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.

It’s the economy stupid…!

26 years after Nelson Mandela emerged into freedom, heralding the hope and optimism of the “Rainbow Nation”, a leading South African academic is predicting its total collapse in a mire of corruption. But it is the second time he has preached a counsel of despair for “the Beloved Country.” Is he right this time?


How Long will South Africa Survive?

At first sight it seems strange to write two books with the same title. But R. W. Johnson has twice written How Long Will South Africa Survive. His first book (1977, above left) prophesied South African military strikes on neighbouring countries followed by an international ‘solution’. Now he says he was wrong and that international sanctions forced regime change. So he has written a second title (2015, above right) after witnessing what he describes as “20 years of almost complete fecklessness”.


I have often heard of Irish politicians being accused of fecklessness, but if you think it is the same thing, read on…

A South African by birth, Johnson, (73) is emeritus fellow of Magdelen College, Oxford although, unlike many compatriots, he returned to South Africa after the fall of apartheid nearly three decades ago. The 1977 book questioned “how long it would be before the ruling white establishment encountered a regime crisis” and the second iteration posits that “South Africa is now heading fast for another investment crisis which will in turn end in another regime change”.

Johnson is a brave man. He is frequently on the college lecture circuit and TV, expounding his doom-laden views in a seemingly fearless manner. Johnson’s voice is patrician in register: stating, for example, that there is “not enough political or economic talent” in the government to run even a “medium-sized town in Europe or North America.

He sees the African National Congress (ANC), and its leader, the Zulu president, Jacob Zuma, as interested “to be quite frank” only in their personal wealth and in nepotism.

Jacob Zuma:

But … surely, you respond, South Africa is a democracy and allows free speech? As evidence you cite that it is a country in which Mmusi Manimane, the leader of the opposition – the Democratic Alliance (DA) –  can stand in parliament and state that the “honourable president” is so-called only “out of respect for the traditions of this august house”. That he, Zuma, is a “broken man presiding over a broken society” and one who “laughed when the people of South Africa cried for their beloved country”.

Zuma laughed, apparently, when armed police in plain shirts entered the chamber and assaulted the members while they were in debate.

A true democracy then?

So you and I can both admire Johnson for his decision to live in his heritage country and to speak out repeatedly about the corruption of the ruling party and the likely collapse of the regime. But according to Johnson it is not politics, not corruption, not immorality which will destroy the “dream world” but perpetual failure to manage the economy. And he says that there is no political will to avoid an economic crisis.


Johnson argues that deep-level gold-mining is at the centre of the South African economy and that, for this “centre” to “hold”, the country requires substantial international backing.   He calls inward-flow investment the “iron law of S. A. history”. He points out that South Africa’s credit rating is likely to fall below the vital criteria and that large investors, such as insurance and pension companies (that’s you and me) will, eventually, dump South African bonds.

Johnson says that the country will “haemorrhage” capital resulting in falls in the exchange rate and in the stock market. Interest on the substantial South African debt will rise, resulting in a debt trap. He thinks that the politicians will not realise what is happening as they are too busy feathering their own nests.

An exception, he says, is the first black finance minister, Nine Nhlanhla,


who Johnson considers as having been “set up to fail”. The finance minister would be a lone voice without support from the government. And the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will descend on South Africa.An IMF bailout? We had one of those in Ireland.

But more perils lie ahead for South Africa. A lesson, according to Johnson, is Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe “sabotaged” the IMF conditions. Johnson fears that South Africa could go the same way.

Southern-Africa-Map.pngHe points out, however, that unlike Zimbabwe, South Africa is urbanised. City people will not be able to return to their homestead to scratch a living. Additionally a large number of Zimbabweans left their country for South Africa. There is nowhere south for the South Africans to go – other than Antarctica.   Thus Johnson hopes that when the IMF arrive the ANC and DA will cooperate.


images.jpegOtherwise he fears there could be “xenophobic riots”. The “centre” would “not hold” and the country could “fall apart”. Literally it could divide along tribal lines.

Johnson’s answer is unsurprising: austerity. Unlike Ireland, however, South Africa does not have reliable provision of water or electricity. Austerity would be worse for them. Perhaps not so bad for the government ministers who have stashed money abroad. Perhaps not so bad for Zuma who, according to the opposition, has 783 unanswered counts of corruption, fraud and racketeering against him.

It would be embarrassing though for the ANC to lose economic sovereignty and to have to admit that after 22 years their regime has ended in humiliating and public failure.

My copy of How Long Will South Africa Survive is a paperback published this year and with this imprint comes a useful postscript, dated April 2016. The first section is titled “The ethnic facts of life” and its opening statement declaims that in “the new South Africa there was supposed to be no such thing as tribalism and it was therefore highly politically incorrect to notice that it still existed”.

Johnson, who “dared to notice that exist it did” identifies the power of the “Zulu bloc” and the discomfort of the Xhosa, Tswana and the Northern and Southern Sotho groups. This is why Johnson expresses a real fear of xenophobia.


In parliament the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) wear the scarlet uniforms of domestic servants and African workers. They disrupt the procedures, sometimes shouting “give back the money” and being so provocative that the speaker of parliament called their leader, Julius Malema, “a cockroach”. Johnson comments that this brings back memories of the Rwandan Hutus using that word about the Tutsis during the genocide of 1994.

Amidst the chaos of South African politics, finance minister Nene, was sacked in December 2015, causing international consternation and negative market reaction. Johnson, in his 2016 postscript, describes him as “of stolid good temper” and of having “played a straight bat”. Nene had “flatly dismissed” proposals and said that “things simply could not be afforded”; thus he lost his job.

Gwede Mantasha:

In spite of calls for his resignation or impeachment Zuma survived, supported by the ANC’s secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe (right), in an attempt to keep the ANC together and avoid a backlash from the Zulu kingdom.


Belinda Bozzoli:

Finally Johnson quotes Belinda Bozzoli, a DA MP, who wrote: “What we see is unambiguous evidence of unstoppable decay. We become unavoidably aware that there is barely a realm of administration which is not rotten to the core, a minister who is not compromised, or a department which is not ineffectual”.


Johnson-How-Long-Will-South-Africa-Survive-web-1.jpg            When I wrote this review, I noted that in the recent local elections the ANC won an overall majority, taking just 54% of the national vote whilst the DA surged to 27%. Maimane of the DA enthused that it was, in effect, a referendum and a protest against the ANC. Analysts assert that the result is a market positive.

It’s the economy.



Works cited

Johnson, R. W. How Long Will South Africa Survive? Oxford University Press. 1977.

Johnson, R. W.  How Long Will South Africa Survive? The Looming Crisis. Jonathan Ball. 2015.

NB. A version of this review was first published  on page 33 of the ‘Weekend’ section of the Irish Examiner on 8th October 2016.






A shared history: Dadland








Dadland by Keggie Carew is subtitled a journey into uncharted territory.  But in some ways this memoir is not ‘uncharted territory’ for me as I am almost of an age with its author and my father was born only six months after her father, Tom.  And Keggie, an artist, has, like me, lived in County Cork.

Both our beloved and eccentric fathers are now dead and we are both bruised by grief.  All we have are memories and a few photographs.  Many of the black and white pictures that litter the text of Dadland could have been in our family’s albums. The two above show Keggie’s parents in the 1940s. The images below are of my parents, Alan and Nancy Smith, during and after the Second World War.
Josephine and Alan Fenton.jpgAlanFenton.jpgJosephineFentonduringwar.jpg

There is also photograph of the cold winter of 1963, showing Keggie’s family, standing by a snowman, that is unbearably recognisable.CvNeGDLWEAAx5Xd.jpg

My mother’s coat, my mother’s hat, my mother’s ankle boots and my scratchy dufflecoat!LittleJosephine.jpg  It’s almost as if my life appears in these pages.  This is the only version of that  image that I can find online, showing Keggie and Tom; Keggie’s mother, Jane, has been cropped. And here is one of me in the snow.

But then the territory becomes uncharted since her family experiences are far more extreme than mine. During the Second World War Tom Carew was in the Special Operations Executive F Section and was parachuted into France and then Burma in small self-selected teams to train resistance groups and organise guerrilla warfare. Having been born in 1919 in Dublin, Keggie’s father was known as the “mad Irishman” and also thought to have “the luck of the Irish”.

