The Novel of the Century by David Bellos

As a Professor of French Literature and a specialist in the nineteenth century, David Bellos is well placed to write about Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Misérables.

Cover illustration: Jillian Tamki

He states that many educated readers have never read it because they have heard of it primarily from film and musical adaptations and regard it with snobbish disdain. This is true, to some extent, of me. I have not read it although it was my grandfather’s favourite novel and one of the few books in his house. It’s strange though as I have read Zola, Stendhal and Balzac so I am not sure why I neglected Hugo’s masterpiece. Maybe the title put me off. Resolution for 2017: read Les Misérables.

Bellos, himself, first read it for the strangest of reasons. Embarking on a camping holiday in the Alps, and looking around for a long read, in a light volume, he chanced upon Les Misérables on a shelf. Its many words were printed on ‘Bible paper’ so it would be easy to carry. The trip was aborted by weather and illness so Bellos booked himself into a cheap hotel and lay in bed reading, until he had finished. A similar thing happened to me when I was on a school trip in Italy, aged 18; I read War and Peace.

David Bellos:


The Novel of the Century, at fewer than 300 pages is, in itself, an undertaking, as Bellos is not only providing a host of details surrounding the penning of the novel but also hoping to show how nineteenth century social politics and societal mores affected Hugo’s ideas. At the same time, parallels are drawn, particularly in attitudes regarding the poor, to post-millennial morals. At times the comparisons feel rather forced but Bellos does encourage the reader to think whether or not plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Hugo, apparently, did not describe the gruesome incidents in his novel although Bellos insists that adaptations often choose to amend this with sensational depictions, such as the working life of a prostitute or the cruelty of a punishment.  Bellos sees it as his job, not only to provide a full account of what would have happened, or did happen, in the lower echelons of French society during the post-Napoleonic era but also to show how other artists have developed Hugo’s scaffolding to dramatic effect.

Sub Clara Nuda Lucerna painted by Victor Hgo

He is also at pains to match characters and incidents in Hugo’s own life to those portrayed in the novel. Hugo, a serial philanderer – and one who narrowly avoided a court case concerning, Léonie Biard, one of his married lovers – ignores sexual matters in Les Misérables, perhaps, suggests Bellos, because it was a bit too close to his own affairs.

Whilst supplying background, he attacks what he regards as speculation by other researchers and consistently signposts anything that he thinks is impossible to prove but might be worth considering. Bellos is aiming for clarity: almost as if he can feel disparaging scholars peering, at his manuscript, over his shoulder.

At times he does seem patronising, surveying all from his ivory tower in Princeton, as he explains, “’Revolution’ means a turn of 360 degrees – in car engines, for example”. Hugo’s characters live through a revolution, as did Hugo. He had already finished his first draft of Les Misérables when in February 1848 revolution broke out in Paris.

anim_008.jpgBellos identifies the causes as “general desperation of the poor, and a particular political mess”. There had been much republican unrest about the reign of Louis-Phillipe. Having been a peer of the realm under the king, Hugo became, in June, an elected representative of the people. In November Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was elected as prince-president and the Second Republic was established.

It had been an anxious and fearful time for Hugo but the experience of the riots and the barricades would, eventually, enter the second draft of his epic. Meanwhile he was totally involved as the chief elected politician in Paris. Bellos writes that Hugo believed that if “the plight of the poor could be made less dire, then all that was frightening or bad in the socialist project would vanish”. He was torn between his liberal feelings and his support for order.

But repressive elements were in the ascendant to such an extent that it became a crime to offend the president. Hugo named Louis-Napoléon “le petit” as opposed to his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte “le grand”. Before long both his sons were in jail and Hugo, with the help of his lover, Juliette Drouet, fled to exile in Belgium. It was not until, in Guernsey, twelve years later, in 1860, that work recommenced on Les Misérables.

One of Hugo’s morals is, as Polonius says in Hamlet, “neither a borrower nor a lender be”. He thought that debt, any debt, was the first symptom of criminality. Characters in the novel who fall into debt, whether they are good or bad, come to a nasty end.

Another important message is about religion. Hugo was not a practising Catholic and he manages, through omission of events such as weddings, to keep churches out of the novel. There is a saintly man, who is a priest, but this is evidenced in daily acts of generosity and forgiveness.   Many of Hugo’s friends in Guernsey were vehemently anti-Catholic but Hugo would not agree to rail against religion. Bellos thinks that, for Hugo, “materialism and atheism exacerbate the opposition between the rich and the poor”. Christian faith suggests equality.

