Peadar O’Donnell: The Big Windows

The latest addition to my website is Peadar O’Donnell‘s The Big Windows. Brigid lives on an island and has married Tom, who lives on the mainland, in a glen, surrounded by mountains. She moves to the mainland to join her husband but things do not go well. Some of the women jostle and bully her, resentful of the fact that she has stolen one of their men, a much coveted man. There is a shortage of men, as many have gone to Boston or to Scotland to earn money to go to the United States. Her widowed mother-in-law tries to teach her the ways of the glen. Tom realises that she is missing the large vistas living on an island offers and suggests installing big windows for her. Initially, there is opposition but when the windows arrive, everyone helps out. However, the healing is only superficial and things do not go well. This may be O’Donnell’s best novel.

Peadar O’Donnell: Islanders (US: The Way it Was With Them)

The latest addition to my website is Peadar O’Donnell‘s Islanders (US: The Way it Was With Them). The island in question is Inniscara, offshore from Arranmore, which, in turn is offshore from the Donegal mainland. O’Donnell worked on Arranmore as a teacher. It recounts the hard life of the people there, as we follow the story of the Doogan family, Mary, a widow and her ten children (one married, Peggy). They often live on a diet of potatoes and seaweed and try to supplement their income by selling eggs and knitting, and by fishing. Charlie, the eldest boy is courting Susan Manus but both find other partners. Both Mary and Peggy take ill and Charlie has to weather a storm to fetch the doctor. The herring come and go, they help a man on the run from the much-despised police and there is even a bit of violence, though generally the islanders look out for one another. It is a fine story of a hard way of life that has long since disappeared.

Anne Enright: Actress

The latest addition to my website is Anne Enright‘s Actress. Norah FitzMaurice is the daughter of Katherine O’Dell, star of stage and screen. Norah has finally decided to tell the story of her mother, long after her death and we learn about Katherine’s rise and fall, her bad habits (drink, men, poor decisions and, the worst of all in Norah’s eyes, the failure to say who Norah’s father was). Katherine died at fifty-eight, a broken woman after three years in an asylum following her shooting of a producer in the foot. We follow both mother and daughter, the latter becoming a novelist, wife and mother, the former a flamboyant actress who almost made it in Hollywood and was successful on stage till she reached the age where there are fewer parts for women. Sometimes they clashed but Norah loved her mother and misses her but she would like to have known who her father was.

Alison Rosse: Room for Books

Image copyright Alison, Countess of Rosse

During our recent travels in Ireland, we visited Birr Castle, a beautiful castle in wonderful grounds and well worth the visit. The castle is owned and still partially occupied by Lord and Lady Rosse. The Earl of Rosse is the brother of the Earl of Snowdon who was, for eighteen years married to Princess Margaret. In the bookshop, I found a copy of a book called Room for Books – Paintings of Irish Libraries by Alison Rosse. Alison Rosse is the Countess of Rosse. It is, as it says, a selection of paintings of various Irish libraries, both private and public, beautifully done. The paintings reminded me of the painting of Coole Park Library done by Yeats. which I had just seen, shown in my post of yesterday (scroll down).

I am no art critic but I did find these paintings well done, somewhat but certainly not too much impressionistic and all giving the flavour of the library in question, all of which have their similarities – high shelves with books in them – but all of which have their own distinct appearance. Each painting is accompanied by a useful description/history written by William Laffan, an Irish art historian. My only regret is that I have not visited any of them and, as many of them are private, probably never will; however this is definitely an excellent way of seeing and appreciating fine libraries you will probably never see. The one shown above, by the way, is the library at Birr Castle.

The best way to get the book is to visit Birr Castle. If that is not possible, it is available online from the publishers, the Irish Georgian Society and from Offaly History for the very reasonable price of €10.00.

Things Irish

I have recently returned from a two week holiday in Ireland and while the trip was primarily scenic rather than literary, we did visit a couple of places with literary associations and, in particular, two places I have always wanted to visit.

The first was the Aran Islands. The Aran Islands consist of three islands. We visited only the largest Inís Mor (Inishmore). The key feature on the island is the ancient fortress of Dun Aonghasa (see photo at left), with the site having been occupied since 1500 BC. However, from the literary point of view and what first got me interested in the islands is J M Synge. Synge stayed there for several summers, mainly on Inis Meáin, the second largest island but he also spent time on Inís Mor.

While there he wrote a a book on the islands. He also improved his knowledge of the Irish language. (The locals still speak Irish to one another.) His play Riders to the Sea was set there and his stay on the islands undoubtedly influenced his other plays.

Synge was not born on the Aran Islands but Liam O’Flaherty was. Four of his books are on my website.

The Aran Islands were also the setting for one of the great classic films: Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran. Flaherty was born of an Irish father though he himself was born in Michigan. I will mention two other less worthy films, shot on the islands: Leap Year, based on Powell and Pressburger’s brilliant I Know Where I’m Going!, and Matchmaker.

I have long been a fan of US film director John Ford, particularly his Westerns. His mother was born on the Aran Islands. We also visited Cong where his film The Quiet Man was made. This was, in my view, a not very good romantic comedy(John Wayne as the romantic lead!) but Cong loves it as you can see from the photo of the statue of Wayne carrying Maureen O’Hara. Much of the town is devoted to honouring this film, which always seem to be showing. My view is stick to his Westerns.

Coole Park when inhabited

W B Yeats has long been my favourite poet. As well as a noted poet, Yeats was one of the founders of the Irish Literary Theatre, which led to the Abbey Theatre. One of his co-founders was Lady Augusta Gregory. She and her family lived at Coole Park, near Galway.

