Dark Hedges Road, Co Antrim
An 18th-century beech tree-lined road known as the Dark Heges near Stranocum, Country Antrim, made famous by Game of Thrones.
Dark Hedges Road, Co Antrim
An 18th-century beech tree-lined road known as the Dark Heges near Stranocum, Country Antrim, made famous by Game of Thrones.
Recommended reading for visitors to Ireland, compiled by Michael Kerr
Largely inspired by Samantha Wilcoxson’s recommendations following up on my read of her books Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen and Faithful Traitor – as well as looking forward to book 3 of her Tudor Women trilogy – I’ve been on a minor shopping spree lately. Not all of these are Samantha’s recommendations, but that’s the way book browsing goes … one thing leads to another!
… and while I was at it, I also did a bit of wish list cleanup, ordering:
And look, the first lovely books already made it to their new home, too:
But anyway, I obviously also needed to make space on my wish list for all the other books I found when following up on Samantha’s recommendations:
And then … well, there’s this absolutely gorgeous and super-nice tea and spice store in Frankfurt that my best friend and I discovered when I was living in Frankfurt way back in 2003. Shelves crammed with goodies from all over the world and an amazing staff … even after I moved to Bonn, we just kept going there; and we still try to make it down there at least once or twice a year. So last Saturday we decided another splurge was overdue, took to the road – and returned home late in the afternoon laden with delicacies. This was my share of the bounty:
Alright, so I guess I did splurge. In my defense, though, I’ll mention that I won’t be able to travel at all this year, nor actually take a whole lot of vacation time or other time off work, so I’m having to make to with what’s available by way of compensation … and is there any better compensation than books and food?
Ireland’s history is a violent one and, as Fulbright Fellow Carol Daugherty Rasnic shows in this book’s first chapter, this is not only true for the 20th century but dates back at least to the island’s 1169 Norman conquest – and actually, even further, as the Viking invasion of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries consisted of a series of rather aggressive campaigns as well. The difference, however, was that despite these bloody beginnings the Viking colonists were eventually absorbed into Irish culture and daily life; contributing thereto rather than continuing their attempts at its suppression. Conversely, throughout much of Ireland’s subsequent history, suppression was the preferred method of government of both the Normans and their British descendants; who brought in English settlers not to cultivate the island together with their Irish neighbors but to drive those out, thus sowing the seeds of the hatred still plaguing its society today, and no more so than in the six provinces still constituting British-controlled Northern Ireland, after the ill-famed 1920 Partition which eventually brought independence to the island’s southern part.
Inseparably linked to nationality was, particularly from the times of Henry VIII on, the issue of religion; the English settlers being Protestants belonging to the Church of England/Ireland, while the vast majority of the Irish hung on to their Catholic faith; thus suffering discrimination not only on the basis of their nationality but also that of their religious beliefs. Tracing the multiple facets of today’s division to their historic origins, Professor Rasnic shows how the identification as “Catholic” and “Protestant” has long come to exceed a mere religious denomination, mixing with everything from a person’s stance towards the British administration of Northern Ireland to his or her national/ethnic origin, area of residence and social environment; to the point that the religious label is used even by those who have little to no spiritual connection to the church whose faith they claim as their own.
In the eight chapters following the book’s initial historic overview, the author takes an in-depth look at the major issues dominating contemporary Northern Ireland life and politics, from ethnic strife and the (particularly: “Orange,” i.e. unionist) parades, apt to newly ignite the fires of hatred every summer, to issues of governance, the release of prisoners convicted of terrorist acts, “decommissioning” (i.e., disarmament of the paramilitary groups active on both sides of the conflict), the position of the police and the administration of (criminal) justice, human rights and instances of persisting discrimination, and finally, the sectarianism in the province’s schools, threatening to perpetuate the existing divide for a long time to come. Particular emphasis is given to the terms and effects of the so-called Good Friday Agreement, the April 10, 1998 agreement between Northern Ireland’s major political parties and the governments of Ireland and Great Britain designed to bring an end to the province’s “Troubles.”