A third issue that Hugo addresses is that of women in society. In some notes to himself, he wrote: “as long as women are legal minors, as long as the problem of women remains unsolved, the convent is only a secondary crime. Marriage with God is not a bad deal”. In an early draft of a preface, Hugo wrote, that “the infinite exists … That selfhood of the infinite is God”. He had a teleological view of history: believing in “the future of man on earth, that is to say his improvement in human terms”. Unfortunately, for Hugo, and perhaps for Bellos who is attempting to show how Les Misérables is a novel of the twenty-first century, as well as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most people no longer share this belief.

As the title suggests The Novel of the Century is a labour of love. It is drawn from a prodigious amount of research and is a work of vast ambition. Bellos has so much material that he struggles to interweave it into a coherent unit. Structurally the five parts, broken internally into chapters, are interleaved with interludes. The purpose of these sections seems to be to give further information that just would not fit in anywhere else. The book is dedicated to Bellos’s students; they may wonder why he, who is probably constantly narrowing the focus of their theses, has allowed himself so much leeway.

Works cited

Bellos, A.  The Novel of the Century. Penguin Random House. 2017.

An earlier version of this review appeared in the Irish Examiner, page 33 and 34 of the Weekend section on 11 Feb 2017.


Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel


A Flock of Swifts

Reclaimed, by Irishmen such as Yeats, from the canon of English Literature, Jonathan Swift has become an icon of Irishness and Stubbs’s book provides an insight into the Dubliner who insisted he was English.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In his introduction to this excellent biography John Stubbs is at pains to point out the complexity and contradictions in both the character and the life of Jonathan Swift. Like Yeats, who was born two centuries later, Swift believed in the desirability of a pastoral society run by landed gentry and the Anglican church. He abhorred the burgeoning urban financial centre of London, almost as if its participants were usurers in the temple. Ordained in a high church tradition, Swift despised low, dissenting, Protestantism, as well, of course, as Catholicism.

Arriving from Dublin to London in 1710 Swift, at 43, soon became an important ‘spin doctor’ to Queen Anne’s chief minister, Robert Harley. His work consisted of briefing against members of the former Whig government, which he did with alacrity and vitriol. These unfortunates included the victor of the Battle of Blenheim, the Duke of Marlborough; the former Lord Treasurer, Earl of Godolphin and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Marquess of Wharton.

Speaking with a patrician voice from which nearly all traces of Irishness had been meticulously eradicated and wearing the orthodox dress of a clerical gentleman, Swift’s impressive public persona disguised altogether another personality.   Known to intimates as Presto, Swift was an incorrigible mischief-maker. There were many more than one Swift.

Possibly “Stella”: Crawford Gallery
Possibly “Vanessa”: Millais

Although marrying neither, he had two close lady friends at this time – one in Dublin, ‘Stella’ (Esther Johnson) and one in London, ‘Vanessa’ (Esther Vanhomrigh). His comportment towards them was respectful and he relied on them for intellectual as well as emotional support. Another, darker side of Swift emerges too – consorting with prostitutes and his scurrilous writings, such as ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’: a poem dealing with, among other sordid matters, the odours and stains of feminine underwear.



Swift was a stickler for personal hygiene; a habit unusual for the period and he exercised regularly, walking and riding. But his health was not good, suffering as he did from debilitating deafness and often confined to bed by extended fits of vertigo and tinnitus. This ailment was to plague him until the end of his life; exacerbated by several strokes which left him mute as well. But before Stubbs reaches the endpoint he offers over 600 pages documenting Swift’s political and writing career, his avoidance of marriage and his position as a revered Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

Obfuscated by lack of evidence, and the differing stories that Swift himself told, is the strange mystery of Whitehaven, Cumbria. As an infant, it seems, Swift was taken, perhaps kidnapped, by his wet nurse, to the small English port. He stayed there for some years, maybe two, maybe three.

On his return, his father having died before his birth and his mother now impoverished, Jonathan was brought up in the Dublin household of his Uncle Godwin. He seems to have been denied affection but was, unsurprisingly, precocious.

It is tempting for biographers and critics to apply modern psychoanalytical techniques to Swift’s life and work and to trace his peculiarities to early emotional trauma, or indeed, a position on the autism spectrum. Medical approaches have suggested that he suffered from syphilis, contracted from streetwalkers. Although, as his father is recorded to have died from this disease it may be that it was congenital.  Stubbs, like others, indulges in this kind of speculation but always gives the caveat that these conclusions are anachronistic and thus unreliable.

Nevertheless it is disturbing to read that after an inauspicious start in life the boy went sent to boarding school in Kilkenny aged “about six”. It is difficult to see how the child, Jonathan, could become an emotionally stable adult.

With an education in the classics under his belt Swift arrived at Trinity College, Dublin in 1682. According to his autobiographical accounts he did not prosper and contemporary college records show many instances of the undergraduate being fined for misdemeanours. The ‘Presto’ side of his character was in ascendant.

In 1689, just too early to take his master’s degree, Swift, along with many other students and faculty, fled to England. The Williamite war had revived, among Protestants, fears of a massacre similar to that carried out by Catholics in 1641. Now 21, Swift became secretary to Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat, who was to familiarise the young man with the mores of English society and politics.

By 1692 Swift was in possession of an MA from Oxford although he had to wait until 1702 to attain a doctorate in divinity from Trinity in Dublin.   In between he took holy orders in the Church of Ireland and was allocated a parish north of Belfast Lough. At this time, and in this location, the role of the Established Church was under siege from Ulster Presbyterians.


In 1696 Swift, perhaps bored and disillusioned, returned to the hearth of Sir William at Moor Park in Surrey.  When his mentor died in 1699 Swift was left adrift until becoming private chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley, who was immediately appointed as a lord justice in Ireland. Swift reluctantly returned to the city of his birth. Here he pursued his clerical ambitions; the path was rocky but eventually he found himself with a seat as a prebendary canon in St Patrick’s Cathedral.

For the next few years Swift continued to hold onto his benefices in Ireland, as well as his position in the retinue of the Berkeley. He travelled to and from England crossing the Irish Sea, always expecting it to swallow him whole. He rode and walked in both countries, visiting his parishes, his relatives and his patron.

He rescued ‘Stella’ from a life of drudgery by settling enough money on her for a move back to Ireland with her friend, Miss Dingley. The two ladies would discreetly follow Swift on his parochial journeys, providing him with companionship. Life was not really too unpleasant.

Then began, in 1710, the four influential years in London. In 1713 Swift was offered, and accepted, the post of senior priest in Dublin, that of Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Strange though it may seem he was disappointed by the appointment, having wanted a prestigious deanery in England. But on the death of Queen Anne in 1714, and the subsequent rise of the Whigs, Swift knew that it was time to go back to Ireland.


Thus Swift’s entered into the church and state politics of his homeland.  A nostalgia for an English-country-garden-like Ireland enthralled him. He longed for a “romantic Ireland” that was not “dead and gone” but one that never had nor could exist. Instead he had to engage with the realities of the rise of the Non-Conformists and the Catholics, and to rail against the inadequacy of English policies towards her Irish sister.

He felt obliged, however reluctantly, to rebel against his beloved England, which had served him literally, as well as metaphorically, as a nursery. Ireland, who had birthed and educated him, could now reclaim her son, and, eventually, place the great satirist at the centre of her literary heritage.

John Stubbs

Irish-born Stubbs, is well placed to write Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel, as he studied English at Oxford and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. Historical and political context encourages a greater understanding of Swift’s work and detailed analysis of this work reinforces comprehension of the man. Although 25 pages of notes exemplify his academic background, Stubbs has an accessible style and writes beautifully.

Works cited

Stubbs, J. Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel. London: Penguin Random House. 2016.

An earlier version of this review appeared in The Irish Examiner, Weekend section pages 33 and 34 on 18 Feb 2017.

