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Reviews: Irish Authors Tipperary by Frank Delaney

Embroideries vs. Plain Cloth

Three narrators, each unreliable for different reasons, share the daunting task of recounting the layered story of Tipperary, Irish writer Frank Delaney’s 2007 sweeping novel that covers the years 1860 to 1925, Ireland’s most turbulent era. Charles O’Brien, the chief narrator and the novel’s protagonist, was born into a theater of national events; “[Never] has Ireland had a more dramatic, compressed passage of history than the period of O’Brien’s lifetime,” states Delaney. Planting himself firmly at the center of his own stage, Charles issued a forceful disclaimer in the opening paragraphs of his personal history. (He refused to refer to it as autobiography or memoir.) “Be careful about me,” he wrote. “Be careful about my country and my people and how we tell our history. We Irish prefer embroideries to plain cloth… People say that we reinvent the truth, especially when it comes to the history of our famous oppression by England, the victimhood that has become our great good fortune…Do we render monumental the tiny revolutions fought on cabbage patches by no more than dozens of men with pitchforks and slings?”

The secondary narrator, actually a present-day commentator, is a retired history teacher whose exact identity Delaney does not immediately divulge. We learn he has obtained access to Charles’s document that “sat undisturbed for 75 years in a large wooden chest.” Half way through the book, this narrator introduces himself: “My name is Michael Nugent. No, this is not a new voice in this tale – I’m the author of the ‘commentaries’ on the writings of Charles O’Brien, and I’ve chosen to reveal myself. I’m the one who discovered all the letters and newspaper reports…and found Amelia O’Brien’s journal.”

He goes on to explain that he bought the oak chest, cleaned it and eventually donated it and its contents –stacks of Charles’s high-quality writing paper filled with his legible, looping, brown script – to the county library. His immediate reaction to the history was positive, “This, I thought, is a good self-portrait of a somewhat untypical nineteenth-century Irishman who had a decent sensibility and, when he was being objective, a clear eye.” Nugent further praises Charles’s tendency toward vivid self-expression, underscoring his talent for structuring an anecdote and for his unrelenting grasp on the thread of Irish history.

Through Nugent’s running commentaries, Delaney deftly paints for the reader the historical backdrop to the events of Charles’s life. Nugent is unreliable only in the sense that all history is unreliable; we must remember that many decades separate Nugent from the events he is depicting.

While Delaney develops his plot with the aid of Charles and Nugent, he presents increasingly substantial hints about a connection between the two men. The reader soon begins to speculate about the possibility of some mysterious tie between Nugent and Charles, a man who died in 1925, the year Nugent was born. At the book’s remarkable conclusion, Nugent’s auspicious discovery about his connection to Charles is revealed.

In 1860, the year of Charles’s birth, a long British shadow darkened the country, and existence for most Irish people was “brutish and unjust.” “The sound of an English accent in an Irish ear,” Delaney pithily declares, “long spoke of brutal colonization.” When he was nine years old Charles witnessed an eviction. A villainous landlord, accompanied by uniformed soldiers and police guards, all intimidatingly mounted on horseback, cruelly applied his whip to a man and his wife as they resisted and attempted to protect from harm two young sons and an infant. The victims’ family had lived in the same fields for more than 1,500 years. Gazing at the horrifying scene along with Charles was a crowd of local people, who hid in the bushes, fearing reprisals for just watching. “Men and women, both young and ancient, boys and girls, both small and growing, [were] all dressed in the uniform shabbiness of the people who lived in the cottages, all gaunt with the same undernourishment…” wrote Charles.

But Charles himself was born into a respected, well-to-do rural family in the eponymous county of Tipperary. His father came from ancient native-Irish roots; his forbearers had managed to hold on to their land “down the oppressed and confiscating centuries.” His Anglo-Irish mother’s antecedents, by contrast, came to Ireland in the Sixteenth Century to settle on land granted to them by the English court in reward for their military support in “the great English attempt to eradicate the Irish people.”

With ease Delaney fills in historical background, information already familiar to many readers. The Anglo-Irish comprise, as Delaney puts it, “that peculiar breed of people of English ancestry who settled in Ireland on land that was taken by force from the native Irish. By virtue of having been planted in their new acres militarily, they became economically superior to the natives, a superiority they also assumed to be social. Delaney notes that though some Anglo-Irish behaved like “ignorant, bullying savages,” most fell passionately in love with the country they were given. They became infected with its imagination, and they made significant contributions to it. Charles colorfully described his dual heritage:

“With the grandees in their limestone mansions and their vividly painted walls and their great furnishings and objets d’art, I have an easy familiarity…But with the native-born folk with the cottages and small farms and with their wonderful spirit, their music, their passion, their stories in their dense, ringing accents – with them I am alive to the quick.”

“At my conception,” affirmed Charles early in his history, “some wonderful spiritual exchange must have happened between my father and my mother, because my chief asset is, I believe, a notable zest, an exuberant rich energy for all the excellent things that life can bring.” He goes on to state that he delighted in the Ascendancy’s taste and thrilled to the common people’s wit. Charles seemed to depend on his parents and younger brother, Euclid, far more and far longer than most young Irishmen. He became a healer, traveling the countryside dispensing herbal remedies and relishing the beauty of his surroundings – old castles, woods, rivers and cliffs – wonders that were to him mystical. Beginning with the affecting eviction anecdote his history highlighted his sensitivity to “the most crucial ingredient in Ireland’s past,” attachment to the land. The notion of the Irish connection to the land weaves forcefully through the book as a conspicuous narrative theme.

When Nugent takes his turn as narrator, commentating on the beginnings of Charles’s work, he reveals to us that in his prime the six-foot-three-inch, broad-shouldered Charles possessed a wild mop of yellow-blond hair and that in treating the sick he displayed “the charm, the dignity and composure that he witnessed at home in both his parents.” Through Nugent, Delaney prepares us for Charles’s romantic tale. Following Nugent’s remarks, the narration switches again to Charles’s history, as it began to describe the pivotal moment of his existence. At this point “Byronic,” a word connoting romantic emotion, is perhaps the best adjective to describe the personal history. In it he acknowledged, “I know that I am a romantic. I am more influenced by my imaginings and more driven by my passions than anyone of my acquaintance.”

“It is time,” he stated, “to introduce the first account of the enduring passion at my life’s core.” In 1900 at the age of 40 Charles is summoned to Paris to treat a mortally ill Irish acquaintance – none other than the notorious Oscar Wilde, a man whose name would become a synonym for disgrace. Delaney, indeed, sprinkles well-rendered cameo appearances of other Irish heroes throughout his text – Charles Parnell, W.B. Yeats, and Michael Collins, among them.

At Wilde’s sickbed Charles met and fell passionately but unrequitedly in love with an 18-year-old English woman named April Burke. Now, joining the notion of Irish love for the land, the idea of unrequited love surfaces as one of the novel’s prominent themes. Attached to the British embassy in Paris as a junior assistant, April was already respected in diplomatic circles. This attractive young woman would soon become lady-in-waiting to the Princess Maud, daughter to England’s monarch, King Edward VII. Charles acknowledged in his history that April became “the permanent resident of all my thoughts,” and the motivating force in the writing of his story. But ominously, he later addressed the subject of unrequited love, noting “I had surrendered my life to a dream of love that would never reach fulfillment.”

Though the smitten Charles attributed perfection to April, Nugent possesses contradictory information: “Behind this young woman trailed a legend of intrigue; it included the sulfurous whiff of blackmail, heart-cutting tragedy, plus an old scandal at whose core lay a mystery. And she also brought danger and actual harm to those who loved her.”

This brings us to the novel’s third narrator – Charles’s intelligent and genteel Anglo-Irish mother, Amelia O’Brien. While Nugent is an unreliable narrator simply because navigating the waters of the past is always a murky endeavor, Charles is inaccurate because he is blinded by his passion for April. Amelia, too, is unreliable because her immeasurable love for her firstborn son rendered her incapable of detachment. Brilliantly, Delaney instills his book with masterful irony by presenting his tale through the lenses of three characters, who – however sincere – are not relating the objective truth. Arguably it is this pervasive undercurrent of dramatic irony that is the novel’s strongest feature.

While Charles wrote a personal history and Nugent offers instructive commentaries on it, Amelia steadfastly kept a diary. An entry written in 1904 following April’s first visit to the O’Brien farm reads: “I know he [Charles] wanted me to give an opinion of his Miss Burke. As I cannot tell him what he wishes to hear, what can I say? That she is grasping? Almost contemptuous? So sure of herself with that proud stride and toss of the head? How I wished for Charles’s sake I could have liked her more. Bernard[Charles’s father] said tonight that he now has digestion pains. Charles has gone out to mope somewhere.

Also, through Amelia’s diary Delaney presents the character of Euclid, Charles’s ailing younger brother and only sibling, who was in his 30s at the time of April’s first visit to the O’Brien’s. Disconsolately, Amelia recorded, “I know it sears his [Charles’s] heart that he, a healer, cannot heal Euclid. He will not speak of it But I know he asks everywhere for a cure for his brother. People tell him that Euclid will continue to waste away.” Later, Charles acknowledged that he had “come adrift when Euclid died.” Nugent comments “…All we see of [Euclid] is an eccentric, loving, often recumbent figure who has much to say and little to do. Repeatedly, a frailty is hinted at or mentioned; it’s never explained, only alluded to in passing.” Speculating, Nugent posits that “it could have been tuberculosis, more probably a form of anemia.”

With disappointment, Charles’s parents accept the insurmountable reality that their cherished land, for centuries vigilantly defended against confiscation, would not pass to their offspring. The noble O’Brien lineage that had farmed their property since time immemorial had come to a halt. The natural inheritor, Charles, showed no interest in the farm, and Euclid would not live long enough to inherit. “My two sons,” wrote the bewildered Amelia, “are not playing life’s cards with success.”

The subject of inheritance – a common thread in fiction – soon becomes key in Tipperary. It is not, however, the question of who shall own the O’Brien property, but rather who shall own Tipperary castle, the imposing abandoned estate that adjoins the O’Brien farm. Throughout his history Charles conveyed his rapture for rural Ireland’s natural beauty, and particularly his passionate love for the land he had lived in such close proximity to his whole life.

Like most fiction writers, Delaney makes use of coincidence as a plot component; because of the magnitude of his undertaking in the creation of Tipperary, he arguably deserves our indulgence, our “suspension of disbelief.” Charles learned that April’s father had, in fact, been born in Tipperary castle. Mysteriously, he was whisked away to England while still an infant. The magnificent castle and its 4,000 acres of surrounding land, believed Charles, rightfully belonged to April and her father. It took little to convince April that she and her father were the legitimate owners. In 1905, represented by the venerable Limerick City law firm of Stokes and Somerville, April filed suit in a case that would last seven years.

Nugent quotes from the Irish Independent an article on the proceedings: The case has finally opened in the High Court to decide the ownership of one of Ireland’s most renowned Houses. Tipperary Castle, with its magnificent residence and four thousand acres of prime farming land, is being fought over by three contenders: an Englishman, Terence Burke [April’s father], who alleges that he is the natural descendant of the last owner; Mr. Dermot Noonan, a barrister from County Tipperary, who claims that the estate was put together from stolen ancestral lands and that he knows the rightful historical owners of each acre; and the Crown, who wishes the land disposed of to the highest bidder under the Wyndham Act. It is expected that the case will last several years.

Nugent portrays Charles during the long years of April’s lawsuit as a hapless individual, adding that Charles seemed habitually unsteady. “With no talk of the future, or directed ambition,” he writes, “he more or less drifted across the landscape. He had no anchor except this great, unrequited love,” affection he squandered on April year after year. And on the subject of national affairs, Nugent reminds us that Ireland had become a seedbed of rebellion. “The Irish Question boiled on,” he writes, “Little green shoots of rebelliousness had begun to raise their spikes in the top northwest corner of the British Empire.”

From her different perspective Amelia records in her diary: That girl is not his worth by a long chalk. She is not his measure and has little of his character…My elder son, with his fine shoulders and his mane of hair and his pleasing and willing-to-please face, was always beyond her merit. Yet I do not know how to tell him that. He disparages himself so readily, so often.

Intrigue over Tipperary castle’s ownership comes to a halt when, at last, the court finds for April. (Her father died midway in the lawsuit.) It generously awards her costs and compensation, making her a rich woman. Despite Nugent’s insinuations about Charles’s midlife slump, “stoical” is the best adjective to describe Charles’s reaction when he learned that April had married Somerville, her attorney. Not only that, when she offered Charles the position of caretaker – or Responsible Overseer – for Tipperary castle, he readily accepted.

The Tipperary castle estate and the work that lay ahead of him in restoring the ancient site seemed to console Charles for the loss of April. At this point, his personal history reveals an enthusiastic and reinvigorated individual, a man in love with a property. “Firmly I vowed that I would make it echo to laughter, and words of love and joy,” he wrote. And later, “Whether in morning light, or through drifts of noontide rain, or early evening fog which floats above the ground like a gray magic carpet,” he stated, “this estate gave off enchantment.” He was confident that he would succeed in restoring to their former glory both grounds and buildings, which had been severely ravaged by nature and accumulated neglect.

An entry in Amelia’s diary read: Today we rode with Charles as he opened Tipperary castle…At first I felt angry at his being used. My son was born to take care of people, not ruined estates. Then, when we all sat on the old terrace, I felt the peace of the place. Charles has spoken much of this. I knew today what he meant…There is an emotion in the house, a care, a warmth.

The peace Amelia experienced was soon dispelled. Through one of her 1908 diary entries, Delaney gives his plot a dramatic turn, informing the reader that as he rode his horse near Tipperary castle, Charles was shot by unknown assailants. A Kilkenny man, Joseph Patrick Harney, rescued him from the roadside, saving his life. Harney, whose role in Charles’s life would be profound, becomes one of the book’s most significant characters. He acted as nursemaid to Charles, who had sustained wounds to the neck and leg. Nugent states, “Most of all he became a companion to Charles, and the two men, the thin, amusing 20-year-old and the brawny, thoughtful, and often anguished 48-year-old, talked for hours and hours, often until dawn.”

Nugent informs us that Charles, along with Harney, spent Easter week of 1916 in Dublin, and devoted a long passage of his history to the iconic Easter Uprising. “The Easter Rising,” Nugent eloquently contends, “began in confusion. It ended in tragedy, was reborn in defiance, and concluded in triumph six and a half years after it began.”

When Harney joined Charles and April in overseeing the restoration of Tipperary castle, he soon recognized Charles’s deep feelings for April, and he marveled at the harmony and respect that flowed between them. Also, their mutual passion for the estate was palpable. As Ireland raged with talk of Home Rule, Charles recorded in his history, “At the busiest moment of all the work, we had close to 300 people on the estate, and the hammering and the measuring and the arguing and the whistling and the singing made it a pocket universe unto itself.” But when April’s husband, Somerville, succumbed to years of heavy drinking, leaving her a widow after only a few years of marriage, Charles received another brutal blow. April began a heated, and not-so-furtive, love affair with Dermot Noonan, the local barrister who had been one of the contenders in the lawsuit for Tipperary castle.

Delaney describes the cocky Noonan as, “more opportunistic than sincere.” He guesses that it was the aura of excitement and danger engulfing Noonan that enticed April to him. Noonan, as a fighting member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), exuded a certain magnetism. By this time Charles was almost 60 years old, an age at which one of course must be accepting of life’s tribulations. Regarding his reaction to the April-Noonan affair Delaney notes that Charles “never changed his behavior from that civilized way he had. He had a good word for everybody.”

Amelia broached the subject in her diary: During the time he was among us, this Mr. Noonan began to fasten upon Miss Burke. And she upon him. I know that I saw warning signs, threats to my son’s heart.

Rife with maternal feelings, another time she wrote “I want him to be less hurt by life.” Noonan , according to Nugent’s riveting presentation of Ireland’s turmoil following World War I, was one of Michael Collins’s insurgency soldiers hiding at Tipperary castle. Because they were dedicated to the cause of Ireland’s freedom from England, both Charles and April eagerly did what they could for the rebels, at times jamming more than 50 men into their labyrinthine cellars.

As many readers know and Nugent explains, England called for a truce in 1921, and six months later a deal was struck between England and a faction of the Irish rebels, led by Michael Collins, to divide Ireland. Six of the 32 counties would remain loyal to the king, and the remaining 26 would become independent, with Irish government and official institutions. In Dublin, Charles and Harney witnessed a pivotal moment in Irish history. Charles described it in his history, “That morning by the river Liffey, watching those troops [English] marching out of the land of my birth, I knew what I was seeing. Eight hundred years of domination and suppression, often unjust and frequently brutal, had come to an end in much of Ireland.” Regrettably, it was too soon to rejoice. By the time Charles and Harney had returned to Tipperary, civil war had broken out between pro-treaty and anti-treaty factions.

It is 1922 when Charles completed his history. “And now,” he wrote, I believe that I may consider this history complete. It is no more – but also no less – than the chronicle of a faithful and sometimes foolish man. I am aware that I have not done outstanding service to the art of the historian, but I have tried to render a fair likeness of my country as I have seen it.” Because the final sentence of the history gives away the ending to this outstanding novel, it is best not quoted here.

For all its excellence in juxtaposed narration, dramatic irony, and narrative themes –aspects already discussed in this review --Tipperary also features one of fiction’s most clearly defined protagonists in the character of Charles O’Brien. We can’t help identifying with the sensibility of a man who wrote: We are no more than a tiny North Atlantic island of 30,000 square miles, and with no mountain high enough to stand near a Himalaya; our tallest peak, in county Kerry, stands a racing length above 3,000 feet. Nor does every square yard of our country yield riches; our coasts are rocky and, to the west, harsh upon the Atlantic façade; not until the earth has settled many miles inland do we reach our renowned fertility. Yet, all over, whether in fat or bony fields, the Irish savagery of feeling, of earth hunger, exceeds all human ferocities. It is an emotion, and it comes of long history.

Though now and then Nugent criticizes Charles as faltering and lacking in determination, in his final evaluation of Charles’s history, Nugent declares that, “ the management of the manuscript showed a figure in charge of what he was doing.” Clearly impressed, Nugent adds that there were only 20 small corrections in a handwritten document of several hundred pages – quite an achievement. With this novel, like Charles with his history, Delaney has distinguished himself immeasurably.