Saturday 15 December 2018

Harrowing saga examines dark ethical questions

Fiction: The Cruelty Men, Emer Martin, Lilliput Press, hardback, 320 pages, €16.99

Emer Martin
Emer Martin
The Cruelty Men by Emer Martin

Hilary A White

Heart-wrenching story of siblings left behind in Kerry while their parents join a new colony for Irish speakers is another tool to lance the boil of scandals from our recent past

Funny how age shortens the angles of timespan. When you're young, a decade or two ago is an aeon. As we age, we become used to years passing in a blink and positioning the past as if it were yesterday.

A whole public consciousness can even get in on the act when the conditions are right. Lately, Ireland seems to be doing just that as it reassesses revolution centenaries and dismantles theocratic constitutional doctrines. We're in that "between time". We look back at the crimes of our forebears and explain it away as a symptom of a different era. Simultaneously, if we are truthful with ourselves, we also feel dismayed at how recently they were committed.

It is hard to think of a novel appearing with such uncanny timing as this expansive saga by migrant Dublin writer Emer Martin. With this republic now in a rhythm of felling preposterous constitutional barriers to a humane and egalitarian society, morale is high because, understandably, we recognise that we are doing the right thing, but books such as The Cruelty Men remind us of the journey we had to take to get here.

Martin has taken the endless stomach-turning scandals and heart-wrenching accounts of the brave and recomposed them not just as an item of discursive literature but in the well-fitting garb of "The Great Irish Novel". As Thomas Hardy, George Orwell or Russian epics have shown us, this is the place where dark and difficult ethical questions can be examined properly.

Despite being in the works for seven years, Martin's book also arrives just as Magdalene laundry survivors are honoured, while across the Atlantic, children are wrenched from their parents and put in cages. This reviewer happened to finish it just as RTÉ was airing its much-discussed No Country For Women documentary. Both the laundries and the systematic practice of harvesting children to feed labour requirements of industrial schools - carried out by the "Cruelty Men" of the title - loom large in this harrowing multigenerational chronicle. Its publication feels like another tool to lance the boil for good.

Martin, a natural storyteller with a finely tuned ear for language and symbolism, pans back to encompass cause and effect without heavy sermonising. While charting the sorry fortunes of a Ballinskelligs family transplanted to Meath in the mid-1930s, she continually conducts a conversation with the past and the future. Lines are drawn from the spirit world of the ancients through to the Cromwellian era and An Gorta Mór itself. Ghostly foreshadowings are quietly signposted as a nation sets out on its own without heeding the baby in the bathwater.

The O Conaill family live on a windswept fingertip of the Iveragh Peninsula. A man approaches on a bicycle. He informs them that they have been granted lands in arable Co Meath to begin a better life, all part of a government social experiment to recolonise the eastern region with native Irish speakers. Daughter Mary is thrust into the role of surrogate mammy when her parents abandon them, leaving her to run the smallholding and watch over sisters Maeve and Bridget and brothers Sean, Padraig and Seamus. They live somewhat at the edge of the community due to animosity from local landless farmers as well as the vulnerable position their parents' absence has left them in with the cruelty men.

But there are varied courses in line for each of the children. All around them, a fledgling nation has signed over its moral compass to an intruder, this time a powerful religious organisation that is filling the spiritual void left after famine, revolution and social upheaval.

Seamus, the eldest boy, comes of age and is made legal owner of the farm, despite having no interest in the lifestyle. The much more suitable Mary, like the other girls in the family, is shipped off to work at 11 as a domestic. Bridget manages to get to the US and corresponds for a time, while sensitive, intellectual youngest boy Sean is put through seminary by Mary.

Seamus, meanwhile, marries rashly and becomes a brutish patriarch of the family farm, eventually having autistic brother Padraig shipped off to an asylum where all sorts of unspeakable "treatments" are performed on him.

Mary's house of employ offers a window into the parallel Ireland taking place among the educated classes. This might have been a prospect for free-spirited and libidinous Maeve, who relishes the attention her beauty draws from local men. When she becomes pregnant out of wedlock, however, she and her twins are "disappeared" into the nightmare of mother and baby homes. Seamus is happy to have local priest Fr Gilligan assist with this so that her transgressions cannot bring shame to the family name. George RR Martin could not devise such treachery.

The unsentimental but momentous prose results in some of the most aching pathos Irish fiction will witness this year, as the ground beneath the O Conaill family and their offspring shifts. Martin's extensive research included survivor testimonies from the Ryan and Murphy Reports, and she claims that what her characters are put through are not exaggerations. This is incredible considering the barbarism encountered here reads like something from the pages of Margaret Atwood.

It regularly forces you to put this remarkable book down in disbelief. Disbelief at how we turned a blind eye to conditions in institutions where 1pc of us were incarcerated by the 1950s, and at how competent women were at the cruelty game.

What's more, ethereal voices from other realms urge us to contemplate just how different things could have been for this crazy little island.

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