I’ve made a speech or two in my time from all sorts of podiums but last night had to be a first. I got to stand on a crate inside the counter of Mulligan’s pub in Poolbeg Street and address the bar. Does it get any better than that?
Some time ago, when clearing out his late aunt’s attic, my mate Des Nix found an original manuscript penned by his grandfather, John, back in 1931. After reading it, he decided it needed a bigger audience and so he published it. And last night in Mulligan’s pub I got to launch it.
When Des sent me a chapter of The Master’s Choice, I read through the first couple of pages and wrote back saying that it was … ahem… interesting. Interesting. A word that conveys as much or as little as you’d like it to. He told me of his plans to have it printed and I mumbled something suitably supportive in reply, yet secretly wondered how much appeal a book depicting characters from 1930s rural Ireland written in the language of its day with words that have long since been forgotten – I wondered how much appeal it would have. But I said nowt. You don’t, with Des. Once he gets an idea into his head, there’s no stopping him. He’s like a chicken with a speck of blood.
So when he asked if I’d come over and say a few words at the launch, my conscience kicked in. Having to read the book in its entirety was obviously my penance for any initial doubts I might have had that this project would end up in print.
This book – known in my house by its other title – that bloody book – as in, I still haven’t started that bloody book – is a labour of love. Were I not so fond of Des, I’d have given up after the first couple of chapters, so frustrated was I at the number of words that I had never encountered before. Not since I discovered the delight that is Tibor Fischer have I had to resort to a dictionary so often. I read it on Kindle though – so looking up a word every page or so wasn’t that onerous. It was when I didn’t have an internet connection and the Kindle dictionary didn’t know the word, that drove me demented.
Yet once unravelled these words proved to be gems. I now know that my mother, when she stands in front of the fire in the winter, stands addorsed. When I have rare bouts of regret and launch into a litany of ‘if onlys’ I now know that I’m in an optative mood. And rather than be stupefied in front of the TV (if I had one), I’d so much prefer to be hebetated. My days of being described as a binge drinker are over. From now on, I’m just a regular woman with irregular lapses. And to know that when a sin is shared by two, then it’s only half a sin will definitely cut down on my confessional time. And all those times I went back to school as a mature student, I could have been thinking of myself as an opsimath. Observations like by the time a man can afford a leg of mutton, he hasn’t the teeth to eat it still hold true. And I took a whole new look at Des when I read the newspaper editor’s description of a reporter as a species of midwife who simply delivers everyman of his reluctant, cloudy thought.
Over the course of 250 pages or so, the book reinforces the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Macara’s account of the role of the banks in the 1921 slump could have been written about the financial crisis of 2008. And Swanton’s first published essay on being 40 should be required reading for anyone even thinking of having a mid-life crisis.
The book does what every book should do and yet rarely does – it draws you in. A little like when Des tells one of his interminable stories from his Press days. The more I read of Marley Swanton and his compatriots, the more I found myself identifying with their fashions and their foibles.
The turns of phrase that seemed quite archaic at first took on a contemporary feel as I traversed the 84 years between my sofa and a soogaun chair in the Macavar’s kitchen. The characters have a depth to them so rarely found. The dialogue practically sings from the pages. I fancied that I actually could hear Peader Blanche as he ranted on one night about new money – when he said that people with the pelf nowadays have no pedigree and those who have the pedigree have no pelf. It’s a case of money minus mentality, brains without bullion. And while I could imagine enjoying bantering about the fire, with Marley Swanton and the lads, a glass of porter in hand, I doubt they would have had much time for me or my ilk believing as they did that the real profession of a woman was marriage and motherhood. Every other career should be only in the nature of a passport to that.
I wrote recently about a trip to Transylvania in which I referred to the names of towns and villages by their Romanian name. This really offended a Hungarian friend who argued that I should be using the Hungarian name as Transylvania was once part of Hungary. I honed in on the ‘once part of’ but they had a more romanticised notion of the importance of keeping the original language alive, one that I didn’t quite understand until I read this book. Cooley – the book’s irrepressible yarner – explains to Finola – the young woman our hero is in love with – that it is a queer thing entirely that you don’t know the language of your own country. If your ancestors ever came back from the grave to tell you where to find a hidden crock of gold in the farm as part of your fortune, be me oath you couldn’t take the message and you would maybe have to go without a man for the rest of your life because of your ignorance.
Now I have enough Irish in me to be able to understand a voice from the grave with such directions, so I have no worries there. And having taken the advice Des gives in his foreword and keeping the faith that he wouldn’t put his name to anything unworthy, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the education I’ve received.
Here is a book from beyond the grave. Written circa 1931, it is seen here for the first time in more than eighty years. The manuscript was discovered among the papers of the author’s daughter on her death and has been prepared for publication by his grandson. John A Nix was one of the old-style gentleman journalists, a Latin scholar, fluent in French and a devotee of English and European literature. He was born into a fine Georgian house in County Limerick and subsequently reared on an island in the Shannon estuary, where the privations experienced undoubtedly formed his decision to use education as a vehicle for escape. This novel, which turns out to be partly autobiographical, was written ten years into Ireland’s independence with a population unsteadily finding its feet. Charting Marley Swanton’s journey from schoolteacher to journalist, it provides a delightful study of the foibles of a peasant but proud people who show themselves to be rich in intelligence, and well able to express themselves. Our hero’s heart has been stolen by a farmer’s daughter, Finola Macara, and his every endeavour is geared towards winning her heart. It is an Everyman story but told with a searingly accurate observation of the human condition and with a great sense of humour. The language may be difficult at the outset, but this rich Hiberno-English of another age, familiar to Joyce, Beckett, Shaw and Yeats, is beautiful in its vocabulary and rhythm and ultimately proves to be hugely rewarding for the reader.