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Not All Fool

George O’Brien

The Unfortunate Fursey, by Mervyn Wall, Swan River Press, 251 pp, €32.50, ISBN 978-1783800056
The Return of Fursey, by Mervyn Wall, Swan River Press, 243 pp, €32.50., ISBN 978-1-78380-005-6 and 978-1-78380-006-3

These two handsome reissues of works first published in 1946 (The Unfortunate) and 1948 (The Return) are not only welcome for their high-class production values ‑ which also include enthusiastic if occasionally overblown introductions to each volume by Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post critic Michael Dirda – but for a number of other reasons as well, only some of which have directly to do with the satirical onslaught on national targets for which the story of poor Fursey’s life and times has long been noted. The cluster of thorny problems that his name suggests certainly do give many a sharp and enjoyable dig to domestic institutional and regulatory prescriptions, but the anticlimactic repetitiveness of being confined by these is avoided, so that by the end Fursey seems less a mere local luadramáin than a member of that honourable family of literary fooleens that includes Simplicissimus, Candide and the Good Soldier Švejk (Dirda’s references to Dante and Beckett seem a bit of a stretch). To present him as the bow from which satirical shafts are launched would require only one book. But The Return is not just a sequel, much less a follow-up to a popular predecessor; it’s fundamental to Mervyn Wall’s interest in resilience, inventiveness, falling fortunately and a related array of antidotes to dreadfulness that in addition to being reminders of some of the most salient styles of twentieth-century comedy (Chaplin, say) also have a wider postwar cultural relevance. It is essential that Fursey bounce back, even – or especially ‑ if doing so lets him in for further misfortune.

His reappearance in the good-looking get-up of these new reissues may not necessarily be further proof of the apparent impossibility of getting rid of him that is at the heart of his story. But it does suggest that he has never quite gone away. A musical about him by Fergus Linehan was staged at the 1963 Dublin Theatre Festival; and Wolfhound Press published both a one-volume Complete Fursey in 1985 and an edition of The Unfortunate in 2000. Not too shabby for a tenth-century Clonmacnoise lay brother, who when first encountered is no more than an all-thumbs vegetable-cleaner and hampered by a stutter to boot. For anyone who doesn’t know Fursey, this opportunity to do so is not to be missed; it will be a pity if the price of the books proves off-putting.

Fursey’s Clonmacnoise is not the “quiet, water’d” necropolis hymned by TW Rolleston (a poem inseparable for me from the memory of Brother Murphy hammering it into us). There’s not much that is venerable about the thriving establishment that Wall depicts, with its self-perpetuating regime, strictly stratified ranks and emphasis on material plenty. Lay brother and kitchen hand Fursey is the lowest of the low in a system that is also strongly fortified by complacency, presumptuousness and insularity. The monastery resembles an isolated island, effectively neutral with respect to the world at large and governed by a neutered hierarchy. But the peace is disturbed by its antithesis, which takes the form of an infestation of demons. An all-out state of emergency ensues. Fursey’s speech impediment prevents him from uttering timely anathemas on these invaders, who as a result cannot be dislodged from his cell. Very soon, he’s accused of sheltering the enemy and is kicked out.

What follows are his many trials by world, flesh and devil, first in Cashel at the hands of Bishop Flanagan and his competitor and accomplice the inquisitorial Father Furiosus, and then hither and yon, primarily in a place called the Gap, an abode of wizards and their kind, evidently in the Knockmealdown mountain (not far, I’m happy to report, from my own home ground in Lismore). Michael Dirda observes that this redoubt is “in some ways a mirror image of his old monastery”, and indeed Fursey physically goes from one extreme to the other – only to show, however, that he identifies with neither. In the light of experience, monastic subservience attracts him as little as wizards’ freedom to do what they like just because they can. In their claims to omnipotence and their capacity for meddling, the two dispensations do indeed come across as secret sharers, as is suggested by the claim of Father Furiosus that “the chastity of the Irish demon is well-known and everywhere admitted”.