Although the book is subtitled “An American Legal Perspective,” this is by no means the work of an outsider: Professor Daugherty Rasnic herself is the daughter of Irish immigrants on both parents’ sides, and prolonged stays in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have intimately acquainted her with an island which, quite obviously, is not merely her ancestors’ home but an inseparable part of her own identity as well. A lawyer by training, she moreover brings to the subject the analytical skills necessary to digest problems as intricate as those ravaging the province of Northern Ireland; and her interest in and experience with the American civil rights movement provides for a truly unique perspective, enabling her to not only put the Northern Irish situation into a larger European context but also draw comparisons to similar issues of racial strife and discrimination in the U.S.
Aware that the issues she addresses – particularly with regard to the legal aspects of the Good Friday Agreement – may well have the effect of a strong barbiturate on her non-lawyer readership, the author apologizes for having to address matters which “only a constitutional [law] purist could love.” Quite unnecessarily so, however, as she does a marvelous job in explaining a set of highly complex questions of constitutional and international law which, I am sure, are confusing to many lawyers as well. Moreover, Professor Rasnic’s manifold comments, anecdotes relating to her own experience and sections entitled “A Personal Perspective” provide a truly personal tone; while scholarly in its overall approach to the subject and dedication to detail, the book nevertheless reads more like a conversation with the author, reflecting much of her doubtlessly vivacious nature, passion, empathy and sense of humor – humor even in the face of adversity proving her yet again, as cliché (and maybe not just that) would have it, a true daughter of Irish parents.
In addition to all its other merits, this book also benefits from its author’s easy access to over twenty principals and other individuals involved in the Northern Irish peace process, from then-First Minister David Trimble and Police Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan to Northern Ireland Assembly members of virtually all political colors (with the notable exception of the Rev. Ian Paisley, whose camp seems to have been the only one to adopt an obstructionist attitude), judges, attorneys, clergymen, social workers and professors at various universities; all of who add their own insight and perspective on the “Troubles,” and whose comments are faithfully reported; in many instances verbatim.
Professor Daugherty Rasnic concludes her analysis with the words of Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” Like the great poet’s words, her book expresses the hope that, one day, Northern Ireland may find a lasting way out of its “Troubles” (and no doubt, she is watching the province’s recent political developments with a certain sense of trepidation). With this book, she has made a contribution of her own to the search for such a path – and I have a feeling that it will not have been the only one.
Oscar Wilde was one of the foremost representatives of Aestheticism, a movement based on the notion that art exists for no other purpose than its existence itself (“l’art pour l’art”), not for the purpose of social and moral enlightenment. Born in Dublin and a graduate of Oxford’s Magdalen College, he initially worked primarily as a journalist, editor and lecturer, but gradually turned to writing and produced his most acclaimed works in the six-year span from 1890 to 1895, roughly coinciding with the period of his romantic involvement with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, sixteen years his junior. Douglas’s strained relationship with his father, John Sholto Douglas, Marquees of Queensberry, eventually resulted in a series of confrontations between Wilde and the Marquees, which first led to a libel suit brought by Wilde against his lover’s father (who had openly accused Wilde of “posing as a sodomite” and threatened to disown his son if he didn’t give up his acquaintance with the writer) and subsequently to two criminal trials against Wilde for “gross indecencies,” based on a law generally interpreted to prohibit homosexual relationships. Sentenced to a two-year term of “hard labor” in Reading Gaol, Wilde emerged from prison in 1897 a spiritually, physically and financially broken man and, unable to continue living in England or Ireland, after three years’ wanderings throughout Europe died in 1900 of cerebral meningitis, barely 46 years old.
