by Trevor McClaughlin
The casual reader may be forgiven for taking this collection of short stories at face value. They are entertaining, intelligent, compact tales of Irish characters moving about the globe; from Monaghan to Adelaide, Skerries to Wollongong, Dublin to Hiroshima or Campidoglio, Monaco and Sydney. Anyone who has ‘moved about the place’ at all, will identify with these exquisitely drawn characters of Evelyn’s. They are familiar in their Irishness, intimate and witty in the telling of their stories, which often finish with a neat little twist.
In ‘The Meaning of Missing’, there’s a woman in Skerries with her two drills of vegetables, taking sweet revenge on her sister and husband for going missing on her, simply by saying she’d met someone from Wollongong.
When? They both asked…each afraid to admit that they did not know when I, I of the dried-up life would have met someone from Wollongong…However, I didn’t answer the question and went to the bar to buy my round, feeling like a racehorse unexpectedly out in front, showing the rest of the field a clear set of hooves.
Or in ‘Virgin Birth’, we meet a writer/academic who, in 2005, travels to Hiroshima to visit the bravest woman she can think of, a woman who ‘had the nerve’ to make love, and bear a child after the dropping of the Atom Bomb. Only, not to talk about what she came for.
Not appropriate. You what? You went all the way to Japan and didn’t talk about it.
No. It didn’t seem right.
There’s even a James Joyce inspired, and inspiring, “Dubliners” story, ‘Two Gallants Getting Caught’ that has appeared elsewhere. At a conference on Joyce in Dublin, one of the participants, well known for stealing the work of others and presenting it as his own, is tricked into openly confessing his sins.
However, if readers were to leave it there, simply wanting light-hearted entertainment, they would do an injustice both to the author and to themselves. There are different layers to these stories, waiting to be laid bare. I suspect each of us will uncover something different, they are so richly complex and layered. There is a serious, and profound side to them too.
What struck me on my second reading is that the writer is a feminist. Neither a programmatic nor an essentialist feminist, perhaps an existential one, influenced by Simone de Beauvoir, I asked myself. There’s insightful commentary on interpersonal relationships, and a glorious appreciation of what it means to be an Irish human. There’s acknowledgement too that women’s freedom can only be achieved through the freedom of all human beings. But what do I know? I‘ve decided it is best not to attach any labels. Do tell me, please, what you think.
The women in these stories are given freedom of choice, equal opportunity and equal space. It makes one realise that that is not always the case. They are not always given that ‘room’ elsewhere. Clearly, Evelyn Conlon admires women who just don’t talk the talk but are able to act, to do. Violet Gibson will shoot Mussolini. Mary Lee will do all the hard work needed to win the vote for women in South Australia. I re-read the stories about Violet Gibson (‘Dear You’) and Mary Lee (‘Imagine Them’) to refresh my memory, and was delighted to discover once more what a wonderful writer Evelyn Conlon is. Quietly and gently, almost self-effacingly, though by no means less powerfully, she recounts Mary Lee’s achievements.
Mary Lee (née Walsh in 1821) left Monaghan for Australia with her nineteen-year-old daughter after her husband George died, ostensibly to care for her son Ben who was ill in Adelaide. When Ben died, ‘not one to like the idea of lying down with the horrors of grief’, Mary ‘put on her coat’, set to work in a female refuge, and ‘began to see the world another way’. She joined the women’s committee of the Social Purity Society and set to achieving women’s suffrage, writing hundreds of letters, making speeches, and ‘travelling to wild towns’. And after reaching that monumental milestone in South Australia in 1894, Mary, at the age of seventy-three, set out for Broken Hill ‘in searing heat, to see what she could do for the miners on strike’. ‘She had become’ what her daughter called, ‘a campaign sort of soul’.
Why did we not know about these women before? Why are they not more widely known?
Violet Gibson may be better known these days because of a book by Frances Stoner Saunders, and an award-winning radio programme and television documentary. ( See https://wordpress.com/post/tintean.org.au/32176 or go to www.TG4.ie and search for Violet Gibson. The television programme should be there for another week or so.)
Born into a wealthy Anglo-Irish ‘aristocratic’ family, Violet Gibson, in 1926, at the age of fifty, attempted to assassinate the Fascist Italian dictator, Mussolini. Now there’s a challenging ‘What if…?’ For a clever historian.
‘Dear You’ takes the reader into Violet’s head by way of an imagined letter she wrote, ‘trying to explain herself’; why it was a good idea to shoot Mussolini, and how she was tricked by her family, even those she loved best, when she returned to England in 1927, and was incarcerated for the next thirty years in a Mental Asylum in Northampton.
Evelyn Conlon’s Violet does not seem ‘mad’.
Perhaps I need to spend more time on this notion of mad. Yes, I have my moments, short bursts of terrible anger. It is unfortunate that I have not learned to control these now only annual events. But I ask you, I ask you, what is that small rare fizz of mine in comparison to the legal rage of free men who walk the streets and run the armies?
We are left asking, how did this happen, why was Violet forcibly locked away for the rest of her life? Why has she not been recognised for her bravery?
I suppose what we see in these stories depends on what each of us brings to them.
Looking for something else ‘political’?
How about Dervla and Hugh, in ‘The Lie of the Land’, moving about the tropics, too ashamed to go back to Ireland because they’d told everyone they were emigrating to Perth in Western Australia not Apartheid South Africa?
Or in ‘Virgin Birth’, the traveller to Japan refers to an earlier visit to Oradour-sur-Glane. (May I invite you to web search that one?)
‘I had stopped wondering what the animals did when they…smelt the smoke of the church with the women and children in it, and heard the screams, because there must have been screams’. ‘There are two ground zeros in the world, here and Nagasaki’. ‘Paul Tibbetts died…the man who knew who Dante was. He had named the plane for his mother and the bomb he called Little Boy.’ Each of these sentences will evoke different things for different people.
Or in ‘Disturbing Words’ the person who has come home for their parents’ funeral and climbs a tree they had planted, now straddling the Border. To protest a number of things, language, the Border itself, and the fact the tree might be cut down.
Knowing these stories allows Evelyn Conlon’s ‘voice’ to be heard, I had assumed many of the people telling their story were female. But their gender is not always stated. Our tree-climber is one such. On reflection, he may be male.
The same is true of my favourite story, ‘Reasons that I know of that we are not allowed to speak to our grandmother’. This one made me laugh out loud, more than once. I assumed the schoolchild at the top of the stairs listening to the adults below was a young girl, the one at the centre of the story. But we don’t really know if the child was a girl or a boy.
I’m glad I re-read this favourite of mine. I’m reminded why I’m so taken with nearly all of these little gems. They are not really so ‘dark’. They are full of good humour. Their author has an unmatched lightness of touch, and a spell-binding way with words. Naoise Dolan, in The Irish Times, asks ‘Why is Evelyn Conlon not more often spoken of in the same breath as contemporaries Colm Toíbín, John Banville and Sebastian Barry?’ Why indeed?
Do yourself a favour. Have a read of these…more than once
Moving About the Place is available from Blackstaff Press. RRP. Pb. £12.99. Also available from Easons €14.99, the Book Depository A$28.69 and Amazon.au Kindle A$14.22.
Trevor is an historian who has an interest in nineteenth century immigration and is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.