Alan Titley, review of Snagcheol by Pól Ó Muirí, in The Irish Times (28 Sept 2002)

Details: Alan Titley, ‘This and other worlds’, review of Pól Ó Muirí, Snagcheol, in The Irish Times (28 Sept 2002), Weekend Review

The final story in Pól Ó Muirí’s new collection might be a conclusion to Seosamh Mac Grianna’s unfinished novel, Dá mbíodh ruball ar an éan , but it also serves as a summation of many of the concerns of these fine stories. Idealism, betrayal, disillusionment, stupidity, enlightenment are the lot of the characters throughout this book whether they are driven by anger, ambition or love.

One of its great strengths is the variety of tone and voice and location ranging from the classically conventional, through the documentary to the joyous shouts of the poetic. A food journalist gabbles on about his career in a crass conversational way lacing his talk with pretentious bits of French; a new government minister with a violent paramilitary background agonises over his past and his “lapse” into politics; the owner of a Chinese restaurant spills the story of his tough life and falls foul of the old bigotries; a detective searches for the truth in the life of a black American jazz musician; a journalist muses on the power of the obit writer; a newly released prisoner struggles to come to terms with his life in a layered and complex tale about regret and disappointment and lost youth.

There are also some plainly funny stories, although fuelled by a sharp sense of satire, such as the Gaelic Leaguer who sells some of his more private parts to the devil in order to be top dog in the organisation, or the translator who is requested to turn an official document into West Belfast Irish.

This anarchic streak is only one side of the more serious commentary lodged in the narratives on the tension between the great ideals to which we cling and our inability to be able to do much about them. Part of this struggle is manifest in the many instances where the dirty work of grubby journalism meets the high business of great art.

Pól Ó Muirí’s stories are always enjoyable and many of them rattle along with great pace, but underneath them all those real questions continue to lurk, and we encounter them in a most accomplished way.

Daithí Ó Muirí’s stories, on the other hand, inhabit a different kind of world. It is a world of mirrors and uncertainty where strange characters come and go in an indefinite landscape. A dog wanders in from a storm and wanders away again; a screaming woman is followed to Mass; a journalist visits the Town of the Eunuchs in some strange country where there is only one woman; there are rumours of war going on out there, and there may even be a ceasefire.

We are led into this strange place and given a guided tour. The writing is clear, exact, stylish but there may be a similarity of tone from story to story. This may be helpful, however, as it is this peculiar atmosphere which gives the book its resonance.

The final long story, “An tsáinn ina bhfuil mé”, invites us into a more recognisable place where people have names and relate to one another. The tale of love between a young man and an older women could be difficult to handle, but this is where Ó Muirí’s oblique approach is eminently successful.

Micheál Ó Conghaile has a much more direct way of dealing with the same question, except in this case it is the fascination of an older man for a young woman. His novella takes us directly into the mind of the man and his obsession. We inhabit his house and we feel his world closing in on him. Although the borders between his mind and what lies outside it are sometimes blurred, we are never led into mushy fantasy. The unity of the writing holds it all together and we are rolled along never knowing what the end of this could possibly be. All of this is a risky task on a risky theme. To tell it would be to invite the charge of impossibility. But Micheál Ó Conghaile carries it off by his sympathy, his understanding, his courage and the power of his writing.

[ Alan Titley is a writer and academic. Snagcheol, by Pól Ó Muirí. Lagan Press. 164 pp,£6.95 Stg. Cogaí, by Daithí Ó Muirí. Cló Iar-Chonnachta.142 pp, €10.00. Seachrán Jeaic Sheáin Johnny, by Micheál Ó Conghaile. Cló Iar-Chonnachta. 96pp. €10.00 ]

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