Books: Gael force in Sarf and West

Bernard O'Donoghue enjoys fun and pathos in an Anglo-Irish memoir

The Falling Angels:

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders