Wednesday 25 April 2018

Fiction: Under The Wild Sky by Mary Ryan

Erris Press €12.95

Under The Wild Sky by Mary Ryan.
Under The Wild Sky by Mary Ryan.

Anne Cunningham

To call Mary Ryan's 11th novel, its title borrowed from Francis Ledwidge's poem, a historical romance would be to do it an injustice. It is a family saga, a chronicle of the turbulent years around the foundation of the Irish State, a chilling story of one young officer's horrific experience of The Great War, and a convincing depiction of the simmering cauldron of suspicion and fear brewing between the rising Irish Catholic middle classes and the Protestant landowners at the start of the 20th century.

Into this sweeping story of opposites - love and hate, rural and urban lives, obscenely rich landlords and their obscenely poor tenant farmers, is sewn the tale of two doomed young lovers. Ellen is a Peeler's daughter whose mother died when she was little. She is being raised by her strict but well-intentioned aunt in Co Monaghan, along with her brother Harry and her cousin Franny. Her father, who rarely visits, is stationed in Limerick.

At 15 years of age Ellen meets and instantly falls for Guy Forrister, a wealthy English Protestant, a friend of the local "Big House" and a student at Sandhurst. When things appear to move too fast, her aunt forbids contact between the two. Guy returns to Sandhurst and is eventually dispatched to officer duty in the trenches, while Ellen gains a place in Carysfort and qualifies as a teacher. Love conquers all in run-of-the-mill romances, but Mary Ryan's depiction of a nation torn apart, alongside a seemingly endless, blood-soaked war in Europe, takes the characters very far away from the opening pastoral scenes in Co Monaghan.

Recently I've read a lot of fiction and faction set against the 1916 Rising and also the Great War. Beautifully written, this is one of the more memorable ones.

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