"The sow that devours her farrow" and "We had fed the heart on fantasies/the heart's grown bitter from the fare" and "Great hatred; little room" and so on.
Add to the richness of lines about Ireland's impoverished fate this one from Benedict Kiely's new novel. A young woman, in shock after taking part in a bombing, tells the police who arrest her:
"I wanted to see Ireland free but I said to myself, Jesus Christ, if you do it this way, how is all the wee folk to grow up?"
In the Irish Situation--islandwide once, and now zoned into the north, while the rest more or less gets on with the humdrum business of being a poorish member of the European Community--there is no comfort for those who believe in language and its ability to create and order our life.
Poets, balladeers and the many-tongued voice of soaring or hard-landing wit that seems to belong to every second Irishman, have wrestled with the Irish question for well over a century. The phrases, each a feat of grace or scarifying black humor, roll on and on, complete in every respect but one. The Irish consciousness possesses almost all the punctuation marks. The comma, the colon, the exclamation point, of course; the question mark, naturally; and by all means the ellipsis. But no period.
This last is conveyed by other than verbal means. The killers intend to express it with guns or bombs, but they don't manage to. The dead accomplish it, and so, more or less, do those who emigrate and then find that Yeats' gyre has no re-entry-level positions. The visiting Irish-American, as much as any other inquiring visitor, is excluded by the paradox: that a people whose warmth, openness and perceptiveness about their condition is unmatched in our time, should be stuck in such a deadly impasse.
Kiely uses a returning Irish-American for his picaresque and searing exploration of the paradox. "Nothing Happens in Carmincross" is both novel and discourse, and extraordinary both ways. More than that, stupendously more, it is a way of thinking about Ireland. The Irish Situation comes down from the attic of our mind only when some particularly extravagant or bloody gesture catches our attention; and the news analysis that follows promptly sends it back into storage; not because the analysis is wrong, but because it is right in just the way such analyses have been right for the last couple of decades.
Mervyn Kavanagh flies from New York to attend the wedding of a niece in the little town of Carmincross, in the west of Ireland and just north of the border. He is big, bald, exuberant and middle-aged; a hard drinker, a womanizer when the opportunity offers, and of an inquiring mind.
From the moment the plane takes off, though, Mervyn's trip is touched by the elements of a quest. The passenger beside him is legless and Mervyn takes over the care of him from the stewardesses. His entry into Ireland, accordingly, is made pushing a cripple in a wheelchair.
Mervyn stops off to spend a day or two with a childhood friend who runs a hotel in the south. He picks up an old girlfriend, Deborah, and takes her along with him on a leisurely drive up north. They eat, drink, sightsee, make love and visit acquaintances along the way. It is, or should be, a pleasure excursion to the most innocent of celebrations.
But it is invaded at every moment by The Situation. The radio reports bombings and kneecappings. Friends, ranging from cynics to enthusiasts, argue with each other and themselves. And Mervyn's consciousness becomes a great caldron in which Irish history, present-day politics, bits of old ballads, the brutal individual accounts on the radio, memories, jokes, and arguments swirl together.
It becomes a dream trip. At times, Mervyn, and Deborah--who is being followed by her strangely patient husband--become the Diarmuid and Grainne of legend, fleeing her warrior husband, Fionn. We think of Joyce's mingling of legendary Ireland with the small-minded Dublin of the 20th Century.
Kiely, one of the most important Irish writers of our time, intends us to think of Joyce. Also of Yeats, of Irish heroic poetry, love ballads, the war songs of each generation, the use of contemporary pop music to convey contemporary bloodshed, and the jokes, bulletins, slogans, epigrams, the precious and the cheap, the heroic, mock heroic and cynical. They all revolve, in wonderful and appalling fashion, in Mervyn's great bald head.
Only quotation can convey Kiely's dreadful assemblage of a country's bloodshed along with its shining and sordid words. There's not room here for adequate quoting. Here is one passage, not the best, but compressed enough to give a rough idea. It happens to be on the Loyalist rather than the Nationalist side. It lacks the enchantment but has plenty of the squalor.