Resurrecting our Feminist Dead

Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Mary O’Connell: The Country of our Dreams, Tablo Publishing, Richmond, Vic., 2019.

ISBN: 9781922355119

RRP: $29.04

By strange coincidence, this historical Irish-Australian novel arrived on my desk within the same 24 hour period as another historical Irish-Australian fiction, Unsettled, which I reviewed in the last issue of Tinteán. Both by women, the novels share a similar commitment to filling in gaps in women’s narratives, and in exploring the Irish legacy in the Irish-Australian psyche, but beyond that, the modus operandi of each is distinctly different.

Mary O’Connell weaves together two strands, a Victorian one which tells the story of the Ladies Land League and Michael Davitt’s very different place within it from Parnell’s, and the other is a contemporary story of a highly dysfunctional contemporary family of Ryans. On my first reading, I was puzzled as to how these two strands might come together, but Mary O’Connell doesn’t take herself too seriously, and undermines playfully what raison d’être there might be. It’s not really about blood but culture, despite the Ryan boys’ clinging to a probably tenuous genealogy. The historical strand comes with a reading list, and it’s the sort of book that makes you want to know more about the hero she feels has been eclipsed by Parnell (thanks to people like James Joyce who idolized him), and Davitt’s role in supporting the Ladies Land League, a movement with strong international links, especially to the USA but also Australia. Indeed, Australia had its own branches.

In doing its history, much exposition is required to tell the unfamiliar historical narrative slant, and this could become ponderous, except that it doesn’t because the story is itself so stirring. The productive strategies that Davitt employed to overcome the huge obstacles in his life (the loss of his arm as a ‘handylad’ of just eleven in a textile mill, for which he received no compensation), his long and lonely incarceration as a political prisoner in England are moving, and one can understand his charism for the Ryan family. One also learns of his socialism, idealism and journalism, and his gratitude to an England that gave him at least the opportunity of an education which was not at all guaranteed in Mayo. At least three of the Ryan siblings are at work on Davitt, the supposed remote ancestor (Xavier is writing a book which supplies the matter for the historical strand). This collective obsession culminates in an international conference that owes something to the spirit of ISAANZ (Irish Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand). Again, the conferees are detailed slant, and with sly humour.

But much more compelling even than this narrative is the way O’Connell puts flesh on the bones of the Ladies Land League and the split between Davitt and the Parnellites. As we know, when the Irish Land League MPs were arrested in Oct 1881, the women took over supporting evicted peasants and embarked in a campaign of building houses for them, and making the lives of the prisoners more bearable. Davitt was not accorded such support being in a British prison and in solitary confinement, but nonetheless used his time to think and write. O’Connell’s is a dark reading of Parnell, and one that probably only professional historians would be familiar with, so I found it fascinating. Carla King’s biography of Davitt is on my reading list, and a few other items in the bibliography. This is a novel that is making very good use of the scholarship going on in Irish Studies in Australia and I expect it will arouse curiosity to know more, as it has done for me.

Although I’m no expert on this period in Irish history, the images created of the Irish Ladies Land League are intriguing: calm and self-effacing (especially Anna Parnell), supremely organized, properly critical of the men’s political ambitions, and achieving their ends in often feminine ways (by immersion in libraries not normally open to their religion or class, by writing novels and feminist-inflected journalism, by manoeuvring around the censorship laws and travelling with forbidden copy as if they were gentlewomen), they accomplished much and minimized bloodshed and loss of life. They needed to be resurrected for our instruction, pleasure, and adulation.

But two other features of the novel demand notice. The modern family of Ryans and their female progenitor are a quirky lot, and they have a traumatic history which has its genesis in the Irish psyche, or so O’Connell suggests. They are arty, witty, cultured, beautiful in a fey way, and have names like Aquinas, Loyola (‘Lolly’), Vianney, Xavier and Siena, courtesy of their nationalist father and their hyper-catholic mother, Kate. Even the cat is called William O’Brien (the name of the editor of the United Irishman).  And the Ryan men have issues with drink, and in one case, drugs, and with their women. Stereotypes are deployed in order to be analysed and understood. And if I get to choose stereotypes, the arty is more interesting than the pugilistic or violent, or intellectually challenged. These men are emphatically not violent or lacking in intellectual grit, but the father does roll a car while drunk and leave his infant children to save themselves in heavy bushland. There is some effort given to excavating the hows and whys of this dysfunction. An intergenerational wound created by the Great Famine is part of the story, as is the homosocial nature of Irish male culture. Often even their wives/partners feel pushed out, but at the same time driven to keep the ship of family afloat and complicit in hiding from their children the extent and harmful effects of alcohol abuse and intergenerational trauma.

The novel makes much of female culture and does so in engaging ways. Told from the perspective of Hilary, a young protestant woman in flight from The Shire (Cronulla) and in search of the kind of culture the Ryans offer, we get some potent glimpses into well-shod and insulated lives in the inner city/beach areas of Coogee. Café life is demanding but sociable, even if the kitchen is run by someone called Pirate, and as a narrative device, offers much scope for introducing new characters and even a fledgling band. One of the most interesting figures is also the least drawn: the mysterious mother of all the Ryans, Kate, who has a difficult and unfolding relationship with Hilary, powered by respect and a sense of solidarity in misfortunate alliances with men. She even goes so far as to provide a therapist for Hilary, another underdeveloped strand in the narrative.

This novel is a paeon of love to Sydney, and you have to appreciate the charge the author gets from the spectacular place she lives in.  Coincidentally, it is the same charge Davitt got:

Sydney is a continuous feast of enchanting water and landscape views…gemmed and adorned in Nature’s most lavish but regulated order with islands and promontories, inlets, bays and river-openings…the harbor a combination of loveliness and utlility.

This is perhaps to enjoy the more obvious sensuous delights of Sydney, but Davitt did also go on to relish the ways in which a benign climate makes for health and ease and pleasure, a laid-back holiday spirit. O’Connell goes much further: she’s interested in Sydney’s micro-geography and revels in details like the Trenery peat swamp with its tiny protected flowering peat, and the Coogee women’s baths which Hilary shares with crabs and cormorants. It’s as if O’Connell has to rein in her idealizing faculties because both Sydney and Dublin get (minor) reality-checks in the form of grot and litter, and homeless people.

The novel is bookended by two bathing episodes, one in Devon, England, in which Anna Parnell dies by being swept out to sea from an ocean pool, and the other in which Hilary drowns her performance anxieties. The former episode is quite disturbing, as a possible reading is that it’s in fact not an accident but suicide and despair. Hilary’s swim at Wylie’s Baths, by contrast, is creative.

The impulse in this entertaining novel is on keeping the brakes on extravagance. It is aware of the risks of ‘[feeding] the heart on fantasies’ and of the heart ‘grow[ing] brutal from the fare’. The romance with the Celt is hard to suppress and this novel gives it a good workout, in the process telling a grainy story that has close relevance to Irish Australia and it speculates on the ‘might-have-beens’ of history, and looks to women in particular to define new ways of performing Irishness.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances continues to enjoy a career in Literary Studies.