Walsh and Wiki

Enda Walsh rehearsing at the Triskel Arts Centre. Photo: Dan Linehan for the Irish Examiner

As I plan to write my dissertation on the plays of Enda Walsh it seemed obvious to approach his page on Wikipedia for the marathon editing session.  I already knew quite a lot about Walsh’s biography as I have been reading/watching/ listening to interviews that he has done.  And, it seems to me, Walsh loves doing interviews. He loves to talk and he loves to laugh.  Often, even in audio or print you can feel him acting out the stories he tells and if you look at around the 64th minute of the video of him talking to Joe Dowling at the Walker Art Centre you can see him physically communicating his experience of OCD.  He makes it hilarious even though it’s actually a debilitating condition.  In different venues and with different interlocutors Walsh tells the same anecdotes over and over again, many of them relating to his family – he is the youngest of six children – and, to some extent, explaining how his plays originate in family relationships.

I thought that his Wiki page, although detailed in terms of his output, was rather dull.

Enda Walsh.jpeg
Enda Walsh. Photo: Dan Linehan for the Irish Examiner

There was only one image and no picture of Walsh himself.  I got a very recent photo from the Irish Examiner and uploaded it.

I took out the section that says how old he is as that will change when he has his birthday (although I have been unable to verify the exact day and month).  So now you can just see his year of birth (1967) and work out how old he is.  I filled in further detail about his family and education although there is confusion over the name of his daughter: variously recorded as Ada and Ava.  In his play Gentrification Walsh names one of the characters Enda and this character talks about his daughter Ada.  So I reckon that Enda Walsh knows his own daughter’s name. I also learnt how to do links and citations.

All this was practice before the designated session of the Wikipedia Editathon.  So my first screenshot shows work that I had already done during my practice sessions.

Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 09.07.03.png

One of the things that I did not like about the Enda Walsh page was the fact that the writer, who was clearly really committed, had listed Walsh’s awards and prizes in the same lines as the names of his works. This made the page look very messy and difficult to read.  Also there were awards mentioned for such things as sound design and actor performance.  I thought the awards shown on Walsh’s page should be his awards only.  So best play or best screenplay or best book (for a musical) or best film etc.  The new section 4 that you can see above in the screenshot is ‘Awards’.  Here is what they look like now:

Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 10.19.46.png

I am pleased with this as it is clean-looking and clear.

I put in another new heading which is ‘Themes’.  There is an issue with this I think. Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia and the idea of themes might be a little too interpretative.  To get around this I used only Walsh’s own words.  He is a great one for saying what his plays are about, unlike Beckett or Pinter, but he doesn’t always say the same thing.  I love his sweeping statements which suggest that all his plays are about . . . whatever he says at that moment.  So, even if someone eventually cleans this section off the page I have put in on as I think it is fascinating.  Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 10.19.20.png‘Themes’ becomes the new section 3, pushing ‘Awards’ down to section 5.

Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 12.57.50.png

I feel quite guilty about my intervention on Enda Walsh’s page as I deleted some painstaking work done by the previous contributor.  But I do think my work is clearer and better written than theirs.  I left sections 2 and 4 more or less intact although I could not help interfering a bit with tense use, syntax and spelling.  For example, the London theatre  Menier Chocolate Factory was misspelled; once corrected a link could be enabled.

Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 10.18.53.png

I found the technicalities of citations, links and screenshots very straightforward.  I also managed to send some rather dull tweets although I am not sure whether I am following enough people or if enough people are following me.  Thank you Annie, Roy and Donna for your ‘likes’.  I am indebted to Donna Alexander and Emilio Bonome-Ares for teaching me how to edit Wikipedia.  They were both very kind and supportive.  Also calm in the face of my panic.

Works cited

My Literature Review


Looking for an image for this post I found this one among a panoply of offers to write my literature review for me.  It’s quite cheap.  If I am prepared to wait for a week or two I will need to spend less than $16.  It’s tempting to see what they come up with.

Nevertheless, inspired by Dr Heather Laird’s presentation yesterday morning, I have already bashed out over 800 words of the desired 1000. And I like to think that my own attempt, even in its early iteration, is likely to be better than theirs, although they have professional writers and manually proofread twice!

What we are being asked to do is entirely unlike what my daughter undertook when she was working towards her MA in Social Work.  Her literature review was her dissertation.  By looking at the literature, around her focus of memory books for fostered/adopted children, she had to summarise and critically analyse recent peer-reviewed publications.  Finally she had to evaluate the concept of memory books: would they improve the quality of life of the looked-after children, did the making of them become too much like extra homework or, indeed, were the children emotionally damaged by these formal ties to their pasts?

