Thursday 25 May 2017

Review: Where no Storms Come by John F Deane

Blackstaff Press, €10.99, Paperback

This is a fiercely challenging and surprising novel. If it had been published in 1960, it would certainly have been banned -- Kate O'Brien suffered that fate for books that were, sexually and satirically, 10 times tamer. What is fierce about it is how it challenges the Irish Catholic Church.

What is surprising is how strongly it defends that church -- or rather the christianity it is supposed to represent.

Even more surprising is the fact that although much of the novel is set in religious institutions and schools, the sexual abuse of children by the clergy plays no part in it.

The story is simple: Dorothy Lohan and Packie Brennan grow up near each other on an island off the west coast of Ireland. They are not particularly friendly, in part because their backgrounds are very different: the Lohans are well-to-do farmers; the Brennans are dirt-poor.

The prosperity and the poverty are vividly described -- it is set in an almost unimaginably distant world. This is pre-television Ireland, an age long before a bishop could get his knickers in a twist because a woman told Gay Byrne on The Late Late Show that she didn't wear a nightie on her honeymoon.

Dorothy and Packie have two things in common. First, the men in their families, in particular their fathers, are hopeless, incapable of love, at once bewildered and brutal. The other thing the children have in common is an aspiration to holiness. Dorothy enters an order of nuns; Packie goes into a seminary. Both of them fail to find holiness in the church, but they do find happiness together in married love.

Deane paints the portrait of Dorothy in earthy colours. When she is almost raped by her uncle, 'a sense of her own filthiness came upon her, like a weakness' and she hurts herself by literally beating her breasts. There is, though, real if unconscious sensuality in her make-up: the love she feels for the nun who strips her of her clothes on the day she becomes a postulant is tremulously erotic.

Packie, on the other hand, is as straight as he is intellectually brilliant. What leads to his expulsion from the seminary is not chastity but his inability to submit himself to the vow of obedience. He also behaves heroically when a fellow student is beaten by a priest-lecturer.

The parallel with Stephen Dedalus protesting against his punishment in Clongowes is deliberate, even down to the cruel cleric wielding Joyce's 'pandy-bat'.

The straw that breaks the church's back is Packie feeding a Traveller family with food filched from the seminary kitchen. The novice master is sorry to lose him to charity; but as he says, 'almost from the very start I could see there was something in you of too much independence for our life'.

As listeners to Sunday Miscellany know already, Deane is a poet who writes lyrically about his experience of the countryside, especially that of his native Achill. The early chapters of this book are memorably evocative of an island that is, or rather was, close to the Garden of Eden.

But as Deane makes clear, the paradise was also a 'Valley of the Squinting Windows', and the people in it were comically far from ideal -- one nun, for instance, is described as 'Sister Mary of the Weeping Armpits'.

Packie himself comes to believe that human beings 'are not animal enough to know how cruel ... they are'. What makes this fascinating novel invaluable is how revealing it is about social and spiritual ideas that have not disappeared from contemporary Ireland, even if they have gone into hiding.

Brian Lynch is a novelist, screenwriter and poet

Irish Independent

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