Wednesday 22 February 2023

Small towns like these

When evil stalks the land . . .

The Canon can't even agree with the names of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Revelations Ch.6 counts The white horse of conquest; The red horse of civil war; The black horse of famine; The pale horse of death . . . and Hades followed close behind. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill by sword, by famine, by plague, and by the beasts of the earth. Ezekiel 14:21 otoh For thus saith the Lord GOD; How much more when I send my four sore judgments upon Jerusalem, the sword, and the famine, and the noisome beast, and the pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast? Which more or less agrees with the Hades subset of Death in Revelations.

Whatevs, both versions externalize evil as something which is visited upon us by a malign fate and is largely beyond our control. But I suggest that some evil grows in our own hearts. It is for sure true that the deck is not even and the deal is not fair. To some of us comes generational wealth; to others genetic compromise. Sometimes, like with the Habsburg's, both at once. But we must take the hand we are dealt and make the best fist of it we can. And one way is to open that fist and extend the open hand of kindness when the opportunity presents. Unless we do that, evil propagates inside and shrivels our souls.

I've just had Claire Keegan's short novel Small things like these wash over me through Borrowbox. I was urged to read it by my pal Rissoles. Although his reading and mine will have been different because his baggage is not my baggage. The story is nominally set in New Ross, the post town nearest where my grandfather is buried. I passed through the town every year of my childhood on our way to long visits with old people whose clocks ticked the tedious hours of drizzly Sunday afternoons. But at least I only lived there for a month in my early 20s during the Summer of 1977. In Keegan's 1985 New Ross there is no hiding place. Escape to England or Germany or America is possible but your business will still be picked over, and found wanting, by those who remain. 

We know now about Magdalen Laundries and mother-and-baby homes. But in 1985, these things were not whispered about, let alone exposed to daylight, regulated by the government, and prosecutions brought. The count of dead infants packed into a Tuam septic tank, or the account books detailing how much each live adoptee was sold for, or the cost to get your sheets hand-laundered is a matter of statistical record. But it takes someone with empathy and precision, from The Arts Block, to capture what it felt like to be called a bastard, or to notice the shifty eyes of people who owed you money but thought they were your betters.

The story tracks the run up to Christmas for a grown man who escaped from an enforced infant emigration to a Good Catholic family in America because a woman of another religion employed his mother and didn't throw her out on the street when she fell pregnant. Oh, that's good, I thought, my [protestant] people being cast as the good Samaritans, that's ecumenical. But at one point, the man's own wife casts this crucial act of long-term charity back in his face by berating the benefactor for having an [undeserved, of course] farm of land and spare money which should go to support the [Catholic] community . . . because Them Prods are not really Irish [I paraphrase]. I've been at the end of that dip-shittery . . . and much more recently than 1985!

One of the key reveals in the Christmas week is the probable identity of the man's father which has been a mystery to him all his life. That also struck a >!frisson!< chord with me because I've been recently in touch with my second cousin who was born in Bessborough Mother & Baby home in Cork in the mid 1950s and has recently gotten names for her birth mother - and father! - and is at a loss as to how to progress these thin slivers of data towards making contact with people who have a lot more genes in common than she and I do. Suggestions on a postcard?? I have an adjacent gripe that several family members persist in having my Coz binned as "adopted" [with a subtext of 'bastard' mebbe?] as if that made her not really family. Which is super ironic because the whole family that we know of, including the NZ and Oz branches, are all illegitimate descendants of The Laird and the red-headed cook.

The New Ross book is set at the same time that Ann Lovett was dying in the rain next to her stillborn child in Granard. No outsider really knows what happened that January in Granard, let alone 40 weeks earlier. Small Thoughts Like These, although fiction, has the ring of truth about how people behaved [badly] in small town Ireland back then. I don't really think we've gotten a huge infusion of compassion since then, do you? When you've finished it check out Colm Tóibín's sweeping novel The Heather Blazing [last para] which is centred in Enniscorthy at the other side of County Wexford.

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