Eugene McCabe (1930-2020)

1930- ; b. 7 July 1930 in Glasgow, where his family lived until outbreak WWII; his gf. owned a 20-acre farm nr. Shercock; and became a successful publican and hotelier in Scotland who later bought a farm in Monaghan on the advice of a local priest (to prevent its reversion to Protestant owners); was first sent to St. Andrews, a Benedictine Prep School in Edinburgh; afterwards at Castleknock College (Dublin) and in UCC [Cork], his holidays were spent in Clones, where he remained in Ireland during the war, being ed. at Killashee, Co. Kildare, Castleknock College, Co. Dublin, and University College, Cork (grad. BA in English & History);
published story in Irish Writing, 1940, and invited by London publisher Rupert Hart-Davis to submit a novel, leading to discovery that he could write dialogue but not as yet to book-publication; m. Margot Bowen; farmed first in Wicklow, then in 1954 at Drumard House, taking over family farm nr. Clones, Co. Monaghan (purchased by his gf.), located 400 yards from the border - and where he continued till his death in 2022; started writing in 1962 and called himself ‘a farmer who happens to write, or a writer who happens to farm’; sent first play, A Matter of Conscience, to Hilton Edwards at the Gate in 1959; shared critical honours with Brian Friel at Dublin Theatre Festival, 1964 with King of the Castle (revived 14 Sept. 1970, and again in 1989, dir. Garry Hynes [60th anniv. of Dublin Th. Fest.), the story of an impotent elderly farmer in Leitirm called “Scober’ McAdam, who gets a young drifter (Matt Lynch) to impregnate his wife, based on a story gleaned from a clergyman, produced at the Dublin Theatre Festival; involved in writing The Riordans in the 1960s; wrote Pull Down a Horseman (1966; pub. 1979), play dealing with career of James Connolly and produced as part of the 1916 commemorations; Breakdown (1967);
wrote Swift (1969), a play on Jonathan Swift, which failed at the Abbey; also plays for television Breakdown; Some Women of the Island; A Matter of Conscience; The Funeral; RTÉ screened Victims, ‘a trilogy dealing with contemporary Ulster’, being a novella with the additional stories ‘Cancer” and “Heritage”; adapted Thomas Flanagan’s The Year of the French serialised on RTÉ / Channel 4, 1979; wrote Gale Day (1979) commissioned by the Abbey and RTÉ at centenary of Patrick Pearse’s birth; issued Death and Nightingales (1992) a tragic pastoral novel set in 1883, in the wake of the Invincibles, and based on a real events - ‘a tale from across the lake’ (interview, infra); his play Pull Down a Horseman was stage in Aras an Uachtarain in Feb. 2016 in the presence of President Higgins; published “Heaven Lies About Us” (2004) - a collection of short stories written over several years, the title-story being a tale of brother-sister incest-abuse, written in 1997; issued Tales from the Poor House (1998), four dramatic monologues set in Famine Ireland, commissioned and screened in Irish and English versions on RTÉ/TnaG;
winner of the Hubert Butler Award for Prose from Irish Cultural Institute, 2002; issue Heaven Lies About Us (2005), collected shorter fiction; winner of the AWB Vincent Literary Award, 2006 and won an Irish Life Award at the Dublin Th. Festival; issued The Love of Sisters (2009), a novella focussed on the relations of Carmel Carmody, a Carmelite who leaves her order, and her sister Tricia with whom she stays and who betrays her with man that Carmel marries, a handsome but morally dubious Cavan undertaking, himself a cousin; wrote a letter to The Irish Times defending Dermot Healy’s Long Time, No See against the reviewer Eileen Battersby, 29 March 2011 [see infra], and was answered by several others supporting Battersby’s verdict; he read “Come Dance with Kitty Stobling” by Patrick Kavanagh at Kavanagh’s graveside in Inniskeen, Co Monaghan in 2017; d. [26] August 2027; ashes spread in 7th c. Celtic church hear Drumard; survived by his wife Margot [née Bowen], with whom four chilren [Ruth (actress under family name), Marcus, Patrick and Steven). DIW DIL FDA OCIL

Photos by Pat Langan and Bobbie Hanvey (printed
in The Irish Times, Aug. 27 2020). [Click to enlarge.]

