A Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass
Christopher Koch: The Many-Coloured Land, A Return to Ireland, Picador/Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 2002.
RRP:$18.95 or $12 as ePub.
Christopher Koch is best known for the film based on his novel, The Year of Living Dangerously, but he has many more strings to his bow. He won the Miles Franklin, Australia’s premier literary award not once but twice (for The Doubleman in 1985 and Highways to a War in 1996), and he belongs to a select class of beings – a proud Irish Tasmanian.
I had reason recently to re-read his family history which doubles as an account of his second but more extensive visit to Ireland in 2000, The Many-Coloured Land: A Return to Ireland (2002), and found it a curious beast. He is a novelist in love with history, and Tasmanian convict history in particular, so this more documentary narrative is an interesting companion piece to his novel about a Young Irelander, Out of Ireland. He focuses on his two Irish great-great-grandmothers, one a free ‘respectable female immigrant’ from a Cork Ascendancy family, the Devereaux, whose fortunes declined, and the other, a Catholic convict, Margaret Meagher. Eliza Devereaux had followed her family (a sister and cousins who were military men) to Tasmania when the family fortune was unwisely frittered on dowries, and Margaret was a convict who had engaged in larceny and been sentenced to seven years penal servitude. The gaolers and the jailed were to unite in marriage, but in good Tasmanian style, Margaret’s convict origins were carefully hidden from later generations. Eliza Devereaux’s (almost gentry) status got the oxygen – their Norman ancestry, their role in the Elizabethan plantation in Ulster. Never mind that there were also Prussians in the line – too humble as merchant seamen to count for much in the family narrative. Koch is committed to truth-telling and to discovering the ways in which the past feeds into the present, so it’s fascinating to watch him dispel the myths and correct the biases of the vernacular record. It’s a book that will appeal to genealogists.
He is particularly assiduous about his convict great great grandmother, Margaret, who is quite well documented in the convict records, of which, after his mother’s death, he made good use. And what a heart-wrenching story it is. Her offence, her third (one was for drunkenness), was to have stolen clothes, perhaps from her employer, in the first year of the Famine. Her mother was dead and her father was probably evicted from his land — a virtual death-sentence in a time of over-population and competition for smaller and smaller plots of land — so Koch assumes her crime was motivated by need. Her time as a probationer on the Anson, moored in the Derwent estuary, probably saw her in better health than she ever would have been in Ireland, but she was hired out as a convict servant in Launceston and her troubles began. He speculates that her first employer probably sexually abused her, forcing her to leave his service. She was more than once convicted of absconding, going AWOL with an older ex-convict with whom she had a child, and another younger man, who gave her another, and the old crimes, drinking and petty theft meant she experienced the rigours of both the Launceston and the much worse Ross Female Factories. Koch paints her as reckless, rebellious and spirited, and as perhaps influenced by the Flash Mobs of hardened criminals, often lesbians though Margaret wasn’t, who were powerful in these establishments. She was eventually released in 1853, and bore two more children but died at the age of 34 when the youngest (Koch’s great grandmother) was only three. Koch is no romancer about the convict system, and saw the elderly ex-convict to whom she returned after her release as a shrewd ex-criminal, a real one, who was thankfully more worldly wise than his very young wife and better primed for survival in a tough system by his very criminality.
Koch describes the Catholic Tasmania of his boyhood, the 1940s, with a mixture of nostalgia and realism. Schoolyard battles, supervised and encouraged by the Christian Brothers, are explained as romantically keeping alive an ancient Celtic tradition of joyful indulgence in hand-to-hand combat, and also more realistically as an induction into what evil was in a time of global warfare. Torture chambers in the far reaches of the bomb shelters did, however, result in expulsion of the perpetrators. The imbrication of comic books in these boyhood contests is also part of the rich tapestry Koch weaves with words.
In 2000, Koch returned to Ireland with a musician/artist Brian Mooney who had been important in Ireland and later in Australia in the folk music scene from the 1960s and ‘70s. He was by then in search of the Devereaux and the O’Mearas and had immersed himself in Irish history, literature and folk culture. He’d previously visited Dublin, briefly and disastrously in 1956, so in 2000 he was well-placed to observe the differences the Tiger had wrought. Part of him yearned for ‘Romantic Ireland’ (learnt through his family back in Tasmania) which he knew to be ‘dead and gone’, but Koch’s literary method is to evoke the landscapes of Dublin and the west through the songs and literature he was familiar with. It’s a strangely refracted vision, full of faeries and the sidhe, and intimations of worlds beyond the real. It allows full scope for nostalgia and poetry, which he dishes up in spades. The Tasmania of his youth, an idyllic place, is only fractionally removed from the landscapes he views in the west of Ireland. They could be a palimpsest, and all the more desired for that. I was strangely moved by his account of a glade in a Burren landscape, which he describes as walking
into a dimension like hallucination. The multiple greens of leaves and grass are so intense that one might be under water, and the rath seems to sit outside the present, and perhaps outside the real. It resembles a medieval tapestry, the trunks of whose stylized trees are pale with a magical light….We are very reluctant to go.
Later he will describe the stony face of the Burren as a place reminiscent of the simplicity of the Holy Land: ‘[a] desert of smooth limestone pavement, shattered and serrated and broken in fantastic ways’ and lit by ‘glittering, truthful light’, where ‘aridity lives next to fertility, and …stony emptiness coexists with gentle life’.
This is a gentle work, full of a romantic world that has passed both in Australia and Ireland, and will enthuse Irish-Australian genealogists, those who care about folk music and those interested in the strangely otherworldly lineaments of a celebrated literary Tasmanian.
Frances is a member of the Tinteán collective and has spent a lifetime reading and teaching Australian literature, especially Irish-Australian writers.