Tuesday 25 June 2019

Knockfane: Engaging Big House saga of adoption and long-lost families

Fiction: Knockfane

Homan Potterton

Merrion Press, paperback, 270 pages, €16.95

First novel at 73: Homan Potterton. Picture by David Conachy
First novel at 73: Homan Potterton. Picture by David Conachy
Knockfane by Homan Potterton
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

It may come as a surprise to some, but Irish Protestants from the Big House background also experienced pregnancies out of wedlock, were also shamed by their families when it happened, and, even up to the late 1970s, the first, automatic response was to arrange an adoption.

In Homan Potterton's new book, when a family member unexpectedly produces an infant at the old homestead, 'Knockfane', the chatelaine, Lydia, immediately plans to contact the local lawyer to fix the adoption. "It'll be a godsend to someone," she reflects. "Protestant babies always are" (there being a relative shortage!)

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Things don't quite turn out as envisaged, because the times they are a-changing, and the single mother makes so bold as to suggest keeping her child. This isn't the only unexpected, or hidden, baby in this enchanting Big House saga of family life, property and generational shift among the Irish Protestant gentry, and not the only adoption thread either.

The emergence of long-lost biological family links brings a contemporary note to the more traditional tapestry of the Esdaile family, and their kinsfolk, the Sales, going back over the years to the 1950s, with echoes of previous generations. Potterton, a former director of the National Gallery of Ireland who wrote a beguiling memoir about growing up as an Irish Protestant in Co Meath, has cleverly interwoven a strong family story with a well-observed recent social history of Ireland.

The sectarian division between Irish Catholics and Protestants is one of the motifs running through the narrative, with some blame on both sides. Catholics being forbidden to set foot in a Protestant church (although this prohibition ceased in the early 1960s) and the damage done to family inter-relations by the Church's insistence that the children of mixed marriages be raised Catholic are underlined.

But the author also sketches Protestant recoil at certain Romish practices - the horror of calling "the chancel" a "side altar", or the utter unacceptability of a daughter telling her father she wanted to go on the Camino walk. A "pilgrimage" full of RCs - no way!

Potterton's eye for detail is superb - the importance of bottling damsons just at the right moment for the season - as is his almost lyrical descriptions of daily farming life, the old traditions of the Irish countryside (why the hawthorn was sacred to the Irish), the architecture of country houses, and what the brown trout likes to feed upon. His place names are so authentic I'd find it difficult to distinguish the author's coinage from the topographically real: Athcloon, Liscarrig, Derrymahon, Roheen, the River Scarva.

I loved this novel - the author's first, at the age of 73 - because the family story was so immediately engaging and the author manages the narrative over the generations of the Esdailes with an authority born of knowing his material and the social context.

He has a sympathetic feeling for the "spinster" daughters who were often pressurised to stay in the home place as a companion for an ageing parent, and were thus deprived of fulfilling their own lives: and yet, they often gallantly made the best of it. He also knows a great deal about family wills and the consequences that can arise from their more arcane complexities.

Some of the characters are sketchily drawn, and a twist towards the end could be considered implausible - and yet, adopted children have emerged from the most unexpected links, and the unexplained hostilities within family dynamics can have roots going back generations. The book is devoid of explicit sex of any kind, or sweary language (or violence, with the exception of the distressing death of a bullock), but I imagine there may be many readers - particularly of the older demographic - who might find this a restful and refreshing change from the contemporary norm.

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