The novel is based on Crofton Croker’s short tale about the holy man who is lured from the monastery and off into the wood by the sweet singing of a little bird. He reemerges from the wood to find he has been dead for over an hundred years. How may brushes with death have you known? For my part, I have come within an inch of death perhaps a dozen times in my long life, some were medical emergencies, others were near-accidents, including the one that claims the protagonist’s life. I have often wondered in retrospect, when of an immaterialist state of mind, if perhaps I had died from one of those accidents, perhaps my soul had moved on to a self-deceptive mode of denial in an attempt to finish my unfinished business in life. This is not a new idea, but it is an interesting one.
On page 240 of the story, Pól’s letter home to his mum closes with some thoughts on the nature of reality. He cites Father Peadair as saying, “Our reasoning has a fundamental flaw, says he (Father Peadair ). Conventional wisdom has a misguided notion with regard to the true nature of reality, says he. History is not linear. The Hindus have it pegged. Life is a circle or perhaps a ball. ”
This notion of looking backward is part of many religions, including that of the pagan Celts. This principle is manifested in Celtic art knot artwork. It is widely believed that the civilization presented in the Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge and the book itself can be traced back to Greek civilization. Aristotle himself presented an argument in regard to first cause, saying that if the motive cause (one of his four, all of which are mentioned in the novel) of a chain of events is traced back to its alleged source, eventually one must reach something which caused an event but was not caused by any event itself, the source of which is often referred to by theologians as the unmoved mover or the prime mover. What Father Peadair proposes is that there was no first event, that reality (which to him as an immaterialist is the mind of the supreme being) has always existed and has no beginning nor end but rather weaves around without beginning or end. This theory does not reject the concept of causality, as did David Hume and others; it subordinates cause and effect to a role within a weaving chain that itself has no beginning nor end.
The Unwritten Rules vignette begins thus:
“In Chapter 10 of Saga of the Six Counties, Charles Francis Xavier Aloisius Mac Magnanimous, III, Esq. recounts how Sir Lawrence of Coldburg promised fealty to a certain Savage, only to betray him. Sir Lawrence later argued that his intentions were noble; however, what a man says he will do and what a man indeed does are often incongruent.”
The reference to the fictitious Sir Lawrence of Coldburg is a critical allusion to the moral theory of American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg.
Every Saturday night, the Bourke Boys hold a sing song session in Brendan’s Byre. They wear butcher-like hats fashioned from birch (birk), thus their name the Bourke or Birk Boys. They are an allusion to Child Ballad #79, The Wife of Usher’s Well. In that ballad, the wife sends her three sons off to sea where they soon perish, only to return to her as apparitions wearing hats of birch bark.
From the ballad:
“It fell about the Martinmass,
When nights are lang and mirk,
The carlin wife’s three sons came hame,
And their hats were o the birk.”
“It neither grew in syke nor ditch,
Nor yet in ony sheugh;
But at the gates o Paradise,
That birk grew fair eneugh.”
The letter home from the story which was posted some time past is intended to be a humorous play on words, a misunderstanding of the historic “facts” Nick relates to Will in regard to the bull of Pope Adrian IV empowering Henry II to conquer Ireland, due in part to Nick’s flawed grasp of history and further complicated by the fact that Nick and Will have overindulged in alcohol during the course of their discussion. Will is under the impression that the bull is of the bovine variety. In the excerpt from the letter quoted below, I bolded the incorrect names and also added in parentheses their true references.
“Old Nick also mumbled on about Pope Hadrian (Adrian) the Fart (Fourth) from the Temple of the Flatulation (Church of the Flagellation), who donated to Ireland a papist (papal) bull with a ring in its neb (Adrian is said to have also handed Henry II an emerald ring as a symbol of his sovereignty over Ireland) and how John Sorcery (John of Salisbury) passed the ring minus the bull along to Henry the Sickened (Henry the Second) and he to Strongblow (Strongbow) and he in turn to de Corset (John de Courcy)… ”
In many respects the novel is a collage of first and second hand experiences juxtaposed to an historic context. Some of these happened in Ireland; others, in the states. For example, consider the two Ormeau Bridge incidents.
