THE LAST OF THE NAME

By Charles McGlinchey

J.S. Sanders. 119 pp. $18.95

Reviewed by George O'Brien

Charles McGlinchey (1861-1954) spent just about every day of his life in his native parish "in Meentiagh Glen in Clonmany," in the remote heart of the Inishowen peninsula of County Donegal, Ireland's northwesternmost county -- that's pretty remote. In old age, McGlinchey reminisced about the life and times of himself and his forebears to a local schoolmaster, who, rightly judging that he was being entrusted with a unique record, wrote down what he heard. The resulting manuscript eventually found its way to Inishowen's best-known resident, noted playwright Brian Friel. It was he who -- as he diffidently admits in a brief introduction -- shaped the material into book form.

Friel critics may take his diffidence as further evidence of his complicated attitude toward translation, the translation in this case being from rambling voice to repetitious manuscript to trim print. And fans of his hit play "Dancing at Lughnasa" will enjoy the visit into territory resembling that play's hinterland. But to get the most out of this book, thoughts of Friel criticism, Broadway hits and editorial contrivances are best put aside. Large events, important places and critical idioms have little or nothing to do with Charles McGlinchey. The nearest he comes to significant happenings and noteworthy venues is when he attends the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932. And he mentions that excursion because the fire he banked when he set out on Sunday was still intact when he got home Monday evening. Not a word about the crowds, the city or the services. Similarly, an autumn spent as a farm laborer in England is disposed of in a line or two. As Friel notes, "Nothing but life in the Glen was important to him."

That simple statement pinpoints what is perhaps the most striking and significant feature of The Last of the Name: The author is far less interested in drawing attention to his own experiences than in mulling over his immediate milieu. Even his awareness that he is the last of his line -- "after my day the grave will not be opened again, for I'm the last of the name" -- is conveyed without much ado, in a soft-spoken tone, acknowledged but not indulged. McGlinchey speaks exclusively from within himself and his place, without any reference to external perspectives. In doing so, he unself-consciously represents himself as a man of rare integrity. In addition to conveying his own observations, McGlinchey passes on what he has learned from previous generations. These generations have such a prominent presence in The Last of the Name that they amount to a virtual, or parallel, community. And they give the recollections an extraordinary range, reaching as far back as the Napoleonic wars and the press-ganging of his grandfather, and even beyond.

It may be because of his age that McGlinchey was so attached to the past. But the attachment also comes across as an expression of his great fidelity to all that's local. The mere mention of Seamus Heaney is enough to confirm this value as a staple of Irish writing. Heaney's terms are ones that Charles McGlinchey would find himself quite at home with. It's probably too fanciful to believe that what accounts for the complete absence of either class or religious bias in this book is a combination of integrity and fidelity. But whatever the reason for their absence, McGlinchey offers a welcome glimpse of life without those barriers to community and neighborliness. Landlord, moonshiner, evangelical preacher, a local cleric known as "the priest of Waterloo" -- are all treated equally with open-minded interest and detailed attention.

Like most books of this kind, The Last of the Name inventories local life, from the design of dwellings to dress, folk medicine, pastimes and work practices -- McGlinchey himself was a weaver and has some interesting things to say about that trade. In one sense, the result reads like a series of brief, informal entries in other kinds of texts -- almanac, songbook, genealogy, herbal, dictionary (there's a good deal of Irish, all of it translated) and atlas, to name a few. (Speaking of atlases, a map of Inishowen would greatly help American readers. The original Irish edition had one.) In another sense, though, what emerges as Charles McGlinchey spins out his tales, recollections and observations is the verbal equivalent of a length of Donegal tweed, material celebrated for its imperceptible weight, its unobtrusive coloring, its durability and the pleasure of its natural feel.

George O'Brien teaches in the English department at Georgetown University.