The Watch House, by Bernie McGill, Tinder Press, 368 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1472239563
In June 1898, two men arrive by boat on Rathlin Island and disembark at Church Bay. Cargo unloaded from the boat includes mysterious black boxes, which are placed on a cart for removal to the lighthouse at Altacorry. The two incomers are Marconi’s men, engineers of the Wireless Telegraph and Signalling Company; and the boxes contain equipment that will put the island “at the forefront of technical advances in communication”, in the words of a rather jolly priest whose church spire at Ballycastle is about to be requisitioned for the attempt to transmit sound across seven miles of sea to the mainland. Lloyd’s of London are funding the experiment which Signor Marconi has set in motion, and which, he claims in a newspaper article, will change everyone’s life for the better. Some of the islanders are agog with curiosity and interest in the project, while for others it smacks of interference in the natural order of things. “We’ll be overrun with men and boxes, shooting words from one end of the island to the other … like midges on a summer’s night.”
Watching the arrival of the engineers from a vantage point high up on Mullindress is a young island woman, Nuala Byrne, lately married to a tailor nearly thirty years her senior. The events of Bernie McGill’s captivating new novel — her second — are about to unfold from Nuala’s perspective. Brought up by her grandparents after the rest of her family had emigrated to the New World, Nuala, in her late twenties, has considered her options and taken mild-mannered Ned (Tailor) McQuaid as her husband, not altogether understanding that his spinster sister Ginny is part of the deal. Ginny sits at her loom in the corner like a figure out of Grimm, and requires hard work from her newly-acquired sister-in-law: “Redd out the ashes, Nuala … Cart up a bucket of water from the spring.” Nuala, however, makes the best of things, in the Tailor’s sturdy three-roomed house at Portavoolin, while biding her time. She has made a compact with her husband, and keeps to her part of it, as far as she can.
Rathlin Island, whose vernacular tongue is midway between Irish and Scots Gaelic, is a place of signs and wonders, at the end of the nineteenth century, of immemorial customs, of dense sea mists and rugged fields and headlands. It boasts a savage history (“You can hardly put your foot down without stepping on bones”) and its country-crafty population is united by bonds of contiguity, while at the same time avid for news from the outside world. Nuala Byrne, who has the gift of healing and clairvoyance ‑ passed on from her grandfather ‑ and is sometimes pestered with the voices of the dead, is also a reader, whose English is equal to the task of deciphering every nuance of reports in newspapers distributed from the local rectory. No uncouth peasant girl but a clever young woman ‑ “You always were a great scholar, Nuala,” says her cousin and ally Dorothy from the mainland ‑ she is soon au fait with the functions of electromagnetic waves, coherers and transmitters, under instruction from a young Italian engineer and friend of Marconi, Gabriel Donati, who has spotted the girl’s potential and goes all out to encourage her — in more ways than one. The scene is now set for a dangerous liaison, a highly charged erotic interlude, and a reckoning.
Part of the novel’s force derives from its conjunction of technology and island lore, remoteness and integration, archaism and modernity, material and immaterial particulars. There is an underlying theme concerning ways of communication, whether through language, Morse code, or simple rapport. It has something of the feeling of a folk tale, in its clarity and picturesqueness — girls going arm-in-arm to a dance in the big barn; herding sheep at Carntruan — while displaying the surest instinct for human nature in all its complexity and fascination. Bernie McGill’s characters are weatherbeaten and resilient; they are diffident, efficient, steadfast, ill-natured or benign. Like her mythological namesake, Nuala — Fionnuala — comes to harm through the agency of a spiteful elder. Wickedness, however, is balanced by care and affection. Local alliances prevail. There are those who belong and those who do not ‑ disrupters of island rhythms and routines, for good or ill.
The Watch House’s narrative tone is lucid and dispassionate. Even its most exorbitant episodes are calmly recounted. Even the Tailor’s poignant ineptitude in bed incurs no mockery. The author has found a way to tell a story including infidelity, a death, a rape, a murder, treachery, lechery and a stolen child, without artifice or melodrama. It proceeds as naturally as a summer shower. It presents its heroine, Nuala Byrne, as a kind of island embodiment, with her eldritch gifts, pragmatic common sense and unexpected aptitude in technical matters. She is also a modern heroine, with her sense of entitlement and strength of mind. She keeps us riveted to the page. However, late on in the novel — and a quarter of a century after its main events — the focus of attention shifts briefly to Nuala’s cousin Dorothy, who then becomes a conduit for resolution and revelation.
Bernie McGill is not the only fiction writer who has succumbed to the enchantments of Rathlin Island. She has predecessors (though not exemplars). Olga Fielden’s Island Story (1933) renames the place Rathnaheena, but goes no further in the attempt to disguise it. Her novel gets to grips with island hardihood and waywardness, but has to be judged a bit too rough-hewn for present-day tastes, too overblown in its style and plot. The opening, Rathlin Island, scenes of Michael McLaverty’s Call My Brother Back (1939) are full of delicacy and authenticity: but a later Rathlin novel by this author, Truth in the Night (1951), has us energetically asserting our feminist principles, in the face of its old-fashioned, vituperative, patriarchal attitudes. The Watch House, on the other hand, with its scrupulous historical evocation, its pungent atmosphere and sharp touches throughout, is endlessly intriguing and exhilarating.
Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland.