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Tales From The Poorhouse

By Eugene McCabe

This new book from Eugene McCabe consists of a quartet of separate but inter-linked monologues, which subtly chronicle the devastating cost of the Great Irish Famine in terms of the real, unremitting, everyday human suffering it visited on the lives of ordinary - and not so ordinary - people, both those it pauperised, and those in more privileged positions.

The four tales are titled, respectively: ‘The Orphan’, ‘The Master’, ‘The Landlord’ and ‘The Mother’, the orphan of the first being the daughter of the mother of the last, indicating the eventual fate of that mother, the master being the man in charge of the poorhouse they both have no choice but to enter, while the landlord is the ex-army landowner whose tenants they formerly were before being evicted, who is himself obliged to sell his house and estate because of the British government policy of making Irish landlords, rather than the British treasury, support evicted tenants.

Roisin Brady is the first speaker, a young girl who tells of the failed marriage between her proud mother and her drunken tailor father, and her short-lived attempt with her more delicate twin sister Grace to get some sort of enjoyment out of their youth, against a backdrop of increasing poverty and starvation. When Grace becomes pregnant, the mother chains her to a wall in the loft, for fear of what the neighbours will say, and it is implied that she strangles her granddaughter at birth.

Reggie Murphy, the next speaker, is the master of the workhouse, and he describes how he failed to receive an inheritance he thought would come to him, an event he uses to justify his present employment, although he is not above exploiting his position for sexual favours from the young women, Roisin included, in his care: if they sleep with him they get more food, and maybe even their passage money to America. His piece ends with his devastating betrayal of his long lost sister and her son, a last compromising of integrity which robs him not only of what remains of his humanity, but also of his sanity.

The third tale is told by Skinner, or Lord Clonroy as he is now, caught between wanting to do something for his tenants and the indifference of the British authorities, and also facing a difficult family situation with a snobbish, social-climbing wife, and a homosexual, Catholic-convert son who will not take over the estate from him.

The fourth narrator is Mary Brady, Roisin’s mother, who speaks from the idiot ward of the poorhouse, where she was committed after the death of her other daughter, Grace, in childbirth. There is a vivid portrait of her own family background and childhood, and an attempt to vindicate herself of Roisin’s accusation that she murdered Grace’s new born baby.

While each of the successive narrators relates his or her story in a strikingly individual voice, each piece has a reflexive relationship with the others, so that characters and incidents are recounted from different angles, and the book becomes much more than the sum of its constituent parts. What is brought home most forcibly is how rough life was back then, with grinding poverty and casual cruelty an everyday way of life for most of the population, and not just because of the Hard Hunger, but also because of impossibly large families and routine domestic violence.

Like John McGahern, McCabe deals with horrendous experiences, which many in late 1990s Ireland would prefer not to be reminded of, in a deceptively simple way, and can walk a tightrope which threatens to plunge him into mere sentimentality, but manages by a quiet intensity and dignity to avoid that pitfall.

Some Irish writers are plain underrated, or perhaps they are just modest. Aidan Mathews is one example that springs to mind, and Eugene McCabe is another. The Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature called him ‘a gifted, if reluctant, writer’, and although well into his sixties now, one hopes he will prove the truth of George Eliot’s remark that: ‘It’s never to late to be what you might have been.’ Of course, it is quality that counts above quantity, but if he continues producing work of this high a standard, to put alongside his novel Death and Nightingales, and his short stories ‘Victims’, ‘Heritage’, ‘Cancer’ and ‘Heaven Lies Around Us’, it is surely only a matter of time before his work reaches the wider audience it so palpably deserves.

RTE and TnaG are to be congratulated for commissioning these fictions, which were televised in Irish and English versions, for at a time when it is an unrewarding effort to read many newly published novels once, here is book that you can return to again and again. It is a mesmerising work, which merits that much abused because overused term, masterpiece.

First published in The World of Hibernia


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