Posts Tagged ‘Ireland’

Sebastian Barry’s “Days Without End” and Spring flowers (1)

March 17, 2017

It’s not often that you come across a novel that is absolutely riveting and makes you want to write down a quote from every page of the book, but the new novel by Sebastian Barry –  Days Without End comes into this category. You can listen to an excellent Guardian podcast featuring an interview with Barry about his novel and this adds further insight into the book. The novel tells the story of Thomas McNulty, who was among thousands who fled from Ireland when the potato famine struck. McNulty briefly tells us of his arrival in Canada on a ship where “I was among the destitute, the ruined and the starving for six weeks”. The Irish who reached Canada “were nothing. No one wanted us… We were a plague. We were only rats of people”. When McNulty subsequently meets a fellow teenager “handsome John Cole” who becomes his life-long friend and lover, he tells us “I was a human louse, even evil people shunned me”. This feeling of McNulty’s – that he and his kind are worthless – continues throughout the book, and McNulty explains that his and John Cole’s ability to withstand the horrors they see, comes partly from this. The book tells of the boys’ and subsequently men’s lives as dancers dressed up as women to entertain miners, then as soldiers engaged in “cleansing” the frontier of Indians and then as regular soldiers in the American Civil.

Barry’s writing is described by reviewers of the book as “vibrant”, “beautiful and affecting”, “exhilarating” and “vivid”. He is one of these writers with an enviable ability to produce descriptions that make your read them again. Open the book anywhere and you’ll find them. The soldiers eat with “the strange fabric of frost and frozen wind falling on our shoulders”. Other soldiers, sent out to meet an Indian chief and his followers “rode like chaps expecting Death rather than Christmas”. There are detailed battle scenes in the book, but also moments of tenderness and humour. Barry does not shrink from describing mass killing – of Indian men, women and children and of rebel soldiers – but he manages to focus on the personal. In the heat of the battle with the rebels, McNulty reflects “Other things I see is how thin these boys [rebels] are, how strange like ghosts and ghouls. Their eyes like twenty thousand dirty stones”. I am two-thirds through this astonishing novel already and I know that when I get near the end, I’ll want it to continue for another 300 pages. Go and buy it.

 

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Sebastian Barry’s stunning novel

Spring really has sprung around here and there is now an abundance of colour in my garden, with much more to come. The first photo is of a tulip from a vase in the house – my own tulips are biding their time, letting the daffodils have their spot in the sunlight, before they upstage them with a glorious display of colour. As readers of this blog will know, what fascinates me in particular is the insides of flowers and their often surreal appearance. I love the symmetry in this tulip as well as the vibrant colours and the central feature, which could be a creature from a sci-fi film or something inexplicable found by archaeologists in a 3000 year old grave. What do you see here?

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Close up of a tulip flower head (Click to enlarge)

The 2nd photo is of violas on the side of our hanging basket at the front door. The cyclamen in the body of the hanging basket has passed its best. The violas, planted last autumn wore plain green coats all winter and shrivelled in the frost at times. In the past 2 weeks however, they are transformed and show us purple and yellow dresses in a display of sartorial elegance. They are delicate little flowers but have eye-catching, mascara like centre patterns. As the title of this blog post indicates, there will be more Spring flowers to follow.

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Violas in a hanging basket

 

 

Nora Webster, Brooklyn, late autumn harbour and sudsy sea

November 28, 2015

A double dose of author Colm Tóibín this week. Firstly, I finished reading Tóibín’s remarkable novel Nora Webster. On the face of it, this is a simple tale of a woman whose husband has died and is struggling to cope with the too early onset of widowhood. A lesser writer than Tóibín might have presented Nora Webster, a woman living in a small town in the  Irish Republic, in a sentimental and melodramatic way. However, Tóibín writes a compelling story, taking episodes from the lives of Nora and her family, their relatives, friends and (sometimes unwished for) acquaintances, and identifying the complexities of their lives. As the novel progresses, Nora becomes stronger and more independent, having to a certain extent lived in the shadow of her late husband Maurice, a popular school teacher. The author describes apparently small events in her life in detail but the prose is never dense, and the reader gains an understanding of Nora as a person e.g. her developing love of music, and not just as a mother or sister. There are some very moving scenes in this book, both in Nora’s recollection of her time with her husband and in her relationship with her two sons and (to a lesser extent) two daughters. This is a book of high quality and if you haven’t read it, then you surely must.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

This week, we went to the cinema to see Brooklyn, based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name. The film also has a very strong female character. Eilish is a young woman growing up in (like Nora Webster) a small Irish town in the Republic, but unlike Nora, she is due to emigrate to the USA at the start of the film. The story follows her to Brooklyn and highlights her homesickness and then her growing maturity and relationship with a young Italian. Eilish returns to Ireland when her sister dies and the film develops into a tale of the complexities of love and morality. I haven’t read the novel but I’m sure that Eilish’s character is more fully drawn in prose. The actress Saoirse (pr Seer – sha) Ronan is superb in the part. There is also humour in the film and while, at times, it veers on the edge of tweeness and sentimentality, it nevertheless tells a powerful story and it is certainly worth seeing.

November is nearly gone and we’ve had a taste of winter in Dunbar already with ice lining the sides of the country roads on my cycle ride last weekend. We’ve also had strong winds and big tides and this was reflected on my walk on Sunday morning. I stopped at the Old Harbour aka The Cromwell Harbour, which was built in the late 17th century. In summer, the occasional fishing boat is moored, often for work to be done. On Sunday, it was packed with fishing boats, sheltering from the heavy swell that affects the main harbour at this time of year. The boats nestled together in this sheltered haven.

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

By contrast, the Victoria Harbour which was built in the 1830s, was nearly empty. It’s an unusual sight to see so much of the water in the harbour and on Sunday, it looked abandoned, as if a storm (or malevolent sea serpent) had arrived and driven all the boats out to sea. The photos below show the harbour last Sunday and in the summertime.

Victoria Harbour bereft of boats

Victoria Harbour bereft of boats

Dunbar Harbour in summer

Dunbar Harbour in summer

In my poetry calendar this week, these lines appeared:

“The ocean’s grey today, like someone’s dingy laundry,/ the flop and slosh of sudsy waves agitate on the sand,/ and the sky’s like the inside of an ashtray at some salty dive”.

They are from the poem “The Winter Sea” by the Pennsylvanian poet Barbara Crooker and I like the laundry metaphor. As I walked back from the harbour, I passed the east beach, which used to be covered in pristine sand but over the past 5 years or so, the sand has gone to be replaced with stones and often large mounds of seaweed. The waves were rushing to the shore and there was certainly a distinct “flop and slosh”.

"Flop and slosh" on the east beach

“Flop and slosh” on the east beach