Bruce Cook, ‘The Irish: Pugnacious, Powerless, and Bored’, in National Observer (1 March 1975)

Review of The Irish, by Thomas J. O’Hanlon (Harper & Row), 316pp.; The Leavetaking, by John McGahern (Atlantic: Little, Brown 195pp.; The Poor Mouth, by Flann O’Brien (Viking), 128pp. [US prices cited.]
Source: Supplied in photocopy by Raymond Mullen (April 2010). Journal, date and page details written contemporaneously in hand. See also “In Memoriam - Bruce Cook”, in January Magazine - online; accessed 04.05.2010.

My father, red-haired and freckle-faced, had a dread of being taken for Irish which, he insist he was not. I could never understand this and one day asked him why.

“Every time you hear a guy in a bar shooting his mouth off, looking for a fight”, he said, “the guy turns out to be Irish. They’re troublemakers, the lot of them.”

While it would be less than just to allow it were the whole truth, it would be less than honest to deny that it is part of it. The Irishare a troublesome race, and no mistake. You only to turn on your television and get the latest news from Belfast to be reminded of it. And should you think for a moment that the trouble the Irish cause themselves is restricted to the seven [sic] counties in the north, and tjem here’s a book about them, simply called The Irish, to inform you otherwise. It’s by journalist Thomas J. O’Hanlon - native-born, but like so many of his countrymen emigrated to America - and it’s the best quick trot around the Emerald Isle I’ve taken since Heinrich Boll’s Irish Journal.

O’Hanlon, a Fortune editor, is much more a facts-and-figures man than Boll, but he writes well about the people. And is not afraid to reveal a little of himself - when, for instance, after excoriating the government for its no divorce stand, he tells how his mother suffered years of physical abuse at the hands of his father because she had no legal recourse He has a good way with statistics too, using them to suggest quite unexpected things, as he is when he tells us that in some districts of Dublin 60 per cent of all crimes are committed on Friday nights “when the bored working population begins the first lengthy potlatch of the week-end.

That says a good deal about the quality and extent of boredom and frustration in Ireland today. And it is this sense of frustration - political, religious, and sexual - that is the cause of Irish troublemaking. Or, as O’Hanlon has it in one of his many sentences of of epigrammatic incisiveness: “Nurtured from birth with the doctrine that they have a lien on greatness, the Irish are unable to come to terms with their own powerlessness.”

The literature of the Irish, most would agree, provides their clearest claim to greatness. But ironically, it has been, at least in the Twentieth Century, an adversary literature, attacking the society that has repressed it. Most of Ireland’s finest writers, from James Joyce to Brian Moore; have fled her, O’Hanlon notes, preferring to breathe in exile rather than being smothered at home.

Exile - it’s a familiar theme in Irish writing. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not one rich in material for the writer who has lived it. John McGahern makes it new in The Leave-taking, the third novel by this most talented of Ireland’s younger writers (he’ll be 40 this year). That’s most talented, not most accomplished. For The Leavetaking, just like McGahern’s last — a chilling little novel, published in 1966, titled The Dark - is marred by technical errors.

Still, McGahern is a writer of great, feeling and emotional strength. His new book, as the title implies, is a tale of departure, of shutting the door on one’s native land. In fact, it is presented within the frame of a single day, Patrick Flanagan’s last as a teacher in Dublin; tomorrow he will leave for England. In this last day he reviews his life and the circumstances that have driven him to leave.

He reviews a good deal too much. There is something compulsive about the way McGahern tells and retells the story of his mother’s death and his own grim childhood. This was the stuff of his first two novels; it even found its way into a number of the stories in Nightlines, a collection published back in 1971. Now we suffer once again with the schoolteacher mother through her cancer. We must again endure the meanness of the father, who is a policeman. The trouble is, this book tells little about their child, Patrick - simply that he was there and saw it all. He couldn’t, however, have seen and heard all he tells here: There is a fundamental violation of point-of-view in the novel, which at one point causes confusion on the identity of the “I”who is addressing the reader. A fault, surely.

Of the circumstances of Patrick’s departure, however, there is only good to say. His courtship of Isobel, an American girl, in London is fascinating, and her father the con man deserves a novel all his own. Patrick and Isobel marry and return to Ireland, and the dilemma he works through, the situation that eventually forces him to go, is one so characteristic of ancient hypocrisy in modern Ireland as to seem almost allegorical.

Altogether, a flawed book, though not a bad one. Still, if John McGahern is the great hope of the Irish novel, as some say he is, then it can only mean that a great tradition is now sadly in decline. The last Irish novelist to hold sway, more or less undisputed, over the literature of the land was Flann O’Brien, pr Myles na.Gopaleen - or, if you will, Brian O’Nolan. The latter was the name he was born with (and, for that matter, died with, in 1966). The first is the name under which he wrote such original novels as At Swim Two Birds and The Third Policeman. The second is the name he used to write a newspaper column in the Irish Times. It was begun in Gaelic, but subsequently English and Irish (as they insist on calling the language there) on alternate days. There was never a newspaper column like it.

I remember, the first time I laid eyes on it, I thought it was one long typographical error - puns tortured out to paragraph length, anagrams, obscure jokes, and all this in English. God knows what ot was like in Gaelic! In The Irish Thomas J. O’Hanlon tells of a conversation he had once with a Myles scholar that went something like this: “Did you ever hear Myles’ best pun? “The Carmen are not so Bizet as they used to be.’ Do you get it? A right wan, I thought. That should give you an idea.

A true word maniac, O’Nolan had the jump on Joyce in being truly bilingual - as, by the way, Brendan Behan was also. O’Nolan even wrote a novel in Gaelic back at the beginning of his career under the name Flann O’Brien - though, should you wonder, all his subsequent novels were written in English. An Beal Bocht, originally published in 1941 and now translated by Patrick C. Power as The Poor Mouth, is something of a literary curiosity. Whether you find it more than that will depend on just how you respond to the rather weird, deadpan quality of its humor. It is an extremely literary, almost pedantic book, whose true subject is the language in which it was written - Gaelic: “... he understood that good Gaelic is difficult but that the best Gaelic of all is well-nigh unintelligible.” (And this, of course, is very good Gaelic indeed.)

Cast in the form of a memoir of Bonaparte O’Conassa, the book satirises both peasant life in the west of Ireland and the literature of that life, from Synge to James Stephens. It will tell you less about the Irish, frankly, than it will about the strange territory inside the head of one of its most considerable writers. Troublesome in his own way, too.


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