The Cruelty Men, by Emer Martin, Lilliput, 368 pp, €16, ISBN: 978-1843517399
When the Russo-Finnish war broke out some months after the publication of Finnegans Wake, Joyce commented: “The Finn again wakes.” Such rhymes of history with literature are unusual – and yet it seems apt that The Cruelty Men was published weeks after the successful vote for repeal of the eighth amendment, which finally ended the reign of the cruelty men.
But the postwar can be just as difficult. Ireland’s historical consciousness is riddled with lacunae, evasion and institutional lies. It seems hard for us to actually own what we know. Knowledge of the Magdalene laundries and the other institutions which made up Ireland’s gulag was long in the public domain, before the sheer scale of its evil finally got through to us. It’s as if we instinctively turn away from the trauma. Nothing could typify this more than when Emer Martin was interviewed recently by a well-known radio presenter who professed ignorance of who and what the “cruelty men” were, despite the fact that they had scarred the lives of so many Irish women and children and, particularly in the Traveller community, still rank alongside Oliver Cromwell as children’s bedtime bogeymen. There are always at least two Irelands.
Literature, storytelling, is one way to confront these historical traumas and put some kind of shape on them. There is a welcome explosion in recent years of novels by young Irish women, but they often seem strangely conventional in both form and content. Emer Martin cannot be accused of that. It is her unconventionality, perhaps, that has led to her curious invisibility at the forefront of Irish literature. She burst onto the scene with her first, Listowel Prize-winning novel, Breakfast in Babylon, which told the often shocking story of her generation of young Irish people plunged into a maelstrom of sex and drugs both at home and abroad. Baby Zero, published in 2007, was an extraordinary meditation on the lives of women and children, set in a dystopian Taliban or Isis-like regime, but seemed to fly beneath the radar of Irish literary criticism. Her peripatetic lifestyle, interrupted by long sojourns in the depths of Meath, which has now led her to Southern California, cannot have helped either.
In this novel, she sets herself the herculean task of following the workings of the cruelty men over many generations. Confronted by a mountain of such radioactive material, how to find the right voice to tell the story? Martin finds it in the liminal space of West Kerry, specifically Cill Rialaig, home of the great storyteller Sean Ó Connail, a place which seems to have carried a special poetic charge ever since Amergin pitched up there. Here she finds the voice which opens the novel, and the voice is the Hag of Ireland. She was here long before the cruelty men, and will be here after them. The story is told, in Theodor Adorno’s phrase, “from the standpoint of redemption”.
After swiftly moving through thousands of years of Irish history, the novel zooms in on one specific family, the Ó Conaills, in the village of Cill Rialaig, and we follow their story as the family is shipwrecked on the institutions of the new Free State. The first displacement occurs when it is moved by the Land Commission to the Meath Gaeltacht. Battered by the forces of class and sexual oppression, the family falls apart. Some survive, severely damaged and scarred, some are destroyed, some disappear forever into the Magdalene laundries. Emer Martin describes the horrors that we think we are familiar with in an almost forensic prose, but she is at pains to lend voices to these forgotten people. Her clear, often poetic prose captures the dignity and suffering of ordinary people without veering into sentimentality or condescension. Her characters tell their own stories. It is enough.
This volume brings the family saga up to the 1960s, and with the skill of a consummate novelist, Martin shows the dark individual stories slowly moving into the brightly-lit new Ireland of big cars, semi-detacheds in the suburbs and television, which wants to forget as quickly as it can. But in the next volume we’ll see how the historical traumas work themselves out in the new shiny Dublin, where storytelling is replaced by heroin and psychotherapy for the generation of the 1980s and ’90s. In the scale of its ambition, and the centrality of its subject matter, it could be said that what Martin is writing could be called the great Irish novel, if such a thing existed. What is certain, however, is that it is an essential Irish novel.
Michael O’Loughlin is a writer.