Sunday, February 14, 2016

Book review: Fictionalising Irish History

Ashby Jones, The Angel's Lamp. Winchester/Washington, Top Hat Books, Jan. 2016. £10.99 pbk. 275pp.
[It is just by chance, honest, that this review of - among other things - a "love story" is posted on 14th Feb.]

In the run-up to the centenary of Dublin's Easter Rising, the publication of this novel is well timed. (Other signs of attention being paid to the anniversary are a forthcoming conference and an exhibition of photographs.) 
Fiction is not history, radical or otherwise, but it can certainly stimulate interest in aspects of it and perhaps question some of what people think they know; it can also of course reinforce myths and received versions of events. This book may do a bit of both, the balance depending on the individual reader. Or it could perhaps, but not easily by anyone with any knowledge of the setting, be read simply as a story - the familiar trope of sworn enmity turning into (doomed) love. To let on that the two main characters don't live happily ever after isn't much of a spoiler since the real-life biography of Nora Connolly, the female protagonist, is known and accessible. She has spoken for herself about 1916.
That's Nora as in the daughter of James Connolly, who puts in a personal appearance to inspire the hero, Johnny, and make him question and soon reject his role as a soldier (with an Irish background) in the British army. The author professes "utmost care and respect" in "fictionalizing the lives of historical persons" and refers to their "prevailing, recorded personalities". He has done a lot of research, and includes a bibliography, albeit a predominately Irish-Nationalist/Republican one. 
He prefaces the narrative with the inevitable quotation from W. B. Yeats ("a terrible beauty..."), and another from St. Patrick, while the title is apparently a mystical-religious allusion (so there are cautionary signs), and it is in romantic-nationalist and religious mode that we find the leaders of the Rising here. It may be unfair to criticise the less than justice done to Connolly's politics given that the viewpoint is Johnny's and "politics confused him". There is only a passing reference to "strikes a while back" and defence of strikers, by contrast with rather too much about "blood sacrifice", martyrdom and similar dubious notions, but this may reflect the position Connolly had reached in 1916 after defeat on the industrial front in the 1913 lock-out. The extent of popular support or lack of it for the rising is not given much attention, apart from its being "a lost cause". In another passing reference Connolly, it is said, "even believes in the equality of women", and Nora is a strong character, far from being there merely as the love interest. 
Part 1 is set in Dublin in the immediate aftermath of the Rising, recounting the details of the executions, mistreatment of prisoners and repression that followed; Part 2 is in Cork where Johnny, having deserted, goes to throw in his lot with the rebels fighting the notorious Black and Tans and the Essex Regiment, brutalised by war service on the Western Front. The actions of the British are unflinchingly exposed, in case anyone had illusions about imperialism or was in doubt about the behaviour of the soldiery and the authorities in such situations. There is some acknowledgement too, if not entirely even-handed or free of double standards, of the authoritarian military and macho mindset of the rebels, from whom Johnny has to escape, aided by Nora and with the necessity of leaving Ireland, to save his life.
Although the book is readable, there are some incongruities of style in the writing in the form of American idioms and other jarring notes. Possibly the most alienating (perhaps in the salutary Brechtian sense of reminding us that this is a cultural construct, not "real") is the repeated perverse spelling of the Irish name Saoirse (Freedom) as Sarosa.
Top Hat Books make rather large claims for their "Historical fiction that lives", including an allusion to "radicalism", and this sort of thing may indeed have much to offer as a counter-balance to the traditional biases of the genre. Whether or not it means that "The reader, when they [sic] finish, will snap the book closed with a satisfied smile" is a more challengeable assertion. In this case a wail of despair from the pacifist or the student of subsequent Irish history, or an exasperated snort from the more politically aware, especially those of a left-libertarian persuasion, might be nearer the mark. Worth looking at, though, and almost certainly not the worst book relating to the Easter Rising that will be appearing this year. It remains to be seen whether it will be among the best.


“The Council of the Irish Citizen Army has resolved, after grave and earnest deliberation, to hoist the green flag of Ireland over Liberty Hall, as over a fortress held for Ireland by the arms of Irishmen.
“This is a momentous decision in the most serious crisis Ireland has witnessed in our day and generation. It will, we are sure, send a thrill through the hearts of every true Irish man and woman, and send the red blood coursing fiercely along the veins of every lover of the race…”
James Connolly, Workers’ Republic, 8-4-1916

According to wikipedia:
Saoirse (Irish pronunciation: [ˈsˠiːɾʲʃə], [ˈsˠeːɾʲʃə] or [ˈsˠɯːɾʲʃə]; roughly SEER-shə) is an Irish and Scottish female given name meaning"freedom", which became popular in Ireland in the 1920s.
Sarosa is a genus of moth in the family Arctiidae. Species[edit]. Sarosa acutior (Felder, 1874) 

1 comment:

  1. A bit of biographical background on Connolly from Convenor, Wakefield Socialist History Group:
    "James Connolly was born on 5 June 1868 at 107 Cowgate, Edinburgh. He was the third son of John Connolly, a manure carter and Mary McGinn, a domestic servant. Both his parents came from Ireland and Cowgate and the surrounding area, housing many other Irish migrants in cramped conditions, was widely known as "Little Ireland" (Armstrong 2015).
    By the age of 10 James was employed as a "printer's devil" at the Edinburgh Evening News on Fleshmarket Close. Part of the job entailed clambering under the printing machines to clean the rollers.
    Factory inspectors visited however and Connolly was dismissed on account of him being underage. He then worked first in a bakery, then at W Hawley and Son's mosaic tile shop at 27 Frederick Street.
    Then in 1882 -despite again being underage- he went to England and enlisted with the King's Liverpool Regiment. He saw service in Ireland but discharged himself early in 1889 when he heard his father was ill. He returned to Scotland, first to Perth, then to Dundee and then to Edinburgh itself.
    He and his new wife Lillie Reynolds lived at five addresses in the capital over the course of the next six years.
    Connolly subsequently lost his council job as a carter after standing as a socialist in the St Giles ward. He then tried his hand as a cobbler. The shop, at 73 Buccleugh Street, didn't pay. Now at his wit's end he even contemplated emigrating to Chile. But in 1896 he got offered a job as a socialist organiser in Dublin instead. He jumped at the chance!!!

    *Connolly spoke with an Edinburgh accent to the end of his life.
    *He was also a staunch Hibs fan; as a boy he used to ferry the player's kit down to the old Hibernian park in Bothwell Street for sixpence."