Fursey becomes eligible for membership of either black-clad fraternity. By the time he reaches the Gap he’s a wizard of sorts, having received the power through the dying kiss – their first — of his wife of six hours, The Old Gray Mare, a noted witch (later a candidate for canonisation). Her endowment ensures him that he is never without food. But bread alone is not what interests Fursey. Nor does readmission to Clonmacnoise appeal to him, the offer of which is made when at the last minute he alerts the settlement about the band of Norsemen under Sigurd the Skull Splitter whom Fursey has led up the Shannon to avenge his explusion. A simple domestic life with his beloved Maeve, an unaffected country lass, is what he hopes for. But Maeve unexpectedly marries a brutish warrior named Magnus. ‘I’ve tried life … and I’ve found it wanting’, says Fursey, unsurprisingly. Yet the unillusioned condition in which we leave him has something to be said for it when compared with the various states of enthrallment that both the clerical and the demonic brotherhoods deal in. Not that where Fursey ends up does not have its own problems. As often as not, he’s a poor God-help-us, standing obliviously to one side as censorship, the Church, the myth of saints and scholars, what Bishop Flanagan calls “the hateful passion of love” and the general propensity of the world to devilment receive their comeuppance. Inevitably, some of these sallies are passé. And there is also the occasional lapse in tone that reveals a distracting soft centre – “as for the dreamers and the gentle, it was enough for them that they were permitted to live”. A taste had been created in us for something more tart, something with the viciousness, rage, misanthropy and disdain of the truly wounded and estranged satirist – Swift, needless to say, Voltaire, Byron; and the edge of their knife gleams in Joyce too.

Mervyn Wall is none of these, obviously, temperamentally or in any other way; he was a well-placed insider. But if the outlook that Fursey ultimately represents is a mix of annoyance at the great clerical and infernal powers and rueful resignation to his plight as both unwitting protagonist and “foot-ball of destiny”, there’s lots of fun to be had along the way. The two books are an elaborate set of variations that make hay with the literal and figurative notion of high spirits. Some of it is a bit obvious, I suppose: Ballybunion as a “modern Babylon” (tenth-century, that is), the wizards’ annual get-together as a kind of Puck Fair, Fursey’s attempts to eat the vellum document on which the contract for sale of his soul to the devil is drawn up (yes, it’s hard to swallow), the gargoyle that can readily be rendered into “a very passable man of letters”. But there are some sharper thrusts as well. The censor who visits Clonmacnoise does more harm than any raiding Norsemen, burning manuscripts left and right, including “four copies of the Old Testament, which he denounced as ‘being in its general tendency indecent’”. So much for official actions in the name of the common good. The danger is reinforced by the censor’s rationale: “we must rear a race of mediocrities, who will be neither a danger to themselves nor to anyone else”.

This episode is not only topical; it also helps to bring into focus the lineage of which these two novels are a part, and for which they may even be a swansong. Characterised as instances of Menippean satire by the critic Jose Lanters, the works in this line also can be regarded as renovations and renegotiations of eighteenth and nineteenth century picaresque romances. Adaptation of these forms for modern satirical purposes received its initial impetus from The Crock of Gold and other James Stephens novels on the one hand, and on the other from the appeal of resisting the uplift projected by the gods-and-heroes phase of national cultural development, especially the literary revival’s version of that phase, with its emphasis on power and command. The novels that resulted from this resistance – by Eimar O’Duffy and Austin Clarke, among others, and including At Swim-Two-Birds and The Poor Mouth, I suppose, at a pinch – are more playful, more critical, and more whimsical in tone than Celtic Twilightry can allow itself to be. And their characters’ dealings with role models or authority figures tends to be inadvertent and unprofitable. Exhausted and dejected Fursey may pilot a broomstick, but that is about the height of his loftiness. Rather, he’s the non-hero whose experience leads him to conclude that “the golden rule of life is to think twice and do nothing”, not that that such a view is much consolation to him either. And at the end, as he heads down the road to God knows where, Fursey conveys not only an image of a pilgrim in a vale of tears but also that of a displaced person.