In the opening chapter of the book, the first Ormeau Bridge incident is related to the reader in the past tense by the protagonist, who explains how he stepped out of the hostel and made a wrong turn. This foreshadows the second event, which occurs in real time at the climax of the story. With respect to the former instance, many years ago, while staying near Queens University in the home of a dear friend, I decided to walk down to Lavery’s Gin Palace for a pint. I did not yet know my way around town, but the lady of the house gave me directions, which I reversed. Therefore, when I headed out that night, instead of heading toward Great Victoria Street, I headed in the opposite direction and eventually found myself standing in the middle of Ormeau Bridge. Realizing my mistake, I returned to their flat to call it a night, for by then it was quite late. The lady of the house said I was fortunate not to have befallen some harm, for I had ventured into a loyalist neighborhood. I could only assume that something about my outward appearance would make the locals deduce that I was an Irish Catholic. With respect to the second instance, two nights later there was a riot on the bridge after closing hours, between Protestants and Catholics, and the details I use in the climax are drawn from that incident as reported in the newspaper.
When William meets Gráinne in the airport terminal, she says to him, “Fear not,” before kneeling to retie his wayward shoelace. Near the tale’s end she says to him, “Be not afraid…” The word choice is intentional, meant to convey that Gráinne is no mortal. Six times in the Holy Bible, angels utter those words when appearing before mortals.
Her retying of his shoelace alludes to William’s remark early on in the story that as long as he has unfinished business (he does not know how to tie his laces) he cannot die. In tying his lace, Gráinne finishes that business for him and henceforth he is vulnerable.
The geographical settings of Dunshane Cross and Duncraven closely correspond to those of the tangible towns of Strangford and Portaferry, respectively; however, the two fictitious villages of the novel are in no manner or form analogous to the two tangible towns aforementioned. I chose this setting for several reasons. First, I am familiar with the climate and landscape of the Ards Peninsula. Second, I desired to use The Narrows as a metaphor. Third, the peninsula was the first orange plantation established in Ulster and is also steeped in the history of the Norman invasion. In regard to demographics, I have grossly exaggerated the population distribution in order to create tension and drama. Historically,(according to A history of Ulster by Jonathan Bardon) the loyalist plantation settlers were intermingled with the native Irish in order to effectively police the latter.
As a side note, the area off to the left on the far side of the lough was the filming location for Winterfell in Game of Thrones.
The cover of the novel features a photograph of the entrance door of Béalbéar Church. The photograph actually depicts the door of Lisbane Church, located on the shores of Strangford Lough at Saltwater Brig. That church is indeed only opened once a year on All Soul’s Day; however, in reality it is not the priest of Dunshane Cross who holds the key, but rather the barman of The Saltwater Brig pub and restaurant.
The burning question underpinning the story is this: What is the nature of reality?
This metaphysical enigma is first mentioned in chapter one when William says he came upon a damaged oak in the Botanic Gardens and his “mind was set to wonderin’ about that Idealist limerick” about God and the tree. The term idealism has multiple meanings. Here it is used in its philosophical sense, for I refer to the Irish bishop George Berkley’s radical position on the nature of reality, also known as immaterialism, it being the polar opposite of materialism, by means of which the good bishop sought to prove the existence of a supreme being who sees and sustains the universe. It is tantamount to the telling of the tale that immaterialism can be seen as a viable explanation of the nature of reality.
Although Will is curious about his own intuitive experience of the holy, by no means is he preoccupied with unveiling the nature of our universe. Will is confused, depressed, and subject to the many weaknesses of the flesh. He is also a realist in the Aristotelian sense of the term, and that is why he struggles to make sense of a mystical experience that makes little sense. Father Peadair, however,believes the conventional conception of reality is fundamentally flawed. He is an extreme Idealist whose duty is to enlighten Will to the true metaphysics of God’s creation. The source of the father’s authority becomes incrementally evident as the tale unfolds.
The plot structure follows the reluctant hero model. William is called to adventure multiple times and at first refuses. The unusual circumstances of his birth are (1) his umbilical chord tied in a true knot and (2) being kissed by the angels. When he eventually accepts the call and goes to Northern Ireland, William enters the unknown where he encounters various archetype and supernatural characters, assorted trials, etc. In the end he is rewarded, but with a tragic Irish twisting of the term.
The idea for Father Peadair, the fictional priest in the novel, came to me second hand from a villager in an Irish town where I have often performed. He told me of a former parish priest who refused to walk about town alone at night, being frightened by the invisible deceased villagers whom he claimed were walking the streets. Only the priest could see these apparitions.
An early chapter of the novel is entitled “Coming in to the King” , a phrase referring to a British policy initiated under the Tudors which also was known as Surrender and Regrant. In this case the irony of the term is that the Protestant protagonist is coming in to the Roman Catholic Church by entering the chapel to confess his sins. Will is in a sense submitting to the will of the Roman Catholic Church as the chieftains did to the Tudors, and he too retains sovereignty, remarking to the priest that he needs no intermediary to act of his behalf between himself and God.
Will has little knowledge of the history of Northern Ireland. He is not alone in this respect, for most of the characters are also naïve to historic events key to the understanding of their plight. The problem is compounded by the flawed history found in Saga of the Six Counties, a copy of which Will finds in his B&B room and then reads to excess during the course of the novel.
At the beginning of the story, Will mentions a “…wee bit of a slender book I toted along for the long flight over: Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay on the advantages and disadvantages of history for life.” The reader is meant to assume that Will has read the 50-odd page essay prior to the story’s outset while inbound to Ireland from the states. While the book is not again mentioned until the climax of the story, the tenets of that essay are often alluded to in the plot. A reading of the essay is recommended, as it provides important insights into the inner makings of the story.
Here is a link to the entire essay: Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Sample pertinent excerpts from said essay:
“Only when historical culture is ruled and led by a higher force and does not itself govern and lead does it bring with it a powerful new stream of life, a developing culture for example, something healthy with future promise.
Insofar as history stands in the service of life, it stands in the service of an unhistorical power and will therefore, in this subordinate position, never be able to (and should never be able to) become pure science, something like mathematics. However, the problem to what degree living requires the services of history generally is one of the most important questions and concerns with respect to the health of a human being, a people, or a culture. For with a certain excess of history, living crumbles away and degenerates. Moreover, history itself also degenerates through this decay.”
“Imagine the most extreme example, a person who did not possess the power of forgetting at all, who would be condemned to see everywhere a coming into being. Such a person no longer believes in his own being, no longer believes in himself, sees everything in moving points flowing out of each other, and loses himself in this stream of becoming. He will, like the true pupil of Heraclitus, finally hardly dare any more to lift his finger.”
Originally the background history about Will’s parents, their meeting and his father’s end, appeared near the start of the novel. Dr. Harrod suggested I move the info to a latter place and dole it out in small bites, and instead begin the tale with the wayward boy dialogue in the hostel. One subsequent plot tweak was the motive of Will’s father’s IRA mission on the 11th Night. Initially, he was to booby trap a bridge with the intent of setting off a bomb on July 12th parade day as the Orangemen crossed. After due consideration, I decided this placed him in an unfavorable light in the role of the aggressor, so I changed his mission to a defender responding to an enemy sniping attack.
I’ve received a few e-mails about the content of Six Counties Seven Sins questioning the accuracy of my “history” and/or the soundness of my religious and philosophical statements. I remind the reader that I am not the narrator. I am the author. William Stone, who narrates most of the story, is an unreliable sort. He rarely sees things the way they are for multiple reasons, all of which, I believe, I have either shown or stated within the body of the novel.