“The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Wilde’s only novel besides seven plays as well as several works of short fiction, poetry, nonfiction and two fairy tale collections originally written for his two sons, is critical to an understanding of Wilde’s body of work and his personality primarily for two reasons: First, because it constitutes one of his earliest fully accomplished formulations of Aestheticism, and secondly because of its undeniable undercurrent of homoeroticism; an inclination which, after a six-year marriage widely thought to initially have been a true love match, Wilde had begun to explore more openly around the time of the novel’s creation (1890). The story’s title character is an exceptionally handsome young man who, both in the eyes of the artist tasked to paint his portrait, Basil Hallward, and in those of their somewhat older friend Lord Henry Wotton, epitomizes perfect beauty and is coveted by both men for that very reason. Seduced by hedonistic Lord Henry into believing that beauty can literally justify anything, including any act of immorality, Dorian sells his soul for maintaining his beautiful appearance, letting his portrait age in his stead. (In that, his character resembles Goethe’s and Marlowe’s Faust.) He then quickly turns from an innocent youth into a cruel and calculating man whom society, in its shallow adherence to appearances, nonetheless never associates with any of the results of his cruelty, never looking beyond the surface of his handsome exterior and assuming that a man so beautiful must necessarily also be good. Ultimately it is Dorian himself who brings about his own downfall when he is no longer able to face the manifestation of his evilness in Basil Hallward’s picture.
Upon its initial publication in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was widely scorned as immoral by a public neither familiar with nor particularly open to the concepts of Aestheticism and its mockery of middle class morality, and repulsed by the thinly veiled homoerotic relationship of the novel’s protagonists. Wilde republished the work the following year, adding a preface designed to explain his views on art. Yet, it was that preface which, along with several of his other publications and his written exchanges with Lord Alfred Douglas, ultimately would play a devastating role in his trials, where Queensberry’s attorney would come to use an excerpt from that very preface – “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written” – to extract from Wilde statements to the effect that any book inspiring a sense of beauty (including, as implied in the attorney’s question, an “immoral” book, if “The Picture of Dorian Gray” could be qualified as such) was well-written and therefore commendable; that only Philistines, brutes and illiterates – whose views on art he considered invariably stupid and for which he therefore didn’t “care twopence” – could consider this novel “perverted,” and that the majority of the reading public would probably not be able to draw a proper distinction between a good and a bad book. It was testimony such as this, as well as the impending confrontation with a number of male witnesses ready to testify as to the nature of their relationship with Wilde, that not only caused the author’s attorney to convince his client to drop the libel suit against Queensberry but also opened the door for Wilde’s own subsequent prosecution.
If “The Picture of Dorian Gray” has a central theme besides the supremacy of beauty and the depiction of a society primarily interested in appearances, it is a call for individuality: Dorian’s cruelty is brought out only after he allows himself to be influenced by Lord Henry’s equally seductive and cynical hedonism; and similarly, Basil Hallward’s blind idolizing of Dorian eventually proves fatal for the painter. – Wilde’s only novel is one of the first and most poignant expressions of his own individualism; but unlike his protagonist, who ultimately pays a ghastly prize for selling his soul and giving up his individuality, Wilde paid as high a price for maintaining his. Like Dorian, he knew that “[e]ach of us has Heaven and Hell in him,” and although this novel’s preface ends with the provocative statement that “[a]ll art is quite useless,” it was the very fact that Wilde put his entire being into his art that ultimately destroyed him. But like beauty, which is finally restored to perfection in Dorian Gray’s portrait, Wilde’s works have stood the test of time; and not merely for their countless, pricelessly witty epigrams. They’re as well worth a read as ever.
“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”
A boy, robbed off his mother’s love at the age of ten. Refusing to believe she is dead, clinging to the idea that she was buried alive while she was sleeping, digging a hole into the ground near her grave in order to speak to her. A loner who, then and there, decides to become “a true son of the forest,” as his mother in a dream apparition has told him to be. (Or was that an early delusion?) An adolescent, locked up in juvenile homes, boarding schools, prisons and other institutions, abused by a priest, neglected, ignored, and locking himself off against the outside world in response. Putting to practice the one lesson he has learned from Lazlo, the boys’ schizophrenic leader in the first such institution; Lazlo who heard voices and who has taught him that the one thing that counts is to hate “them” (the grown-ups, those that stand for authority and society as a whole) with a worse hate than they have for him. A young man, unable to show any feeling other than that long-practiced hatred; acting out his suppressed emotions in violence whenever he is not locked up, unable to escape the voices now talking in his head more and more often, just as they were once talking in Lazlo’s.
And a young woman with long red hair. Maddie’s mother, raising her young son alone, breaking off all relationships with men as soon as they get to close for comfort. An outsider, only recently moved to the village. A teacher. An artist. Mistress of ceremonies at a Celtic festival, performing pagan rituals. Druidess. Mystery woman whom nobody knows with complete intimacy, maybe not even her sister Cassandra and her best friend Madge. Raped and murdered by a young man trapped between insanity and emotional deprivation, for whom she is the realization of everything he associates with the idea of the female – simultaneously fairy queen, virgin, angel, object of his sexual fantasies, whore, confidante and most importantly, mother.
This is the couple which, in the deadly dance at the heart of Edna O’Brien’s In the Forest, is locked together by fate; a fate prompted by the murderer’s delusions and rage as much as by society’s inability to deal with him. And this first murder is only the starting point of a killing spree which will demand several more victims before the young man is apprehended. – Like two of her previous novels, Down by the River (addressing incest, abortion and society’s inability to deal with either, as expressed in the trial of a girl who went to England to abort the child conceived from her own father) and House of Splendid Isolation (inspired by the Irish “troubles”), Ms. O’Brien’s latest book is based on a series of real events which deeply shook the Irish society in the mid-1990s, and which occurred in the county which O’Brien, before moving to London, used to call her home. But here as there, the author is less interested in the hard, cold facts as such but rather, in the psychology involved and society’s response to the unspeakable horror of the crimes committed; in “man and the intentions of his soul,” as she said in a 1992 article, quoting Leonardo da Vinci. And like the great painter, with an unrelenting eye for detail she takes the reader into the killer’s mind; a mind inexorably spiraling, spiraling, spiraling into a dark abyss from which soon there is no way out. At the same time, the reader experiences the terror of the abduction felt by his victims; the slow and chilling realization that there is no escape, that this last walk into the somber depth of the forest is the way into certain death, to be preceded by a suffering dreadful beyond imagination. Yet, the tale is not solely told from the perspective of Michen O’Kane, the killer and rapist, the “Kinderschreck” and bogeyman who holds an entire county at gunpoint; nor only from that of his victims, Eily Ryan and her son, and the others that will follow them within a matter of days. Thread by thread, Ms. O’Brien weaves the voices of all those involved in the events – the vicitims’ relatives, the killer’s family, the police, neighbors, women of the community and the psychiatrist who treated O’Kane at trial – into a fabric of rage, helplessness, despair and desolation; symbolized by the vast, dark, threatening forest where the first murders have taken place, that “chamber of non-light” which “lost its old name and its old innocence in the hearts of the people” when a dead goat “decomposed and stank” in a wooden hut at the farthest entrance to the forest.
In her native Ireland, Edna O’Brien was severely criticized for In the Forest, even before the novel was published, and accused of exploiting a gruesome crime for the sake of selling a story. The families of the victims of the incidents on which the novel is based reportedly spoke out against the book. But while it is undoubtedly difficult for them to deal with those events, the reaction of others only demonstrates the accuracy of Ms. O’Brien’s analysis. Yet again, the woman who to many seems to be a literary “Kinderschreck” herself, whose first six (!) books were banned because of their daring stance on women’s role in the Irish society (and society in general), and who moved to London years ago to “escape from those fields, gates, trees, woods, winds, sleet, priests, nuns and family, all of whom seemed to overwhelm [her],” as she wrote in the above-mentioned article, has held up a mirror before her fellow men; and yet again, some do not like what they see. That criticism, however, reflects more on those articulating it than on the author herself or her book. In the Forest is as brilliantly written as it is necessary – as shown by nothing better than by the reactions it provoked. A deeply disturbing book, but under no circumstances to be missed.