Tom’s father, Arthur, returned from serving in the Royal Navy in the First World War to an Ireland of Big Houses in which he was employed to look after the horses. Arthur impregnated Maud, a young widow and a lady of the house, and in 1921, after Chute House and Warren House were inflagrated, he left for Cambridge, England with Maud and three children, of whom, only Tom, aged one, was his own. On the day they left, Tom’s half brother remembers, “all the sheep on the farm were slung around the perimeter fence of the house with their throats slit”. Reprisal-torn Ireland was a hostile environment for a man, formerly employed in the British Armed Services and currently in a liaison with a member of the gentry.

Tom’s allegiance was never to his birth country nor to Britain where he grew up but to the Jeds. The Jedburghs were a special unit, originally set up as a collaboration between the British, French and Americans, to be sent to France to cut railway lines, blow up bridges, destroy communications and report on enemy positions as well as other acts of derring-do. Anti-authoritarian as he was, Tom Carew blossomed behind lines, winning the Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Order; of which he was apparently the youngest recipient. And he revelled in the danger and the discomfort.

saboteurs.jpgAfter France Tom went to Burma and fell in love with the Burmese, later calling them “small, highly independent, thoroughly badly treated, swamped, beautiful people”. He hated the establishment British colonials, regarding them, his daughter thinks in the same way that George Orwell presents them in Burmese Days. The young Irish lieutenant-colonel saw them as “pompous British… trying to cling onto an alien land”.

But after the war Tom Carew was never the same again. He swapped unmitigated success for repeated failure as an employee and as a husband and, even, as a father. Keggie Carew writes with unremitting honesty about the chaotic nature of their family life, economic and emotional impoverishment; their mother eventually institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital in Hampshire. In among the days of avalanches of bills dropping onto the doormat, however, there are memories of wonderful family camping holidays in Spain.

images.jpegShe writes of doomed lobsters in a concrete pool and of surfing being a “heaven-sent pursuit”. Even reading these descriptions I felt a sense of sadness as she says, “Tearing along the shallows, then being dumped on hard wet sand… Yes, this is the time I would go back to, that moment, right then.”

Dadland is not only sad and not only exciting but it is also farcical. Peeing is, Keggie says, “a theme with Dad. When he was living in a Bedford van in London he “drilled a hole through the metal floor into which he slotted a funnel”. After some time the van began to “pong” and Tom discovered that the floor had a double skin. He had been storing his urine in the bowels of his van!

Keggie Carew’s “uncharted territory” in Dadland is her father’s life. He is sinking into the mire of dementia, desperately writing notes to himself:


TOM CAREW’S Brain is collapsing



Brain is ‘switching’

switching away from ‘memory’

memory of people and their names

so you write me off???

not necessarily  

I invent – Yes I do – come to my new HUT.

Wednesday 28 July


and notes to others giving his name but telling them he can’t remember theirs.




rsz_img_1415(1).jpgKeggie tries to retrieve her father’s life as he forgets it and in this effort she fills a shed with papers dredged up from relatives’ attics and copied from the National Archives at Kew and the Imperial War Museum. It is a huge undertaking requiring research into two separate theatres of the Second World War in both of which her father’s work was clandestine. After the war he was sometimes working undercover. Then there are his three marriages all of which were problematic and caused fissures in family relationships. As Keggie writes, “secrets of these kind get buried deep”.

Reflecting the vast amount of material, Dadland is long. The structure is not chronological but like a film with flashbacks. It has been divided into many chapters under section headings such as Dad is a Spy and Mum is a Pakistani, Surprise, Kill and Vanish, and Your Father is a Bastard. The narrative voice changes between academic for the war sections and slangy for the family sections. But the narrative arc is clever – almost like a detective novel – as Keggie follows clues and reveals the answers for herself and her readers.

Unknown.jpegKeggie saves the best until the end: “Since Dad died he had been in a Barry’s Irish Tea caddy on a shelf in my shed”. The story of what happens to these ashes is one of many hilarious yet moving moments in Dadland. I wish Tom Carew well in his final resting place and, in recommending this book as marvellous, send his daughter an accolade.