Proofreading her draft, I became profoundly interested in the discussion and I thought that when her thesis was published it would become a useful tool for other social workers, especially those, like my daughter, who were working in child protection.  It made me wonder whether the theses written in my own field could equal those from vocational areas.  After all, of what use will my 17,000 words be to anyone?  I suppose they could be accessed by a student working on the same writer and cited in their bibliography.  But those words will be fun to write.

Nervous of the technology I was unwilling to start a blog when I first began at UCC in 2015, and I begged that I be allowed to present a 2,000 word research journal in hardcopy, as had students at the university in previous years.  Dr Donna Alexander reposted that when she wrote one herself she had felt her undertaking to be pointless.  No one, she said, read it, other than herself and her supervisor.

celtickranger0219.jpgBlogs, on the other hand, would be peer-reviewed.  I could understand her argument. And I have taken to blogging like a duck to water. I really enjoy it. But, and this is a big BUT, who is reading it?  Who is peer-reviewing it?

Looking at my stats, I can see that very few people have viewed my blog.  I have no comments.  I have one ‘like’.  That’s for nine posts!  I asked Donna, who has been incredibly supportive of me, if there was a technical problem.  She checked my site out and said it was working perfectly.  And it’s true that I have had encouraging feedback, by email, from her, from Dr Maureen O’Connor, from Dr Anne Etienne and from Dr Heather Laird. I can hardly call them my peers!  But I will plod on with the blog and hope some of my fellow postgrads read it.  A comment would be welcome too although I cannot dream of any ‘likes’.

As to the literature review of the type we have to write, my partner asked me what was the point of it.  In the classroom I had unkindly pointed out that the document could be nothing but a work of fantasy. By the time that the sources had actually been read, and the title redefined, many of the identified articles and chapters, chosen, possibly from contents pages and mainly by their titles, would have become irrelevant. I told him that I thought the process was designed to get us going. We should be engaging with the research now.  We should be finding out what we need to read and how to organise our ideas.  I know that I may need to tighten the focus of my thesis if it is not to become a sprawling and incoherent mess.  I need to make progress and plan and restructure as I move through my reading.

And, of course, I really enjoyed working on the literature review. I found a piece called ‘High-Octane Ballyturk Bends it like Beckham’ and a thesis entitled ‘”Blood and the Bandage!”: Influence and Identity in the Theatre of Enda Walsh’. Both of these sound fascinating although the first is in the magazine Variety and thus likely to be rather lightweight whereas the second, although viscerally attractive, has nothing to do with what I want to write, other than it is about Enda Walsh.  I am constantly aware of the pleasure I take from working on the MA in Irish Writing and Film but I know that I am rather mischievous and probably try to make too many jokes on my blog and even in my submitted essays.  Luckily Enda Walsh himself is a bit of a joker so I should have fun with him!

Enda Walsh: Irish Examiner


Works cited

My daughter’s literature review (unattainable)

My literature review (unattainable)

All other works cited by links

Links to last year’s blogs: book.



Goldfinch in the Snow

One early November evening members of UCC walked through the liminality of twilight towards the Creative Zone of the Boole library to hear some readings.  goldfinchedit3.jpgAs darkness fell beyond the windows we heard Eílís Ní Dhuibhne read her story Goldfinch in the Snow.  Slightly deaf, as I am, I heard the title as Goldfinch and the Crow.

Illustrations: Amy Holliday 2011

This would, in my view, have been an equally potent title, as will become clear.

The story concerns a young Bulgarian woman, Darina, who is living and working in Dublin, and, on New Year’s Eve, waiting to meet her Irish boyfriend, Mark.  He is late, ‘was always late, that was an Irish thing’ (53).  Instructed by Mark to meet him at the party, which he may attend, she stands at a bus stop by Tara Street Station until it becomes clear that no bus will arrive before another year begins. She is stuck in a sort of limbo.  Later in a taxi, anxious about the cost, she finds herself at much greater risk.  She is drugged (etherised?), raped and then murdered.  Goldfinch in the Snow is a reversed nativity story.  There is no room for Darina at the inn, but it is a story of death rather than birth, of despair rather than hope.

