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The Killeen by Mary Leland (Atheneum: $12.95; 160 pp.)

August 17, 1986| John Leggett | Leggett's most recent novel, "Making Believe" (Houghton Mifflin), was published earlier this year.

"The Killeen" is the deeply felt first novel of an Irishwoman, Mary Leland. Its time is Eamon DeValera's, just prior to World War II, and there are two central figures, both women.

The first is Margaret Coakley, a country girl fortunate to find work in the scullery of a Cork convent school. An innocent, Margaret is seduced by a convent gardener, Earnan, who actually is a reckless IRA man hiding from the authorities.

Listening to Earnan's views of the partitionists, Margaret wonders how anyone who claims to love the world as he does can be so bloody-minded. "If you want to kill everyone who opposes you," she reasons, ". . . then you've given up on your own argument haven't you?"

When Earnan is whisked off to a sanctuary in the United States, Margaret is left with her shame, the bearing of a bastard son whom she calls Timothy.

The church, knowing how to cope, institutionalizes Timothy and finds Margaret a job as nursemaid for a woman in similar but more fortunate circumstances. She is Julia Mulcahy, a merchant's daughter, "finished" at the same Cork convent, who has gone on to Paris for further studies.

In Paris, Julia has encountered an Irish expatriate, Maurice Mulcahy. She is excited by his nationalistic feelings and sexually awakened by him. Pregnant with his child, she marries him. Soon, however, she develops misgivings about his obsession with books that "breathed only death through their flowery images . . . cloudbursts of blood . . . imperatives to which in the end his intellect had succumbed as if to a disease."

Julia is further disenchanted with Maurice when he returns to Ireland to take part in IRA adventures. When he is jailed for them and begins his obligatory hunger strike, she can see "no nobility in any of it, not even dignity."

"I despise you," she says as he nears death. "This is not how it should end for you. This is failure. Suicide is failure. You are taking your conviction with you, leaving nothing behind."

When Maurice asks Julia about their son, she replies, "They'll never get him. And don't think I'll tell him how wonderful you were. It won't matter to him anyway. All that will matter to him is that you're dead ."

When Margaret Coakley attracts a good man's love, and this time with great deliberation, agrees to leave Ireland for England with him, her motherly instincts wake. With Julia's help, Margaret withdraws Timothy, her 2-year-old son, from his institution, a nursery for future patriots, and entrusts him to her brother, Michael.

The final, grisly section of the novel takes us back to Margaret's village and the Coakley farm. Michael turns Timothy's care over to the child's grandmother, a hate-demented old woman who sees only her daughter's bastard come home to shame her, hears only the resulting whispers of the townsfolk. All her fears of scandal and hell's fire are aroused and, witchlike, she wills the child's death.

Approaching the cottage, Michael hears his nephew's terrified cry and finds "Mummy" Coakley on the verge of emasculating her grandson with the kitchen shears.

In spite of Michael's warnings, Mummy tortures the child, beating and burning his flesh, withering his spirit until his very breath is gone.

When the village priest denies the child a place in the churchyard, Michael buries him in the killeen, the unhallowed ground the village has set aside for its Godforsaken children. As he does so, Michael resolves to quit Ireland forever, as his sister and all the enlightened characters of this bleak tale have already done.

The unmistakable meaning of "The Killeen" is that it is the auld sod itself, Ireland, with its rigid Catholicism and terrible poverty which generates the evil. All dressed up in lyrical heroics, it goes on withering natural goodness in the human heart as surely as it stifles natural desires in the human body. Leland makes her meaning a persuasive one.

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