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Lady Mabel Annesley, ‘Landscape with Houses’ | Robin-Blake on Shane Connaughton, Slightly Foxed Issue 74
Lady Mabel Annesley, ‘Landscape with Houses’, wood engraving

Lark, Hare, Stone

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Memories of the British Empire may be receding around the world, but they live on in Ireland, the first and closest of Britain’s colonies. It is not hard to see why. For centuries all the techniques that would eventually be deployed to subdue various other peoples were initiated there: armed force, mass slaughter, the theft of land, economic and racial bullying, the suppression of language, enslavement, starvation. Then, as they cut their losses, the British played their final card – partition.

The north-south Irish border has just had its centenary, around which there were many reminders of how it has been variously imagined. Yes, it’s a line on the map. But it may also be, as the late John Hume said, a boundary across the mind, not to mention a gash, a gouge, a serpent in the road, a deadly trap, a razor’s edge. For two recent decades, between the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and its Brexit nemesis, the border was reconfigured as a bridge between sectarian opponents. Seamus Heaney had a typically down-to-earth alternative image: a man carrying two buckets.

But post-Brexit the border is once again a squiggly 310-mile-long frontier between either and or: in or out, cheap or expensive, Catholic or Protestant. On the ground it falls across field, mountain, lake and river. To write well about it therefore means to be as committed to the land itself as to the people who live there. I know of no writing set in the Irish border lands where this double commitment is stronger – by turns comic, pastoral, lyrical, tragic – than in Shane Connaughton’s three books about them, A Border Station (1989), The Run of the Country (1991) and Married Quarters (2017).

As a native of the Cavan-Monaghan region, where republican land bulges into the northern county of Fermanagh, Connaughton knows exactly how this ‘drunken geography’ uproots political theory. ‘The land was impervious to maps. What appeared plain on paper was on

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Memories of the British Empire may be receding around the world, but they live on in Ireland, the first and closest of Britain’s colonies. It is not hard to see why. For centuries all the techniques that would eventually be deployed to subdue various other peoples were initiated there: armed force, mass slaughter, the theft of land, economic and racial bullying, the suppression of language, enslavement, starvation. Then, as they cut their losses, the British played their final card – partition.

The north-south Irish border has just had its centenary, around which there were many reminders of how it has been variously imagined. Yes, it’s a line on the map. But it may also be, as the late John Hume said, a boundary across the mind, not to mention a gash, a gouge, a serpent in the road, a deadly trap, a razor’s edge. For two recent decades, between the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and its Brexit nemesis, the border was reconfigured as a bridge between sectarian opponents. Seamus Heaney had a typically down-to-earth alternative image: a man carrying two buckets. But post-Brexit the border is once again a squiggly 310-mile-long frontier between either and or: in or out, cheap or expensive, Catholic or Protestant. On the ground it falls across field, mountain, lake and river. To write well about it therefore means to be as committed to the land itself as to the people who live there. I know of no writing set in the Irish border lands where this double commitment is stronger – by turns comic, pastoral, lyrical, tragic – than in Shane Connaughton’s three books about them, A Border Station (1989), The Run of the Country (1991) and Married Quarters (2017). As a native of the Cavan-Monaghan region, where republican land bulges into the northern county of Fermanagh, Connaughton knows exactly how this ‘drunken geography’ uproots political theory. ‘The land was impervious to maps. What appeared plain on paper was on the ground an orgy of political and geographical confusion, Cavan and Monaghan in the South were locked into Fermanagh in the North like two dogs trying to cover the one hot bitch.’ The simile shouldn’t really work, but Connaughton can make you understand how the soil and geology of the place move in time with the plants and creatures alive in them: the whins on the hillside, the wheat in the fields, the starlings in the air, the rats in the midden, the cows in the shed. In The Run of the Country he goes back repeatedly to a triple image – lark, hare, stone – a trinity to represent the delight, the fear and the obduracy of life on the border. This novel and two collections of stories, A Border Station and Married Quarters, together chronicle the life of an unnamed boy growing up during the 1950s in the fictional village of Butlershill, standing just within the republican side of the border. There is always the danger of stereotyping in writing about Ireland, and this place is indeed built on blocks familiar from rural life across the country: farming, religion, drink, debt, repressed sex and impractical dreams, to which are added the more localized border activities of smuggling and blowing up customs posts. But in Connaughton’s hands these combine to give a powerful sense of life both microscopically local and cinemascopically universal. Connaughton is an Oscar-winning screenwriter, and both structurally and thematically he knows what he’s doing. Butlershill, as shown in the tales of A Border Station and Married Quarters, bursts with all the self-importance of a small world. The boy’s big-fisted, permanently angry father is the Sergeant at its garda siochana barracks (the police station), and as such one of the two local pillars of authority. The other is Father Gaynor, a priest who thinks as little of his bishop as the Sergeant does of his own superiors. One reason for the Sergeant’s frustration is that he has been relegated to this forgotten corner of the border for political reasons and must fritter his time away on ‘farmers who allowed donkeys to walk the roads unshod, bicycles with no rear lights and neighbours fighting over trespassing cattle’. His rage against this fate has all the anguish of Job on his dunghill. ‘Donkeys and bicycle pumps! Me! Who worked on three murder cases in me day. One good murder, that’s all I ask. One good murder!’ The Sergeant, in his great heavily welted boots, is in every sense a massive presence in the books. Looming less large, but looming nevertheless, are many other salty characters in the boy’s world. These include Tully, the shifty publican-cum-grocer, the organ-playing farmer Conlon, whose music maddens the bull in the field above, the severe but sexy Methodist Tilly Roberts preaching to the hated Papists because ‘if she couldn’t save them she would annoy them’, and the rapacious smuggler Rinty, whose corrugated-iron emporium sited on the edge of a field will furnish his customers with anything from ladies’ knickers to a set of tractor tyres. There are also two precarious remnants of the Anglo-Irish ascen­dancy. One is the crumbling big house and demesne of Lady Sarah Butler-Coote, ancient and moribund survivor of her line. The other is Castle Finn, perched above the river border, the Finn itself, where handsome but feckless Colonel Bridge and his American heiress wife Sophie Kay drink around the clock while their money dribbles away. Both are left stranded on the wrong side of the frontier, in what is still known around there as the Free State. The local Catholics, all deference gone, regard them with tolerance combined with (in Lady Sarah’s case) affection and (in the Colonel’s) contempt. But more important in the boy’s eyes than any of these supporting characters, though in exact equilibrium with his rampaging father, is the counterweight of his mother (‘the mystery of his mother was her gentleness’). She gives him the outlet for his feelings of uncertainty and tenderness, but this is stopped quite shockingly with her death near the beginning of The Run of the Country. Before that moment childhood still lingered, and fear and pleasure were evenly balanced. Afterwards he is sent skittering towards adulthood, with all its new desires and agonies, its comedies and tragedies. Connaughton’s two short-story collections are arresting portraits of the artist as a young Mammy’s boy, but the novel is his master­piece. The boy is now 17, a bookish virginal school-leaver who, with his mother dead, finds it impossible to live any longer at the barracks. He takes refuge at the farm of his friend and mentor, the 19-year-old Prunty, who leads him in a gallivant around the country that takes in a visit to the horse-knacker’s yard, a tense smuggling trip, a punch-up with Protestants at a local hop, the committing of sacrilege in Father Gaynor’s sacristy, and a cockfight in a distant field. Prunty is Mercutio to the boy’s Romeo, fearless, voluble (‘The language shot out of Prunty’s mouth rough and rich as a forkful of dung’) and always skirting the edges of danger. The Shakespearean analogy is just, because halfway into the plot The Run of the Country turns into a Romeo and Juliet love story with the appearance in the boy’s life of Annagh Lee. Named after a river (and evidently akin to Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle) she is beautiful, but she lives across the border in the North and comes from an aggressively Protestant tribe. Their love is instinctive, lyrical, passionate and sexual (though happily this side of candidacy for the Bad Sex Award), but it trails tragedy behind it, along with disgrace and a final degrading punishment. In the year of The Run of the Country’s publication, its reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement made a schoolmarmish comment on Connaughton’s style: ‘Over-writing is a temptation for this author.’ I take over-writing to be the raising of language to flowery heights that are inappropriate to its immediate needs. But Connaughton’s poetic prose, it seems to me, is exactly what is needed here. Sensibility at 17 really is heady, moonshiny, adjectival and poetic, and Connaughton’s lyricism is true to that. In fact, it often reads like poetry from the school of Heaney. At one point ‘from a blackthorn bush a blackbird rifled out and away, a panic of glassy notes breaking from its orange beak’. At another the boy surprises a hare which ‘blurred to speed, disappearing in a necklace of spurting leaps’, and again, lying in a wet ditch to escape the customs men, he notices how ‘from the clayey bank a flute of water whispered over a tuft of watercress’. Occasionally the language is bathetic, as when ‘the moon melting into the Ulster Canal spread through the water like toasted cheese’. More often it is curt, visceral and cuts into the pith of life, as when the boy sees his father butcher a chicken or the knacker destroy a horse, or when Prunty’s bruised face after the dancehall fight looks ‘as if his assailant had left a knuckle under the skin’. And it’s hard, for me at least, to resist writing so well seasoned with dialect words – gauson, gulpin, scaldy, ojus, a widdy woman, a clocken hen, cracked milk, crigging your toes. These books were written after the start of the Troubles, about a time before them. The upsurge in the 1970s of sectarian violence, and our image of it, scarred the border areas – Omagh, Crossmaglen, Armagh – with Armalite attacks and Semtex explosions, tear-gas can­isters and rubber bullets. The images we retain of this are grey and gritty, so to read Connaughton is to remember that there is an older, more coloured truth pre-dating those images. The border was already there of course, and the gunfire and explosions were there too, but in these books the violence is still occasional and feels more like back­ground music, or a matter of form, than terrorism. The real terror here is in everyday deeds and words, and particularly words spoken in anger. ‘It was worth dying for, the last word,’ says Connaughton when the boy’s parents argue. ‘Words were swords. A sentence was for life.’ For the people in these books, how the border affects their daily lives is what counts. Poverty, social envy, a pregnancy conceived with someone of the wrong religion, even the mortal Catholic sin of attending a Protestant funeral, all have evil consequences. And mean­while, in counterpoint, nature takes its own sweet path. As a writer Connaughton, like Heaney, is carrying a couple of buckets, but the point is not just the balance of the two, but what is inside them. In one the milk is certainly cracked and ojus, but the other is full of the freshest and creamiest buttermilk.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 74 © Robin Blake 2022


About the contributor

Robin Blake used to spend his summer holidays with his grandparents in Ireland, almost as far from the border as you can go. He is the author of eight mystery novels about the eighteenth-century coroner Titus Cragg and his friend Dr Luke Fidelis.

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