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Host of zany characters in gentle coming-of-age gem

South of the Border

James Ryan

Lilliput Press, €22

IN THE opening pages of South of the Border, the author, James Ryan gives the following description of an Irish mother; "Care, unrelenting, self-sacrificial care, was the invisible weapon with which Marie Duggan directed the lives of her sons. So each in his own way had unwittingly accumulated a great debt of gratitude, a debt they could only repay by allowing it to go on accumulating".

She has become a bit of a cliche, but seldom has the Irish mother been so acutely and intelligently described. James Ryan's gently paced and charming novel is filled with such descriptive gems. In this tale of a largely overlooked time in Ireland's history we are introduced to a host of eccentric characters, all skillfully presented to us by the author's assured and benign hand.

The action takes place during the Second World War, or "Duration" as it was called. Matt Duggan is a naive young national school teacher about to embark on his first posting away from home and from his rather oppressive mother. There is little evidence of the war that is raging through Europe in the little town of Rathisland in the Irish midlands, but there is evidence of plenty of small town tensions and secret "goings-on" that are to intrude painfully on Matt's life.

Unsurprisingly, his first port of call is to the parish priest, the redoubtable Fr Finn, whose main concern is to stage Hamlet in his effort to "raise Rathisland out of the mire". Finn is a marvellous comic creation, an actor manque who ends up performing Hamlet's soliloquies, in a black leotard with a large silver medallion, to a baffled and embarrassed audience.

Matt's only friend is an intense young fellow teacher who suffers agonies of doubt as to whether he has the "calling". When it is ascertained that he never harbours "impure thoughts" about women, it is decided that he probably has. There is evidence of the repression and constraints of Irish society at that time -- for example when Matt falls for the beautiful Madeline Coll he comes to the conclusion that, if she is Protestant, he will have to "forget about her".

She isn't, and the rest of the novel deals in large part with the agonising pains of first love with an ultimately, worthless and frivolous woman. Again, there is nicely observed humour in the two spinster aunts who shadow the frustrated lover everywhere on two sturdy bicycles, making for an almost impossible courtship.

While Matt is negotiating his way through village life and love, we become aware of the distant rumblings of war in Europe, and Rathisland reveals itself to be not quite as innocent as it appears. Unwittingly, Matt is drawn into a group of German sympathisers and when a Messerschmitt crash-lands in the locality, his life and loyalties are torn apart.

As a naïve young man in Emergency Ireland, far from the stage of battle, it is easy to see how difficult it is for Matt to comprehend the realities of war but, some years later, he is aghast to see a Pathe Newsreel of victims of a concentration camp. It is a beautiful and moving piece of writing by Ryan -- the sudden dreadful shock of reality, of realisation. "He remembered the sensation of having witnessed something that lay beyond the scope of language, of having journeyed to a part of the human psyche which had momentarily altered his entire view of humanity".

South of the Border is a gentle and beautifully paced, coming-of-age novel, set in an era that is rarely revisited. It casts a benevolent eye over small-town life, the follies of youth, conscience and guilt and manages to be both humourous and ultimately, also deeply touching.

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