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Review: Fiction: We Are Besieged by Barbara Fitzgerald

Sometimes -- too often -- real gems of novels are quickly forgotten. Barbara Fitzgerald's fascinating We Are Besieged, set in 1920s Ireland, is one such.

When first published in 1946, the Book Society recommended it, and Sean O Faolain and Benedict Kiely praised it. Soon, however, it vanished and was forgotten over the years.

Now, however, the small publishing house in Cork, Somerville Press, has rediscovered and reissued it. And it's a gem. It deals with the burning-out of the Anglo-Irish Butlers in the country in 1922 and what happens to them during the subsequent 10 years.

The backdrop for most of the novel is a house in Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin, where their relatives, the Adairs, try to deal with the new Ireland in their different ways.

Two attractive sisters, the self-willed Isabel and the more endearing Caroline, grow up in a society where there are no officers to dance with, no viceregal drawing-rooms to assure them position.

When the British left, many of the Anglo-Irish remaining felt like aliens, besieged in a hostile land. While some adapted to the new regime, others, such as Isabel and Caroline's mother, neither could nor would.

Yet their sons and daughters grew up as a generation that could hardly remember the British. Families were divided against themselves, children against their parents.

The novel opens with nine-year old Caroline witnessing 'Sinn Feiners' -- bumpkins who are oddly polite to their Protestant betters -- torch her aunt's home, Butler's Hill.

As the family salvage their silver and Persian rugs, their maids clutch their little bundles of possessions. Fast-forward through the 1920s, and green postboxes replace the imperial red. Many of Fitzgerald's characters insist on their loyalty to the 'south'.

Caroline's father, Guy, a well-to-do solicitor, accepts that British rule is gone, for good or ill. He is remarkably sanguine -- and prescient. "I fear that we may perish from neglect," he says.

The Adairs get on with life in Fitzwilliam Square, while their dejected Butler relatives settle in England, guiltily aware that their existence unleashed a campaign of terror.

The novel's energy derives from the tension between Caroline and Guy massed against Helen, an increasingly unstable wife, mother and die-hard unionist. Hatred consumes her. She is appalled when Isabel sets her cap at Denis Joyce, a Catholic lawyer and one of "the hottest nationalists in town".

However, reason and tolerance -- embodied in Guy and Caroline -- merge with blind condescension. The Adairs seem blithely unaware of the Free State's poverty. The cost of society weddings bothers Helen. Ball gowns, picnics, men and Trinity College life preoccupy Caroline.

Calamities multiply, as they do in overwrought novels. Isabel bags a baronet's drunken son -- after her mother foils her plans to wed Denis-with-the-brogue.

Then Helen and Guy's personal fortunes collapse. Fitzgerald may be insensitive to the inequities her characters perpetuate but she handles sexual politics adroitly. She is no more judgmental about adultery than about dipsomaniac husbands.

This, her first novel, was written during World War Two while living with her father, the Archbishop of Armagh. The admirable Archbishop Gregg, model for the fictional Guy, encouraged his flock to support the new state despite Civil War atrocities.

Fitzgerald was then a young mother, wife of Peter Somerville, Edith Somerville's nephew (Edith of Somerville and Ross fame). Peter's father was Vice-Admiral Boyle Somerville, whom the IRA murdered in 1937.

Fitzgerald's semi-precious gem of a novel pulses with the passion of personal observation despite its shortcomings. Its condescension jars; its events stretch credulity; its didactic potted histories are numerous; and its plot resolution has more fireworks than Hallowe'en.

It is to Fitzgerald's credit, however, that she courageously imagines an Irish future for her characters. Caroline inherits the rebuilt Butler's Hill, symbol of continuity. Denis the nationalist has probably fathered Isabel's baby, the novel's only member of a future generation.

Love and sex across class, political and religious barriers: surely a brave twist in this compulsively readable novel.

Dr Mary Shine Thompson is an academic and critic

Indo Review