Works cited

Carew, K. Dadland. Chatto and Windus.  2016

Orwell, G. Burmese Days. Harper. 1934.

NB A version of this review was first published in the Irish Examiner (p37 of ‘Weekend’) on 29th October 2016.

Darkness Visible




William Blake: Satan exulting over Eve. 1795. Tate Britain.

Reading the opening of The Countenance Divine by Michael Hughes I was struck by the overt crafting of the novel.  I delight in patterns in novels, and I saw, on the flap of the dust jacket, 1999, 1888, 1777, 1666. As well as magical dates there are other important numbers. In the first chapter the sections are divided thus: 01, 02 and so on, and there is also consideration of the Year Two Thousand Problem (Y2K), familiarly known as the Millennium Bug. Binary and four digit numbers are foregrounded but the central pattern is in the form of a gadget.

Unknown.jpegIn 1999 Chris, a computer programmer, purchases, from a stall in Brick Lane, London, this gadget, a Victorian puzzle: a ‘Practical Rebus’. “Each piece had an image or motif painted on it, but together they formed one overall design. The pieces could be interchanged, and every arrangement made a different pattern.”   The puzzle has a profound effect on the seemingly dull protagonist, one that, he seems barely to have the imagination to compass.

If this all seems a bit mannered the artifice does not end there.  In the list of principal characters, divided into sections according to century, one can see both William Blake and John Milton. And in 1888 we encounter Jack the Ripper. Allusions are made to all three in the first chapter, with one of Chris’s Goth colleagues nicknamed Dark Satanic Mills (DSM) after Blake’s famous hymn, ‘Jerusalem’, a section of his longer poem ‘Milton’.

From Hell.pngDSM lends Chris the graphic novel From Hell purportedly based on a letter to authorities from the ‘Ripper’ himself. DSM states that there is “another way of looking at the world, where everything was connected, including the past and the future”. Ah, a clue! Chris is visited by the past in uncomfortable ways. Everything coalesces. As to the future? That would be a spoiler…

It is impossible to accuse the Northern Irish author of laziness. Hughes’s research is thorough and his writing honed by years of study and teaching.

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Michael Colgan in Headlong’s production of Lulu. 2010.

In particular, his rendition of dialogue is masterly, maybe developed by his work as an actor, under the name Michael Colgan.  Hughes moves fluently through the registers of Jack the Ripper, “with tother hand Ile take my knif and stab it in your neck”, William Blake, “my only monument shall be the simple little songs I leave behind”, and Milton, “religion at its most fanatick is almost an evil”. His presentation of Chris, in 1999, is more pedestrian, “He couldn’t’ think.   He did not know what to say”. Form and structure reflect character and era.

The narrative swivels from one century to another, always cross-stitched together with motifs. The key ideas of the novel can be summarised by reference to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”

The Countenance Divine has been compared with Cloud Atlas and Wolf Hall . The admirers of the former will certainly relish his craftsmanship, and those of the latter will enjoy the historical education that Hughes bestows, encouraged to identify factual material and separate it from his imaginative creation. It might seem churlish of me to say that I was not drawn into any of the four narratives as I would not want to dissuade readers from The Countenance Divine. But I would rather read Blake or Milton and, as for Jack the Ripper, I have previously read and seen more about the misogynistic femicides than I can stomach. All the main characters, other than Chris, are renowned, and if you like this genre and these periods of history you may love The Countenance Divine.

Works cited

Blake, W. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  1794.

Hughes, Michael. The Countenance Divine. John Murray. 2016.

NB A version of this review was first published in the ‘Weekend’ section of the Irish Examiner on 15th October 2016.





They dreamed and are dead


35 years ago, on the 30th October 1981, the H-Block hunger strike officially ended.  In Long Kesh prison, a sequence of ten deaths had taken place between May and August. In 2005, Richard O’Rawe, who served as the IRA public relations officer inside the jail, wrote Blanketmen, in which he asks whether the final six hunger strikers were forsaken by comrades on the outside.