Ní Dhuibhne uses colour in interesting, if rather heavy-handed, ways. Darina, the eponymous goldfinch, looks like one.  She wears ‘high heels and … black lacy stockings’.  On her feet are ‘shoes, black patent, strappy, more sandals than shoes?’ and  ‘her long black hair [has] the tiny red cap on top … the scrap of yellow silk at her throat’ (54/55).  Darina is representative of colour.  We hear of the colour of her home town of ‘Golden Beach’ (presumably Golden Sands, near Varna, on the Black Sea) where the sea is blue, the boats and birds are white, and ‘the women in their bikinis’ are ‘like tropical birds’.  We hear about the liminal colour of dawn, ‘a pale, milky colour … a pale bluey grey … maybe, pearl blue’ (53/58).

In Dublin, Darina is fooled into a false sense of security by the coloured lights of the Revolver observation wheel at the Point, reflecting in the Liffey so that ‘the river sparkled, pink, green and yellow’ and ‘the city looked like magic in the snow’ (53).  It must have reminded her of the wheel at home.

Dublin Eye:

At this point, Ní Dhuibhne foreshadows the outcome of the story, ‘it was a bitter night, the north wind doth blow, and we shall have snow, and what will poor robin do then, poor thing? (53).

Ferris wheel in Golden Sands: deposit photos

And the snow-clad city of Dublin is not friendly to Darina.  It freezes her toes.  The taxi-driver interrogates her about her provenance, asking if ‘there was work in her own country’ and then explains that he has ‘nothing against foreigners’.  After all, he states, ‘the Irish had gone everywhere looking for work so who were they to criticise anybody? (53).  Later, Darina wakes from the drug haze to find herself on ‘asphalt’ which is ‘hard and freezing under her thin coat’ and notices  in ‘the snow … something red glittering, and that is maybe her red cap.  Or maybe it is her red blood’ (57).  The ominously meterless taxi, shelters a man who is ‘all in black, black shirt and black hoody and black jeans, black as a crow’ (56).  From the moment she enters the taxi Darina feels ‘a black arrow’ which ‘nipped her somewhere between her chest and her stomach’ (55) and later, ‘[t]he black shaft again, piercing’ (57).

The Snow Child illustration: Scott Keenan

Thus Ní Dhuibhne utilises the familiar black, white and red of the Gothic.  And, although one genre is clearly the fairy tale (referencing, in particular, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, and reminding the reader of Angela Carter‘s collection The Bloody Chamber, with its trio of red riding hood stories and its horror story The Snow Child) the key genre of Goldfinch in the Snow is modern Irish Gothic.

Gone are some of the conventions, such as the supernatural, familiar to readers of nineteenth century Irish Gothic.  This is a thoroughly modern tale, an urban tale, and one whose victim is not a female representation of Ireland.  Here, Ní Dhuibhne, presents a male predator who is Irish, whilst the victim is Eastern European.  Ireland is not kind to Darina.  She is underpaid and has just had her pay cut.

Graffiti near Tara Street Station

Her boyfriend, is always late, and has absented himself to his family over Christmas, leaving her stranded.  He fails to arrive at the Tara Street rendezvous.  During the summer, Mark deserted her for a holiday, with the result that she felt as if ‘she hardly existed’.  Using an Irish cadence, Darina states: ‘[b]arefoot she’d be, without him, her feet frozen, her heart frozen, the whole country of Ireland a frozen meaningless place’ (54).  Ireland, it appears, is inhospitable to immigrants, a point argued by the current Journalist of the Year, Michael Clifford, in his piece ‘Looking away is a betrayal of who we are‘ in the Irish Examiner on 17th December 2016.

When Ní Dhuibhne read the story, although this incident is not in the published text, an Irish woman approaches Darina at the bus stop to tell her that no bus will come that night.  Only she helps Darina, even if just by giving information.  Goldfinch in the Snow is an excellent example of Feminist Modern Irish Gothic.  But it is also a political statement about the need for compassion and generosity.  As such it’s an ideal Christmas story.

Works cited

Carter, A.  The Bloody Chamber.  Gollancz. 1979.

Clifford, M.  ‘Looking away is a betrayal of who we are’.  Irish Examiner.  Dec. 17.  p19

Ní Dhuibhne, É. ‘Goldfinch in the Snow’. Surge: New Writing from Ireland.  Brandon. 2014.

Ní Dhuibhne, É.  Goldfinch in the Snow.  Reading.  Creative Zone, Boole Library.  Nov. 8 2016.

Perrault, C.  ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals. Paris. 1697.


