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Remembering How We Stood

Declan Toohey

Freedom is a Land I Cannot See, by Peter Cunningham, Sandstone Press, 256 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-1913207205

As we approach the end of Ireland’s decade of centenaries, we might breathe a collective sigh of relief. Since the one-hundredth anniversary of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, there has been something of an expectation that we, as citizens of Ireland, ought to devote considerable attention to the novels, memoirs, plays and poems set during Ireland’s struggle for in-dependence.

The genre, indeed, is so prominent that subgenres abound. For classics, the works of Elizabeth Bowen, WB Yeats, and Sean O’Casey regularly take centre stage. Popular first-hand accounts include James Stephens’s The Insurrection in Dublin (1916) and Ernie O’Malley’s On Another Man’s Wound (1936). Among the epics are Michael Farrell’s Thy Tears Might Cease (1963) and James Plunkett’s Strumpet City (1969). Elsewhere, Iris Mur-doch and Edna O’Brien have supplied deft thrillers, and more recently Roddy Doyle and Se-bastian Barry have contributed novels in which the Easter Rising of 1916 plays significant roles.

Given the depth with which past and contemporary novelists have examined Irish history between 1913 and 1924, one might be tempted to call a ceasefire for any more novels of this kind. Peter Cunningham, however, thinks otherwise; and for the most part his latest novel, Freedom is a Land I Cannot See, is a welcome addition to the literary catalogue of Irish independence.

Set during two periods in 1920s Ireland ‑ summer in 1924, and spring in 1920 ‑ Freedom is a Land I Cannot See is, among other things, a complicated love story. Told in reverse chronological order, the book begins in the Irish Free State, where Rose Raven, the novel’s blind protagonist, finds herself in the possession of seditious information. While at first she withholds this material from her boyfriend, Rudy Saddler ‑ a lepidoptera enthusiast and chartered accountant in training ‑ before long they are on the run from the Dublin Metropolitan Police. The second half, conversely, details her love affair with David Holly, a young IRA supporter, and the incidents that led to her eventual blindness.

Against this backdrop nuanced political narratives play out, which speak not just to the ills of British imperialism but to the shortcomings of Irish nationalism more generally. As Rose, for instance, attempts to deliver to the Irish Independent her sensitive information ‑ it reveals how the government have been covering up dire living conditions in the West of Ireland ‑ Detective Melody of the Dublin Metropolitan Police does his best to suppress her efforts, putting her personal life under extreme pressure. Similarly, in 1920, the increasing mobilisation of the IRA results in the dislocation of her family, when her Leicestershire-born father, an orderly at Marlborough Barracks, is forced into exile on account of growing civil unrest. Cunningham understands that nationalist principles before and after the Anglo-Irish Treaty did not always have the total interests of the nation at heart.

While Cunningham is quick to paint a diverse picture of Dublin life during this time, his craftsmanship ensures that the reader never becomes lost in the finer details of his story. In fact, the plot moves along at a pace which testifies to his roots as a writer of thrillers. The narration recognises the centrality of femininity to the period in question; a subplot astutely acknowledges that, in early twentieth century Ireland, homosexuality was something that existed beyond the pages of Roger Casement’s diary; and the epilogue, similar to that of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (2019), asks us to bring a critical eye to all things historical, fiction or otherwise. In brief, Freedom is a Land I Cannot See is a carefully wrought yarn whose taut prose belies its conceptual depth.

If the novel has flaws they have to do with the specificities of Cunningham’s characters, whose lines, caught in the twilight zone between naturalism and melodrama, suffer on account of their stylistic indeterminacy. A scene in which Detective Melody, for example, theatrically addresses the death of a fellow “Castle man” feels at once familiar and hollow ‑ as does Rose’s conflicted love for Rudy in the opening pages. Political discussions at the Raven kitchen table, moreover, ring like reheated leftovers from the Christmas dinner scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

In the landscape of contemporary Irish fiction, Peter Cunningham is something of a chameleon. Under the surnames of Lauder, Wilben and Benjamin, he has published nine thrillers; under his own, an additional thirteen. Freedom is a Land I Cannot See, being yet another novel about Irish independence, may not be an urgent or a particularly fresh read, but its primary achievement lies in Cunningham’s persistent efforts to illustrate the multi-faceted nature of Irish history ‑ in particular, how everyday residents of Ireland, Irish and British alike, were harmed to some degree by Irish independence.

We might do well to remember that, Cunningham’s novel reminds us, when the commemorations begin in 2022.

1/10/2020

Declan Toohey’s fiction and criticism has appeared in The Stockholm Review of Literature, Overground Underground and The Blue Nib, among other outlets. He is currently based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he is at work on his first novel.

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