I have been reading Trollope’s fiction over several decades, but it was not until this year that I embarked upon his three principal Irish novels. They have not been his most popular works, and I, like many others, was deterred by the heavy use of dialect which slows the reader down and makes the page look unwelcoming. But when I decided to overcome this prejudice, I was rewarded.
It didn’t take long to convert me: the first paragraphs of his very first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1847), have a peculiar magic. The narrator Trollope (who is soon subsumed into his tale) tells us, in what was to become his characteristically intimate tone, that he found himself at a loss for after-dinner entertainment when stranded by business (in the author’s case this would have been Post Office business) in the ‘quiet little village of Drumsna’, on a bend in the Shannon, about seventy miles north-west of Dublin. ‘Now, in such a situation, to take a walk is all the brightest man can do, and the dullest always does the same. There is a kind of gratification in seeing what one has never seen before, be it ever so little worth seeing; and the gratification is the greater if the chances be that one will never see it again.’ This is a wonderfully inviting opening. This is a man for whom life is an adventure, a perpetual exploration.
By chance and through ignorance of the neighbourhood he walks in the wrong direction, away from the pretty picturesque bridge and woods and along ‘as dusty, ugly and disagreeable a road as is to be found in any county in Ireland’, but this unpromising beginning brings him to the subject that inspired him: the immensely decayed but once grand house of a Connaught gentleman. The building, into which he makes his way, is open to the elements, and the effects of Time and Ruin are described with a poetic intensity – the roof was off, the windows and window frames and ‘everything that wanted keeping had gone’:
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