The Awkward Squads and Selected Short Stories, by Shan Bullock, Turnpike Books, 160 pp, £10, ISBN: 978-0957233645
Before Eugene McCabe and John McGahern, Shan Bullock (1865-1935) wrote of the provincial hardships, religious tensions, and father-son conflicts of small farming society in the borderlands of South Ulster and North Leinster. Bullock has always had admirers, such as the late Benedict Kiely and the folklorist Henry Glassie, but his full significance has not been recognised, partly because most of his works had only small print runs and are difficult to obtain. He lamented in private correspondence that he was caught between the English, who were not interested in Irish stories, and the Irish reading public, who were not interested in literary fiction.
Bullock’s books came out of copyright in 2005, and Turnpike Books are trying to make them more widely available in handsomely produced paperback reprints with a succinct and useful biographical note. After reproducing Bullock’s last and most powerful novel, The Loughsiders (1924), in 2011, they now give us this selection of short stories from his three collections, The Awkward Squads (1893), Ring o’ Rushes (1896), and Irish Pastorals (1901). It might have been better to have given the selection a different title to avoid confusion with the first collection, and Irish Pastorals, generally regarded as the strongest of the three (Glassie calls it one of the finest literary depictions of rural decline), is represented here only by the grim and powerful story “The Herd”; but since Irish Pastorals is built around a group of interlocking stories concerning various types of hard labour undertaken at the different points in the cycle of the small farmer’s year, it might have been difficult to excerpt.
To a considerable extent, however, this selection provides a microcosm of Bullock’s work, which centred on re-examining and recreating the rural and small town Fermanagh of his youth by implied contrast with the London suburbia where he spent his adult life as a civil service clerk (supplementing his income with journalism, including a regular literary column in the Chicago Evening Post, where he expressed his admiration for George Gissing). Bullock is best appreciated when several books are read together; characters such as the cunning loughside farmer Henry Marvin and the brutal ex-militiaman Terry Fitch (both of whom feature in the title story of this collection) reappear in several of his novels, and subtle social gradations of farmer and labourer are indicated throughout the oeuvre. The rest of this review will provide an introduction to Bullock’s life and literary project for those unfamiliar with his work, noting how stories in this collection reflect his recurring preoccupations. It will also try to bring out the delicate balance between social documentary and re-imagination in his stories.
Shan Fadh Bullock was born John William Bullock in the elegantly designed steward’s cottage on Inisfendra island in the Crom Castle demesne in southeast Fermanagh, on the shores of Lower Lough Erne. He was the eldest of nine children, and although those who have seen the cottage will wonder how the family fitted into it, they were well-to-do by comparison with the small farmers on the mountain land comprising much of the great Erne estate on the Cavan-Fermanagh border. His father, Thomas Bullock, was the estate steward and rented two hundred acres of land at Killynick (which Bullock calls “Emo”) near the Woodford River (“Thrasna River” in his stories), which marks the boundary between Cavan and Fermanagh. The market town for the farmers around Killynick/Aghalane was Belturbet in Cavan, which Bullock calls “Bunn” and under that name it features much more prominently in his stories than Lisnaskea in Fermanagh (alias “Lismahee”), the estate town nearer Crom (although the stories of Ring o’ Rushes centre on “Lismahee”).
Bullock’s childhood and youth were overshadowed by John Crichton, third Earl of Erne, owner of the great estate (as well as smaller landholdings in Donegal and Mayo, the latter overseen in the 1870s by an agent called Charles Boycott). In Bullock’s stories he generally appears (if at all) as peripheral to the lives of small farmers struggling with the perennial Lough Erne floods, as grand and remote as Sliabh Rushen (“My Lord the mountain” or “My Lord the sun”, a fine gentleman occasionally and disdainfully picking his way across the boggy fields. Erne was intimately acquainted with his estate, which he ran for over half a century. He imported Scots agriculturalists to teach better farming to his tenants; he established a model farm and an agricultural show; he invested £100,000 (in Victorian values) to bring the railway from Castleblayney across Fermanagh to Bundoran. One of Bullock’s novels, The Charmer (1897), describes the escapades of young farmers on a seaside holiday in Bundoran and the railway station recurs in his work as the emotionally fraught portal where emigrants leave the frustrating but familiar little world of their upbringing – as in the story “The Emigrant” in this collection. In his last years, the earl was probably the first Irish agriculturalist to use silage as animal feed, and just before his death in 1885 he was planning a demonstration of the process for his tenants. Bullock’s description of Lord Erne in his 1931 memoir of youth, After Sixty Years, recalls a fearsome disciplinarian stinging small boys with his carriage-whip and barking questions at tenants (in earlier years he distributed evangelical leaflets with such texts as “If A Man Shall Not Work Neither Shall he Eat”). Lord Erne’s feudal leadership was symbolised by his patronage of the unofficial Crom Yeomanry, which was recruited from Protestant tenants and drew on memories of the Crichtons’ local leadership in the Williamite war. The “Lord Lowth” who features in the story “The Awkward Squads” as cautious patron of a revived yeomanry is not modelled on this Lord Erne but on his son and successor, former Conservative MP and Grand Master of the Orange Order; careful attention reveals indications of his diminished splendour after the 1881 Land Act reduced rents. Above all, writing his memoir in old age after the political and social developments epitomised by the Land Acts (and hastened by the economic and social modernisation Lord Erne had helped to bring to Fermanagh) dimmed the power and glory of Crom. Bullock emphasises how the demesne around the great neo-Tudor mansion (built by the third earl, and recently featuring as “Blandings Castle” in the BBC adaptation of PG Wodehouse’s stories) with its hothouses, elegance, English house servants commanding local Protestant estate servants commanding local Catholic labourers, was fatally remote from the lives of the numerous medium and small farmers whose rents financed it and whose low-paid seasonal labour maintained the demesne.
