It is Northern Ireland Week at A Traveler’s Library. Yesterday we heard from Kerry Dexter about a musician and his life story. Today it is a fictional look at the beginnings of the struggles that lasted a hundred years. Stayed tuned tomorrow for pictures of the Republic of Ireland (since my camera and I have not been to Northern Ireland) and on Friday a contemporary detective novel looks at Northern Ireland AFTER the Troubles.
Destination: Northern Ireland
“The Troubles” Such a pedestrian word for such a lengthy disruption of safe and normal life in Ireland. The novel The Yellow House tells the story of an Irish woman born in 1888 in Northern Ireland, and her growing awareness of and involvement in politics.
With great skill, author Patricia Falvey layers what seems on the surface to be the story of a complex family with the complex history of a whole people. It is the story of a house that is a home and a country that is a home.
Whether you know a little or a lot about Irish history and the root of the struggle for independence from Britain, the animosity between Catholic and Protestant in northern Ireland, or the geography of “The Troubles,” The Yellow House will clarify that difficult history. Because it takes place in the early 20th century, 1908-1924, the novel reveals the beginnings of the independence movement, the creation of the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein and we even meet the hero Michael Collins. (I’ve linked here to the film starring Liam Neeson).
Personal tragedy and animosity between Protestants and Catholics strain family ties, and the thoughtful, intelligent heroine, Eileen, muses,
I sometimes wonder if it’s better for the bad things to happen all at once rather than little by little, like blood seeping out of a wound. When they happen all at once, if the shock of it doesn’t kill you, you might at least stand a chance of rearing up and fighting back. But when they come on you slowly, one thing creeping after another, it wears you down so that you might as well be dead when they finally end, because you have no strength left to resist.
Eileen’s mother’s family, Protestant and wealthy, disowned her when she married her Catholic “Da.” Eileen’s father tells and retells the story of the way his family won back their farm from the Protestants who “got it from King James.” He dubs Eileen a warrior, and she has an anger within her that indeed keeps her “rearing back and fighting back” against injustices ancient and new.
Eileen accepts the role of warrior and when tragedy strikes, she becomes head of the family. Like many young women of the day, she goes to work in the Quaker-owned spinning mill. But her almost mythical warrior story and marriage to a soldier of the revolution involves her personally in the larger political struggles.
The ever-fascinating Eileen earns our respect although her stubbornness and anger can make her difficult to love.
The novel includes the quintessentially Irish traits of love of music and story telling, pub life, landscape, the influence of religion and problems with drink. Falvey’s power of observation and description are a delight to the reader.
The mountain Slieve Gullion looks over her family farm near Newry, and becomes an object of veneration for Eileen.
Slieve Gullion was sixty million years old and cradled a volcano deep within her. In winter she stood proud and naked like an ancient scarred warrior. In spring, she wrapped herself in green bracken, white bluebells and white hawthorne blossoms cascaded down her great bosom.
Eileen inherits her father’s fiddle and finds a place in his band. The first time she plays, she muses,
Ah, so this is what Da felt–the trill of the music throbbing through your body like something alive, voices singing and feet thudding on the floor….How powerful the music, that can mesmerize men and women into a trance of lightness and joy!
The harsh life in the horrific mill comes to life for us when Eileen must go to work there and finds the Protestants get all the privileged positions.
The spinning frames were wide iron contraptions with rows of spindles that grinned at me like grisly teeth…The spindles spat out boiling water like devils hissing from hell. The frame clanked and roared like an animal that defied taming.
Author Patricia Falvey serves up Irish history in an irresistible engaging story. The next best thing to being there is a well-composed memoir. Although The Yellow House is fiction, it reads like memoir and presents a very human picture of Ireland one hundred years ago. These events lie close to the surface in today’s more peaceful Northern Ireland where the Queen’s meeting with Sinn Fein leader Martin McGinnis in June this year warranted headlines. A peace agreement in 1998 stilled the fighting, but people’s memories are still raw. This novel helps us understand why.
Thanks to reader Libbie Griffin for suggesting I read The Yellow House. A second novel, The Linen Queen, which was published in March 2011, moves Northern Ireland into the 1940′s. I’m very grateful to Libbie and look forward to adding The Linen Queen to the traveler’s library. Not only is The Yellow House a good read and a good introduction to Northern Ireland, but it also gave me many ideas for planning travel to Northern Ireland.
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Photos here are from Flickr, except the photo of the Queen which is from news coverage of the event. You can click on the photos from Flickr to learn more about the photo and the photographer.