Mary Shine Thompson on a new novel about two boys caught up in the country's political struggles.
Christopher Bland is a very successful businessman, but much better known in the UK than in Ireland. Born in Japan and reared in Northern Ireland, the dynamic Bland identifies himself as Anglo-Irish. Much of his career was finance, engineering, and telecoms. But he was also chairman of the BBC and was knighted for his work with the British national health service.
Now he turns his phenomenal energies to fiction. As his first novel, Ashes in the Wind, shows, he has an exceptional grasp of Irish history and a capacity for even-handedness in writing about it - not to mention a rare ability to weave numerous narrative strands together.
Ashes in the Wind begins in 1908 with two Kerry boys forging a friendship: one, John Bourke, is the Anglo-Irish heir to 20,000 acres of bog and rock, while Tomas Sullivan's family ekes out an existence on a mere six. Jennifer Johnston's 1974 novel How Many Miles to Babylon? has a somewhat similar beginning, but hers is a story of steadfast friendship, while Bland treats of warring loyalties. A multi-generational saga stretching over a century, Ashes in the Wind shifts from Kerry to Queen's County (Laois), to England, to Spain, ending back in Kerry as Ireland patches itself together after the death of the Celtic Tiger.
First, we pursue John's fortunes as the fledgling Irish state emerges from the War of Independence and the Civil War. His home is destroyed, and his estate, won 'by right of conquest' during the Williamite wars, confiscated. His path crosses that of Tomas occasionally, but politics makes enemies of them. Tomas is a member of the IRA squad that savagely murders John's mother, a decent, Irish-speaking Home Ruler.
Later, Tomas narrowly escapes hanging, and is subsequently appointed an aide to Michael Collins. This gives him an entrée into the thick of the action, including the ambush in which Collins was shot dead at Béal na mBláth.
The now landless John turns to horse training in Queen's County, with some success: Bland is as accomplished at evoking the passions and practicalities of the stable-yard as the cruel logic of war.
John's love life runs less smoothly. His affair with the daughter of a thuggish Fianna Fáil TD leads to a brutal beating when the girl gets pregnant. John emigrates to England for fear of further reprisals. The clear implication is that political violence damages the perpetrators - the same conclusion can be drawn from John McGahern's fictional fathers, former freedom fighters, who also domesticated terror.
Tomas, like the McGahern character in Amongst Women, joins the guards. When his wife dies in childbirth, he leaves Ireland with Eoin O'Duffy, commissioner of the Garda Síochána, to fight for Catholicism in the Spanish Civil War. Fate dictates that John, an unlikely officer for the left-wing republicans, is faced with the prospect of executing his childhood friend, Tomas.
Fast-forward several decades: action-man John retires to a Greek monastery, and the focus turns to his Oxford-educated son James. Another loner, James joins the British Treasury department but gravitates towards his ancestral Kerry estate. There he collaborates with none other than Tomas' son Michael, a bankrupt builder-developer, to establish an oyster fishery.
Things don't go swimmingly: romantic Ireland's dead and gone, but Bland's Ango-Irish compatriots pick themselves up, and, like Samuel Beckett's anti-heroes, go on.
The tale gallops at breakneck speed, leaving little time for overt psychologizing. Another writer might have made several novels of this epic - it could easily be adapted into episodes in a TV series. Nonetheless, Bland successfully conveys the flawed decency of both Tomas and John, embodiments of the native Irish and the Anglo-Irish respectively.
Ashes in the Wind is a convincing and exciting page-turner.
Ashes in the Wind
Head of Zeus, hdbk, £12,99
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709 350.