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  • King of the Castle (Dublin: Gallery; Newark: Procenium 1978), [rev. edn.] (Oldcastle: Gallery 1997).
  • Roma ([Dublin: Turoe & RTÉ 1979), 60pp. [for television with the short story from which it was adapted];
  • Cancer (Newark: Proscenium [1980]) [for television with the short story from which it was adapted].
  • Pull Down a Horseman / Gale Day (Dublin: Gallery 1979) [one-act plays].
Short fiction
  • Victims: A Tale from Fermanagh (London: Gollancz; Cork: Mercier 1976), 128pp. [novella, and stories ‘Cancer” and ‘Heritage”].
  • Heritage and Other Stories (London: Gollancz 1978), Do. (Dublin: O’Brien 1985), 147pp. [contains ‘Truth”; ‘Victorian Fields”; ‘Roma”; ‘Music at Annahullion”; ‘Cancer”, ‘Heritage”, ‘Victims”].
  • Christ in the Fields: A Fermanagh Trilogy (London: Minerva 1993), 197pp.
  • Tales from the Poor House (Oldcastle: Gallery 1999), 126pp. [contains ‘The Orphan”, ‘The Master”, ‘The Landlord”, and ‘The Mother”]. Also contrib. ‘Strangers” [story], in Irish Writing, 26 [q.d.], pp.22-28.
  • Death and Nightingales (Secker & Warburg 1992), 230pp, and Do. (London: Minerva 1993), French trans. by Renée Kérisit, Ode funébre (Paris: éditions Marval 1994).
  • The Love of Sisters (Dublin: New Island 2009), 112pp.
For children
  • Cyril: The Quest of an Orphaned Squirrel (Dublin: O’Brien 1986), [for children].
Collected works
  • Heaven Lies About Us (London: Jonathan Cape 2005; Vintage 2005), 309pp. [12 stories incl. “Cancer”, “Heritage”, “Victims”; “Roma”; “The Orphan”, “The Master”, “The Landlord”, “The Mother”; et al.).
  • Contrib. foreword to Michael Davitt, trans., Padraic Pearse, Rogha Dánta / Selected Poems (Dublin: New Island 1994), pp.7-18.
  • Contrib. intro. to Shadows from the Pale: Portrait of an Irish Town (London: Secker & Warburg 1996), 113pp. [a book of photos by John Minihan].
“For Margot Bowen” [poem], in The Irish Times (10 Nov. 2000), Weekend p.11 [‘Let’s ignore the curlew’s lament nor mind / The brown hawk circling high above the wood …’].

Bibliographical details
Heaven Lies About Us (London: Jonathan Cape; Australia & NZ: Random House 2005), [8], 309pp., ill. [port. on back cover verso]. Contents, “Heaven Lies About Us” [1]1996; “Truth” [35] 1985; “Victorian Fields” [45]; “Roma” [57]; “Music at Annahullion” [63] 1985; “Cancer” [75]; “Heritage” [87]; “Victims” [141] 1985; “The Orphan” [221]; “The Master” [239]; “The Landlord” [267]; “The Mother” [295-309] 1985; Arranged chron. in order of first publication; copyrights stated as above on t.p. verso. Ded. “For Margot for a lifetime”.

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  • Benedict Kiely, review of Victims: A Tale from Fermanagh, in The Irish Times (20 Nov. 1976).
  • Robert Hogan, ‘Since O’Casey’ and Other Essays on Irish Drama (Colin Smythe 1983), pp.140-42.
  • Christopher Fitzsimon, The Irish Theatre (Thames & Hudson 1983), p.196.
  • D. E. S. Maxwell, Modern Irish Drama 1891-1980 (Cambridge UP 1984), pp.169-70.
  • Daniel Murphy, interview with McCabe [recorded in the Dept. of Education at TCD], in Education and the Arts, ed. Murphy (Dublin: TCD 1987), pp.175-182.
  • Colm Tóibín, Walking the Border (Macdonald 1987), photos by Tony O’Shea, ‘The Walls of Derry’ [see extract].
  • Carlo Gèbler, review of Death and Nightingales, in The Spark (3 March 1992), pp.48-49 [see extract]:
  • Carlo Gèbler, review of Death and Nightingales in Fortnight (Nov. 1992) [see extract].
  • Eileen Battersby, interview with McCabe, The Irish Times (8 Aug. 1992), weekend section.
  • Interview with Eugene McCabe, on Ulster Radio [BBC] (Saturday 2 Feb. 1993).
  • Simion D., ‘“This Place Owns Me”: Eugene McCabe in Conversation with Simion D, in Irish Studies Review, 7 (Summer 1994), pp.28-30 [see extract].
  • Gerry Smyth, The Novel and the Nation: Studies in the New Irish Fiction (London: Pluto Press 1997) [on Death and Nightingales], pp.138-40.
  • Eileen Battersby, ‘Powerful polemics motivated by injustice [...]’, review of Heaven Lies About Us, in The Irish Times, Weekend (15 Jan. 2005), p.13 [see extract].
  • John Kenny [short notice], in The Irish Times (25 Feb. 2006) [see extract].
  • John Kenny, ‘A Tale of Cloister and Heart’, review of The Love of Sisters by Eugene McCabe, in The Irish Times (14 March 2009), Weekend, p.10 [see extract];
  • Rory Brennan, ‘The Brink of Terror’, review of The Love of Sisters, in Books Ireland (Sept. 2009), p.174f. [see extract].
See also D. L. Kirkpatrick, Modern Dramatists (London: St. James Press 1988), pp.350-51, and sundry reviews under Commentary, infra.

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Some short crits ...
Michael Ondaatje: ‘A deeply moving, powerful, and unforgettable tale.’
John Banville ‘One of the masterpieces of late twentieth-century Irish writing’ - New Yorker.
Colm Tóibín: ‘clearly one of the great Irish masterpieces of the century’]
—all quoted on inside cover of Heaven Lies Around Us (pb. edn., 2005).

Alan Warner: ‘The greatest living Irish prose writer [...] One day, great twentieth-century prose in the English language will be acknowledged to include Eugene McCabe’s breathtaking facility and the deep, necessary anguish of his fictional universe.’ (Inside cover of Heaven Lies Around Us, pb. edn., 2005.)

Colm Tóibín, Walking the Border (Macdonald 1987), photos by Tony O’Shea, ‘The Walls of Derry’ [Chap. 8], Tóibín meets McCabe and his wife Margot at their house, Dromard, Co. Fermanagh, the farm straddling the border near Lackey Bridge, closed; McCabe talks about the targeting of the UDR and RUC which is experienced by the Protestant locals as genocide; the chapter includes an account of the genesis of his two books published in the 1970s, Victims (1976) and Heritage (1978); got the idea for Heritage from a woman living in the abandoned house at Lackey Bridge who also cleaned in Dromard; also worked across the border for the Johnston; she mentioned that there was friction in the household because a son Ernest had joined the UDR; Tóibín cites the opening of the story, and ends recounting how the McCabe’s heard shooting one night, Sept. 1980, and learnt the following morning that Ernest Johnston had been shot dead; they listen to the car radio appalled; the character in Heritage had been shot dead; now the original had been shot dead as well.’ (pp.107-110). [Note: Tóibín’s remark that McCabe only writes masterpieces is often quoted.]

Carlo Gèbler, review of Death and Nightingales, in The Spark, 3 March 1992, pp.48-49: Gèbler discusses the traditional Irish distinction between domestic violence and political violence (traditionally considered justifiable) in relation to the crimes of Liam Ward, Gebler says, ‘As it is the same sensibility that is at work in both cases, then one can no longer argue that there is a qualitative distinction between the two kinds of violence ... if the revolutionaries of the past are no longer gods, then it is no longer possible to justify emulating their deeds in the name of a continuing national liberation struggle.’

Carlo Gèbler, review of Death and Nightingales in Fortnight (Nov. 1992), [q.p.]; set at the time of the Phoenix Park Murders. Liam Ward, quarryman and Fenian, plans to elope with Beth, the daughter of a Protestant quarry owner, though herself a Catholic as a result of her parents mixed marriage. They [plan to] murder her father for his gold, kept in the house [a safe]. Ward however pursued by the Fenians whose funds he has stolen, and it turns out that he plans to murder Beth too, once the money is secured [with a half-witted accomplice]. McCabe equates Fenianism with duplicity and unscrupulous killing; ‘a fine, iconoclastic book’. Further: battered by her father, Beth faces him, deceives him into rowing to a lake-island (her island) and pulls the plug from the boat; he cannot swim. A kind of reunion of daughter and father occurs, revolving round the fact that he has always reviled her as the daughter of his Catholic wife conceived before his marriage to her; her mother has been gored to death by a bull with his son in her womb.

Simion D. [pseud.], ‘“This Place Owns Me”: Eugene McCabe in Conversation with Simion D, in Irish Studies Review, 7 (Summer 1994), pp.28-30: [...] “McCabe’s fictional space cannot be separated from the real geographic locations: Ulster, Fermanagh and Monaghan mainly. “This is my universe because I’ve been here since I was ten. In writing you describe what you see.” I point at the fact that he was born in Glasgow in 1930 of Irish parents, and was educated in Dublin and Cork. I detected only one short story, “Truth”, set somewhere other than Ulster. “It is this place that has me by the short and curlier’, he confesses. “I went as a writer in residence to Glasgow for a period of six months, over the winter. I could have stayed there ... I came back and continued farming. My God, I was glad to be back!”

[Interview with Simion D. - cont:] The moody April has chosen a mild twilight for this second meeting of ours. Inviting to recollection. To nostalgia. “It was in the month of May’, he goes on. “I didn’t realise, when I was away, how much I missed it.” / Nostalgia for a faraway place is common, but it is nostalgia for living and working in the place he loves that makes me identify with Eugene McCabe - the writer and the space, his space, a strong relationship, not always an easy one but deep, essential, just like the fundamental feelings that rule his writings. He could go and live somewhere else, “by the sea or outside Dublin”. “It wouldn’t have to be the anxiety of the land, because there is an anxiety.” On the other hand, maybe the land, maybe living here, working here, did compensate for the take-up that I didn’t produce the books I wanted to produce”. The places have their tales and histories, the writer puts them down. “Music at Annahullion” is based on what happened “a few miles from here, across the river’; Death and Nightingales is the literary re-working of “a tale from across the lake”.

[Interview with Simion D. - cont:] McCabe’s routes in life appear like circles starting and ending at Drumard. Most of his short stories, his latest novel too, have a circular construction. An ordinary or extraordinary event, emotion or thought, sets the characters in motion. A catalyst - fundamental feelings, tribalism, politics - determines development and fate. This is all on the background of a space which is always there, always the same, as eternal to us as the cosmic elements. “This place owns me’, he says. “It has its tentacles round me, round my heart, my brain, my blood. It’s like a woman!” / McCabe’s Ulster is Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven, Joyce’s Dublin, Marquez’s Macondo. Always present in two dimensions: the real and the fictional. Had it not existed, I’m sure McCabe would have invented it.” (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

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Eileen Battersby, ‘Powerful polemics motivated by injustice [...]’, review of Heaven Lies About Us, in The Irish Times, Weekend (15 Jan. 2005), p.13: ‘Returning to these stories has proved problematic. They read less as narratives than as bulletins, deliberate snapshots chronicling the woes of a borderland country in turmoil. Collectively they share anger and rage. McCabe is far less interested in individuals and the heroic than is his near-contemporary, William Trevor, who is more drawn to the private than the public. If memory and nuance inspire Trevor, McCabe’s preoccupation with history is far more polemical. / His Ireland is a bleak hell of angry sex and tribal hatreds. There are few moments of tenderness, and little humour. The only humanity gracing these stories is that which McCabe confers on Harriet, the despairing hostage truth-teller in ‘Victims’. While her responses, filtered through her wealth, privilege and reading of poets, are sophisticatedly despairing, there is a sole idealist, Mickey, the old down-and-out dreamer in ‘Roma’. Having allowed his existence to revolve around the purity of a young girl, he is devastated to discover her sexual curiosity is as earthy as that of her peers. / Even the descriptions of the Border county landscape present throughout the stories has a tight-lipped clarity. McCabe is no romantic; he is a realist merely based in a pastoral setting. His realism is brutal and often melodramatic. Sex decides, and it is the furtive, impersonal sexuality of barter, fear and shame. / Much of the dialogue, clipped and raw, would probably convince better on the stage, supported by gesture and long silences, than it does on the page. As early as the opening title story, McCabe makes his intentions clear. This is a story of abuse.’ (See full text in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews” - as attached.)

John Kenny [short notice], in The Irish Times (25 Feb. 2006): ‘McCabe explores the primitive forces that can explode within private and public lives, and by the end the title assumes a formidable double meaning. Humans are vicious, anguished, potentially unredeemable, and our idea of heaven may be a lie about us.’

John Kenny, ‘A Tale of Cloister and Heart’, review of The Love of Sisters by Eugene McCabe, in The Irish Times (14 March 2009), Weekend, p.10: ‘[...] Defying received wisdom about the novella’s inability to convincingly treat with time, within the first three pages here we have been skilfully moved from 1947 and the death near Cork of the mother of young Tricia and Carmel Carmody, to 26 years later when Carmel has left her beloved Carmelite order because of the “scruples” it will be the story’s function to uncover. Tricia, whose own intervening life is subtly delineated, insists that Carmel come to live in Spanish Point with her and her daughter, Isabel. Thereafter, with a smoothness and occasional subplotting that are extraordinary for a novella, the narrative moves back and forth in time to recount Carmel’s experiences as a novice and contemplative, her relationships with her fellow sisters (especially the gardener, Martha), her unsure re-entry into life and love outside the convent, and her eventual marriage to a Cavan undertaker which culminates in a hard lesson involving her biological sister. [... &c.’; for full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.]

Rory Brennan, ‘The Brink of Terror’, review of The Love of Sisters, in Books Ireland (Sept. 2009), p.174f.: ‘Two sisters are neglected in early childhood by their father after the death of their mother. The father takes to drink and is witnessed in flagrante with a babysitter. They are rescued and raised by rich relations who in turn die young. One sister marries and divorces in London, the other enters a convent. The London sister returns home, the professed nun leaves after a postulant is suddenly expelled for having a crush on her. The sisters live together for a while, one quite boozy and sexually active, the other still pious and moralistic. The ex-nun finds work in the home of a widowed undertaker cousin in Cavan, helping with his child, &c. She marries him, even after learning that he wears clothes he has filched from corpses. Both sisters are attractive in personality and physique. The undertaker is not a likeable character but is recorded as handsome. The catharsis comes when the ex-nun discovers her husband in bed with her sister. As in so much of Eugene McCabe’s work the unthinkable and unendurable inexorably happens. The scene is handled with great subtlety and persuasiveness. It is just this capacity to take the reader to the brink of horror and then to somehow leap into the unbridgeable and unbearable that makes him such a marvellous writer. This skill is connected to the dramatic but reaches far beyond it. It would seem from the gesture of a child at the end that that the story points the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. A false ending? A close reading of the text (i.e. “clues”) leads me to suppose that the betrayal was planned by the divorced sister. There are one or two details in the novella (awful word but then the French conte is not very satisfactory either) that don’t ring quite true. The occupations of court clerk and lecturer in economics can simply not be held together and banks did not sell off their large premises in provincial towns until the amalgamations of the late sixties. / These are tiny flaws in an otherwise near-perfect narrative of insight and observation [...]’ For various responses, see:

Martin Doyle [Obituary], in The Irish Times (27 Aug. 2020)

[Heading: Eugene McCabe, author and playwright, dies, aged 90: Acclaimed author of King of the Castle, Death and Nightingales and Troubles screenplays.