Happy New Year!
All writers use literary devices. Teachers of writing are a bit more cogent of their importance. A few examples follow.
When writing Six Counties Seven Sins, I probably neglected verbal irony to a disproportionate extent, for it is quite prevalent amoung the Northern Irish. Also, it is not unusual to find litotes present in a novel set in the British Isles. Dramatic irony is present in many places. I hesitate to elaborate any further, since doing so would reveal spoiler details of the novel. The same holds true for my use of foreshadowing, but one non-spoiler of an example comes to mind– when Éimhear lectures “Liam” on Church & Bank Streets after leaving The Happy Asian. In regard to allusion, many of my allusions are to famous poets, but there are some to folk ballads as well (Little Musgrave, The Wife of Usher’s Well, Raglan Road, etc.), and also to prominent Northern Ireland musical artists, such as James Galway, Paul Brady, and Van Morrison. Two recurring biblical allusions—St. Peter and Cain– are key to the story. I use imagery quite a bit, most notably during the climax scene of the novel where the protagonist is moving from the Ulster Museum to Botanic Gardens and on to Stranmillis Embankment to Ormeau Bridge. Symbolism (some of Celtic origins) is present in the English Ivy references, in the Narrows, the rain, the Titanic, the bear, the trout, in other animate and inanimate objects (the oak, the flowers, and the stones), and in places, such as Ballybrady Island. When setting mood (and there are various moods to be found in the novel) I often relied on assonance and rhythm to give a poetic feel to the passage. The protagonist’s stroll on The Mountain Road was first written as prose, then converted to poetry and then back to prose, a technique I use when teaching poetry to my students. One motif of note is the recurring references to the cardinal directions on the compass, symbolic of a distance between the peoples, and also that wisdom comes from the east. Metaphorical applications include the river as both a fateful and changing force in life. Character archetypes are prevalent as well. Celtic myth is resorted to from time to time. For example, when Nick’s wife deserts him he loses his sword, his sword being a phallic symbol; Croker’s story of the little bird Irish folktale is central to the tale; and the business about the Devil’s Half-Acre is drawn from an Irish myth as well. Flashback is used in a few places, most notably to reveal expository details about the protagonist’s parents and about his own past actions as well. The Belfast setting contributes to the theme of civil discord while the specific setting of Will’s childhood home in Stranmillis alludes to St. Paul for the street names in that section are all of Biblical origins and his street is Damascus. Point of view of narration was discussed in an earlier blog entry. Hyperbole is used in small ways.
I completed the first edition of the novel in mid-December. Today I made it available for purchase.
I began planning the novel during the summer of 2005, after participating in the National Writing Project summer institute at Rider University. However, not until 2012 did I devote myself to the task in earnest, but still part-time. I worked on it while teaching and shared parts with the class. They were very interested and critical at times. Other than grunt work it was difficult to write during the school year or during the decompression time of July. I did a lot of the editing while waiting on benches at DMV, my son’s Irish dance classes, etc. I’m sure everyone thought I was wacko.
Above is a photo of the hard copies. The drafts to the right are the early ones. Each tab is a new draft. The first draft is the thin one on the bottom of the pile that’s the notes from 2005. The final draft is at the bottom of the stack to the left. From 2012 to Jan 2015 there were ten total hard drafts of the book. Besides the mandatory initial working title Work in Progress, the evolving story had a few other titles: Harm’s Way, Buried with My People, and The Story of the Little Bird.
