My brother Diarmuid told me that some years ago when visiting the Church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome his “Sono irlandese” to a church official elicited the reply of “O’Neill?”. Diarmuid nodded and that was enough ‑ he was immediately brought to the tomb of the great Hugh O’Neill. O’Neill has had a strong symbolic presence in Rome from when he arrived there in 1608, having set sail from Rathmullan in Donegal the previous September with about ninety followers. O’Neill and his opposition to Tudor and Stuart rule in Ireland is the subject of Liam Mac Cóil’s splendid new historical novel in Irish, set in 1612 and titled Bealach na Spáinneach (The Spanish Way).
Bealach na Spáinneach is a significant new book in the tradition of Alessandro Manzoni, Thomas Mann or Hilary Mantel. It follows An Litir (The Letter) and I dTír Strainséartha (In a Foreign Land) as the third and final instalment of a trilogy which relates the journey of Lúcás Ó Briain, who has been charged with delivering a mysterious letter, which appears to carry a vital message from his Irish allies, from Galway to O’Neill in Rome.
For Mac Cóil, Lúcás Ó Briain and O’Neill represent a Gaelic Ireland which has to accept the supremacy of Spain (and Rome) as it identifies with Europe. O’Neill is both a fine subject for historical fiction and an enduring symbol of the struggle for an independent European Ireland and, in a sentimental sense, to hold this book in one’s hand is somehow a vindication of that cause. The book is important and has enduring resonance because O’Neill ensured that Ireland had a distinct “voice” in Europe long before Brexit.
Bealach na Spáinneach is a delight to read as there is wry humour throughout. In Brugge (Bruges), Ó Briain finds an inn where, in deep conversation with fellow admirers of O’Neill, he finally understands the problems of Europe just when “go raibh bunús dhá mhuga beorach ólta aige” (he had consumed almost two jugs of beer). Thus he becomes one of many visitors to discover that Belgium is strong beer territory.
Mirroring the journey of O’Neill, Ó Briain is frequently blown off course in his efforts to reach Rome. En route he loses his heart to Katelyne, a beautiful Flemish girl, while his mind is expanded by reading Erasmus and familiarising himself with European cuisine and architecture. O’Neill wished to exchange Spanish for English rule in Ireland but when Ó Briain learns of The Duke of Alba’s cruelties and is eventually accused of heresy for possessing a book by Erasmus, he is forced to re-evaluate his beliefs. Mac Cóil’s achievement is to force us too to revisit historical assumptions. The tension is raised as Ó Briain evades London’s spies, who wish to intercept the letter and kill him.
Mac Cóil has a gift for the evocative phrase. Forced to leave Katelyne in Brugge and continue towards Leuven (Louvain), Ó Briain’s resolution wavers and we are told “Thabharfadh sé a raibh de litreacha ar an saol ar a bheith i mbaclainn Katelyne arís” (He would trade all the letters in the world to be in Katelyne’s arms again). His spirits are lifted in the Irish College in Leuven, where he hears rousing support for O’Neill and a “Joycean” priest tells him “Tost, gliceas agus deoraíocht ‑ sin iad na hairm a chaithfimid a tharraingt chugainn féin” (Silence, exile and cunning ‑ these are the weapons we must rely on.”
At the height of his power, O’Neill represented a real threat to Tudor England. However, the only surviving portrait of him, which dates from shortly after his arrival in Rome, reveals a frail, elderly figure in a white beard. The scene depicted is that of a canonisation ceremony and O’Neill is portrayed standing next to the Spanish ambassador. This underlines his high status at the time and his close connection with Spain. Yet Mac Cóil shows us that while Spain and Rome were happy to accord the highest respect to O’Neill they decided that his power would remain symbolic only.
Bealach na Spáinneach has intriguing twists and turns until finally the contents of the letter are discussed in a high stakes meeting between O’Neill and another exile, Peter Lombard, head of the Catholic Church in Ireland at the time. Lombard and O’Neill were also the main characters in Brian Friel’s play Making History, in which Archbishop Lombard, writing the life of O’Neill, seeks neither “interpretation” nor “fact” but the “best possible narrative”. Ó Briain has learnt that, while O’Neill waged war in Ireland, Lombard had in Rome waged war on his behalf with pen and intellect. Mac Cóil’s skill is to encourage us to read between the lines as this meeting of two supremely intelligent leaders prefigures Church/State relations for centuries to come.
To complete our understanding of the past, the narrative historian must give way to the artist and this is the real role and value of a work of historical fiction like this. It is a real page-turner and a must-have for those le Gaeilge. Mac Cóil’s clear, elegant prose will ease the task even for those with rusty Irish, though they may also find having a dictionary to hand helpful.
As would be expected from the publishers Leabhar Breac of Indreabhán in Co Galway, the book is beautifully produced. The cover has a striking image of two swordsmen duelling against a backdrop of an early modern streetscape. Fencing and duels feature throughout the book and use of French and Italian fencing terms underline Ó Briain’s and Gaelic Ireland’s longing for a European identity. Bealach na Spáinneach is highly recommended. It can be obtained online at an attractive €15 including postage from leabharbreac.com
Fionn Ó Gráda is a retired civil servant fascinated by Irish history and by Samuel Beckett.