Blanketmen, first published in 2005, has been reprinted in 2016 with a new foreword by Richard English. Setting the context for the strike and trying to unpick the claims and counter-claims, English demands that we engage with Blanketmen if we want “to understand those grim years of prison war”. Indeed, he insists that the book is not only “a compelling and personal narrative” but contains “wider insights into republican activism and legacies”.


2016 is a telling year for Blanketmen to be re-presented, because, as O’Rawe states “there was an almost biblical reverence for the 1916 Proclamation” among ‘Special Category’ prisoners. As we revisit and rethink the complexities of the Easter Rising, it seems appropriate to reconsider the controversial events of the summer of 1981 when certificates were written for ten deaths from ‘self-imposed starvation’ in Long Kesh.

O’Rawe, receiving a death threat in 1991, kept silent for many years but as the century turned, and the armed struggle gave way to the Peace Process, he decided that it was his duty to expose “duplicity”. O’Rawe attempts to peel “away the layers of carefully scripted myths that have surrounded this momentous event in Irish history, the most insidious being that the prisoners were always in complete control of the hunger strike”.

O’Rawe’s prologue begins in early July 1981 when “the leadership of the republican prisoners in the H-Blocks accepted a set of proposals that had been presented to them by the ‘Mountain Climber’, an intermediary from the British Government”. But the Army Council of the IRA rejected the offer and six more men died, the last one on 20th August. The strike ended, partly due to the strikers’ families intervening, on 30th October and, soon after, most of the rights demanded were granted.

images.jpegSince 1976 some Republican prisoners, furious at being classed as criminals rather than politicals, refused to conform to prison rules, wearing blankets instead of “monkey suits”. When O’Rawe arrived that year at Long Kesh the “streaker” tradition was well established and with each day that passed Blanketman O’Rawe lost a day’s remission.

Frustrated by stasis, O’Rawe and his comrades, including Officer Commanding, Brendan Hughes or ‘The Dark”, and public-relations officer, Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, instituted a ‘no wash’ protest. Although the prisoners felt that they were “being buried alive in a sewer” they refused to comply with regulations.

Prison guards subjected the political prisoners to beatings and torture and many of the latter submitted to the Long Kesh regime leaving only a core of “hard men” resisting. These, in order to reinforce their position, and with permission from the Army Council, reluctantly decided to embark on a hunger strike. Strikers were selected from a list of IRA and INLA volunteers.

O’Rawe’s account of the organisation of the hunger strikes displays an unsurprising disconnect between the Army Council on the outside and the inmate leaders. Communication was difficult; additionally vehement disagreements and strict enforcement of “need to know” contributed to the chaos.

Meanwhile men died, their skin “breaking out in sores”. For what? Five rights: not to have to wear prison uniform, not to do prison work, to have free association amongst themselves, to receive weekly parcels/visits and unlimited letters and to have their remission returned.   Apparently the ‘Mountain Climber’ offered: their own clothes, parcels/visits and letters, unofficial segregation, regular free association and acceptable ‘work’.


O’Rawe claims that he and ‘Bik’, as the senior IRA officers inside the jail, and the only two who ‘needed to know’, accepted these terms, although ‘Bik’ McFarlane has always refuted this. The Official IRA line is that Gerry Adams and his colleagues had been awaiting a second, better, but undelivered, offer from the ‘Mountain Climber’. O’Rawe wonders if the Army Council’s refusal to end the strike was a political move to ensure the election, on 20th August, of Owen Carron, standing as the Anti H-Block/Proxy Political Prisoner, to replace the deceased Bobby Sands as MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone.


Blanketmen is a brave book written by a man who is passionate not just about his “ten dead comrades, who gave their lives for the Republic” but one who cherishes republicanism. He also spins a good yarn. His reportage of the banter between prisoners is priceless. As Richard English commands in his foreword, engage with Blanketmen; I add that you will also find it engaging.



Works cited

O’Rawe, Richard. Blanketmen: An Untold Story of the H-Block Hunger Strike 2nd ed. Dublin: New Island. 2016. Print.

Wolfe Tones. “Longkesh” Let the People Sing. Dublin: Dolphin Records. 1972. LP.

NB A version of this review was first published in the weekend section (p37) of the Irish Examiner on 22nd October 2016.