Well, of course he is; in fact, has been for some 60 years now. But that’s not the point. The point is, or at least seems to be, that “Yeats Is Dead!” is the unpublished last work of the doyen of Irish literature himself, James Joyce. Or is it? Or are the 600 pages of undecipherable scribble that are at the center of this book’s wild ride really the chemical formula for a new anti-ageing skin cream? Or something else entirely? In short, what is the point of the chase; or put differently: Is there any point at all?
“Yeats Is Dead!” is the literary version of a midrange relay race; or of that party game in which a story is built one word or one sentence at a time, added in turns by each of the participants, often with hilarious results, particularly if the players abandon the idea of creating a story that actually makes sense and take off in whatever direction their fancy takes them. Here, the participants are fifteen Irish writers of varying calibers with a very well-developed sense of humor, who each get to add one chapter to the story, and the results are hilarious indeed. Bodies fall like flies, allusions to Joyce abound, and Irish clichés are jiggled by the dozen, from “O Danny Boy” (here: in a Rasta version) to bars serving whiskey and very strangely named drinks indeed, and accents from working class Dublin to Limerick and beyond. (And can there possibly be a more Irish-sounding name than Grainne O’Kelly?) Even one of Ireland’s football – i.e., soccer – heroes, ex-midfielder turned sports journalist Eamon Dunphy (yes, that one) gets his fair share of shots from the authors’ collective hips.
The book follows the example of the two short story collections “Finbar’s Hotel” and “Lady’s Night at Finbar’s Hotel,” likewise collaborative efforts by some of modern Ireland’s best-known authors. Unlike those two collections, however, “Yeats Is Dead!” discloses the authors of the individual chapters; and unlike them, it also pretends not to contain several loosely-connected short stories but one continuous, novel-length storyline – for whatever that’s worth, though, given the book’s general premise and the differing styles and approaches of its writers. Contributors include acclaimed writers Roddy Doyle, Frank McCourt, Hugo Hamilton, Gene Kerrigan, Anthony Cronin and Joseph O’Connor (who also served as the book’s editor), playwrights Conor McPherson and Gerard Stembridge, comedian Owen O’Neill, sports writer Tom Humphries, and others. Roddy Doyle gets to deliver the opening salvo, which is of course a hard act to follow – personally, I would rather have seen him write the final chapter; and I would also have loved to see a contribution from the editor (and co-contributor) of “Finbar’s Hotel,” Dermot Bolger. But from the murder by heart attack which starts it all to the surviving cast members’ final conclave in (where else?) a bar in County Limerick, this is one great frolicking literary tour de force. It’s not great literature; nor does it pretend to be … just fifteen Irish writers poking fun at themselves, their country and the mystery genre, and they had me laughing out loud a lot in the process. Definitely. O yes.
“She’d tried her hand at most things, but drew the line at honesty.”
An old adage says that some good things are better left alone – and I’ve certainly found this to be true here, because although this “Finbar” sequel was devised and edited by Dermot Bolger, who also oversaw the original project, I cared decidedly less for this book than I did for the first “Finbar” compilation.
The entries here strike me more or less as what is known as classic “chick lit”: there is, among others, a woman trying to get pregnant for the first time shortly before menopause without having to marry, a freshly liberated woman confronting the guy who suppressed her in a relationship years ago, and a mother reuniting with the son she gave up for adoption shortly after his birth out of wedlock. Alas, all of this has been done before, and in many instances better and with more original plotlines than here.
