Death and Nightingales
A review by Brooke Allen
That Eugene McCabe is not well known outside Ireland is a pity, for he is a splendid writer whose skill, gifts, and creative instinct put him on a par with his more famous countryman and contemporary, William Trevor. True, most of McCabe's work has been for the theater and television, and he has devoted much of his life to farming, but his small output of fiction has earned him a high reputation in his native country. Yet only now is his extraordinary novel Death and Nightingales being published in the United States, a decade after its appearance in Britain.
McCabe's work is firmly grounded in his own territory, the border country between Ulster and what is now the Republic. Death and Nightingales is set in 1883, in the aftermath of the murder by nationalist terrorists of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the British government's Chief Secretary for Ireland, and his deputy in Dublin's Phoenix Park —a time when the country was paralyzed by suspicion between its peoples. It is the story of two miserable souls yoked together bitterly but unalterably: the middle-aged Protestant landlord and minor industrialist Billy Winters, master of the lovely small estate of Clonoula, and his Catholic stepdaughter, Beth, a resented, adored cuckoo in his nest. Beth chafes under Billy's rule and eventually makes a desperate attempt to escape by throwing in her lot with a furious revolutionary, but the plan, predictably, misfires: nothing, it seems, can end this life sentence of reciprocal animosity and dependence.
Colm Tóibín has called Death and Nightingales "clearly one of the great Irish masterpieces of the [twentieth] century," and he is, I think, correct. Beth and, more especially, Billy are no mere archetypes but vivid and eccentric individuals; both in exquisite lyrical description and in his masterly handling of dialogue McCabe demonstrates a mellow, seasoned power. He captures the fine social weave of the country and the time in a few apt words: "Town Hall was packed to the gills with high, middle and low gentry," Billy tells Beth after an evening out. "Old Leslie from Glaslough in his kilt and monocle, and Hare-Foster who was always prancing round your mother...and two Bishops...ours and yours. Your wee fella Donnelly had his chain gang with him. Maguires, and liars and small squires and dodgy contractors and cattle-shippers along with the 'millionaire' Micks and Chicago brogues."
The novel's extended metaphor is almost too neat, more a playwright's than a novelist's: Billy the Protestant landlord ruling, loving, and frequently abusing the dispossessed native, Beth (whom he himself named, presumably after Elizabeth I, Ireland's Protestant conqueror), with the revolutionary providing no good alternative. Amusingly and tellingly, none of the protagonists is in any way religious: each one's nominal religion is by now more about history, loss, greed, and tribalism than about God. In fact, both God and grace are notably absent from McCabe's nineteenth-century Ireland, where the entrenched hopelessness of our own day finds its harbinger.
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