Coole Park as it is now

The family welcomed many distinguished visitors, including Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Augustus John, Violet Martin, the Ross of Somerville and Ross and many others. Sir William Gregory, Lady Gregory’s husband, was thirty-five years her senior, and died after they had been married twelve years. They had one son, Robert, who was killed in action during World War I, leaving behind a wife and three children. He was immortalised by Yeats, particularly in his poem An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.

Lady Gregory left Coole Park in 1927 but remained there till her death in 1932. Yeats forecast its demise in his poem Coole Park 1929. The house was abandoned, left to fall into ruin and demolished in 1941-42. It has since become a nature reserve and the Irish government has now built an excellent visitor centre about the house, its inhabitants, its history and visitors. There are rumours that they plan to do a lot more to develop the site.

The painting to the left is one of the items in the exhibition and it was painted by Yeats, W. B., not his brother or father both of whom were famous artists. You can also see the famous autograph tree, where many of the famous visitors, including those mentioned above, carved their initials. Though they are numbered, the bark has grown so that you can barely see any of the letters.

A couple of miles away, there is a Gregory Museum, which is, in fact, a schoolhouse, built in colonial style, for the local schoolchildren, funded by the Gregory family. When a new school was built, the building was kept on as a museum. It is run entirely by volunteers and a thanks to Tony and Yvonne for showing us around.

A couple of miles further on is the tower (right, above) that Yeats bought (called Thoor Ballylee) and where he lived in the summers. It inspired his poem The Tower. It was built by the de Burgos, a Norman family, probably in the fourteen century and is entirely surrounded by water, which means that it frequently floods. It also fell into rack and ruin but was restored and is now also run by volunteers. If the weather is nice, which it was for us, you get splendid views but I imagine it could be very cold (and wet) in winter.

Padraic Colum: The Flying Swans

The latest addition to my website is Padraic Colum‘s The Flying Swans. Colum is better-known as a poet, playwright and recounter of Irish folk tales so this book – one of the two adult novels – he wrote – is relatively unknown, which is a pity, as it is a very fine story. It tells of the O’Rehill family, formerly Irish gentry but pushed out somewhat by their English colonial masters, but now – late nineteenth century – trying to get back. We follow, in particular, two members, father and son Robert and Ulick. Both father and son seem adrift, unsure of where they are going and what to do. Robert manages to alienate several of his family. He twice abandons his wife and children and shows a general lack of responsibility. Ulick struggles to help his abandoned mother and bring up his younger brother but he, too, cannot find his place and loses his way more than once. Colum tells a superb story, augmented with a large cast of colourful Irish characters.

Sam Coll: The Abode of Fancy

The latest addition to my website is Sam Coll‘s The Abode of Fancy. This is a first novel by an Irishman, who certainly mines Irish literary traditions. It tells the story of various supernatural creatures, in particular the Mad Monk, formerly deceased but now back to life, his deceased brother and dog, and his affair with a banshee, as well as the stories of Simeon Jerome Collins and his father’s odd assortment of friends, drunks, failed lovers, former chess champions, including Simeon’s disastrous love life and his irritating student friend, Konrad. Other characters – real and otherworldly – all make an appearance, as the various stories intermix and then go shooting off in various directions. It is all a bit chaotic and, at times, not as interesting as it might be, but it is certainly a very credible work for a first novel.

J. G. Farrell: Troubles

The latest addition to my website is J. G. Farrell‘s Troubles. This novel, which won the Lost Man Booker Prize more than thirty years after the author’s death, is the first in Farrell’s acclaimed Empire Trilogy. It is set in the crumbling Majestic Hotel, a symbol of the decaying British Empire, located in County Wexford in Ireland, at the end of the First World War and during a period when unrest in Ireland is increasing. Major Archer, who had been invalided out of the army for what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder, seems to have accidentally got engaged to Angela, daughter of the owner of the Majestic and goes to stay with the family there, her father, staunchly opposed to any Irish independence, her irresponsible brother and her almost evil twin sisters. He barely sees Angela, who is ill, but watches as both the hotel and British rule in Ireland, crumble in synchronicity. It is a superb novel and deserves the reputation it had when it first came out.

Paul Murray: The Mark and the Void

The latest addition to my website is Paul Murray‘s The Mark and the Void. This is a hilarious satire on the banking crisis of 2008 onwards and follows the story of an Everyman, Claude, a Frenchman working in a Dublin-based investment bank. We follow the nefarious and wittily described doings of the bank which are, at best, immoral and often illegal. We also follow Claude’s failed love life and, in particular, his friend Paul (possibly Murray), a failed writer, who comes up with various ideas to make his living, including robbing Claude’s bank and setting up a waitress porn website. Murray mocks bankers and banking, writers and publishers, the modern art world, the English, politicians, Eastern Europeans, lovers and anything else that comes into his sight, all the while exposing the failure of the banking crisis in a hilarious way. Unless you think bankers and writers are the salt of the earth, you cannot fail to enjoy this novel.

Joyce Cary: Not Honour More

The latest addition to my website is Joyce Cary‘s Not Honour More. This is the third in Carey’s second trilogy and definitely the weakest. It follows on from the first – Prisoner of Grace – and is narrated by Jim Latter, former soldier and colonial officer, married to Nina, née Woodville, who had been married to the Liberal politician, Chester Nimmo, for a long time. Chester now Lord Nimmo is still living with Latters and Latter suspects him of having an affair with Nina. Meanwhile the 1926 General Strike is starting and Latter is called on to organise the Specials (auxiliary police force) while Nimmo sees it as a way back into politics. Of course, it all goes badly wrong for all of them. With Latter being a most unsympathetic character, volatile, jealous and full of his own self-importance, his narration does not endear him to us nor does it make for as an enjoyable book as its predecessors.