The first draft was hand written. For subsequent drafts, I would print out the draft, revise by hand, then type the changes then print again. That’s how I kept the word count in check. Beginning in 2015 I went to electronic editing. The log of that is here attached: Editing Record for E Version of Novel
Later that same week, I once again board the ferry to Duncraven. I climb to the passenger cabin area and look out upon the windblown lough which we will soon cross. The tide is turning. One trillion gallons of saltwater rushes out from the north and into the Irish Sea, creating a swirling, sweeping whirlpool midstream. Should the keel of some boat be sucked into the vacuous vortex, it would mean certain death. But such is not the fate of our substantial ferry today, and soon I am seated beside the Savage brothers in The Scotsman. The dark, chill pub is empty save the three of us and its owner, John Lyon. While Lyon sweeps the floor, Nick resumes the hurling of insults he initiated when first we met on the far side of the lough.
I retaliate by inquiring of Nick his choice of church for Sunday worship.
Religion is for wankers, he answers. No one, says he, is his lord or master.
I rebut that Satan once said the same to his fellow fallen angels.
Nick’s far more amicable brother attempts to veer the focus of the chat toward sports and questions about American women. Amidst Nick’s continuing barbed jibes, Daniel also educates me about Duncraven’s primary surviving industry—salt water fishing. Since 1620, a large fishing fleet manned by locals has set out from south of town each morning, weather permitting. While the fishermen scourge the Irish Sea for prawn and herring, fat seals stalk the murky Duncraven inlet where at night the boats weigh anchor, anticipating the arrival of morsels of the day’s catch. None of the harbour haul will find its way across the lough to the Dunshane Cross market. Instead, the day’s catch will be peddled up and down the peninsula, from Duncraven to Donaghadee and westward to Bangor and Holywood. Daniel wanders off topic to recount how the first Scot settlers gathered up the local stray sheep and used them to their advantage, fleecing and making mutton of them as well. “And we’re still fleecin’ ‘em to this very day,” says Daniel with a wink and a nudge.
In the midst of Daniel’s revelations, his tipsy brother says, “For foxache, Dan, leave the feckin’ Yank alone alfeckinready.”
“Feck off, Nick. I’m trying to educate yer man a bit about our local history. The very least ye can do is—”
“Waste of time if ye ask me.”
“Well I didn’t ask ye, did I?”
Thumbing at random through the dog-eared pages of Saga of the Six Counties I say, “Ye know, Dan, I read somethin’ here in Saga of the Six Counties about that fishin’ business. Can’t put my finger on it at the moment. Have ye ever seen this book? Brilliant stuff. Tons of facts in here. God, how I love facts. When I first arrived, I knew nothin’ of the local history or politics… nothin’ to be seen on the evening news… even less than nothin’ to be found in The Telegraph, but this book…”—I poke the open page with my index finger— “… this book is a wealth of information.”
“It is at that,” says Lyon as he opens the door to sweep away the dust.
A chilled blast of winter air rushes in. I draw the book to my chest to stop the pages from blowing by. Lyon shuts the door while I flip through the pages.
“Have ye no clue how prominent a role yer family played in the local history?” I say. “This book tells all. Quite extraordinary. Ye Savages…yer legend’ry.”
Nick sets down his pint. His furry brows rise. His black eyes grow large and white as he studies my page turning.
“Oh, now there’s a grand piece of history as ever ye’ll lay yer eyes on, lad,” says Nick. “None better was ever penned. Brilliant stuff. Brilliant, I say.”
“Do ye know anything of the author?”
“Met him once. Brilliant scholar. Quite the expert on Irish history.”
“He does seem quite knowledgeable.”
“Tell me, Will. Have ye a wife?” says Nick out of the blue, as though we were now the best of mates.
“Me as well,” says he. “It’s been six months now.”
“Must seem like an eternity, given the circumstances,” says Daniel.
Nick bangs his fist on the bar saying, “I need meself an heir. A handsome prince to one day wield the Savage sword.”
Lyon laughs while jingling the coins in his trouser pockets. “Handsome? Handsome, is it? It’ll take real talent for ye to stand even a remote chance of producing a handsome heir. Real talent.”
“And it’s talent I have. Her name is Grace. First-rate talent and ye know it, John.”
