Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Patrick McGinley's "That Unearthly Valley": Book Review

In Bogmail and Foggage, Patrick McGinley sent up the Irish (could he or it be otherwise?) murder mystery genre. He scooped dollops of encyclopedic wit and mordant satire into these entertainments. A later saga proved more somber and meditative, the Black and Tan War ending as The Lost Soldier's Sad Song, while The Trick of the Ga Bolga updated a mythic showdown around his native village of Glencolmcille, on the blustery coast of Donegal.

This novelist, long resident in England, left the Glen for boarding school around 1950, but he never departed from this glacially carved, prehistoric, bleak, jagged yet lovely landscape in his memory. He compares its draw to the Welsh "hiraeth," a longing for the homeland. He defines the Irish equivalent of "cumhaidh" as a "knot of emotions involving longing for a place and a people in the knowledge that the time longed for can never return." (ix)

The topography of the terrain cuts from the Atlantic into the far northwest. "For me, the Glen is a place that encircles and embraces. From it there is no going forward: it is always the end of the journey. It grips the imagination and holds it captive in a way that a place on the road to somewhere cannot." (5-6) The spare, assertive, yet calm way in which these sentences unfold mirrors Patrick McGinley's craft, and perhaps his verbal dexterity and mental formation in the last generation raised somewhat bilingually in this Donegal enclave, one of the westernmost territories where the Irish language tries to cling to a fabled settlement of Stone Age dolmens and early Christian monuments.

McGinley admits: "Strangers are more aware of this quality of antiquity than those who have lived in the Glen all their lives and for whom hill, cliff and sea are a ubiquitous backdrop to the round of common tasks." (9) Having studied Irish at Oideas Gael there, and inspired to respond myself to the Glen's quick hold over me, I can attest to the truth of his observation: "Most people who have written about Glen or portrayed it in our art see in it what they bring to it, making it into a mirror reflecting what their own personalities and preoccupations. They show us many different Glens, or rather many shadows of the same immemorial Glen." The dramatic placement of this location, deep within a wide canyon pressed in and cut out from the coast's higher land, surrounds you as you descend into it.

The looming, ruined Martello tower raised in 1810 against the fear of Napoleon's invasion overlooks the ocean, while its far more permanent counterparts of the Glen Head, Slieve League, and Screig Beefan command attention. Those born there, whom McGinley represents, may be nearly immune to these screes and slopes; yet the salty wind, the stony valleys, and the scattered houses attract every visitor's gaze. The tower may be but a tiny nub as seen looking northerly from the Glen, but nobody can resist the dominance of the massive rocky ridge, a "solid, sloping, flat-topped crag clad below with green ferns in summer that turn to reddish bracken in winter." (14)

His memoir begins set in this dramatic setting, summing up deftly the power of craic in the village pub,  the flavor of fresh fish, the lingering superstitions, and the ambiguous charisma of Fr. James McDyer, who accelerated the remote parish as if from the early 1800s to the end of the 1900s within two decades. By then, young Patrick was about to leave for Galway and a scholarship at a teacher training school, followed by studies in English and Irish literature at the university there. Stymied by the stagnant culture in the midlands and Dublin, he soon gave up the classroom for the boat to London. Yet, he admires his stolid, but wryly funny, family and neighbors of Killaned townland, and That Unearthly Valley memorializes, not with sentiment but clarity, their hold on his imagination.

McGinley observes relationships sharply. "My father never told us anything about his childhood. For all I knew he might never have had one, and at times it seemed to me that he was bent on making sure that I didn't have one either." (71) His love for this man deepens his son matures, and stacking hay or cutting turf bond the bookish boy with the practical farmer. As for Patrick's mother, the first time he kissed her was when she lay in her coffin.

People endured rather than thrived in the Glen's harshness. While Patrick did not learn about sex, he learned about death soon after his own birth. Watching at deathbeds and serving the priest at funerals, he witnessed the comforts exchanged naturally between those who had lived their whole lives isolated among few families and few surnames. "At times that death had been created solely for the well-being of the living, while sex had been created for their discomfiture and embarrassment." (119)

He regards school with mixed enthusiasm, but gradually, a few chance books on better subjects beckon him into knowledge. He admires Irish history, even if the assigned textbook after 1169 makes it "like supporting a football team that never won a match." (114) He scrutinizes the patriotic cant and discerns the deeper, less apparent meaning in a land where the authority of the Church roused peasants to boldness and futility, qualities that The Lost Soldier's Song would convey movingly.

Unsurprisingly, the tensions of mid-century Ireland that offered few opportunities for the restless thinker and assertive teacher hastened his departure for England. The second half of his account takes you through his education and the perspective that widened his insights beyond the Glen. Near his conclusion, he reflects on the inevitable change, deepened by his early awareness of mortality: "Life is a dance leading ultimately to the dance for which there is no word in English," he reasons, but in Irish there may be none either. (301) With the capitulation of parlor storytelling and the lived links to oral tradition, the craic that enlivened Bogmail and Foggage, and the lore reverberating in The Trick of the Ga Bolga, echoes across farms now given over to silage and white bungalows speckling the boreens.

"The paradise we most yearn for is the paradise we have lost, the paradise that is no longer there to receive us." (302) He finds in its seaside haunts a lasting assurance of the place's endurance, even if its few indigenous surnames have been supplanted by many who have moved there for a summer or returned there to seek silence rather than the sprawl of a city. When he goes back to Doonalt to rent a bungalow, electrical wires whine in the wind at night, drowning out the waves which once comforted him in a nearby boyhood home.

Patrick McGinley acknowledges frankly the gains and losses that the Glen's popularity as a holiday or retirement destination have brought to an electrified, globalized, and increasingly homogenized culture that has replaced the fading but lingering Irish-language heritage, its agricultural implements and recreated cabins now part of Fr. McDyer's folk museum down the road from Oideas Gael. (In shorter form as a 600-word version at Slugger O'Toole 2-17-13, also to Amazon US)

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