Romance, rebellion ... and robert emmet
Union John Mulcahy (abdef €12.99)
Published 12/12/2009 | 05:00
The central events in Union, John Mulcahy's first novel, are the 1798 rebellion, the Act of Union that ended Irish self-government in 1800, and Robert Emmet's rising in 1803. Mulcahy, one of the best-known newspaper publishers and magazine editors in Ireland -- founder of the Sunday Tribune, former editor of Phoenix magazine, current editor of the Irish Arts Review -- is in no doubt about the connections between his historical subject matter and our present situation. He has gone on record saying that what we have now is "a close parallel of Dublin society 200 years ago".
If this seems to imply that Union is a desperately serious analysis of 18th- century Irish history and a gloomy prophecy of the collapse of the Dail and the rest of our institutions, then the suggestion could not be further from the truth. Union is a splendid romance, a rollicking blood-and-thunder mini-saga full of violence, murder, mayhem, and skullduggery, mainly about money; and, of course, love.
The story opens on a headland near Westport in Mayo during a picnic hosted by the wealthy landlord of Murrisk Abbey, Bonaventure Preston, and his beautiful daughter and heiress, Pamela. Among the guests are Brendan O'Reilly, son of the wealthiest merchant in Westport, his sister Margaret, and Stephen Allen, the young manager at Murrisk Abbey.
The Prestons organised this annual picnic in order to "avoid the crowds of common people who assembled in Murrisk for the annual Papist pilgrimage up to the peak of Croagh Patrick". In other words, we have a cast of characters enjoying the privileges of wealth, class and religion, and we quickly realise that they are only begging for their comeuppance from the dispossessed. The poor Papists are led by Hugh O'Malley, a local man with radical republican connections.
Within days of General Humbert landing at Killala with his French army, Murrisk is razed. Brendan O'Reilly witnesses the famous 'Races of Castlebar' in which the Crown forces were routed from the town, leaving several hundred dead behind them. Hugh O'Malley is arrested, tried and sentenced to death, but makes a daring escape from the gallows.
In a sense, these events mark the end of the old order. The action then shifts to Dublin as the British government in Ireland led by Lord Castlereagh -- astonishing to think he was in charge of the country while he was still in his 20s -- conspires to close down the Parliament by means of bribery and corruption. Irish establishment figures such as Lord Altamont, whose descendants are still prominent in Westport, figure in this part of the story, as does the dastardly Richard Bingham, a forebear of the murderous Lord Lucan. None of these aristocrats have their posthumous reputations enhanced, especially as reported by John Magee, editor of the Dublin Evening Post; could he possibly bear a resemblance to the author?
As the politics become ever more complicated so too do the love lives of Mulcahy's characters. Hearts are broken -- Pamela falls for Lord Lucan -- but hearts are mended. Heirs and heiresses are not what they seem: a crooked solicitor allows a will to be suppressed. And political and class allegiances prove wobbly: Brendan O'Reilly becomes a hack journalist and a sympathiser with the republicanism of Robert Emmet.
It's all very convoluted and, we hope, unlikely; unlikely, that is, if the parallels are to be drawn with our current state of financial collapse and economic conflict. There is indeed a serious core to the book, but it would be a mistake to look for literal correspondences to our present condition. John Mulcahy has conjured up a whirlwind of compelling and convincing historical fiction.
Dr Mary Shine Thompson is Dean of Humanities and Research at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra.