The Irish Game by Matthew Hart

Criminal, absurd and outrageous - and that's just the prose

This book concerns a multi-million pound art theft from a grand house in Ireland and the long, painstaking, international effort to recover the stolen paintings, among them an important Vermeer. It is, in a journalistic sense, a "good story", with cops and robbers, terrorists, nincompoops, useful historical background, lurid modern foreground and a racy Sunday magazine style that empurples ageing images before they can turn sepia, and reanimates the past with strange interpolations and extraneous grace notes. Thus, "Ireland has been the playground of a dozen outlaw groups and the agents of many countries." The island is "peopled" with "blackguards from everywhere". Further, the North Atlantic "is a sort of underworld Irish Sea, with Canada, the United States, and Ireland laced together by the criminal trade". Where the laces seem a bit on the loose side, the author will begin a transatlantic section with, "On the eve of March 17, 1990, the night before St Patrick's Day..." to restore the Irish connection. His over-egging of puddings transforms a faintly ornate tapestry to "voluptuous" - and so on.

For those who have forgotten, or are hazy about, the news items at the time, Russborough House, belonging to Sir Alfred and Lady Beit in Wicklow, was robbed of a large number of paintings in 1974 by a gang that featured a bright, spoilt rich girl. Rose Dugdale, though English, supported the IRA terrorism campaign, then in its bloodiest phase. The art was recovered and Dugdale went to jail. Twelve years later a Dublin gangster, Martin Cahill, to whom the IRA was unkindly disposed, broke into the same property and stole many more paintings. This time the art was as hard to recover as it was to dispose of, and the attempts to do so form the greater part of Hart's narrative.

It is a thin book and that, to my mind, is quite appropriate, for it is thin in other respects too. Long portions of prose that seem neither central to the plot nor strictly in the realm of need-to-know are patched in to distend the starveling's belly.

In his quest, Hart travelled to Boston, Oslo and Antwerp, interviewed policemen in Dublin and London and an assortment of characters, some of whom had little or nothing to say. One Massachusetts criminal, Myles Connor, with a history of art theft, agreed to see the author in return for lunch and $250. As a result there's a lot about Connor's past escapades, but Hart learns zilch about the whereabouts of the missing paintings.

Later we get a chapter on the theft of Edvard Munch's The Scream from Norway's National Gallery (and its eventual recovery). This is not uninteresting, but fits imperfectly into The Irish Game. On the other hand, Hart's plane tickets did take him into a hitherto weakly explored area of the art crime scene which is that famous masterpieces are, to an increasing extent, used as "collateral" in multi-million dollar deals by arms dealers and drugs barons.

There are other fascinating asides too. When the stolen Vermeer (Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid) came into the hands of a Dutch picture restorer after a tortuous journey from Ireland, the restorer discovered new aspects of Vermeer's technique that "have changed the way we view his art". Needless to say, these discoveries are "breathtaking".

As it happened, the robber and the robbed both died in 1994 - Sir Alfred Beit quietly in a nursing home, Martin Cahill less quietly with a bullet in him - and Lady Beit rehung the recovered paintings. After yet another attempt to steal them failed, the entire Beit collection was taken to Dublin's National Gallery. For the last time, Russborough House is visited by the author with a party of French tourists. "With the canvases gone, it was easy to notice where cracks had appeared and where paint was flaking off ... [Outside] the peregrine falcon and the kestrel ride the currents above the bare slopes. Where there are predators there must be prey," he writes, his tour over.

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