The Wasted Island, by Eimar O’Duffy, Forgotten Books, 544 pp, ISBN: 978-1331478782
Just after he has received his First Communion, Bernard Lascelles, hero of Eimar O’Duffy’s semi-fictional novel of growing up, The Wasted Island, asks his mother: “When is the happiness going to begin?” The small episode anticipates much of what is to come in O’Duffy’s baggy 500-page novel: the prematurely sardonic tone given to a small boy, the collapse of high expectations and the failure of authority figures to answer honestly.
Bernard’s question “dismays” his mother, who, like most of the women in the book “though pretty and affectionate, was also stupid”. She epitomises everything that Bernard will come to detest in Irish Catholicism ‑ denounced later as “reeking of piety, deficient in ethics”. First published in 1919, The Wasted Island dramatises O’Duffy’s disappointment at finding himself, shortly after the revolution, in a society steeped in small-minded and timorous piety that shrivels the dynamic and high-minded bustle of his years as a journalist and an officer in the Volunteers.
The boy Bernard’s insight that religion is a con, at once insipid and coarse, is compounded by his experiences at Ashbury, an English Catholic public school: O’Duffy attended the Jesuit college Stonyhurst, in Lancashire. Bernard arrives “full of zest and hope” but school life brings home to him his outsider position: firstly aware of being Irish, and secondly dissenting from the Ashbury culture ‑ adopted by some Irish boys ‑ but to him materialistic, unfairly rigged in favour of bullies, resting on a sense of entitlement to exploit weaker people in Britain and weaker peoples overseas, and summed up by the smile: “half assertive half sheepish which Bernard detested. The Ashbury smile he called it, for it symbolized a great portion of the Ashbury mind.”
O’Duffy’s penchant for rhetorical invective drives many passages: as here :
Such was the life sheltered within the fine old walls of Ashbury, cloaked by her beauty and bolstered up by self-deception, self-contradiction, fine phrases and the glory of tradition: a life of great possibility and mean achievement; of plausible aspirations and damnable purpose; of noble pretension and hideous reality.
The education Bernard receives is both inefficient and philistine, and he reacts by taking up internationalism and agnosticism: positions that especially appeal to him as outraging his Unionist physician father. Like O’Duffy’s real-life father (dentist to the Vice Regal Lodge), Sir Eugene Lascelles, fashionable physician, belongs to the privileged garrison set centred on Dublin Castle. He threatens Bernard with characteristic sarcasm.
It would be a nice thing for me to have a socialist MP for a son, wouldn’t it? Where would my practice go to then, do you think? And what would become of your mother and sisters?
Bernard is not really a socialist, but he certainly aspires to a cosmopolitan view and he shows some of O’Duffy’s ambivalence. At the moment that he identifies with the case for Irish independence from Britain, Bernard is also convinced that “the world is my country”. Like his creator, he places Irish nationalist endeavours in a horizontal frame, as part of a large wave of intellectual movements ( ideas about the decline of civiliation, degeneracy and self-improvement) in a European context, as opposed to the vertical frame that binds those endeavours into the context of Irish history, and the successive earlier rebellions. Here is the crux of O’Duffy’s unease with the official Free State narrative of the Easter Rising, with its Catholic and militaristic flavour. It is this unease that colours most pages of The Wasted Island with scorn and frustration.
Bernard’s fellow students at UCD thrash out political and literary topics in stilted set-piece discussions. The characters are too numerous and too obviously mouthpieces for a range of different points of view. This is a diluted Portrait of the Artist, and the young men alternate debate (on nationalism, Home Rule, the damage wrought by capitalism) with forays into the red light district. Unlike Stephen Dedalus, however, once in Monto, Bernard avoids entanglement and heads hastily back across the river to the Southside.
Having started with the feeling that “The Marseillaise means more to me than A Nation Once Again”, at the Rotunda meeting when the Volunteers are formally launched, Bernard feels “a pricking of the skin and a thrill of the spine such as only the Marseillaise had given him before.” And shortly afterwards, “myriad projects formed themselves in his brain, and his soul made vows of service”. In the ferment of Bernard’s commitment to a lofty, yet fully attainable goal, we partake of the excitement of argument and action that animated O’Duffy’s generation. Bernard’s new conviction about the necessity of separation leads him to join the Volunteers, for him the most vital force in Irish politics. The idealist in him warms to the way all classes and creeds mix in their ranks, to their energy, their dedication to hard work that alone can bring advancement to Ireland. Constructive, enthusiastic, they hold the potential to transform the “nation of slackers” that Ireland has become under the “dead weight of English Government” into a Utopia: “her polity would aim at combining the maximum of personal liberty with the minimum of individual licence … a land of courtesy and hospitality free from the curse of commercialism … she would show the nations how to be rich without soul-killing industrialisation and how to be great without being large.”
The child Bernard was happiest when building up the toy city of Babylon on his nursery hearth-rug, a city that was ”clean, orderly and busy” and the adult Bernard rejoices at the sight of the marching Volunteers. With their upright manly bearing they have something of ancient Greek virtues filtered through Victorian self-improvement ‑ the basis of a civic, secular religion.
The break with his Castle Catholic background, imminent from the start, is now complete. Bernard “gradually ceased to associate with the class in which he had been brought up, and began to make a place for himself in the society of his political brethren”. His circle of associates dismisses the ineffective tactics of John Redmond, even before Redmond’s pledge of support for Britain in the Great War. Bernard sees “his immediate task as shaking off the oppressive weight of English Government”, which has wasted the capacity of the Irish people. His new programme brings him to study Irish in the west of Ireland, travel to Belgium to buy guns (an episode out of the boys’ own adventure genre, where he tries to discourage the attentions of a seductive black veiled lady), engage in manoeuvres and attend innumerable meetings. Caught up in a baton charge during the 1913 lockout, he rescues Stephen Ward, another convinced nationalist and Volunteer, but with a cooler head than Bernard. Of a highly rationalist cast of mind, Stephen is generally thought to be a portrait of Bulmer Hobson. Despite their temperamental differences, they often reach the same conclusions: Bernard comes to share Stephen’s view that Ireland is “not a powder-keg, but a damp bog. They both deplore “the slovenly indolence” of most of the population, and anticipate that independence will require long-term diligent effort. Son of an embittered and marginalised former Fenian, Stephen has no truck with retrospective endorsement of armed action, like the shibboleths of failed rebellions led by Tone and Emmet. For both Bernard and Stephen a commitment to unstinting service within the Volunteers means the creation of an effective Irish army that can be mobilised for defence, a force that “Britain will have to reckon with” at the end of the Great War. Bernard is more warmly enthused , but he is no more carried away than Stephen. For them, what is needed above all is a success, not another glorious defeat.
They both therefore deeply distrust the conspiracy of “the dope crowd who are intent on blood sacrifice”. Here O’Duffy locates a waste greater than that stemming from imperialism ‑ the “lunatics” plotting redemptive violence which, Bernard fears, will retard, not advance, progress towards independence. He has particular scorn for Austin Mallow, usually taken to be a portrait of Joseph Mary Plunkett, “mystic in politics and a martyrmaniac”, who probably has “a slate loose”. O’Duffy’s interest in linking physical traits and moral status underlies the description of this character feverish, with “drawn yellow cheeks and great luminous eyes”, an “emaciated body eaten away by disease”, in contrast to Bernard’s clean-cut manly appearance: his “fine broad brow” and “square hard jaw”. Bernard’s circle also criticises the misty writings of Mallow and others. His poetry “is all a symbolic appeal to Ireland to rise and avenge her wrongs, bringing the comment: “Precious lot of good an insurrection would do us now. I counted at least six poets on the Provisional Committee and it’s hard chaws we want”, and again: “there never was a country in less need of minor poets than this, and never a country so full of them”.
In contrast, Stephen argues for developing the capacity of the Volunteers, so that when the war ends, they will be able to “put up a stiff demand to England”. He considers that the country doesn’t want a rebellion at this time, and consequently, “a minority must assume infallibility before it can presume to commit the remainder.” Stephen is aghast to hear that Mallow “will plunge the country into rebellion just because of some vague feeling that it is a good thing” and his insistence that “Ireland must be saved in spite of the strength of her enemies and the weakness of her friends”.
The onset of the Great War sharpens differences among the Volunteers, Bernard’s associates denouncing Redmond and Stephen invoking “small nations like Switzerland, Bulgaria or Norway, sensible onlookers at the European tragi-comedy”. Bernard’s family is afflicted like many Irish families, from the great squares and from the little streets. One of his brothers loses his leg at Suvla Bay, the other his life in Flanders. The costs of the war include not only such casualties, but the coarsening and brutalising of everyday speech even among “quiet decent men and elderly ladies”, who are heard “rejoicing over the news that four thousand German corpses had been counted over such and such a front. Bernard saw his own friends rejoicing over similar heaps of British corpses.” It also leads to the scapegoating of men who, like Bernard, refuse to enlist in the British army, thus denying to their fathers the honour of “giving their sons”. Fathers do not come out well anywhere in The Wasted Island.
Though he has just participated in the landing of guns at Howth, meant to strengthen the capacity of the Volunteers for action on the national level, the sudden looming threat of war brings Bernard’s reflections back to the international scene, at a moment of pause, where, across the Continent, it seems that Ireland alone shows signs of disturbance.
