Monday, December 24, 2007

Menna Gallie's "You're Welcome to Ulster": Book Review

This 1970 novel's one of the very first dramatizing the Troubles, and all the more worthwhile due to its pan-Celtic, wry, and first-hand perspective from a woman who had lived there for a decade in County Down, while her husband taught at Queen's University, Belfast. Menna Gallie's novels have been receiving renewed interest from scholars and readers of Anglo-Welsh literature; some have been reissued, although not this one. It can be found in larger public libraries, however. Sarah, nearing forty and recently diagnosed with a lump in her breast, decides to visit "Ulster" in mid-July, unaware of the celebrations of the Twelfth indulged in by that area's Loyalist community. A liberal who works at Cambridge, Welsh-speaking originally, leftist liberal but no Nationalist, nominally Protestant only because she is not Catholic, her sharpish tongue, no-nonsense observations, and wry mix of self-pity and idealism make for a busy week on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Gallie provides a cast of characters who, in their varying views on the situation beginning to worsen in the North, show everything from Marxist to Nationalist to Republican to Unionist to indifferent reactions to what ails the province. Seeing that she wrote before the worse stage of the war, her attempts to show, filtered through her own Welsh-Cambridge sensibility, the effects not only of war but desire for sexuality from the attitude of Sarah, long widowed and seeking to renew an affair she had previously five years back with a Protestant journalist sympathetic to the Civil Rights campaign, makes for a thoughtful examination by one Celt of another Celtic-tinged struggle for identity within a fracturing British-dominated system.

Particularly engaging are Sarah's reactions to the "stage-Irishry" within both Catholics/Nationalists and Protestants/Unionists are trapped, once the cameras come. The Hollywood-ization of the country that preceded the outbreak of violence gains a rarely addressed forum here.

The ending is not predictable, and although melodramatic elements do enter to spice up the plot, Gallie remains fair-minded to all involved in the story, and even though in the relative compression of time and place that this novel features, her fresh perspective by a Welsh woman on the Irish divisions that have already begun to spread--resisting the Anglo invader, or collaborating for the benefits of liberal democracy?--to Wales ensure that this overlooked novel remains relevant today.

Posted to Amazon US today with a bit of editing. Image credit: as Gallie's book's too "old" for a d.j. upload that I can find on the Net, here's a handsome representation of Dana/ Dôn. She's the source of the Dneiper, Danube, and, yes, the River Don; the Celtic mother goddess common to Wales and Ireland as well, and a formidable female herself. The site below gives other alternative forms, first listed being the Irish form of my birthmother's name!

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