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A Terrible Thing

Pauline Hall

In Chapter Seven of The Red and the Green, Barnabas (Barney) Drum, drunkard and spoiled priest, sees how “rival spires of Kingstown, Catholic and Protestant, [are] shifting constantly in their relation to each other, except when from the Martello Tower at Sandycove they could be seen as superimposed”. This passage is one of Murdoch’s precise and vivid descriptions of the Dún Laoghaire seafront, which are among the pleasures of this novel. It also illustrates the shifting relationships within the extended Anglo-Irish family at its centre. This is a cousinry of some complexity, with branches on both sides of the Irish Sea, Anglicans and converts to Catholicism. Through them, Murdoch dramatises the historic tensions between the two countries. She particularly sharpens the symmetry between the two young soldiers, cousins and rivals: Andrew Chase-White, newly commissioned in King Edward’s Horse (Murdoch’s father’s regiment) and Pat Dumay, an officer in the Irish Volunteers.

Several dates are important here: The Red and the Green was published in 1965, at about a midway point in Murdoch’s oeuvre. The structure and style are relatively conventional, and the sexual antics are tamer than in her other books. There is evidence here of her philosophical preoccupations: how thought and image relate to action, how to achieve authenticity. Further, both Pat and Andrew are uncomfortable in their bodies and fearful of sex, and each discounts his mother’s anxiety. In his introduction to the Vintage edition, Declan Kiberd suggests that these are traits which, in the 1960s, chimed with studies that discerned a pathology of inhibition and self-denial in some leaders of the Easter Rising.

Nineteen sixty-five was also a period of lull in the often troubled relations between red and green: just short of fifty years after the Easter Rising, on which the action of the novel converges, and four years before the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Another date: The Red and the Green ends with an epilogue, set in 1938. The novel proper ends just as the Rising begins. The epilogue tells us what subsequently happened, listing how many of the male characters came a cropper, in various ways, during the “interminable week” of the Rising. In a sort of Platonic dialogue, Frances Bellman (arguably the author figure of the novel), and her “tall son”, evaluate 1916. Her son is on fire with the current moral challenge of the Spanish Civil War, in which a friend has already enlisted. He considers the Easter Rising to be “wonderful”. Frances agrees, but muses “though I don’t quite see what good it did”. The three points of view presented in the epilogue – Frances’s, her son’s and her prosaic English husband’s ‑ together cover the range of attitudes at play in the novel. Her husband ‑ like her son, given no other name ‑ pours cold water on quixotic talk of Ireland as underdog. “In my view Cathleen Ni Houlihan is a great bore. In this century, small nations have got to pick up. You've got to belong to a big show nowadays.” One American critic, de Salvo, argues that in 1965, post-Suez Britain itself was less of a “big show” than the British might imagine.

There is a real-life epilogue to the epilogue. When the troubles in North Ireland erupted, Murdoch swung towards the view of Frances’s husband, writing in 1982 that “It’s a terrible thing to be Irish.” Regretting her too favourable treatment of the green side, she came to describe this as the only one of her novels she felt equivocal about. Certainly, the most sympathetic characters criticise British policy towards Ireland. In Chapter Two, Christopher Bellman, Frances’s father, argues that English people don’t have to ask the question “What went wrong?” For them, nothing went wrong, whereas Irish civilisation was wrecked by the Act of Union. According to her biographer, Peter Conradi, Murdoch “followed Elizabeth Bowen and WB Yeats in adopting the historian WEH Lecky’s idealisation of the eighteenth century Irish Ascendancy”. Critics have supposed that this account of Irish history ‑ and how it passes over the heads of Christopher’s kinsfolk ‑ is intended to be instructive for Murdoch’s English readers. The blinkered Hilda makes the surprising announcement that Ireland “doesn’t have any history to speak of”. Murdoch, who claimed to have done a good deal of research for the novel, is well aware of the irony of this observation.