In the last years before Bullock left Crom, the Land League exposed the vulnerability of the landlord class, even in Fermanagh. After Sixty Years recalls the unspoken tensions between Catholic and Protestant estate workers, which came near to the surface at the height of the Land War in 1881-2. This memory underlies much of Bullock’s depiction of cross-community relations.
There was a significant Protestant/Unionist presence in Cavan – the future Ulster Unionist leader Edward Saunderson lived nearby at Castle Saunderson, regularly visited Crom to race yachts on Lough Erne, and cooperated with the fourth Earl in an Orange countermobilisation after Gladstone’s 1881 Land Act partly defused the land issue. Despite this presence, the impoverished Catholic small farmers of the south Fermanagh mountains were regarded as a threat and an enigma by the more prosperous Protestant loughsiders who nevertheless coexisted with them in mostly outward harmony. There was a general recognition that Fermanagh, with its large Church of Ireland population mostly deferential to gentry leadership through the Orange Order, was “loyal” territory in a way that Cavan, which always returned Home Rule MPs after 1874, was not. The story “A State Official”, reproduced in this collection, is a chilling description of a village postmaster destroyed through ostracism and intimidation because his good-natured eccentricity led him to chat with a landgrabber, encapsulates everything that is repulsive about the practice of boycotting and is set “in the heart of Cavan”.
The first story in this collection, set around the 1892 general election which raised the prospect that Gladstone might implement Home Rule for Ireland, depicts rival groups of unionists in the corner of Fermanagh and nationalists just across the Cavan boundary undertaking shambolic military training and coming into more or less farcical collision. Their activities can be read as humorous or sinister depending on how much emphasis is placed on the potential for wider violence. Bullock’s writing after the election result made it clear that Gladstone would form a minority government too weak to override the Lords veto on Home Rule; underlying his strong hint that exaggerated political hopes and fears will ultimately make little difference to these village politicians’ restricted lives. However, the activities of these rival groups do not yet amount to the clear-cut division imposed by partition, Troubles and customs barriers. Bullock became a “Liberal Imperialist”, supporter of social reform and suspicious of Home Rule, though after 1910 he believed that it should be accepted rather than resisted by violence.
Another authority figure, closer than Lord Erne and towering in size and physical strength, who cast a long shadow over Bullock’s life was his father. Thomas Bullock, who came from a small farming background in Teemore (“Leemore” in his son’s stories) just to the north and west of Killynick, was old enough to remember the Famine and often spoke of how the countryside had emptied out since his youth as better transport links brought agricultural imports and facilitated emigration. He had been stationmaster at Lisnaskea when Lord Erne recognised his ability and made him steward; he both respected and resented his master, and strove for the day when he would leave the demesne and devote himself full-time to farming his own holding – “living the life of a man” was his refrain, as his son recalled. His angry frustration had an impact on his relationship with his children, who emigrated to escape him. He beat his sons into their late teens, blaming his gentle wife for making them “soft”. Fiction was dismissed as “lies”; Bullock recalled that he hardly read any imaginative literature until the age of eighteen and implies that his belated discovery of it led to flight into a literary fantasy world from which it took some time for adult responsibility to extract him. Only one son remained at home, and he never married, so that the hard-won land passed to cousins.
Bullock had been bright enough to proceed from the estate school to a small, rough prep school at Farra in Co Westmeath (described in his novel The Cubs), but failed the Trinity College entrance exam because he allowed his revision to be disrupted by the sights of Dublin. After a year’s maladroit farming at Killynick, he went off to London to become a clerk and was a particular disappointment to his father, or so that son believed. Bullock respected the old man’s strength; his own marriage, fatherhood and frustrations of middle age having given him new insights into his father’s feelings. Though he took regular family holidays at Killynick, it is clear from his memoir that his father was part of the small farm society in a way Bullock could never be – Thomas served as a Poor Law Guardian for Lisnaskea, and when the Erne tenants purchased their holdings he negotiated on behalf of the Protestant tenants in his locality as the parish priest did the same for the Catholics. His father’s reminiscences and gossip fed into Bullock’s understanding and re-creation of that society.
Father and son also shared the nineteenth century experience of traumatic religious doubt. Thomas was permanently shaken by reading in a newspaper that geology had shown that the earth was much older than suggested in Genesis (the fact that Bullock knew this suggests that the old man confided in him to a certain extent), while his adolescent son was dismayed to find that biblical scholars questioned the plausibility of Noah’s Ark. Bullock retained a strong emotional attachment to the religion of his childhood, to the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible, and the danger of frustration and despair leading to moral disintegration and wider familial suffering is a recurring feature of his stories. “Shan’s Diversion” in this collection is a comic variant on the theme. He later adhered to the aestheticised liberal Anglicanism advocated by Matthew Arnold; but he does not seem to have found this completely satisfying. He presents the beliefs of his loughside characters both as admirably simple and sincere (though quite capable of coexisting with thoughtless cruelty and an eye on the main chance) and as fatally naive and vulnerable in the Darwinian moral anarchy of a wider, bleaker universe. The rapprochement between father and son remained limited; Thomas still dismissed the fiction-writing through which his son sought compulsively to make sense of his life and world as “a pack of lies”, and Bullock suspected his father might be correct. His strongest early novel, Beside Thrasna River (1895), has a good deal of fun at the expense of a naive visitor who sees the Fermanagh peasantry through a romanticised version of Shakespearean pastoral, the deflating remarks of the narrator seem to reflect Bullock’s own wry comments on his younger self. After Sixty Years, the memoir written after his father’s death, is haunted by the absence of a full and final reconciliation.
Two recurring figures in Bullock’s stories are “The Master” – a version of his father, moving like a tower of strength among his neighbours – and “Jan Farmer”, his son, sometimes a surrogate for Bullock himself, but sometimes the son the younger Bullock should have been, strong and cunning enough to be a worthy inheritor. That fraught relationship between father and son feeds into two stories in this collection. In “The Splendid Shilling” a father repents too late for disinheriting his son over a girl and never knows that when the son comes to his bedroom, as the father pretends to sleep, and then suddenly turns away, the young man’s strangled impulse is not – as the father assumes – to ask forgiveness, but to kill him. In “The Herd”, the sickly labourer, whose wife blatantly neglects their children and cuckolds him almost before his eyes with a neighbouring farmer, is seen through the eyes of “The Master”, whose attitude is partly compassion at the plight of father and children and partly rage at the herd’s passive acceptance of misfortune. The narrator describes this in scrupulous, unsparing naturalistic detail (as in the descriptions of field labour elsewhere in the original collection) – the title Irish Pastorals, hinting at rural idyll, is ironic. “The Master” seems to see all his own frustrations in the herd’s acquiescence, and seems to be incited to murder, unsuccessfully, (which would leave the herd, and the children, even worse off) to vent his own resentment.
If Thomas Bullock was a traditionalist in some respects, he was marked out by angry, driving ambition as well as by the size of his holding. The smaller farmers and labourers who dominate Bullock’s writings are above all provincial, set apart from the wider world and only vaguely aware of how it presses on them. “They that Mourn”, the grim little sketch in this volume of an old couple learning on market day of their son’s death in Chicago, in its sudden shift from the little sights and casual conversation of Belturbet fair day to helpless grief, emphasises that the son might as well have lived his last years and died on another planet, so far removed was he from the hill country. The village politicians of “The Awkward Squads” are unusual in Bullock’s oeuvre in their reaction to contemporary outside events. Bullock’s Fermanagh is not a photographic reproduction, but a selection which emphasises provincial remoteness and the submergence of the individual. For example, the local tradition of Protestant tenant-farmer politics which challenged landlord dominance (occasionally cutting across the sectarian divide, as with the longserving Methodist Home Rule MP Jeremiah Jordan, whose strongest support was among the Catholic hill farmers of southeast Fermanagh) is largely ignored. Dublin and Belfast (and, more surprisingly, Enniskillen) are hardly even mentioned, though this partly reflects the transit axis provided by the railway stretching across south Ulster to the junction at Dundalk and the port of Greenore as harbour for Liverpool. Bullock’s loughside is rooted in a period of his childhood and his father’s adult memories (the unnamed war which swallows up the protagonist of “The Splendid Shilling” is probably the Crimean War of 1854-56) and this reinforces the sense that he is describing a way of life which is about to disappear. Though he is only vaguely conscious of the forces destroying it, its grim passivity regularly defeats attempts to regenerate it by art, philanthropy, theology or business enterprise. The 1906 novel Dan the Dollar, describing the exasperation of a returned emigrant turned prosperous Chicago builder and his attempts to bring about a local economic transformation which are defeated by the failure of his overseas business interests, has acquired certain contemporary resonances with the tribulations of Sean Quinn. These resonances should not be overemphasised; Dan the Dollar is an exotic in a society whose peasant passivity Bullock may somewhat overstate, Sean Quinn is much more deeply rooted in a borderland society which itself is far more integrated into the wider world than in Bullock’s lifetime, let alone in Bullock’s imagination.
Bullock’s ceaseless re-examinations and re-imaginations of that vanishing past did not always escape the danger of sentimentalism, but they are saved by a subtle concern with descriptive detail, at times resembling a still life painting, and a self-reflexive awareness that the process of re-examination is itself part of his subject. His descriptions often blend into characters’ thoughts, as if they are running their eyes over surroundings which they take for granted without really registering them, and as if their everyday pressures limit their ability to emerge as differentiated individuals. Similarly, his descriptions of the local concerns of the Orange farmers of Gortin (wryly called “the land of wisdom”) or the hillmen of Armoy/Arney generally ride the fine balance between condescension and sentimentalism. He felt an emotional attraction to the small farmers of the hills (his adoption of the Carletonesque Shan Fadh as substitute for the baptismal John William itself indicating this reaction against his father’s world); he had a wary respect for the hard work by which the Orange loughsiders of Gortin reclaimed their farms; but he knew that both ways of life were cruelly restrictive for many of those who inhabited them, and he subtly but unmistakeably conveys the pressures of the seasonal round of rural labour and the petty personal abuses and tragedies of an impoverished society as well as its hard-won and unspoken loves and self-respect.
In several stories of this collection an apparent build-up to some great triumph or tragedy fizzles out in bathos or in a reassertion of prosaic everyday life. This is characteristic of Bullock, and he appears to have seen his life in these terms. Though his adult life as a clerk inspired some of his novels (notably Robert Thorne: The Story of a London Clerk ) and though he movingly conveys the difference between his own experience of a happy companionate marriage with two children as distinct from his parents’ bleaker patriarchal union, his imagination remained centred on the world of his youth and childhood.
Bullock’s later career was bound up to a considerable extent with Sir Horace Plunkett, whose concern was to recruit Irish creative writers (such as George Russell – ‘AE’‑ whose pantheism influenced Bullock) as publicists for his project of teaching Irish farmers better processing techniques, better marketing, better business methods, and to inculcate a wider sprit of self-reliance through developing a network of local agricultural co-operatives. This seemed to him, and to Bullock, to offer the prospect of smoothing rural Ireland’s path to modernity; to retain what was best in the improvement projects of such men as the third Earl of Erne, while replacing their autocracy with a more enlightened ethos of democratic participation. Plunkett helped Bullock to secure literary commissions (such as the semi-official instant biography of Thomas Andrews, builder of the Titanic); Bullock’s 1911 novel Hetty: The Story of an Ulster Family (1911) is dedicated to Plunkett and can be read as a Plunkettite allegory of reconciliation between modernity and tradition. Surviving correspondence in the Plunkett Foundation archives shows Bullock treating Plunkett as a confidant and speaking with startling frankness about his family concerns and his gloom over the post-1910 Ulster crisis and the outbreak of the First World War (where his son served in the Royal Service Corps). The abortive Irish Convention of 1917-18 was chaired by Plunkett, who attempted to broker a political compromise between moderate nationalists and unionists which only revealed how far Redmondism and Southern Unionism had been rendered impotent by the rise of Sinn Féin and Ulster Unionist partitionism. Bullock’s participation as a civil servant in the Convention proved another anti-climax, though it did win him an MBE. The Loughsiders, written in the aftermath of war, partition and his wife’s death (commemorated in a number of short spontaneous poems published as Mors et Vita (1923)), forms a dark contrast to Hetty. It offers beneath its limpid surface observation a devastating portrait of a society where the young are frustrated and driven away, leaving the old to draw what comfort they can from the embers.
Turnpike Books deserve support in their work to make Shan Bullock’s writings available again, and it is to be hoped that this will lead to his recognition not just as a social observer but as an artist of subtle and profound reflectiveness.
Patrick Maume was part of the research team for the Dictionary of Irish Biography, published by Cambridge University Press and the Royal Irish Academy in 2014.