One characterization that does stand out among the rest, though, is that of a father who, in many respects at his wits’ end (even quite literally so), pays a last visit to his career-woman daughter in a desperate effort to retrace the steps of his life and find again what they both have lost. (Room 102: “Da Da Da – Daa.”) You might argue that as a type he, too, is an Irish cliché and in fact, would have been so long before Frank McCourt resurrected them in “Angela’s Ashes;” and I would not fight you over the issue. Worse yet, I found the daughter and her fashion world entourage to be so badly stereotyped that I was actually ready to slam the book shut a couple of times halfway through the story. Yet, something about the father truly touched me. – I also thought that this story and “The Debt Collector” (Room 103) had the only truly well-done endings in the book; most of the others either fizzled out rather half-heartedly or came to a sudden, abrupt and rather random stop.
Unfortunately, in this and also in other respects the obvious centerpiece of the book, “The Master Key” (Room 105) – the story which is designed to hold the book together in a similar fashion as does “The Night Manager” in the first “Finbar” book – is particularly disappointing. It is also the biggest offender as far as consistency with regard to the recurring characters and the hotel’s history are concerned; for example, the rather seedy and not at all respectable place of “Finbar I” is suddenly is described as a (still somewhat run-down, but essentially honorable) hotel for families and traveling salesmen right around the same time when “Finbar I” had clergy, cops and underworld converge in the hotel’s very own back rooms.
My overall favorite entry is the story taking place in the penthouse, “Tarzan’s Irish Rose,” which is charming in an offhand fashion while at the same time sporting a rather sarcastic tone. Stylistically well-done and driven by an emphatically drawn, quirky protagonist is also “The Wedding of the Pughs” (Room 106); but alas, this story, too fizzles at the end and left me thinking “What? That’s it?” Overall therefore, “Finbar II” unfortunately cannot sustain the high level set by the original “Finbar’s Hotel” collection. It is an only mildly entertaining compilation and very inconsistent; both as far as the quality of the writing is concerned as well as with respect to those elements of the contents that are supposed to hold the book together and provide a bridge to “Finbar I.”
It’s not exactly Dublin’s first address, the old Finbar’s Hotel on Victoria Quay, overlooking the River Liffey and opposite the palazzo structure of Heuston (erstwhile Kingsbridge) Railway Station – but it’s a place with both character and history: It has survived a fire, among its guests over the years have been some of society’s more colorful personalities, its back rooms used to be infamous for their use as a secret gathering place for everyone from politicians, gardai (policemen), members of the clergy and prostitutes, and it has that particular run-down and dubious charm of a place which has seen better days once upon a time. And now it is going to be torn down, to be replaced by a modern structure by the propety’s new owner. But before the staff leaves, before night manager Johnny Farrell, whose family has served the hotel’s owners since the place was opened in the 1920s by old Finbar and Johnny’s grandfather, James “the Count” Farrell, goes off to open a bead and breakfast in the suburbs with his wife, and before the hotel’s one true human institution, Simon the porter, checks into a hospital to nurse his cancer, a group of unusual guests assembles one last time, for one of the old hotel’s very last nights.
Ben Winters, the guest staying in Room 101, is arguably not the most colorful character – far from that, actually, he is a subdued, timid middle-aged gentleman who for one night has escaped the dull routine of his suburban middle class routine and is looking for a taste of city life, without even really knowing what to do with himself when he is not watching TV. (“Benny Does Dublin.”)
Rose and Ivy, the sisters who share Room 102, have come together to work out past difficulties that have been haunting them ever since Rose suddenly left their Galway family home many years earlier. (“White Lies.”)
Ken Brogan, the guest in Room 103, firmly believes that he can get every lady’s confidence if only he wants – unfortunately, he’s just had a very bad row with his girlfriend, and now he is out for revenge, and he thinks he has found the perfect object for that revenge in her cat Moggi. (“No Pets Please.”)
