grant home rule after the war; but an unrepresentative minority revolted against the English in 1916 and, after several rebels had been executed, tempers were naturally inflamed. The English used their own terrorists—Black-and-Tans and Auxiliaries—to counter the terrorism of the rebels. This counter-revolution was savage, but many Irish were to blame for their faith in foolish dreams and many English deserved credit for moderation and decency. Thus Reilly is rescued from Black-and-Tan torturers by an English officer whom he first sees reading “a book of the lyric poets of England’s war.” Farrell trusts in a saving remnant on either side, Reilly’s kind, the dreamers, the open-hearted schoolboys.
The simple generosity of this interpretation, with its quick scorn for impure motives, follows naturally from the long, lyrical account of schooldays and Uranian love, rather like The Last Puritan in its persuasive innocence. More openly than most novelists, the author is parading his own daydreams, posing in a series of romantic postures. His friend, Monk Gibbon, says the book is not quite autobiographical but “a semi-realistic, semi-fanciful projection of what Farrell thought might have been a little more imaginative in its treatment of him.” Harsh truth is sugared with the author’s charm and self-indulgence most aptly in his graceful account of Reilly’s introduction to heterosexual love. The relationship between the young bourgeois and a working class girl is as beautifully convincing as Edmund Wilson’s creation in Memoirs of Hecate County, but drawn with a different sort of tenderness, stressing the harmony of two kinds of innocence.
The innocence of Reilly survives even when Englishmen are swinging a gun between his legs. “When they dragged open his eyes to meet the light of their torches burning on them, he could not see. Once, twice, the boots came down on his bare feet…The taps on the roasting weight of his groin reached up to his chest, became the thuds of a great pile-driver, and he heard his own scream go shivering round the room.” This kind of event has become so commonplace nowadays that we shrug, knowing that this is when men give in. But Martin Reilly, of an earlier generation, reacts with the heroic defiance of a schoolboy tale. “His whole soul revolted, as it had revolted once at the thought of senior boys and cricket stumps, and he answered their questions with ‘Poor Slave-hearts and bullies!’ ” A while before he had seemed to understand his situation, like a well-trained partisan in Vietnam or Cyprus. He had mocked the English propaganda: “The House will not readily believe that any Englishman would commit these crimes on defenseless people. (Ministerial cheers.)” He had also mocked the propaganda of his own side, the terrorists: “Ireland will not readily believe that the dead bodies of Auxiliaries could be mutilated by Volunteers…” He knew, as we all now know, that in this kind of war certain supporters of the imperial power will torture prisoners and certain rebels will mangle corpses. Knowing this, rescued by his official enemy, finally aware that he is not by birth truly Irish after all, Reilly ought surely to be free of his naive patriotism. In the book’s last sentence he is seeking “at long last the old hammer of reality which might yet ring music from the anvil of a man.” But this rhetoric is accompanied by “a mocking sob”; and besides we know he’s just been daydreaming about himself as a legend of martyrdom for grandchildren to hear. He cannot break from what A.E. called—in Reilly’s favorite style—“the death-created glory,” “the last splendour of the Gael.”
Farrell was right to think his book needed boiling down, but it is still a fine achievement, for extra-literary reasons, and it cruelly overshadows the other long, sad novel of Ireland’s dreams. The Land of Youth deals with one of the Aran islands and a different kind of misery. Nationalism and the Royal Constabulary make only brief incursions from the mainland where men talk English and live more hopefully.
Tributes on the jacket are strange. One says “Power’s islanders have a rock-like dignity that makes one proud…to be a member of the human race.” Yet it is a story of meanness in poverty, of life-long grudges in a primitive community. Another writes that Power presents for admiration a people “who know only tillers, fishermen and saints.” Yet this is the very attitude grimly satirized in the book. One of the islanders, Sean, goes to the mainland and becomes a celebrated writer in Gaelic. The islanders hear him broadcast, and his old teacher sneers: “He didn’t write for you and me. He wrote for the people in Dublin, the new people in good jobs, who’ve just wiped the dung off their boots…They want to be told about the nice, simple, pious people from whom they’ve sprung…An island of saints and scholars!”
His justified bitterness is saddening, and the sadness is monotonous. Even when Sean escapes to the mainland, he is soon imprisoned in gloom by a most dismal Irish nationalist who wants him for his Gaelic. But the main plot concerns his brother on the island, Padraig, a seminarist who gives up his vocation for a bold girl who has tasted freedom in America. She deserts him and their long, narrow lives are spent apart, on the small island, in a sullen parochial feud—keeping rival shops while sons drown or turn Trappist. Before they die, each of them sees a vision of “the land of youth”—Tir na n-Og. The woman, Barbara, sees a bright green island, but Padraig sees a land “as rocky, black and treacherous as their own.”
There is an evident resemblance to Wuthering Heights—the fantastically wilful couple locked in painful love against a stark, isolated landscape, the disasters they draw upon their families, the heathen legend at the conclusion—and this likeness extends to details. Emily Bronte, as her sister explained, knew her rough neighbors only by hearsay, and her idea of them was “too exclusively confined to those tragic and terrible traits of which, in listening to the secret annals of every rude vicinage, the memory is sometimes compelled to receive the impress.” Perhaps Mr. Power, who is said to know the islands well, has been similarly restricted. His grave, careful novel seems too uniformly joyless to be a fair record of two generations in even the most somber and deprived community and he would need the demonic dash of a Brontë to raise his material to a level more ambitious than that of documentary.
October 22, 1964