Reaching into his wallet, Nick produces a wedding photo of himself standing beside a ginger-haired lady. He waves it before my eyes. Scrutinizing the photo, Beauty and the Beast comes to mind, but with a different screw to the fable for, unlike the beast in the tale, Nick is far beyond even the most distant hope of transfiguration. “Not to appear envious, but she is one gorgeous lady,” I say.
“Pure talent,” drones Daniel into his pint jar.
Nick mumbles on. “My fetchin’ bride and me hole up in Savage Castle… up from the lough… just north of town. Have ye seen the place?”
“Hard to miss, sitting as it does on the shoreline.”
“Aye. Just a wee bit south of the Newman estate. My family’s been dug in there since time eternal. Not a proper castle—just yer run-of-the-mill Norman keep, mind ye—one turret and a small enclosure wall, but a fine situation nonetheless. The rent is nil and we’re comfortable enough– at least, I’m comfortable.”
I study the photograph dangling before me. “And the lady?”
“Spends hours at her turret window, lookin’ northwest across the lough,” says Daniel.
“Handy enough situation,” continues Nick, “what with me on the dole at the moment and all. But on the down side, there’s yer man Dan here in the bargain, he bein’ an invalid.”
“She’s quite a looker,” I say. “If ye don’t mind my askin’, howse the sax?”
John Lyon draws near, rubbing the bar counter with a moist, dirty rag, a fag dangling from his lower lip.
“Sax?” laughs Daniel, who leans his head toward my right ear to half whisper. “Sax ye say? That’s rich.”
“They have yet to conjugate the wedding vowels,” says Daniel.
“So, it’s true what they say?” says John. “Ye haven’t been around the horn yet, Nick?”
“What a feckin’ waste of talent,” says Daniel. “Tell ‘em why, Nick. Go on. Tell ‘em.”
Nick sits silent for an eternity, twisting his pint jar. Fingering the frothy foam, he stares deep into its carbonated contents, admiring the effervescent, amber-tinted beverage.
“Go ahead, Nick. Out with it.”
“Aye,” affirms Daniel with a sly grin. “The drink. She wants the devil off his back.”
“Did she not know from the start ye were on the drink?” I say.
“Hadn’t a clue. Slow as molasses, she was. I duped her handily enough throughout the courtship. She knew nothin’ of the dole business, nothin’ of the allotment, nothin’ of my drinkin’ ways. I told her I had a fine situation—that I was livin’ off the family fortune and title and that was that.”
“What about the constant scent of alcohol?”
“A mere side effect of the medication, said I to her.”
“Medication for what?”
Brother Daniel, caught in the midst of a gulp of his drink, spews forth a streaming spray of Tennent’s saying, “Hah! His Adult Deficit Disorder! No respect to the beast with two backs from that lady until he’s off the drink.”
“Ye’re slaggin’ me.”
“For how long?” I ask. “A month?”
“Not a month,” says Nick.
“No, not a week,” he taps his empty pint jar on the countertop. “Just a day.”
“One day and that’s us?”
“Aye. One bloody day without the drink would do it,” Nick turns and studies me through vacant, bloodshot eyes. “B’Jaysus, William. Ye look a bit like Dez’ nephew, Colum.” He turns toward John Lyon. “Thank ye, John, I will have another.”
“Won’t be happenin’ tonight,” says Lyon as he draws another Strongbow. “Mind yerself with the drink, Nick. Just a wee bit more and that’s that. Ye’ll be buried in the cellar of Downpatrick Church soon enough.”
7 March 1996
I hope this letter finds you well.