The contemporary note struck by the latter image is echoed in The Return’s closing sentences, which find the narrator not only retracing Fursey’s steps from Clonmacnoise to the Gap but stating that his ancient dust is part of the soil of those parts. The statement is no doubt a nod to heritage, tradition, or indeed perhaps a well-timed nudge at realigning what history has bequeathed to include the put-upon, spiritually evicted men of no property to whom Fursey is related. These concluding lines appeared when displacement and resettlement were very much in the international air. International conditions do at least as much as local ones to ensure that these two books are not just grin-inducing Dark Ages knockabout, or indeed as a “fantastical satire of Church and State” that “remains relevant”, in the words of the Swan River Press’s publicity blurb. That remains the case even though The Return was published in the same year as the Republic was declared, a coincidence that only underlines how devoid of commemorative value that event seems to be. The way that the narrative’s unexpected upheavals and unbelievable events rapidly constitute a norm, the devil’s suave plausibility (as Michael Dirda remarks, George Saunders could play him to perfection in the movie version), the types of firepower in possession of the warring forces of good and evil, are certainly fantastic – but hardly more so than the social events and technological developments of the very recent war. However the imagination talks, it’s talking back. And it’s difficult to think that Mervyn Wall was as removed from the world as one of his Clonmacnoise monks, much less as smug.

Contemporary resonances are hardly the most prominent features of the Fursey books, and I would not argue strongly for their being the most important either. But when the Devil says “You know … that I am of Jewish origin?” it is difficult not to be reflect on when the books were conceived and produced (the statement is made in The Return, published, as noted, in 1948). The generally nonplussed Fursey on this occasion “thought for a moment. ‘Of course,’ he replied.” Whereupon the Devil expatiates at length on certain truisms concerning ‘the faults and virtues of my race’. Among the latter a capacity to “bob up again”. That phrase is telling because racially profiling himself becomes the basis for the Devil’s resolve to rescue the large number of his fellow-demons who have been kept submerged in a lake by that archetypal Christian The Gentle Anchorite, a personage who so mortifies himself as to be devoid of humanity. This whole episode, including the rescue, might come across as a play on the phrase “let my people go”. But it is also a rather arresting way of saying how easy it is to demonise – which is what has happened to Fursey and to the Old Gray Mare, who fails to succumb to the reverse baptism of a ritualistic drowning that the Church prescribes as a test of witchcraft (Fursey rescues her). And of course Fursey himself keeps bobbing back up like a man possessed, all the more so, it appears, because he is never really in charge of what possesses him.

“Ideas – that’s what they’re afraid of”, is one minor magus’s view of the authorities. But whatever the reader may think Mervyn Wall’s ideas are, they would be dead on arrival if he didn’t convey them with such style. Indeed, although it risks overlooking these two novels’ inventiveness, pacing and the witty sport it has with belief and the willing suspension of it, you could say that their style is everything ‑ vigorous, vivid, deft; rather wizardly, in its way. One recurring stylistic feature is the completion of sentences with a double usage; for instance the Devil’s caution that “I am never without my machinery and subtle contrivances”, or the description of The Gentle Anchorite as being physically “mere cuticle and cartlage”. This device – also favoured by Wall’s UCD contemporary Flann O’Brien – had me more than once doubled in two laughing. And it’s not just timing and tempo that are so entertaining, but also the speaker’s implicit presumption at finality, a condition against which everything else militates. As well as that, the usage’s very recurrence is an expression of its importance to the narrative as a whole, a means of combining spirit and letter – credulous and coercive churchmen are all letter; the demons, with their repertoire of signs and wonders, are all liberty-taking spirit. The kind of bobbing action that the pair of terms generate between them, their juxtaposition’s frequently eccentric or delightfully unexpected turn, their combination of mot juste and fanciful embellishment, run very much counter to feelings of postwar or any other kind of gloom.

In short, the style is unique, as a style of necessity has to be; and in that aspect as well it’s the perfect vehicle not so much for Fursey’s experiences but for the spirit they exemplify. Of course, distinctiveness carries its own complications. Fursey suspects that “it’s not healthy to be unique. One of these days the authorities will burn you.” But he’s not guileless enough to identify with the big battalions. Given the chance to return to Clonmacnoise, he rejects it. And he proves unable to stomach the contract for the sale of his soul that the Devil persuades him to ingest. His secular dream of love in a cottage with Maeve eludes him as well. He can only carry on as himself alone – unwanted brother, native outsider, parer of roots.


George O’Brien’s The Irish Novel 1800-1910 was published this year by Cork University Press.



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