Night manager Johnny Farrell and Simon the porter have a final encounter with the last descendant of old Finbar, Alfie FitzSimons, a cheap lowlife who used to harass Johnny when they were children, and who has returned to stay in the hotel’s Room 104 for one last time; only to find that his hold over Johnny has finally worn off. (“The Night Manager.”)
Maureen Connolly has recently learned that she probably has no more than another year to live, and has since made it a habit to leave her family life behind whenever she has to a doctor’s appointment in the city (and sometimes, also when she doesn’t have an appointment). Freed from her daily bounds and from the bounds of accountability, she then assumes made-up identities on the spot and embarks on a new adventure whenever she takes off – this time, with American tour guide Ray Dempsey in Room 105 of Finbar’s Hotel. (“The Test.”)
May Brannock Americanized her name when leaving Dublin for the U.S., but after having moved around in the States and finally left her last boyfriend in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she has now returned to the place which her father, a firefighter, once helped to save from the flames – and while she is staying in the hotel’s Room 106, she is trying to rekindle the connection with her childhood friend Kevin. (“An Old Flame.”)
And last but not least, the art thief staying in Room 107 in anticipation of his meeting with two Dutchmen who have come to Dublin to buy his latest loot, grows restless and begins to stalk the hotel’s corridors and other guest rooms, thinking that he may have been followed by someone he doesn’t know and cannot trust. (“Portrait of a Lady.”)
“Finbar’s Hotel” is a collection of short stories written by seven Irish writers: Joseph O’Connor, Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle, Jennifer Johnston, Hugo Hamilton and Dermot Bolger (who also served as the book’s editor); and while the stories are loosely connected by taking up each other’s motifs and personalities here and there, and all together tell the story of the old Finbar’s Hotel, its staff and its last guests, each story also stands on its own and presents its own world and cast of characters. The book thus provides great samples of the writing of some of Ireland’s preeminent authors; be warned, however, that the authors chose not to reveal who wrote which installment; so ultimately you’re left with the choice of either leaving the mystery of authorship unsolved, or relying on your prior knowledge of their style, or on what you have heard about them otherwise, to deduce the individual chapters’ authors. The project was successful enough to spark two successor volumes; “Ladies’ Night at Finbar’s Hotel,” which finds the hotel reopened in new splendor with a new set of unusual guests (written by seven of Ireland’s best-known female writers and also edited by Dermot Bolger) and “Yeats Is Dead!”, a hilarious spoof on the mystery genre, unlike the two “Finbar’s Hotel” volumes pretending to follow a continuous storyline (actually, it’s more like a very wild zigzag course) and reuniting some of the participants of this first “Finbar’s Hotel” collection with Frank McCourt and a number of other popular Irish writers. Given their diverse authorship, all three volumes necessarily share a somewhat uneven quality, and not every reader will like every chapter equally well – but overall this is a very enjoyable collection, and if you are unfamiliar with contemporary Irish literature, this is as good a starting point as any.
With 1751’s Calendar Reform Act, Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar implemented elsewhere in 1582; resulting in the elimination of 11 days between September 2 and 14, 1752. The edict, viewed as more than a mere alteration in the calculation of time, caused widespread riots; grounded as much in popular fear of a life shortened by 11 days (and the loss of 11 days’ earnings) as in Anglican contempt for anything “popish.” Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin is anchored in these riots; for one of their participants is her young heroine’s father, whose conviction and prison-death eventually overshadows his daughter’s fate as well.
