“All night long he would walk the ship, from bow to stern, from dusk until quarterlight, that stick-like limping man from Connemara with the drooping shoulders and ash-coloured clothes”.
I HAD to re-read Joseph O’Connor’s towering fiction on the Irish famine for an upcoming review for Literary Journeys (Modern Books, this autumn). I am struck at how little credit has been bestowed on this tome or indeed the likes of the mendacious and menacing Pius Mulvey – introduced above – as one of the iconic anti-heroes of 21st century writing.
This is drama on a grand Victorian scale that spans continents and the best part of a century. O’Connor reduces it into believable bite size chunks of drama, of letters, of fragments so at no point does it lurch into ponderousness. To give it its full due, it is an Irish Grapes of Wrath. It first appeared in 2002 when another seafaring epic – the more psychological Life of Pi by Yann Martel – won the Booker. This is a tougher read but from a writing point of view much more interesting, both populist but also psycho-intellectual. For all its anchoring in the miseries of the famine, the individuals rise up through their poverty and never lose sight of their own humanity, for better or worse, for sin or sinner or sinned against. 2002 also saw another vintage journey in Tim Winton’s Dirt Music, a bit of a classic year, then.
There are more decks to this story of an iconic transatlantic crossing than there are on the good ship of the title itself. Buried in the bulwarks could be a chest of treasures by way of letters, etchings, memories, log entries, poems, songs. You might read this as a murder mystery where there are many motivations. Or for a rich history of the Irish famine that has forced all these different people to make the perilous journey to New York in stormy mid November. Or as a political novel. Or for their individual stories told across 26 days like an oceanic Canterbury Tales. Or just an upstairs downstairs shanty of Anglo Irish social sparring circa 1847. It probably manages to be a bit of all of them.
O’Connor squeezes many elements on board. Hold on Captain, I have a couple more bags here…But it rattles along with a good wind in its sails, a purposeful sense of its own direction and masterly, wonderful use of language throughout.
There are some memorable, extended dialogues especially between rivals the liberal American writer Grantley Dixon and Lord Kinscourt; a jousting tournament of Olympian linguistics.
“Caressed your little nerve, have I, Grantley, old thing?”
Plus a few small, delicious literary asides creep in with mention of bumping into Charles Dickens and the real story behind Oliver Twist, of the unmasking of Ellis Bell (Emily Bronte’s pseudonym; Wuthering Heights first edition was indeed published in that year; Bronte’s Yorkshire moors, here replaced by Connemara and/or even the Atlantic itself), of an eloquent literary agent and printer in Thomas Newby, who did indeed publish Bronte. The above Grantley has an ulterior, desperate motive for needing to be published quickly.
Before any other words are on the page we have met our monster Mulvey. He is the title of the prologue. His left foot drags, he is in a tattered military overcoat, his arms are very long. His destitution is more manifest but perhaps no less real than the others on board. He stalks this ship. Intertwined journeys, our monster moving along the galleys and guardrails checking cargo and crew, our chip heading out to sea. And other journeys back into Ireland to explain how these people came to set sail in the first place.
To add an extra layer of drama, this ship of their salvation is itself “absurdly out of its element, a creaking, leaking, incompetent concoction of oak and pitch and nails and faith bobbing on a wilderness of black water.”
There are so many holes, widgets and new weldings needed to patch it up over the years that it whistles and sings when the wind gets up in the right direction.
Within a few paragraphs O’Connor has set up his stall. His ship, his Star, is of the same ilk and literary provenance as the Melville’s Pequot in Moby Dick, his voyage as important as Conrad’s up the Congo in Heart of Darkness, a thought underlined by the Gothic conceit of opening each chapter with an encouraging explanation of its own, in which we learn etc… (in order) the Leave Taking, The Victim, The Cause….
“In which the captain makes note of a disturbing event (which shall have the most severe repercussions).”
The subtitle is a Farewell to Old Ireland and there are quotes from the time that pitch us into the heart of the potato famine. The prologue is from the above Grantley of a New York newspaper recollecting events of decades previous . But much of this is just decoration, almost distraction, from the elegance of the prose, of the way the narratives emerge out of a fog of perceptions. Like the sailors on board, we get a sense of a presence before we actually see it. We get a sense of one story, when there are more. We do not get one hero, heroine or villain but a choice of five or six.
Faced with all this, a camaraderie emerges, “a republic of the night time” that encompasses all ranks, and also draws us in, as readers, to be spectators at ringside of a fracture in history. We are on that boat, hopefully not in second class.
We move quickly from fear of this monster to curiosity, to wonder if perhaps this man who shares the features of many men may not be so evil after all? Maybe the monstrousness is what has been done to him? One of O’Connor’s notable skills is to create characters who can change, evolve, develop through plot and dialogue and morph into something else. They are indelible but not cartoons, they emerge graciously. They want things. If it is the men who are the cause here, it will be the women who are the effect.
The scene setting is guilefully cinematic: the overview, the log, a peek below stairs, an argument at the top table, letters from across the Atlantic, an old newspaper opinion piece where the author goes wonderfully, scandalously and libelously over the top in defaming his targets.
Beneath all this there is mission. There is rhyme and reason among these characters where seemingly the rest of the world has been abandoned.
“The reasons why things are the way they are could be ferociously complicated, Mulvey knew, but in this corner of the empire they worked themselves out into cadences of mathematical inevitability.”
The blank sea, the big weather, severe showers, sleet since dawn, a growler of an iceberg; the Master Lockwood reports to his employers in his log which helps anchor the multiple strands.
It is more than a polemic against the English in Ireland, other well worked subtleties interweave and taunt established covenants. The occasional use of Gaelic is a reminder of the heritage people are leaving behind and a pointer that neither side could really talk to each other.
O’Connor reveals something of his own methods when describing the love the same Mulvey suddenly finds hearing the music coming out of the local inns.
“The songs intersected like springs through the lowland. You saw the shadows of some flit across others: lines borrowed, phrases improved, verses polished and moved around, events edited…as though once there had been only one great song from which the song makers kept drawing, a hidden holy well”.
We are presented with Mary Duane, whose story might have furnished more than one ballad herself as it does here in a Penny Dreadful sort of way. And as with travelling people on a journey, O’Connor’s characters often arrive to find things have also changed in the time they have been away.
Of course we have the sea too, which is allotted aristocratic prose:
“Rolling. Foaming. Rushing. Surging. Beginning to thicken and swell in strength. Now it was a battlement of ink black water, almost crumpling under its own weight, but still rising, and now roaring. It smashed into the side of the bucking Star…”
The oceanic wrath and power is matched, even surpassed, by the emotional turmoil of everyone onboard, caught in a purgatory between eras and civilizations.