Two brothers - and a man whose name lives on in infamyDermot Bolger on a novel that brings our history alive
Theorists enjoy exploring the subconscious roots of the horror in Bram Stoker's Dracula, speculating on taboos from incest and sex during menstruation to bestiality. With eyes fixed on Transylvania, few link it to Connacht. But Stoker's Sligo-born mother passed on childhood memories to rival any horror in her son's work.
She grew up near the asylum attached to the country jail, and witnessed famine, fever and cholera outbreaks, with the local priest stalking the fever house with a horsewhip to prevent patients being buried before they were dead.
He was not always successful, as families scrambled to rescue living relatives from grave pits. If a rich Protestant, who escaped to a genteel life in Dublin, could remain scarred by such childhood sights, imagine the psychological impact that the Famine had on those whose only escape was a coffin ship or unmarked grave, and who saw loved ones starve to death.
The central historical event in Colin C Murphy's hugely ambitious debut novel occurs in 1880 – when locals, united in a successful, peaceful battle against a vindictive land agent – but the psychological mindset (formed by fears of eviction and starvation) that drove these tenants to undertake this act of defiance was shaped by the Great Famine which devastated Mayo, where Murphy's novel is set.
Therefore, his novel divides into two slowly merging narratives, 32 years apart. One sees two brothers, Owen and Thomas Joyce, become orphaned as boys in 1848 during the Famine. The second sees them reunited in 1880, possessing radically different views on how Irish economic independence can be achieved.
Few debut novels weigh in at 570 pages. Even fewer attempt the difficult task of juggling the full weight of real history against a parallel, imaginative world of fiction. Beyond allowing himself some historical speculation (especially about a daughter Boycott may have had), Murphy's book is firmly rooted in minute research. He astutely backs up his narrative with pertinent newspaper extracts from the time, threaded throughout the book.
On an historical level, it is a valuable piece of writing that poses the question as to whether the most important strand of 19th Century Irish history was the secretive physical force tradition (financed and controlled by ageing Fenian veterans in America), or the largely peaceful, mass mobilisation of popular support for parliamentary change, led by democratically elected leaders like O'Connell and Parnell who felt – to echo Leopold Bloom – that "the revolution must come on the due installments plan".
Although well-drawn characters in their own right – Owen is especially well rounded as a respected, thoughtful figure in the tiny community ruled by Boycott – the two brothers suffer at times from the weight of having to represent – and perpetually articulate – these two viewpoints of incremental change through peaceful agitation versus the purely militaristic approach of murder and bombings.
Having emigrated to America and become immersed in revolutionary politics, Thomas – on his return to Ireland after three decades – empathises with the uncompromising militaristic tradition that sees Davitt's Land League as irrelevant.
Owen – who remained in Ireland – is, like most tenant farmers, more preoccupied with tangible aspirations like fair rent and security of tenure.
This struggle between conflicting viewpoints comes to a head during the most remarkable stand-off in Irish history in 1880, when tenants of an absentee landlord, Lord Erne, put into practice the Land League's policy of ostracisation. But instead of using it against locals who occupy farms of evicted tenants, it was applied against Erne's hated, draconian agent, Captain Boycott.
Boycott also farmed his own land and faced financial ruin if unable to harvest his crops. His labourers and domestic staff were persuaded to abandon him, and no local shop served him. While he eventually succeeded in harvesting his crop, with 50 Orangemen from Cavan and Monaghan doing the work, they needed protection by a thousand soldiers at huge cost to the British exchequer.
"Boycotts" spread to other landlords who could not be afforded this military protection, and a remarkable peaceful form of mass protest was born, which spread globally. Murphy's novel chronicles each step from Owen helping a priest to galvanise support for a minor local protest to the story becoming a worldwide sensation that alerted readers to conditions in Ireland.
If the novel has a flaw, it is repetition. Characters tend to repeat the viewpoints they represent, so the human drama of the unfolding narrative has to sit down while political arguments are rehashed. Better editing might have sharpened the reader's curiosity by not allowing points to be repeatedly hammered home. But this could be said for many long books.
Some of the famine scenes Murphy conjures are unforgettably harrowing, and he has produced an engaging labour of love novel that reinstates the most successful protest in Irish history into popular consciousness, in an old-fashioned historical saga that deserves a wide readership.