A short while after first stepping off the ferry in Dunshane Cross, I met a fellow named Nick Savage. We struck up a conversation and, over the course of a few pints, Nick briefed me on the local history. As near as I could gather from his slurred speech, the relevant annals run something like this:
In the thirteenth century, a fellow named Don de Corset arrived here from the east with the pope’s blessings. He was a straight enough arrow, a member of the Gerry family, who answered to a knave named Strongblow. In addition to the mandatory fistful of knights, de Corset also had himself a stunning wife, a princess from the Aisle of Men, who ordered the building of Ballybrady Abbey. Meanwhile, de Corset relocated the crusted bones of Saints Patrick and Columbine to some quiet spot far to the west of here, that their eternal souls might not be disturbed by the impending turmoil of his mission, which was to tighten the strings on Ulster until the desired shape was achieved. To that end de Corset set up camp somewhere north of Duncraven where he and his knights set about the tedious business of seducing the native race. In due time, the locals were vanquished. Don de Corset repaid his knights by granting them thiefdoms. The main thief around here was a knight by the name of Savage.
Old Nick also mumbled on about Pope Hadrian the Fart from the Temple of the Flatulation, who donated to Ireland a papist bull with a ring in its neb and how John Sorcery passed the ring minus the bull along to Henry the Sickened and he to Strongblow and he in turn to de Corset and in due course it fell into Savage hands there to remain until, come one chill January day, the precious jewel slipped from Lord Savage’s grasp as he rowed in the river. Lost forever or so it seems. Nick says it was forged from the finest gold and embedded with premium emeralds of diverse hues. But oh-the-pity for now that gem is lost.
Somewhere between our third second and second third pints, a few hundred years had passed. The Red Earl was now long in the grave, but the Savages remained. Your man Neil burnt the peninsula to cinders, much to the benefit of his Clammy Boy cousins, but then the Clammy Boys were soon history themselves and now all that remains of them is some old stone chair that sits in The Ulster Museum. The peninsula was useless after that, reduced as it was to little more than ashes and charcoal, so the crown imported a lorry load of lowlanders to grow plantains. And here they remain to this very day, comfortable and living off the fat of the land as they are. Somewhere along the way some Savage decided to change the family name to Newman, but to this very day most of the locals prefer an old savage to a new man. It has been downhill for the Savage clan ever since those new gents ascended to the title and built that two-faced mansion. So says Nick.
I was hoping Nick would elaborate further on the two-faced business, but he had to be off as the traditional music session was on the boil. Nick calls that stuff diddly dee. Your man has zero appreciation for those old songs.
I am trying my best to further educate myself about the local history. To that end, I was not unfortunate to lay my hands on a secondhand copy of Saga of the Six Counties. I study it nightly, along with my Holy Bible of course. Most of what Nick told me hails from the former. He knows precious little about the latter.
In closing, you will be pleased to know that the local aristocracy—Lord and Lady Newman—have taken a shining to me. Lady Eleanor Newman, who is also the church organist, has opened their home to me. I find my lady to be no great hand at the organ, although she does derive the utmost pleasure in playing the instrument.
I have now settled in at Eton Gate Lodge, situated on the Newman demesne grounds. Please send all future correspondence to this address:
Eton Gate Lodge
Newtonards BT9 2XG
All the Best,
Standing: Professor Paul B. Muldoon. Michael Longley is seated to his immediate right.
The biennial Princeton Poetry Festival, a series of readings and panel discussions organized by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, was held this past Thursday and Friday in Berlind Theater, Princeton, NJ. I was fortunate enough to attend both days of the festival. The panel discussions, moderated by Princeton University Professor Paul B. Muldoon, centered on the issue of adversity in poetry. The conversations were stimulating. Professor Muldoon is to be commended for his efforts. The readings by the dozen or so poets in attendance were a pleasure to experience, as were the introductions spoken by our current poet laureate, Mary K. Smith. The complimentary refreshments were also tasty and much appreciated.
One issue raised during the panel discussion was this: Should poets write about politics? Should their work be didactic or simply reflect the daily goings on of the human condition? This led to a corollary question: If poets should indeed make political observations, should only those poets living in the country concerned be the speakers, or might outsiders comment as well? In respect to Northern Ireland, both Muldoon and Longley grew up during The Troubles and were of the opinion that the poets should write about the human condition but avoid political commentary in the process.