…his attitude was the same as that which dominated the whole of Europe, prior to the outbreak of the Great War. He was so used to civilization, with its smoothness and peacefulness, that he did not really believe that violence was possible in this quietest of all possible worlds. His whole habit of mind led him to believe, that by what chance of miracle mattered not, at the last moment things would straighten themselves out, and all would be well.
Not many pages later, there is a more incisive, and also a more generous, analysis: “All over Europe, boys of eighteen and twenty, their generous emotions roused, were called to the defence of treaties and the fulfilment of obligations which the cynical politicians who summoned them would have been the first to repudiate should their interests so require: and all over Europe, youth, ingenuous, trusting and obedient, answered the calls. But to those simple virtues alone the masters of men could not trust. More was needed. During the long peace, men had forgotten how to hate. The nations had grown interdependent: you cannot hate those with whom you buy and sell or those with whom you share pleasures and interests; trade and the arts had united mankind. These ties must now be broken, so by tales of atrocities, by lies and misrepresentation, hate was deliberately remanufactured and righteous anger raised on all sides by slander and false accusations.” O’Duffy applied the same critique to the process by which the narrative of the Irish revolution was also was sacralised, deformed to suit the purposes of the authorities.
The last chapter of the novel, Catastrophe, covers the week of the Easter Rising. Bernard has worked to countermand the order for mobilisation ‑ to him and Stephen nothing less than a mutiny by an unrepresentative minority of fanatics. On Grafton Street, he meets a section of his own company who have joined the Rising marching towards him. Like soldiers on the Western Front, they are resigned to being initially misled and ultimately sacrificed. “I suppose I’ll have to carry out me orders, Captain. But between ourselves, I don’t know what we’re out for. We’ll be bet for certain.”
These closing pages ‑ jerky, melodramatic but vivid ‑ take us from the Fairyhouse race meeting on Easter Monday through the days of food shortages, uncertainty and increasing destruction, to the moment when Bernard’s mixed feelings about nationalism and militarism clash when he sees the tricolour over the GPO. By now demented by blood lust, he struggles with and kills a British sentry, is immediately overtaken by remorse, and later by terror as he is arrested. His imprisonment in a dungeon continues his nightmare, and in a final touch straight out of Edgar Allen Poe, his overtaxed brain collapses into madness.
The novel ends as Stephen, on the run in Co Wicklow after the surrender, looks back to “a dull red spot, like a cooling cinder, that marked the site of the city”. Then we read how “Pearse and the leaders undid by their death much of the harm which the insurrection had done to their cause, for Ireland roused herself in rage when her sons were slain by the foreigner.” The last words of the novel are spoken by the unemotional Stephen, resolving that “we must begin all over again” ‑ another explicit rejection of the Rising as the event that achieved Irish freedom.
The Wasted Island suffers from having an ill-ordered plot with many detours, a style that is at times turgid, and an attempt to distribute different viewpoints over a large cast of characters in an overly schematic fashion. O’Duffy makes worthwhile discriminations among the different levels of petit bourgeois and working class Dublin, milieux, which are more skillfully captured by Joyce, O’Casey and later James Plunkett. Bernard’s story unrolls in the foreground of significant moments: the Howth gunrunning, the Playboy protests, the intervention of Roger Casement. The occasional mention of Jammet’s restaurant, Lawrences’ “great toyshop” and the Cairo café anchor the action, albeit intermittently.
Though as humour they are heavy-handed, the passages depicting Dublin high society are among the most successful. The nuances of pecking order among the garrison set begins already in the difference between the children who play in Merrion Square and those who play in St Stephen’s Green. As Bernard’s sister Alice is being presented as a debutante, O’Duffy’s satire is caustic: “Dublin Castle is at once the most sinister and the most ridiculous feature of Irish life … the playhouse of native snobbery that holds a sham, meaningless tawdry court”. O’Duffy also gets good value from the manoeuvres of Mrs Harvey, a mother out of Balzac, untiring in her schemes to find her daughter a better match than Bernard, given his neglect of his medical practice and his involvement with the Volunteers, and from the reaction of his own mother to the outbreak of war, “the poor, poor Archduke”.
In counterpoint to the pervasive waste and hypocrisy, the cynical clear-sightedness of Bernard’s butler, Swathythe, sounds almost healthy. On his rare appearances, his almost audible shrugs introduce a sub-Wildean perspective on all the public clamour. Asked “And your country’s call?” He answers “Never heard it, sir, shouldn’t recognise it if I did.” He “can’t afford a conscience”. The sardonic voice is close to O’Duffy’s own. The Wasted Island would have been artistically richer if O’Duffy had succeeded more often in fully digesting his emotion and projecting it though a range of characters. The dominance of Bernard’s temperament and a tendency to stray into polemic, reduce the artistry of the storytelling.
Pauline Hall’s most recent publication is The Cream of the Milk, a limited broadsheet edition of thirteen clerihews on famous and infamous Irishwomen.