Not Waiting for Godot


Waiting for Godot: Druid. 2016.


The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present by Michael Billington

In his recent review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child 9780751565355.jpgMichael Billington writes that he now sees “the point of being wild about Harry”. But for me the excitement about Harry has been seeing children reading the play. Because reading plays is not a common activity and it should be.

Billington has been a theatre critic for almost 50 years, seeing around 9,000 plays and reading many more. His choice, he insists, is “subjective” stating, “a great play is both an expression of its time and open to multiple reinterpretations”.

It is impossible to resist scanning the chronological list of playwrights and plays searching for favourites. As Billington admits, “a woman critic or one from a black or Asian background would arrive at a wholly different list” and so would an Irish critic.51Yvzfc+SOL-1._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Nine Irish playwrights and a total of ten plays make the cut. Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Shaw (twice), Joyce, O’Casey, Beckett, Friel and McPherson. But where are Boucicault, Synge, Behan, Keane, Murphy, McGuinness, Carr, Barry, and Walsh? Another nine off the top of my head, and I haven’t even started on those born elsewhere such as McDonagh.

Billington apologises to writers, “whom I profoundly admire but who don’t appear” and hopes that those living “will forgive me”. No two lists could be identical and for me, Billington’s choice is sound. I have read or seen most of the plays and the remainder are on my reading list.

Certainly his first choice The Persians by Aeschylus, fits Billington’s criteria of being ”still vibrant” in that recent productions colour the play “with our own sense of the horror of war”.

Billington usually mentions performances that he has seen, particularly, in this case, “Mike Pearson’s National Theatre of Wales production staged in and around a hilltop military village built by the British army to train troops in hand-to-hand fighting”.

Ian McKellen and Susan Fleetwood 1970

The first Irish play to get a mention is one of my all time top ten, George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. Billington admires the comedy for its “nose for corruption and eye for injustice”.

Secondly he includes another comedy She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith. Billington sees “psychological acuity under the mathematical ingenuity”.


Illustration: Edwin Austin Abbey 1882-7


On the first night in 1773 a critic described the play as “a barrel of gunpowder”. I’m so sad that I missed Jamie Lloyd’s 2012 revival in which “Marlow pawed the ground like an impatient stallion while … Kate archly reared her rump in readiness for goodness knows what”.

In his essay on Sheridan’s The School for Scandal Billington regrets a production which I did see (image below), and hated.

images.jpegDeborah Warner updated the play in 2012 to “celebrity culture”. He says this mistake teaches us “that a play may simultaneously be topical and timeless”.

It is not surprising that Irish dramas chosen for The 101 Greatest Plays get an enthusiastic response.  What is surprising, though, is Billington on Beckett. Writing in dialogue, as in many pieces towards the end, Michael talks to ‘Helen’, a young woman critic – an amalgam of several people.

“You must be torn between Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Happy Days” says Helen and the reply is, “I’ve chosen none of those.” Billington is “not temperamentally drawn to his [Beckett’s] vision of life as an irremediable hell”.

Instead Billington chose All That Fall, a radio play, because of its “vivid particularity” rather than “exemplary archetypes”. Helen accuses Michael of a “dated penchant for observant realism” but he insists that the play contains “all the great Beckett themes given flesh and colour”.

Billington concurs with Helen’s assessment of his preference for realism mentioning “McPherson’s Chekhovian gift for the minute particular” in his piece on The Weir. He admires McPherson’s “intuitive understanding of wasted lives” calling the play a “mesmerising study”. These two words equally apply to Billington’s book which is dedicated to playwrights, defending them against the threat of company-devised work.


Works Cited

Aeschylus. The Persians.  written 472 BC.

Beckett, S. All That Fall. Faber & Faber. 2006.

Billington, Michael.  The 101 Greatest Plays. Faber & Faber. 2016

Farquhar, G. The Recruiting Officer.  Lintot. 1706-7.

Goldsmith, O.  She Stoops to Conquer. F. Newberry. 1773.

McPherson, C. The Weir. Dramatists Play Service Incorporated.  1998.

Rowling, J.K., Thorne, J. and Tiffany, J. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Little Brown. 2016.

Sheridan, R.  The School for Scandal. Dublin. 1780.

NB.  The original version of this review was published in the ‘Weekend’ section (p37) of the Irish Examiner on 26th November 2016.

Not normally angry in Ireland

but I am a bit just now.

Westminster Abbey: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Last Sunday, 13th November, I was sitting, at 11.00am, in the Galway Hooker in Heuston Station, Dublin waiting for a train home to Cork (hilariously, my partner’s daughter, phoning him, thought he was in Houston, Texas).  Silently, and unnoticed by other punters, the Remembrance Day commemorations, in London, were playing out on the TV screen.

Armistice Day in the Lloyds building, London.  Leon Neal, Getty Images

We were awaiting the two minutes’ silence.

Had I been alone, and thus unable to embarrass my partner, I would have mounted the stairs to the gallery of the pub to ask everyone to respect the moment marking the end of the First World War, in which, 35,000 Irish served (and many more in British Regiments, and of Irish heritage in Commonwealth regiments) and, of whom, many thousands were killed or maimed.  But he was there and so I spared him that embarrassment and just sat there with him as our companions munched their way through belated full Irish breakfasts, unaware of the event playing out above their heads.

The Queen on Sunday 13th November: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The Munster Fusiliers (and soldiers from many other regiments) are sorely neglected in their homeland in terms of  First World War memorials and commemorations.  We were reminded of this when their Battle of the Somme remembrance  wreaths were thrown into the Lee earlier this year.

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day  of the eleventh month is a full stop that has punctuated my life since I was born.  I am not militaristic and neither was my father.  But, nevertheless, after a year studying at the Sorbonne in 1938 and going up to the University of Cambridge in September 1939, at the age of 19, he found himself an officer in the Second World War, named ‘the emergency’ at the time in Ireland.

As a republican and left-winger he would have not have fought in the 1914-1918 war.  He would, like my two grandfathers, have been a conscientious objector.  But here, facing him, was Hitler and National Socialism.  So my father, Alan Smith, a puny, literary and art-loving young man,  who, because of his university, was officer class, and, being good at trigonometry he was sent to the artillery so that he could work out how to aim the guns.  He ended up at D Day + 1, being ‘steady under fire’.

Where was Ireland then?  Untitled.pngIt was introspective, dreaming of ‘a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youth and the laughter of happy maiden’.  It sounds suspiciously like Hitler’s Aryan ideal, which is still encapsulated in Berlin’s 1936 Olympic stadium which I saw last month on a visit to that fine city.

But there were, always available, (often impoverished) young men and women, willing to serve in the British army and to send money home to their families.  And there were those who hated the stultifying Irish society that was ruled from Dublin, in an almost, medieval, or at least, Victorian manner, closing down freedom and denying thought.

Reading John Bruton’s article in ‘The Centenary Conversations’ (p19), which argues that “commemoration should emphasise non-violent events” I was struck, in a way that I have not not been previously, by the idea that “the 1916 Rising and Proclamation” should not be “treat[ed] as the foundation event of our democracy”.

This uprising, he says, and I agree, “involved the deliberate taking of human life, in the middle of a war, and in alliance with the central powers, the first World War grouping that included Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.  The Rising lacked a prior democratic mandate of any kind and was in breach of a countermanding order.” For me, Bruton’s key phrase  is “in the middle of a war”; also important is his noting of the rebels’ connections with  Germany.

Michael Anderson holds the helmet of his father, Lieutenant Bill Anderson with his nephew Vincent Murphy: Colm Mahady/Fennells

To return to the point,  Armistice Day, is a commemoration of the ending of a violent event, rather than the violent event itself.  Can that be argued for commemoration of the Easter Rising?  If you commend Bruton’s remarks then you should not really celebrate an uprising which deflected resources from a world war which was fought to establish the self-determination of small nations; especially given the contribution to the hard-won victory by soldiers from the island of Ireland.  I commend Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long Long Way to anyone wanting to engage with the conflicting ideas of this period.

Works cited

Barry, S. A Long Long Way. Faber & Faber. 2005

Bruton, J. ‘Commemoration should emphasise non-violent events’. The Irish Times. 29th October 2016.

DeValera, E. Broadcast to the People of Ireland. 1943.

Fidler, Matt. ‘Remembrance Day around the world in pictures’. The Guardian website. 11th November 1916.

Other blogs relating to the First World War can be found on my other site:

Have you forgotten yet?

Where is the Irish Literature of the First World War?

You might also like Dadland on this site.