A Slumgullion of Irish History
Thursday, December 6, 2007
By Frank Delaney
Random House. 445 pp. $26.95
Frank Delaney wears many hats, and wears them gracefully: broadcaster, historian, novelist, teacher, chronicler, entertainer. Though his subjects range as widely as his genres, from a documentary on the theft of the crown jewels to a series of post-Holocaust thrillers, he is best known for his vivid, knowledgeable storytelling about the country he left for the United States 27 years ago: Ireland. Judging by his latest work of fiction, "Tipperary," Delaney is a well-read, warmhearted anecdotalist who would make a great dinner-party guest.
Which is not, unfortunately, the same as a great novelist.
The problem, I think, is that Delaney is putting fiction to work for history, rather than marrying the two forms. His best-selling "Ireland" (2005) had at least a likable structure: a storyteller recounting anecdotes from written and oral Irish tradition. But in "Tipperary" -- the county of his birth -- Delaney has committed himself to a burdensome method. The book switches every few pages from the fictional memoirs of an eccentric Victorian healer/journalist named Charles O'Brien to other fictional letters and reminiscences and to a commentary by Michael Nugent, a retired schoolteacher. In a different kind of novel, this might create a dazzling effect: palimpsestic postmodernism, or the nail-biting tension of a thriller told by rival, untrustworthy narrators. But in this leisurely ramble over Irish history from the 1860s to the 1920s, the result is merely irritating.
With one foot in each camp (Irish and Anglo-Irish culture), O'Brien is proud of his role as "witness" to the twilight of British rule, but the stories he chooses to tell are mostly predictable ones of evil landlords and brooding tenants. As for Nugent, his earnest glosses are delivered in the most hackneyed language. To give just one instance: "Behind this young woman trailed a legend of intrigue; it included the sulfurous whiff of blackmail, heart-cutting tragedy, plus an old scandal at whose core lay a mystery." I hoped at first that the author was satirizing his character in such passages but soon came to the conclusion that he added him to the book as a second mouthpiece, to deliver information unavailable to the 19th-century protagonist. Much of "Tipperary," then, is one bore commenting on another.
O'Brien has that lucky trait common to heroes in historical fiction, of just happening to run into all the famous people of the day: Wilde, Parnell, Yeats, Joyce, Shaw, Arthur Griffith, Edith Somerville, Michael Collins . . . In each case a brief cameo is supplemented by Nugent's droning commentary: "Oscar was born in the small conduit street of Westland Row in October 1854, the second legitimate child of his father." "Many of his plays have had more than one production for the screen." These are footnotes in the guise of fiction.
What is clearly supposed to hold together this digressive, pseudo-Victorian book of musings is the love story. At 40, O'Brien falls at first sight for a haughty 18-year-old Englishwoman, April Burke. "It was Ab¿lard to H¿lo¿se, Dante for Beatrice, Arthur and Guinevere," he assures us, but name-dropping does not make it so. Neither his long, unhappy passion nor the elaborate court case in which he helps her prove her claim to the beautiful Tipperary Castle is engrossing. The last stretch of the novel is taken up with April and Charles's restoration of the castle to its former glory before handing it over to the new Free State; this is a nice allegory for the need to treasure Ireland's mingled colonial and native histories, but it is delivered with all the pedantic detail of a tour guide.
"We Irish prefer embroideries to plain cloth," O'Brien tells us in the book's opening paragraph, and "Tipperary" does include some beautiful stuff. Delaney understands Ireland, or at least how it was before it became the Celtic Tiger: the grim hunger for land made sharper by the lack of it on a small island where, as he puts it with one of his flashes of epigrammatic wit, "history is geography." His research is impressive: We learn, for instance, that in peasant families each family member might have to wait his or her turn for the use of the single bowl and spoon; that per capita, Ireland lost almost five times as many of her sons in the Great War as England did; that the way to treat a man who's been tarred and feathered is to rub him all over with butter for two days.
One of his best anecdotes is about a peasant meal called "potatoes-and-point" in which the family, spearing their potatoes on their forks, would point them at the precious flitch of bacon (saved for Christmas) hanging from the rafters, "in the pretended belief that the flavor of the bacon would somehow travel through the smoke of the kitchen and invest their potatoes with its tang." In the case of "Tipperary" -- for this taster, at least -- Delaney is pointing at a great subject, but the result is all potatoes, no tang.