EUGENE MCCABE, one of Ireland’s leading contemporary writers, has died, aged 90.
 He made his name as a playwright, his breakthrough play King of the Castle offending The League of Decency in 1964. A stern critic of violent extremism and sectarianism, influenced by a lifetime spent living on the Border, he wrote a trilogy of hard-hitting screenplays about the Troubles for RTÉ in the early 1970s: “Cancer”, “Heritage” and “Siege”.
 His 1992 novel Death and Nightingales, described by author Colm Tóibín as “one of the great Irish masterpieces of the century’ was recently adapted for television by the BBC. As well as writing a series of highly acclaimed short story collections, most recently Heaven Lies about Us (2005), he also wrote for children and the nonfiction work, Shadows from the Pale: Portrait of an Irish Town (1996).
 President Michael D Higgins described McCabe as a writer who “was able to capture the complexity of differing viewpoints, and particularly of those confronted with bigotry and fundamentalism’ “It is with deep regret and much sadness that I have learned of the death of Eugene McCabe, playwright, author, farmer and member of Aosdána,’ President Higgins said.
 “Eugene McCabe will be remembered for an outstanding contribution to Irish theatre, for his award-winning television plays and for a body of writing that confronted with courage issues in Irish society.
 “His considerable skill as a storyteller was applied in a wide variety of styles and genres, be it novels, short stories, plays or writing for children. He explored complex themes, including the legacy of colonialism and the hatred inherent in sectarianism.
 “Like few others, Eugene McCabe was able to capture the complexity of differing viewpoints, and particularly of those confronted with bigotry and fundamentalism.
 “Sabina and I were privileged to know him. Sabina has fond memories of her involvement in his play Some Women On The Island. He corresponded with me on my poem “the Death of Mary Doyle’, on which he made a valuable critique. We were pleased that he was able to be present for the performance in Áras an Uachtaráin of his play Pull Down A Horseman, in February 2016.
 “The world of Irish theatre has lost someone who was a powerful and original contributor to Irish letters.
 “Sabina and I would like to express our deepest sympathy to his family, friends and all those who will have come to love and appreciate his work.’
 Kevin Rafter, chair of the Arts Council said: “Colm Tóibín stated of Eugene McCabe that he ‘only produces masterpieces’, and this is true. Writing across every form, he was deeply committed to language and craft, and his powerful work reached an immense audience. Unafraid of complexity and nuance, he chronicled both the political and the personal, with an eye that was at once searing and humane. Eugene McCabe leaves behind a diverse body of work that will be read, performed and viewed for generations to come.’
 A scene from Druid’s production of Eugene McCabe’s King of the Castle, directed by Garry Hynes, as part of the 60th anniversary Dublin Theatre Festival. Photograph: Robbie Jack
 Fintan O’Toole said: “Very few writers in history can write genuine tragedies. It's a rare form because it's so hard to do. Eugene McCabe managed it in two different genres. King of the Castle is a ferocious theatrical tragedy, where the audience can see, as we do in the Greeks or in Shakespeare, that forces are being set in motion whose terrible ending is as clear as it is unstoppable. And both his great novel Death and Nightingales and his Victims trilogy of stories have that same force. More than anyone else through the Troubles, McCabe could make us feel the tragic depth of sectarian history, the way two mindsets, each with its own logic, are hurtling towards mutual destruction.
 ’The reason this stuff is so hard is that it demands of a writer an equal balance between moral passion on the one hand and the absolute control of language and form on the other. McCabe felt deeply the cost of the violence to which he was so physically close and his horror of it beats steadily beneath his work. But he had the skill to rein in that rage, to shape it so delicately that it we are moved, as Aristotle said we should be in tragedies, from terror to pity.’
 Catherine Martin, Minister for Arts and Culture, said: “Eugene McCabe was a master storyteller and dramatist who spent most of his life in my own home county of Monaghan. While he produced a great volume of literary works, he will probably be best remembered for his trilogy of plays which he wrote in the early seventies based on the differing traditions in Northern Ireland. These plays received critical acclaim and were produced and screened by RTEacute; in 1973. It is a day of great sadness for Ireland to lose such a talented writer after other great Irish artists that we have lost in recent times. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
 Born in Glasgow in 1930 to parents from Fermanagh and Monaghan, he made his home near Clones, Co Monaghan, on the family farm where he lived and worked as a farmer and a writer for the past 65 years. His childhood summers were spent in Monaghan, and the family returned there permanently after the outbreak of the second World War. He was educated at Castleknock College in Dublin and later University College Cork, where he studied English and history.
 Upon graduating McCabe returned home to the farm. In 1966 he abandoned full-time farming to devote himself to writing. His many awards include the Butler Literary Award for Prose from the Irish Cultural Institute in 2002, and the AWB Vincent Literary Award from the American Ireland Fund in 2006. McCabe is married to Margot Bowen and they have four children, including the actor Ruth McCabe. He is a member of Aosdána.
 Writing in The Irish Times in 2018, US-based author and critic Adrienne Leavy wrote: “Reading McCabe’s vital body of work, it is clear that Colm Tóibín’s assertion that “Eugene McCabe only produces masterpieces’ is no glib praise. In sparse poetic language McCabe unflinchingly dissects the corrosive legacies of colonialism and sectarianism on the entangled communities living in the border counties of Fermanagh, Monaghan and Cavan. His work is further distinguished by a pronounced absence of didacticism as he explores the nuances of human behavior and the roots of ingrained hatred.’
 In A Tribute to Eugene McCabe, published by the Centre for Cross-Border Studies, Andy Pollak sums up the genius of McCabe’s work thus: “McCabe - perhaps uniquely among Irish Catholic writers - is equally able to write about the terror and contempt of Protestant border farmers and UDR men as he is to portray the anger and vengefulness of their Catholic neighbours and historic adversaries. And he is able to see into the wounded humanity of both communities and evoke sympathy with the most unlikely people, people driven demented by religion and politics and death and drink and bigotry.’
 One of McCabe’s first plays, King of the Castle, premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1965. The play centres on the character of ‘Scober’ MacAdam, an elderly, impotent farmer who is married to a much younger woman. Scober was born in poverty, and his early life of depravation has shaped his character. Avaricious and cunning, he has made his fortune and purchased a former “Big House’ in Co Letrim. His neighbours and employees envy his wealth, and when rumours of his impotency threaten his pride, Scober hires a drifting journeyman, Matt Lynch, to impregnate his wife. The play was controversial at the time due to its unflinching examination of the recent Irish past and because of its stark exploration of sex as a bargaining currency; however, it went on to win the Irish Life Award at the festival. In many respects, the harsh, uncomfortable world that Scober and his wife exist in is reminiscent of the rural Ireland Patrick Kavanagh excoriates in his anti-pastoral long poem, The Great Hunger.
 In the early seventies, McCabe wrote a trilogy of short stories, “Cancer”, “Heritage” and “Siege”, which he subsequently adapted for broadcast by RTÉ in 1973 under the title Victims. The first story, “Cancer’, won the Writers Award in Prague and took second prize in the Prix Italia. Collectively, the trilogy were gathered and published in one volume in 1993 under the title Christ in the Fields. In these stories McCabe examines the divided loyalties and heightened emotions of individuals who live in the Irish Border counties.
 In sparse, bleak prose, replete with local dialects, the Protestant-Catholic impasse is starkly portrayed by characters whose independent agency is tragically compromised by virtue of their historical inheritance. Eoin Flannery reads these stories as ones which “expose the limits of monolithic ideological thought as it manifests in irredeemable sectarian hatred’. In “Cancer”, the republican point of view is explored. Jody McMahon is wasting away from the physical disease while all around him, the cancer of violence and sectarianism is destroying the community in which he and his brother live. Following this is “Heritage”, where the conflict in Northern Ireland is seen through Protestant eyes. Here, a young, well-meaning Protestant farmer is goaded into joining the Ulster Defence Regiment by his bigoted mother and her brother. He receives a death threat from the IRA, and knowing that eventually he will be killed he commits suicide by driving into an army checkpoint. The final story, “Siege”, concerns a small IRA extremist group who take an old aristocratic family hostage. Over the course of the siege the inability of these two groups to understand the other’s perspective is tragically laid bare.
 McCabe’s only novel, the critically acclaimed Death and Nightingales (1992), is considered a modern classic of Irish literature. Part historical novel, part Gothic love story, this deeply moving tale takes place over a 24-hour period on the 25th birthday of Beth Winters, a young Catholic girl who lives with her Protestant step-father, Billy Winters, who is a landowner. Beth’s deceased mother was a Catholic who married Winters knowing she was pregnant by another man, a deception he could not forgive. Alternating between affection and cruelty, Winters’ conduct drives Beth into an affair with Liam Ward, a young Catholic labourer, who hates Winters for his wealth and power. To say any more about the plot would be to spoil the novel for readers; however, one of the main themes running through the book is the fatalistic sense that the characters are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
 Just as he did in the short stories set in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, McCabe here explores the issue of a nation divided by religion, politics and class struggles. Set in the beautiful Fermanagh countryside in 1883, just one year after the Phoenix Park murders of the new chief secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his under-secretary, Thomas Burke, Death and Nightingales exposes the Catholic - Protestant violence lying beneath the surface of this community of landowning farmers and tenant labourers. As in James Joyce’s Dubliners story, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room’, the figure of Charles Stewart Parnell looms large in Death and Nightingales. However, unlike Joyce’s story, which takes place on Ivy Day (the anniversary of the death of Parnell), the figure of Parnell is very much a live presence in Irish politics at the time McCabe’s novel is set. Various characters refer to Parnell either approvingly or disparagingly throughout the book, a device which allows the reader to quickly gauge their political persuasions and loyalties.
 In 1999 McCabe published Tales From The Poorhouse, four dramatic, multi-layered prose monologues set in 1848, at the height of the Great Famine. The overlapping histories of the four characters begins with an opening monologue of a young girl admitted to the workhouse, followed by the stories of the master of the workhouse, a besieged Protestant landlord, and the young girl’s insane mother, also committed to the workhouse. No one gets off easily in these stories. Not only critical of the Protestant landlords who did not do enough to help their tenant farmers, Tales from the Poorhouse is also highly critical of the hypocrisy of the local Catholic priests and the gullible Irish who let their lives be ruled by a church that was guided by its own self-interest.
 Heaven Lies About Us (2004), brings together a collection of short stories McCabe wrote over a three-decade period, including his border trilogy and famine monologues. Taken together, these stories offer a necessary corrective to the idyllic version of Ireland promoted by various tourist and government bodies. Beginning with the terrible tale of a young child sexually abused by her bother, McCabe’s prose immediately draws the reader into the world of his flawed characters and the struggles of the Irish soul.
 Reviewing this collection for the Telegraph, Claire Messud encapsulates the allure of McCabe’s fiction: “For readers keen to experience the power of which fiction is capable, the dread and sorrow it can elicit, the linguistic excitement it can provoke and, above all, the thrill of seeing anew, and more profoundly, what one thought one knew, McCabe is indispensable.’
 Asked by me in a 2011 interview which song he would like played at his funeral, he replied: “All Through the Night sung in Welsh by one of the great Welsh choirs. In an interview with David Norris we agreed that the lone piper had become a cliche at funerals. I opted for Michael Flatley dancing down the aisle in front of my coffin all the way to the hearse. We agreed it would be interesting but very expensive!’
 Speaking then of his deep connection to Drumard, the family farm near Lackey Bridge, he said: “ The familial associations are inescapable. Having to leave would be a kind of death That is why I plan to have my ashes spread in the ground of an early [7th century] Celtic church on the farm.’
 The author is survived by his wife Margot, his children, Ruth, Marcus, Patrick and Stephen, and his 13 grandchildren

