Books: Gael force in Sarf and West
Bernard O'Donoghue enjoys fun and pathos in an Anglo-Irish memoir
Saturday 13 November 1999
an Irish romance
by John Walsh
HarperCollins, pounds 16.99, 282pp
THE FALLING angels of John Walsh's title, taken from a story in Synge's The Aran Islands, are those expelled from Heaven but reprieved by a thoughtless God in mid-fall. They spend eternity suspended, meddling with shipping routes. This represents the situation of the English-lrish: those of us who live a demi-mondial existence between two countries or conditions, the dilemma of Yeats as described by Terry Eagleton - "In England a Gael and in Ireland a Brit."
John Walsh's version of this is birth in "Sarf London" to Irish doctor- nurse parents from the West, and the consequent desperate attempt to square a posh Wimbledon and Oxford education with fidelity to his father's origins. I couldn't decide whether or not I was the ideal reader of the book (though I can't imagine a reader who enjoyed it more); much of the time I thought I was ideal, in that my experience is a mirror-image of Walsh's in most ways. I grew up in Ireland with a mother from Manchester who was of Irish extraction, whereas Walsh...
As you see already, the detail of all this is too commonplace to go into. Where I think I depart from Walsh is in the matter of consistency. Most of us settle to feeling Irish-in-England with complications, but John Walsh has, on this evidence, suffered from the most dizzying mood-swings from very English among his parents' expat Irish friends in Clapham, to utterly Irish in Athenry and Killaloe, to orchidaceously parody-English again. There are some points of fixity: the book begins and ends at Walsh's mother's deathbed in Galway, a scene of great pain and pathos which is also achingly funny. (The reader should be warned that this is a book that makes you laugh out loud in public.)
I think this scene establishes Walsh as, on balance, Irish. He is a marvellous mocker: the one indispensable qualification for full-scale Irishness. The mockery extends to himself for example as prim, dandyish Englishman persecuted by the unwanted trappings of Catholicism.
On Ash Wednesday in the hospital, a male nurse comes round with a little bowl full of black ashes and "a metal plunger, the kind you might once have seen stamping library books". Despite the son's protest that his dying mother "has no immediate need of a memento mori", the black cross is stamped on her forehead. But this humour is crosswired with a brilliantly accurate descriptive power. In the dying mother's face, "everything now tends towards the mouth, as if it were a drawstring purse pulled firmly shut by a miserly hand."
This exactly captures the intricate relations between compassion and fascinated observation. The progress of gangrene is described with a similar gallows eloquence, as it "continues its corrupting course like a seducer's hand, stealing unstoppably over its victim's knee, then it will be the whole leg as far as the mid-thigh..." It is a kind of Irish twist on the fate of Tangent Minor in Waugh's Decline and Fall: as insensitive, but more serious.
Much of the humour turns on the clash between a self-consciously clever, triumphant reasonableness and the Irish carrying on as they always have. Walsh places himself hilariously as a slightly more clued-up version of the Irish RM, relocated to Flann O'Brien's Ireland seen as the real world. He is very good on traditional Irish songs (as on popular music generally). His treatment of "The West's Awake" is merciless, tracing how Connaught, far from lying "in slumber deep... is supremely alive to the threat from across the water... and, excuse me, will watch till death for Erin's sake." Maybe you have to know the awful song already to appreciate how beautifully that "excuse me" captures its troping.
There is a grand and cavalier indifference to precision throughout, in the best Shandyesque Irish tradition; "it is the nature of all greatness not to be exact", Edmund Burke said. Place names, from Medjugore to Ballinspittal and Port Laois, the bit of Irish (cuinis), and proper names, from Colin Cowdray to Henry Gratton, are treated alike with a fine contempt. It will do them good.
This is a genuine memoir, all based on first-hand enthusiasm rather than systematic research. And at some points it is an Irish Romance. When Walsh falls for his glamorous Irish cousins the book turns into a version of the Big-House memoir in the manner of David Thompson's Woodbrook: fittingly, because the abiding sentiments in this hilarious memoir, despite the mockery, are generosity and affection. Maybe that's an Irish mixture too; anyway, the whole amounts to a magnificent entertainment.
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