Back in the saddle. My review of The Cruelty Men by Emer Martin, in last Saturday's Irish Times.
The Cruelty Men
By Emer Martin
(Lilliput, €16.00 p/b)
From the publication of her first novel, 1995’s Breakfast In Babylon, it was clear that Emer Martin was an original, radical and vital new voice in Irish writing. Paradoxically, this was because she was charting the experiences of a young, international underclass, the disaffected diaspora, alienated out of Ireland as much by the uncongeniality of prevailing social mores as by any economic necessity. Furthermore, unlike other socially conscious chroniclers of Ireland’s ills at the time, such as Dermot Bolger, she was doing it from a largely female perspective. This global, feminist vision has evolved through her subsequent fictions, More Bread Or I’ll Appear (1999), and Baby Zero (2007). With her new book, however, the long-time California resident has come full circle, training her acutely dissecting gaze on her homeland, with an epic family saga of 20th century Ireland.
This is the story of the O Conaills, transposed in 1935 from their home village of Cill Rialaig on Bolus Head in Ballinskelligs, Co. Kerry, to found what would become the Meath Gaeltacht in Ráth Chairn – an initiative by the Land Commission to promote the Irish language. So, leaving pregnant mother Grainne behind, to join the rest of the clan later when she had their latest baby, father Dessie heads off in a pony and trap with their already extensive brood: the then ten-year-old Mary, hard-working and good-hearted, around whom much of the narrative revolves; eldest boy Seamus, hapless and conniving, the source of so much trouble for the others; Bridget, first to leave the nest, for Dublin and then America; sensual, adventurous Maeve, who, after a becoming pregnant while working as a shop girl in Trim, spends the rest of her adult life in, successively, a mother and baby home, a lunatic asylum, and a Magdalen laundry; feral, creative Padraig, who also winds up the victim of unimaginable horrors in the ‘big house’ in Mullingar; and the youngest, Sean, a smart lad Mary puts through school and college, who becomes a Christian Brother, but grows disillusioned with the endemic abuse, until he can no longer live with himself.
Mary vows to her mother to keep the family together, but after her father returns to Kerry in search of his wife who never arrived, himself never to be heard of again, it proves a task too much for a 15-year-old girl to sustain on her own, and the siblings are scattered, one by one. In fairness, it was a gargantuan undertaking, trying to dodge the Cruelty Men of the title, who neighbouring farmer Patsey tells Mary: ‘…usually are retired guards or teachers and they wear brown shirts…They answer to no one and I’ve heard tell that they take bribes from the local industrial school to get more kids in there and put them to work…If they got their hands on you in one of them schools you’d be a slave for the rest of your childhood. The priests are always looking for more children.’ Later, priest’s housekeeper and Goldenbridge graduate, Elizabeth Quinn, expands on this: ‘They’re not fecking orphanages, Mary, because the children aren’t poxy orphans… They’re not charities. The government is sending money to them for each child. That’s why the Cruelty Men are scouring the country. They prey on the poor and get more and more children. And they keep the women having more and more babies in their ignorance. Babies that they can’t take care of, and then they feed them into schools that are no more than concentration camps. Sure there are children as slaves all over the land.’
When Seamus gets the small farm, and marries badly, Mary goes into service with the Lyons, a solid middle-class family in Kilbride. This also provides a rich strand of social observation of Ireland in the ’50s and ’60s. Elder daughter Eileen is discouraged from pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor, and opts for nursing instead, as she had to run the gaunlet of the boys’ school to study honours maths, much to the disapproval of the nuns, who did not provide the subject in the convent. Younger girl Teresa (‘Baby’) is steered towards primary school teacher training, as news of a Cambridge scholarship is kept from her.
Martin has a William Trevor-like ability to sum up an era with a couple of deft brush strokes, as when Baby recounts of herself and Eileen: ‘We met every Sunday and she took me to the 4 Ps as we called it, the Four Provinces on Harcourt Street. They had afternoon dances. No rock and roll allowed but plenty of Pat Boone and Frank Sinatra.’ - which tells you as much about Dublin in 1964 for young people as you need to know.
The novel also benefits from a foundation of strong underlying myths, like the Bull of Bhalbhae and the Children of Lir, incorporated mostly through Mary’s storytelling. If there is any criticism of this fine work, it might be that we never find out what became of some central characters. But perhaps such lack of resolution is in keeping with the material, as that is often what happened back then.
There is a school of thought which holds that such so-called revisionist readings of recent Irish history are merely kicking an already open door open, and with the decline of the power of the church/state nexus, serve no useful purpose. Indeed, they are construed as a literary version of ‘talking down the economy.’ But if we forget, we may repeat, and while it may border on cliché to depict priests and nuns as sadistic, self-serving ghouls, Martin’s text stands as a record of a not too distant time when, far from loving both, they loved neither. Besides which, her sensitive treatment of these thwarted, trammelled, traumatised lives, if often angry, is never heavyhanded or preachy, and should propel an already proven and podigious talent to the forefront of contemporary Irish letters.