Tuesday 29 November 2011

Flawed Judgement - or Failing Memory?

This is the final leg of my Irish reading tour for Carrie K's Ireland Reading Challenge and, sadly, things didn’t go according to plan. I wanted to read the Flann O’Brien collection, The Best of Myles, but had trouble locating a copy in time, so when I spotted The Irish RM, by Somerville and Ross, in a charity shop I bought it. I had high hopes of this.  Not quite the anarchic  humour of O’Brien which I had been looking forward to, but a gently funny account of life in rural Ireland at the end of the 19th century – or so I thought.  My view was coloured by fond memories of the roguish charms of Peter Bowles in a TV adaptation of the book back in the 1980s.  All I can say from a distance of almost 30 years is that either my memory has played me false, or else my judgement was seriously flawed.

Set in the west of Ireland, the book is a series of short stories centred on  Major Sinclair Yeates , who has retired from the British Army and taken up a position asResident Magistrate (the  RM of the title). The major is, he assures us, part Irish, but despite this he spends most of his time  trying to understand the Irish and exert his authority over  his servants, neighbours, the local villagers, and the ‘villains’ who appear before him. They, however, are determined to keep him in the dark about their not quite legitimate goings-on. This conflict forms the basis of what passes for humour. For example, in the first chapter it transpires that spooky noises in the night are caused not by the ghost of Great Uncle McCarthy (the previous tenant) but by two of his relatives who have taken up residence in the attics and are selling foxes and drinking the major’s whisky...

Another yarn revolves around the major’s efforts to retrieve casks of rum from a shipwrecked vessel, while the local community concentrate their efforts on spiriting the cargo away. And so it goes on... and on... and on... Oh, yes, and there’s  lots about hunting, and racing, and horses, which is fine if you like hunting, and racing, and horses, but I don’t.

Most of the plots are sketchy in the extreme, and there is no growth in any of the characters. Indeed, from a modern perspective the portrayal of the local Irish population could be regarded as patronising since  they all seem to be ridiculous caricatures:  battle axe women, country yokels, cunning wheeler dealers and so on. Visiting dignitaries, on the other hand, are invariably English.

I think it’s fair to say that this is the sort of book which could never be written today. It was published in 1899, before the Easter Rising,  the Civil War, the creation of the Irish Free State, or the birth of the Republic of Ireland.  This is the Ireland of ‘the big house’, when the British were still in control, and people knew their place and were happy with their lot – or at least that’s how it seems in The Irish RM. In reality the nationalist movement was gaining widespread support, and  people in all walks of life were working to forge a national identity, but  you’d never know that by reading this book . Authors Edith Somerville and Martin Ross (the pen name of Violet Martin) were, presumably, harking back to an earlier time.

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