Four-year-old Mary and her mother Susan soon find themselves bound to a coalman Susan has married to secure a new roof over their heads. But they now lead a miserable life in a dark, colorless Charing Cross basement; leaving Mary with vague dreams of carriages, beautiful clothes and “bettering” herself; and a strange fascination with the harlots she sees on her way to school, one of whom wears a bright red ribbon in her silvery wig. Eventually the desire to own such a red ribbon, too, turns into an obsession with Mary, now 13; and realizing she will never be able to buy it with money, she tenders a kiss: instead purchasing herself rape, infection with the “clap” (GC) and pregnancy. More than abrupt, brutal loss of her childhood innocence, the incident propels her onto the street when her mother discovers her shame and bans her from her home. She is picked up by none other than the harlot she has so admired; 21-year-old Doll Higgins, who brusquely opens her eyes to the fact that, deflowered, pregnant and without an honest trade, Mary has now become one of them: a harlot, a “miss” (as they call themselves), a prostitute. She resists, though not for long – first for the money she needs to abort the unwanted baby, but ultimately also internalizing Doll’s reasoning. And Doll becomes her mentor in everything related to their trade, and in the only things that matter now: Every girl for herself, never give up your liberty, clothes make the woman, and clothes are the greatest lie ever told.
Yet, Mary is given the improbable chance to turn her life around. After a stay at Magdalen Hospital (founded with the aim of reforming “penitent” prostitutes), she returns to their abode to find Doll frozen to death in London’s brutal winter. To escape their hawkish landlady’s henchman she flees to Monmouth, the town near the Welsh border her parents originated from, finding shelter and a position as a maid with her mother’s old friend Jane Jones, a seamstress like Susan, but despite the same humble origins not working her fingers off for pennies but with a shop of her own, and married to an equally well-respected staymaker. Soon Mary is less maid than daughter and confidante to the couple, who despite many attempts to produce a son are only left with a six-year-old girl. Mary does learn an honest trade after all – the same as her mother’s, which she had fervently refused to take up before. She even finds a suitor in the Jones’s young manservant Daffy and strikes up a friendship of sorts with the other maid, a dark-skinned former slave; her only antagonist the family’s live-in nursemaid, a woman grown bitter and zealously religious after the loss of her own child and husband. But eventually, Mary’s old life catches up with her, and she secretly returns to her former trade – with disastrous consequences.
Slammerkin (an 18th century term for both a loose woman and a loose dress) is tentatively based on the real Mary Saunders’s story, executed in 1764 for killing her mistress; according to contemporaneous reports either to steal her savings or out of a longing for “fine clothes.” In chronicling Mary’s life, Emma Donoghue treads on familiar paths; from Fanny Hill (which actually dates from the time when Donoghue’s novel takes place) to Moll Flanders, Nana and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, literary history is replete with novels exploring the world’s oldest profession and the things driving women into it. But Donoghue is not trying to reinvent the wheel. In addition to taking stock of the trade as such, the various forms of servitude woman have endured historically (marriage, domestic service, slavery and prostitution) and the rigors of the British class system, what most drives this novel is a study what motivates our decisions: personality, upbringing, experience and social circumstances; and the question whether – when given the choice – we can escape what we have accepted as life’s inevitabilities, or whether predisposition and social conditioning will prevail in the end. With Mary Saunders, the latter is the case; and the same is true for both of her parents, so ill-equipped to guide her. Mr. and Mrs. Jones, on the other hand, have shaken their humble origins and handicaps (Mr. Jones lost one leg as a boy) and made the most of their gifts, while still accepting the class system’s boundaries. But by the time Mary comes into their household, she is too irretrievably jaded to recognize the chance given her.
Emma Donoghue’s prose is vividly colorful; laced with images that always feel right-on. Mary, while easy to like initially, becomes more and more complex as the story progresses (but whether you like her or not ultimately isn’t the point). The novel is sometimes criticized for portraying men as brutes, solely dominated by their basest instincts; it should be remembered, however, that this is the point of view of Mary who – patently unable to deal with the sincere, honest affections of an (if anything) rather too youthfully virtuous Daffy – has come to see every man as merely a potential “cully;” even Mr. Jones, who ironically could have been her real father had her mother reciprocated his attentions. Overall, this is an engaging, thoughtful read; nothing for the easily offended, but recommended to anyone interested in history and well-drawn characterizations.