BOOK REVIEW by Mike O’Grady
Jim Healy & Mizpah Closky: Our Love was on the Wing: From Athenry to Botany Bay, Self published, Brisbane, 2014, pp. 156
ISBN: 978 0 992 4999 14
This short novel takes its title from the chorus of the moving and immensely popular modern Irish folk song The Fields of Athenry. However, it is not ‘the book of the song’. The song provides the inspiration, the theme and the emotional register but not the story. As the authors point out in their introduction, their version of the story has been transposed from the late 1840s famine era of the song to fifty years earlier, the period of the Rising of 1798. The song derives much of its emotional power from its inconclusiveness, nothing is resolved. The novel uses this inconclusiveness as trigger for its new and intriguing plot.
The new story shapes and drives the novel. It is an intricate plot: fortuitous events, surprises, unlikely coincidences abound. Taken in isolation, each is plausible but their very number almost strains credibility or, more precisely, creates confusion or, at least scepticism. Part of the problem, perhaps, is chronology. Often the timing of events is unclear. Although there are time markers in the text, the time span at times becomes unclear. Many of the hints to chronology are in the setting – the early years of the Sydney penal settlement. If you have a detailed knowledge of this period of white European settlement of Sydney you will have less trouble in locating events. Despite its ingenious complexity this plot is not Mozart without the humour. Nor is it Beethoven’s Fidelio with more twists. It has some likenesses to the Jacob and Rachael myth, but, in this case, it should more appropriately be called the Rachael and Jacob myth.
Convict Ship 1820
The primary setting of the novel is Sydney, and surrounds, in the very early days. And Sydney at that time was the ‘gulag’ of Britain, remote, alien, harsh and, usually, final. The authors have a finely detailed knowledge of both official and every-day life in the penal settlement. The setting is very concrete and specific and the realities of daily living are well-observed. Unlike some writing on this period it is not an unremitting catalogue of injustice, cruelty, hardship and misery. These are not avoided but nor are they morbidly dwelt on. Many of the characters are ordinary, often decent, people trying to comprehend a total transformation of their fortunes and to remake their lives in an inhospitable and totally alien environment where there is seemingly no way out. It is a long, hard and precarious process. Without dwelling on it, the authors deftly sketch the ethos of the Irish convicts of the period: their sense of separation and loss, their experience of injustice and discrimination both in Ireland and in Sydney, their politics, their loss of name, language and identity (the O’Caomhanach incidents, p.15, 69-70, demonstrate how much is lost when Gaelic names are changed by English-speakers) and their difficulties in sustaining their Catholic practices and ethos in an unsympathetic and priestless environment.
Stylistically the novel shows no signs of its dual authorship. There is one authorial voice and hand. Perhaps some of the fine details of crocheting or dressmaking come from a female experience. Likewise, and more likely, the insights into the communal life inside the Women’s Factory at Parramatta. The character of Mary, her emotions, her hopes and fears, her constancy and her sustaining relationships with her close female friends, is probably the high-point of the story. A woman’s story, told by another woman. Michael is also strongly drawn but lacks the intensity of Mary. Good use is made of the records we have of some of the leading public figures of the time, Governor Lachlan Macquarie, an enlightened man, who attempted to turn a jail into a colony, John MacArthur a vain, fractious and grasping man, and the Rev Samuel Marsden, bigot and ‘flogging parson’.
There appear to be a few slips in editorial vigilance. The hero, Michael, is clearly a ‘Galway Man’ and is referred to as such in many places. However, elsewhere (p.100) he is described as a ‘Mayo Man’. This fact is important to one of the sub-plots of the story. Likewise, Commander Daniel Norris, is once referred to as Commander Colin Norris (p.68). These are minor blemishes.
I have been asked several times, what audience the book is directed to. Initially I was inclined to answer ‘Young Readers’. Now having read the book several times and very closely, I might more emphatically answer ‘Older Readers’. It is not a very useful question. The real answer is readers.
In my final year at school in 1958 I was taught an excellent course in Australian History by a most inspiring and talented teacher, a man called Brother Regis Hickey. Sadly I lost contact with him. As I said early in this review there are a lot of coincidences in this story. Here is one final one. For three months earlier this year my wife and I were staying in Kuching, Sarawak. I was casually looking up a few matters of personal interest when a name unrelated to my search popped up on Google , ‘Regis Hickey’. I was stunned. It was a notice of the publication of Our Love was on the Wing, which was written under the pseudonyms Jim Healey ( Regis Hickey) and Mizpah Closkey (Mary Murphy). After 57 years, to my great joy, I was back in contact.
Mike taught political science and public administration for many years.