Book review by Frank O’Shea
MY FATHER’S HOUSE. By Joseph O’Connor. Harvill Secker 2023. 287 pp.
The good news is that Joseph O’Connor is back: even better, he is back at his best. For some reason, when we name the top Irish novelists of recent times, we think of McGahern, Banville, Donal Ryan, Anne Enright, John Boyne, Sebastian Barry, but we rarely name O’Connor. Perhaps it goes back to his earlier light books about the Irish male, or to the fact that his singing sister Sinéad is too famous, but his later work like Star of the Sea, Redemption Falls and more recently, Shadowplay should have persuaded us that he belongs at the very top level. With My Father’s House there can be no doubt that he fits in that elite company, indeed raises their standard.
In notes at the end, O’Connor reminds us more than once that while the main characters are real, this is a novel, neither a factual account of events in the past nor a work of history. The central character is Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty who lived with his family on the golf course in Killarney where he played off scratch as a teenager. Wikipedia gives an idea of why he deserves to be remembered: ‘he was responsible for saving 6,500 Allied soldiers and Jews’ during the Nazi occupation of Rome, it tells us. In doing so, he was scolded by the Irish Taoiseach of the day, Eamon de Valera, and by the Pope, both anxious about the neutrality of the regions they were responsible for.
The action of the book revolves around a group calling themselves The Choristers which meet regularly to sing and practice for what they call a Rendimento or Performance. During the practice, their leader O’Flaherty passes small pieces of information to each of them about their role, not on paper but in whispers, to be learned by heart before they leave. Among the group is Delia Kiernan, the former Delia Murphy, singer and wife of Tom Kiernan, the Ireland representative in the Vatican. Others include injured British Major Sam Derry, Sir D’Arcy Osborne the unofficial British presence in the Vatican and his ‘chief knuckleduster’ John May, and two single, well-proportioned and well-propertied women.
The group are involved in gathering and distributing funds wherever and by whatever means they can, the money to be used for medicines or travel tickets or as bribes to locals to facilitate the care and movement of prisoners who have escaped from the Nazis. Each and every one of The Choristers realises that if caught, there will be no mercy in the torture they will endure from the SS. The narrative gives each of them a chapter or two in turn to describe their roles in the preparation and carrying out of the Rendimento. This will involve taking the money they have collected, leaving the security of the Vatican and distributing it to a number of different places from which it will be re-distributed.
It is quite believable that the actions described are not too far from things that actually happened in 1943-44, but O’Connor says that what he has written is a novel. He insists, however, that
what makes it a tale with unforgettable resonances beyond the documentary facts is the particular ambiguity of the struggle. Perhaps O’Flaherty’s battle to rescue even his most hated foe (the Gestapo leader in Rome) was a quest to honour his own humanity, too. That this amazing figure was in many ways an ordinary man, rather modest and quiet, a hero when it was hard to be, is cause for pride and thought.
O’Flaherty was decorated for his work by Britain, the US and Israel, but not by his own country. He died in Cahirciveen, Co Kerry, sixty years ago this year. This is a magnificent tribute to him and to the others who worked with him. O’Connor has gathered his experiences, his literary devices and tricks and put them to wonderful use here: this is a master at work. Be aware that though not a long book in terms of pages, the font is smaller, the printing closer together, so that the entire word count may be half as big again as another book of a similar number of pages.
Meanwhile, dear reader, let us rejoice that Joseph O’Connor is back.
Frank is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.
I believe that Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty has not been forgotten by people in Ireland.
Gregory Peck starred in the 1983 television film about the heroic achievements of the Monsignor in Rome during WW2. It was called THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK.
TG4 broadcast a one hour documentary on the Monsignor in 2008.
I’ve seen the 2013 Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Sculpture in Killarney.
It very effectively shows the great man moving with great vitality. The words ‘God has no Country’ are in the background.
Also in Killarney, there is a large mural of the Monsignor.
Articles in Irish magazines like Ireland’s Own and Ireland’s Eye have kept his memory alive.
The HUGH O’FLAHERTY MEMORIAL SOCIETY works to ensure that this great man is never forgotten.