Frances carries much of the moral heft of the novel. She expresses some of Murdoch’s own early Marxist and feminist attitudes, arguing that “being a woman is like being Irish. Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the same”. Men do not attend to the otherness of women, in the sense that Murdoch took from Simone Weil, and the English do not attend to the otherness of the Irish. Not seen as separate or different, women and the Irish can be treated as things. Frances emerges as smarter and more mature that her eccentric family members and her dim fiancé, in her reaction against the stock responses of people around her, and those expected of her as a young woman of good family. Hilda, her future mother-in-law, comments disapprovingly “You argue like a street orator.” Frances doesn’t “know which uniform to wear”. She empathises with German sailors in a U-Boat, and speaking of the Great War wonders “why society doesn't all blow up –why don't [men] say no, no, no?” She is touched by meeting, in Stephen’s Green, a woman begging, with children “dressed up like monkeys, trying to dance”. Murdoch took this scene from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Frances rejects Andrew, whom she seemed destined to marry, and in the epilogue confesses that all along she loved the austere young revolutionary Pat Dumay. Peter Conradi mentions Murdoch’s lifelong obsession with TE Lawrence, which she shared with Simone de Beauvoir and Simone Weil, and Pat is an ascetic warrior in that mould ‑ virile but full of disdain for sex. His most important attachment is to his younger brother, Cathal, who idolises him. A comparison with the Pearse brothers is inescapable.

The novel is set, cleverly, in the week leading up to the Easter Rising. The on-off love trysts and engagements amongst the Anglo-Irish parallel the on-off preparations for the Rising. The two narratives of imbroglio move at different tempos. Whilst in Dalkey the Anglican Chase-Whites and Bellmans engage in desultory ‑ if slightly uneasy ‑ chat, and where the most urgent task is the mending of a garden swing; the Republican and Roman Catholic Dumay brothers, in frowsy Blessington Street, are full of high purpose. The vamp and grandee Lady Millie appears in scenes with both branches of the family. She is the owner of a house in Upper Mount Street, (with an all-purpose boudoir and shooting-range) and one in Co Wicklow, but she is broke. She is also planning to put her energy and her beloved revolver in the service of the rebellion. There seems no middle way where sex is concerned: desire is either thwarted, as by Pat’s “cold fierce demeanour” and Andrew’s vacillation, or indulged by Millie’s “roving affections”.

Millie and Frances are two sides (respectable and louche) of the same plump girl, both of whom are nearly attached to Andrew, while secretly loving Pat. Neither of these young men is comfortable as a sexual being. Andrew sees sex as a “secret murder” and is non-plussed when Millie drops her earring down the front of his army shirt. When Millie flirts with him, Pat “noticed with repulsion that she was wearing trousers” and is “disgusted at the way she had transformed herself into an animal”. He wishes to subjugate her, and sees her as quarry, but it is she who is the active agent. The slapstick scene when, in succession, all four of Millie’s suitors show up in her boudoir, each wondering who owns the bicycles propped up in her yard, confirms her as source of energy. The denouement of the book is Millie’s revelation of an incestuous relationship in the family, and in delivering this coup de grace to the hapless Andrew, she remains jaunty and amoral. Murdoch restores the moral equilibrium, however, with a glimpse of Millie’s pathetic existence in old age, dependent on her unglamorous sister-in-law.

Declan Kiberd points out that Murdoch’s characters, both Anglo-Irish and nationalist, Protestant and Catholic, long” to construct their own selves”. Andrew taunts Pat with “At least I've joined the Army”, but also envies in his cousin the capacity to “reach for a life beyond one’s own”. Millie longs for “some great glittering event that would change everything”. Personal agency is particularly important to these characters, because in Ireland, everything is tentative: it is always about to rain. Barney is a crack shot who, transfixed with guilt, dumps his rifle in the park at Kingstown, in a kind of reverse gun-running scene ‑ then runs back to retrieve it. He believes that talk will never result in action, that “where everything is about to happen, nothing actually will”. As the week builds up, he is transported as in an Easter procession, liturgical and military at once, to “feel part of the mystery”, convinced that “an action, even a mad arbitrary action, was needed to break the spell of his despair and set free the promised grace”. When keeping his paschal vigil in an ugly church, amongst shrouded statues, Barney watches uniformed Volunteers laying down rifles and knapsacks as they queue outside the confession boxes, in preparation for the fight. As the week passes, Christopher feels the presence of “something both close and hidden”. Pat’s aim to prove the rebels “are not shirkers” seems fulfilled by the sight of how “the green flag on the GPO blows taut and clear”. In the epilogue, Frances talks of how, thanks to having lifted their beliefs into action, the Dumay brothers are “young and perfect for ever”. She does not say the same of Andrew, though he too died in battle.

As a part of his preordained role as her suitor, Andrew addresses soppy poetry to Frances, though he is less comfortable with the expectation that he make her pregnant before he is posted to the front.  Andrew’s mother, Hilda, and Pat and Cathal’s mother, Kathleen ‑ the joyless bedraggled wife of Barney ‑ are bad parents in Dickensian mode. Always busy on Catholic good works, Kathleen lets her house in Blessington Street slip into grime and muddle. Andrew is humiliated by his cousin and rival from boyhood, as Pat undermines his manhood at two significant moments in the novel: one on the threshold of Millie’s bedroom, the other in the squalid scullery at Blessington Street, minutes before the Angelus bell that precedes the start of the Rising.

In a particularly successful scene, Murdoch renders the strange moment as the Rising breaks out, when Dublin, “a little startled, a little puzzled, seemed already to be aware that this was no ordinary day in her history”. In a few lines, the spectators are transformed: already “aware of themselves as a crowd compelled onward by the mystery” ‑ the paschal dimension again ‑ “of an historical event”. Andrew’s assumption of the role of a cavalry officer has amounted to little more than turning up in fine boots and breeches. His joining the cavalry contradicts his belief that the Great War will be won by mechanised weapons: his death, mentioned in the epilogue, proves that he was right. In these first freeze-framed minutes of the Rising, horses loom large. Andrew overhears: “Isn’t the like of the bloody Sinn Feiners to do this on the day of the [Fairyhouse] races, and it fine for once” and “The murdering idjuts, they’ve killed a horse”. Andrew feels there was “something miniature, amateurish, improbable about the scene”. The street seems transformed into a stage set, as Pearse reads the proclamation to empty pavements. The tableau goes live: a horse is felled, then some unarmed Lancers. Murdoch maps the shift in mood: “The crowd was detached, confused, if anything hostile to the Sinn Feiners. But they stared at Andrew and his uniform without friendliness. By the violence which had already occurred a breach had been opened, and through that breach inevitably would inevitably flow the bitterness of centuries.”

Conradi lists “several Irises”, two of whom are especially relevant to this novel: the Marxist-bohemian and the Irishwoman. In 1939, during her second year at Oxford, Murdoch gave a paper on James Connolly. In The Red and the Green she links the apparently local romantic movement for Irish independence with international socialist struggles when Cathal Dumay quotes Lenin about how a child can stick a pin in a giant’s heart, as in the epilogue she juxtaposes the Irish and Spanish Republican causes.

In Chapter One, Andrew reflects that “calling himself Irish was more of an act than a description, an assumption of a crest or a picturesque cockade”. This corresponds to the way Murdoch explores many aspects of her inheritance in the novel, dramatising what she described as “the awful tensions in being Irish”. Her friend Honor Tracy ‑ a “Castle Catholic” ‑ commented that “Iris makes the most of her Irishness, as people are very apt to do”. In 1964, Murdoch maintained “crossly and implausibly”, according to Conradi, that she had an Irish accent “you could cut with a knife. I may have misleading Oxford overtones, but the vowels are Irish”. And again, “Yes, I am one hundred percent Irish, Protestant of course. But I left at a very early age.” Just before she finished The Red and the Green, Murdoch was the first woman to address the illustrious Philosophical Society at Trinity College Dublin. On that occasion, she commented that “it was odd and very moving to be thus feted in my native city. Dublin looked beautiful in a slight mist.”

One review of The Red and the Green remarked that Murdoch's love shows in the portrayal of the “particular desolate peace” of Dublin. She locates the rebel Dumay family in Blessington Street, her mother’s home and her own birthplace: “a wide, sad, dirty street”. The family was not, as Murdoch later claimed, Anglo-Irish, (for her “a special seed”), but insecure lower middle class. Murdoch was a fabulator, like Yeats, mythologising a cultural and material lost demesne. Roy Foster argues that being a “tribal Protestant”, even in humble circumstances, nevertheless conferred a sense of caste. Murdoch’s mother, a trainee singer, (brought up in a street parallel to Molly Bloom’s Eccles Street), humorously described herself as “the toast, not of Dublin, but of North Dublin”. Rene Murdoch looked back to a family which was resident for three centuries in Northern Ireland but which had slowly “gone to pot”. Conradi considers that for Murdoch, her Irishness was “a reassurance, a reference-point, a credential”. He describes how the Murdoch parents, who moved to London when Iris was a year old, remained apart from English life.

In 1997, two years before her death, affected by Alzheimer’s and pondering who she was, Murdoch claimed: “Well I’m Irish anyway, that’s something”.  Here we catch the persistence of mingled attachment, insight and exasperation ‑ what gives The Red and the Green its special atmosphere.

1/3/2016

Pauline Hall is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books.

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