Prior to reading his poem “Ceasefire”, Michael Longley introduced himself not as a citizen of Northern Ireland but as a man of “Ulster”. In contrast, Muldoon referred to the north as Northern Ireland. And, of course, Longley made the mandatory Orangeman’s allusion to the Battle of the Somme.
Above: A mural commemorating the Battle of Somme located in a seaside park north of Cloghy. Note the diminutive stature of the Irishman in contrast to his “Ulster” counterpart.
“Ceasefire” was originally published in The Irish Times and was written as commentary on the “IRA ceasefire” (his words, not mine, as though the UVF, UDF, etc. had no hand in the violence), so there goes any notion of no-poetry-of-a-political-vein. So one might ask after reading the poem, who is the counterpart in Northern Ireland of the King Priam in this sonnet? The answer is plain to see. King Priam is analogous to Ulster (Loyalist Ulster) kissing the hand of the murderer (the IRA) of his son(s). I should mention in passing that when noting the nearly three thousand casualties of The Troubles, no mention was made that many of those deaths were the result of vigilante acts of terrorism in an effort for the locals, loyalist and nationalist alike, to maintain order in their neighborhoods, order which the RUC failed to maintain. In a sense Longley’s analogy is a valid one, since Priam’s son violated the rules of hospitality and thus incited a war with Greece much as the English did in Ireland. If anyone is adept in the art of violating the rules of hospitality, it is our friends the English.
To address the second horn of this bull, do outsiders have a voice in writing about the internal affairs of any given country, I argue that we do and that task is what I have undertaken in my novel Six Counties Seven Sins. Over the course of my frequent visits to The Six Counties during the heyday of The Troubles, it became increasingly clear to me that the natives could not see the forest for the trees, partially due to the censorship of the press. The stranger often notices nuances of a society that the natives fail to see. Inversely, the stranger fails to grasp many of the nuances of the natives. Both of these factors make for an interesting and sometimes comical point of view for first person narration of a story. The protagonist of my novel sees events in the Six Counties in a far different light than does the native population.
Professor Paul B. Muldoon leads the panel discussion. Michael Longley is seated to his immediate left.
Many of the characters in Six Counties Seven Sins are archetypal. Will Stone is a reluctant hero embarked on a journey into the unknown, having twice refused the call before realizing that, like Jonah, he cannot run from his fate. Father Peadair is the wise old man. The Old Woman in the cloak is the Old Woman, The Earth Mother, in Irish myth, the embodiment of Ireland itself. Éimhear, namesake of Cú Chulainn’s love in the Ulster Cycle Irish Epic The Tain, embodies the sensual Ireland. Éimhear has much in common with Judith of the Old Testament/Apocrypha. She is promised to a foreigner — a military officer of the nation which has for centuries oppressed her people. Lady Eleanor, part of the Protestant Ascendancy, is a temptress. Gráinne, as her name implies, embodies grace. Desmond is a blend of mentor and trickster, while Nicholas “Old Nick” Savage is clearly the villain of the novel.
The collective unconscious proper is alluded to by Éimhear, who draws an analogy between the drowned drumlins of Strangford Lough and the human condition. Will Stone’s visionary dreams and mystical insights also point toward a psychic connection to the collective unconscious.
As often as possible, I have used the present tense. My reasoning will become clear when you reach the end of the story. Point of view of narration shifts between the first and the third point of view depending upon what the reader needs to know while keeping the protagonist in the dark and unreliable at best, for reasons that will likewise become clear when you reach the end of the story.
Closed doors are a recurring theme in the novel. The protagonist finds himself unable to open doors with ease. Doors to churches, to houses, and to public places either close in his face or simply refuse to open. Closed doors symbolize Will’s failure to achieve acceptance and fulfillment.