The Unfortunate Fursey. By Mervyn Wall. Swan River Press.
RRP: €32.50 (limited edition of 350)
The Return Of Fursey. By Mervyn Wall. Swan River Press.
RRP: €32.50 (limited edition of 300)
As you read these two little masterpieces, you have to keep reminding yourself that they were originally published 70 years ago. Swan River Press has done a service to the reading public by re-releasing them now to be enjoyed by a new generation. Their author, Dubliner Mervyn Wall belongs on the same shelf as Flann O’Brien, the highest compliment that this reviewer confers on any writer.
Where the great Flann went in for belly laughs, Wall’s is a more mordant, blacker humour. There is only a thin padding on the cudgel with which he sets about Irish society, laying into philistinism in general and its Catholic manifestations in particular.
An introduction points out that Fursey originated as a short story for The Bell; when it was rejected by the editor Sean O’Faolain, its author was persuaded by Francis MacManus (Candle for the Proud, Stand and Give Challenge, Men Withering) to extend his work to the completed story.
The tale is set in tenth century Munster. The monastery of Clonmacnoise is under attack by Lucifer and some of his mischievous acolytes who appear either in the guise of fearsome goblins or scantily clad succubi. Fortunately, before the first group can terrify the monks or the second ones cause too big a surge of blood to the corpora cavernosa, the monks are able to scatter them by means of hastily muttered psalms, prayers or exorcisms. The exception is the unfortunate lay-brother Fursey, who as well as being illiterate and a little bit simple is unable to say the appropriate formula quickly enough because he has a debilitating stammer.
Fursey’s cell is the only place the naughty tempters can go to refresh themselves for a new attack on the monks, the only place in which they are safe from holy water and hurried Latin. The abbot decides that if the monastery is to survive, Fursey must be expelled from their midst. And so, still in his habit, he is cast out to fend for himself, thus beginning a series of picaresque adventures that cover the length of these two brilliant books.
As the reader follows Fursey’s ever more outrageous escapades, the reaction is chuckles and smiles and increasing wonder at how the author got away with writing all this without having his book banned or himself thundered at from pulpits, or both. In the final chapter of the first book, the chuckles change to loud guffaws and hacking laughter as the author takes us to an imagined peace conference between Lucifer and the local church, represented by the bishop of Cashel and the canons of his cathedral.
The devil comes in the form of a wealthy oriental
‘gracefully casting handfuls of gold to the frantically excited populace. Now and again he paused to pat a child on the head or to enquire courteously as to the present state of some old gaffer’s rheumatism. Then he proceeded on his way bowing left and right to his frenzied admirers.’
Remember, Charlie Haughey and Donough O’Malley and Brian Linehan were still in school when this was written; Bertie wasn’t even born!
Satan admits defeat in his Clonmacnoise mission but requests a peace treaty with the bishop and his supporters. In reply to his query, they inform him that in their view the greatest of all sins ‘are those that may be summed up by the word “sex'”. He agrees to withdraw from that stimulating area of his ministry, giving the church free rein, only asking in return that ‘the clergy in their teaching would not in future lay undue stress on the wickedness of simony, nepotism, drunkenness, perjury and murder.’
The bishop and his canons agree: they rationalise that accusations of simony are no more than what we would today call a media beat-up, nepotism is only a form of Christian charity, while the other matters are merely ‘the exuberance of a high-spirited and courageous people.’
The agreement does not help Fursey, however, and he has to get out of Ireland in a hurry – on his broomstick – if he is to avoid being burnt at the stake as a sorcerer. The second book sees him living peacefully in Britain until the king of Cashel sends an extradition request for his immediate return.
Although that request is not granted, Fursey desperately needs to get back to Ireland to rescue the woman he loves from her husband, who is a macho bully she has been forced to marry. The ex-monk had been living with her for some months; when he seeks help from the devil, he is asked, ‘Was your union consummated?’ ‘Certainly not,’ he replies indignantly, ‘we both had a good Irish Catholic upbringing, and we don’t know how.’
He eventually gets back to Ireland with the help of a group of marauding Vikings and begins a further series of adventures in pursuit of the woman he loves. This effort is thwarted again and again before an ending that is all the more satisfying because it lacks any element of happy-ever-after.
In their day, the books were criticised because many of the characters introduced by the author – sylphs and harpies, basilisks and gargoyles, sorcerers and vampires – were characteristic of European rather than Irish folklore and spirituality. But as the abbot of Clonmacnoise explains, ‘A lifetime’s study and observance has convinced me that in the land of Ireland anything may happen to anyone anywhere and at any time, and that it usually does.’
No feature of mid-century Ireland is spared. ‘In the eyes of established authority the one unforgivable sin is to have an original and enquiring mind,’ one character says. At this point in the story, Fursey is living in caves in the Knockmealdown mountains with other outcasts like mathematicians, alchemists, philosophers and soothsayers. And the following observation is sadly as appropriate today as when it was first written in 1946: ‘Fursey knew that wherever there was strong religious conviction, there was bloodletting and oppression.’
There are different ways of reading these wonderful books. They are critiques of superstition, of the dominance of church over state, of anti-intellectualism, of political dealing, even of a city dweller’s disdain of the countryside and those who live there. And even if they were written with a frown rather than a smile, they contain some brilliantly funny writing that has stood the test of cruel time. True masterpieces.
Thank you, Swan River Press.
Frank is a retired mathematics teacher who has recently moved from Canberra to Melbourne. He is a regular contributor to The Age and other Fairfax mastheads and the Irish Echo
This book review first appeared in the Irish Echo.