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Peter Fallon & Seán Golden, ed., Soft Day: A Miscellany of Contemporary Irish Writing (Dublin: Wolfhound; US: Notre Dame UP 1980), gives extract from King of the Castle.

Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, gen. ed. (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 3, selects from Heritage and Other Stories, ‘Cancer’ [1036-42], relationship between Catholic and Protestant in rural Ulster, Lisnaskea, an IRA atrocity; UDR and Army activity; and memories of the expulsion of the MacMahons by Cromwell; described as ‘ highly gifted, if reluctant, writer’; King of the Castle [1182-86]; BIOG & COMM 1305 [as above]. D. E. S. Maxwell [sect. ed.] calls him a highly gifted if reluctant writer [who] farms the family holding in Co. Monaghan; wrote a trilogy of plays for television under the title Cancer; one section of this was published as a short story [sic], Victims (Mercier / Gollancz 1977). The other two, ‘Cancer’ and ‘Heritage’ appeared as short stories in Heritage and Other Stories (Gollancz 1978).

D. E. S. Maxwell, Modern Irish Drama 1891-1980 (Cambridge UP 1984), ‘His dramatic talent is undeniable, but represented in his more recent work by a trilogy of television plays written for RTE on the Northern Irish troubles’. (pp.169-70.)

Gollancz Ltd. publisher’s notice for Christ in the Fields (1993) avers that ‘Cancer’ appeared in Dublin Magazine, and after in Heritage & Other Stories (London: Gollancz 1978), and that the ‘three tales were conceived as one. this is their first time to be published in one volume.’

Helena Sheehan, Irish Television Drama (RTÉ 1987), lists The Apprentice (1979); Cancer (1973); John Montague, A Change of Management, adapted by McCabe and directed by Jim Fitzgerald (1970); McCabe, The Funeral, dir. by Louis Lenten (1970); McCabe, Gale Day dir. by Pat O’Connor (1979); McCabe, King of the Castle, dir. by Louis Lentin (1977); McCabe, A Matter of Conscience (1962) dir. by Shelah Richards [pp.94, 98]; Brigid K Nalton, Mr Power’s Purchase, adapted by McCabe, dir. by Chloe Gibson (1964); McCabe, Portraits: The Dean [Swift], dir. by Chloe Gibson (1973); McCabe, Roma, dir. by Louis Lentin (1979); with Michael Voysey and Neil Jordan, Sean, dir. by Louis Lentin (1980); McCabe, Some Women on the Island, dir. by Chloe Gibson (1964); McCabe, Victims: Cancer, Heritage, Siege [the trilogy], dir. by Deirdre Friel (1976); McCabe, Winter Music, dir. by Pat O’Connor (1981); Thomas Flanagan, The Year of the French (1982) [6 episodes], adapted by Eugene McCabe and dir. by Michael Garvey [RTE / C4 / FR3]. Also with others scripted The Riordans from 1979.

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Hatred is so sad [...] personal hatred I know only too well, but to hate an entire people, race, sect or class, is so blind, so stupid, so unending, so universal, it makes one despair [...]’ (Lady of big house in Victims; cited in fiction review by Rüdiger Imhof, Linen Hall Review [10, 3], Winter 1993, p.21f.)

The Mower”: ‘I saw a man upon a sit-upon / Grassing cutting round and round a bungalow. / Three score and ten he was, near Carrigbawn / And thought to myself, pray God I’ll not let go / That way, the glazed eye wide for the end / Letting on to be useful, well knowing / It’s over. With luck they’ll find me tending / Bullocks, saying in the haggard, hoeing / Raspberries in an old garden, upright. / Then I head the finder’s hidden voice: / What mater where you’re found day or night / Alone or in a crowd: you have no choice. / And be forewarned the way I’ll call and geet / I’ll casually nod and tap delete.’ (The Irish Times, 27 May 2000.)

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King of the Castle concerns Scober MacAdam, who has acquired by greed and exploitation a former Big House in Co. Letrim; sexually impotent, and goaded by gossip, he devises a plan to effect the impregnation of his young wife; the play concerns the mutual infliction of wounds by the couple and also the community.

Dermot Bolger remarks on King of of the Castle that ‘Eugene McCabe is - and has always been - a fiercely honest, raw, brutal (in the finest sense), and magnificent writer’ (cited in Dufour 1998 Catalogue in regard to Bolger, ed., Padraic Pearse, Rogha Dánta: Selected Poems, with introduction by Eugene McCabe [pp.7-18] and Iar-fhocal le Michael Davitt [pp.75-79], New Island Books, 1993.)

BBC NI : Eugene McCabe gave an account of the inspiration of the title of his novel Death and Nightingales in an interview on Ulster Radio/BBCNI (Sat. 2 Feb. 1993), in the course of a nature programme.

Victims (1976), The IRA takes a big house family hostage in order to demand the release of prisoners; the IRA family of McAleers is dominated by the mother, ‘an Irish Queen Victoria, with de Valera’s nose and Churchill’s mouth’, and her sons Pascell and Pacelli (Tick and Tock) the bombmakers. Harriet, quizzed at the close by a reporter, declares, ‘The world is still beautiful’. Note: The novel was reviewed by Ben Kiely in The Irish Times (20 Nov. 1976), [q.p.].

Swift, failed in its original 1969 production at the Abbey Theatre, directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie, with Micheál Mac Liammóir playing Dean Swift. It was sucessfully rewritten in 1972 as an expressionistic study of Swift’s madness.

The Letter: McCabe wrote a letter to The Irish Times on 29 March 2011 defending Dermot Healy’s Long Time, No See against criticism in a review by Eileen Battersby suggesting that (Weekend Review, 26 March 2011), and was answered by several others defending Battersby’s judgement (viz., Darren Reddin of Metro Ireland, and John Sullivan of Saval Park Cresc., Dalkey, Irish Times, 31 March 2011). McCabe characterised the review as ‘stupid’ and drew attention to a ‘ghost story’ by Battersby [3rd para, in seq.]:

Letter to The Irish Times (Irish Times (29 March 2011)

Madam, – I have just read Eileen Battersby’s Olympian review of Dermot Healy’s Long Time No See. She presses all the right buttons to show the editor and the reading public how knowledgeable she is to expound on his work. Very professional, well indexed stuff. I have also read it. Clearly we were reading different novels. What does it mean when the subtitle states, “Dermot Healy has written a young man’s novel but its dialogue and observations are far longer than this story justifies”? I hesitate to use the word stupid but that’s how that subtitle strikes me.
 Does Ms Battersby look at the photograph of Dermot Healy and say: This is an old man’s effort not fashionable like Neil Jordan’s so I’ll disembowel him because that’s how I feel today?
 We were all privileged to read Ms Battersby’s ghost story in The Irish Times Magazine a few months ago. It was a revelation. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, it was the worst piece of creative writing I have ever read in a long life of reading. Truly. Stunningly bad. I have used it in a workshop as an example of how to avoid writing “shite and onions”. That this person has the temerity to sit in negative judgment on one of the great masters of Irish writing should not pass without comment. – Yours, etc.

  Eugene McCabe,
Drumard, Clones,
Co Monaghan.
Rachel Finucane (Not Good for My Rage)
‘[...] I thought his letter was overblown, unfair and a bit cruel—everything the actual review wasn’t. Battersby’s review was 1,351 words long and it was no hatchet job. She is obviously familiar with the author’s previous work and there are quite a few compliments for Long Time, No See. Personally, I’ve agonised over reviews because I don’t want to rubbish someone’s hard work. There are redeeming qualities in everything, but when you’re digging haphazardly to find that hidden treasure maybe you’re ignoring the giant, glaring X staring at you=it doesn’t quite work. You have to point out the faults because ignoring them is doing the potential audience a disservice.’
[Available online]
Diarmuid Doyle (Wordpress)

’[...] a bad review received  in The Irish Times by his friend, Dermot Healy.  The review of Long Time No See, by the newspaper’s literary editor Eileen Battersby [recte reviewewr] while negative, was by no means savage or bitter. It most certainly wasn’t a personal attack.
 McCabe - an accomplished writer himself - was outraged, however, and decided, to use a sports analogy, to play the woman and not the ball. Recalling a short story Battersby had written for the Irish Times a few months ago, [...]’

[Availale online]

Eileen Battersby: McCabe wrote a letter to The Irish Times defending Dermot Healy’s Long Time, No See against the reviewer Eileen Battersby, (29 March 2011) [see supra], and was answered by several others supporting Battersby’s verdictThe ‘story’ by Battersby was later characterised in a notice in the paper as a piece of reportage rather than fiction - a point earlier taken up by the reviewer’s defenders. See also the report of Healy’s own response to the controversy in The Irish Times (1 April 2011), accompanied by photo of Healy and Neil Jordan at the launch of Healy’s novel, and the satirical coverage of the affair in Phoenix (‘Reviewing Eileen Battersby’, 8 April 2001, p.22) - in which her piece is quoted in extract. The Phoenix article also cites McCabe’s remarks on Aosdana in 2001: ‘why would I appy unless I went completely bankrupt?’ - and notes that he did in fact joint Aosdana in 2006. Battersby was supported in the letters column by John Banville protesting against McCabe’s ‘intemperate attack’ and dismissing his letter as ‘ad hominem and scatological assault’. (The Irish Times, 30 March 2011; signed Bachelor’s Walk, Dublin.) Battersby’s ghost story - true or false - is copied at online - accessed 28.06.2011; see also copy, attached.

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