Dublin Unitarian Book Club’s
choice for August 2021.
Death and Nightingales
This is a dark Irish tale set in rural Fermanagh in the 1880’s. Ancient rivalries abound between Protestants and Catholics, landlords and tenants, men and women. There is a sense of the politics and culture of the time as we encounter the influence of the clergy in all aspects of life on both sides of the religious divide. There’s reference to a visit from Parnell, an entertaining Percy French concert in Enniskillen. There’s Fenian plots linked to the Phoenix Park murders and subsequent R.I.C and Dublin Castle investigations, collaborations and betrayals.
The book opens on Beth Winter’s 25th birthday, she is the Catholic stepdaughter of Billy Winters the local Protestant landlord. Beth’s mother Cathy was pregnant with Beth when she ‘duped’ Billy into marrying her. Thus was the start of a complicated and fractured marriage based on mistrust, treachery and betrayal, mix that with alcohol and domestic violence and this is not a happy story. When Beth is about 12 years old the unhappiness is compounded as Cathy, now pregnant with Billy’s child is gored to death by the bull that was part of her dowry, (the bull’s name is Cooley, a nod to the Tain and Irish mythology )
Beth knows she will never inherit Clonuala and her future there is dependent on her ‘behaving’ herself, that is, she is to be Billy’s housekeeper, cook and dairymaid while increasingly Billy’s behaviour and attentions are becoming more inappropriate towards her. She longs to escape her life and feels trapped.
This is a very depressing picture yet there is a resilience and strength in Beth. She rescues a sick cow in the opening chapter. She handles the servants and farm hands well and has a very affectionate friendship with the main female servant Mercy Boyle. The dialogue is rich between the two women and also the banter between the servants and farm hands provides much needed relief to such a dark and tense story. You get a great sense of the language and daily lives of the people depicted.
There are some lovely descriptions of the landscape and wildlife as the author brings us with the characters as they rendezvous at a lake, go to work at the quarry, or cut turf in the bog. There is a great sense of time and place.
The story takes a turn when after a long absence Liam Ward returns to take up his dead uncles’ tenancy with Billy Winters, he meets Beth and they fall in love. They arrange to meet but Beth has reservations and doesn’t show up. Liam disappears for six months and on his subsequent return there is suspicion and rumours of his Fenian support and activities. Liam and Beth embark on a love affair and arrange to go out to Corvey island which is owned by Beth, a legacy from her mother. As Liam is rowing he tells Beth to sit still as he cannot swim. There is a small cottage on the island where they stay and conspire to rob Billy Winters of his grandfather’s gold so they can emigrate to Canada. Beth is now pregnant and she plans to tell Liam on the night of the robbery but as Beth is leaving the house with the gold she discovers from the local vagrant, Dummy McGonnell about Liam’s betrayal and treacherous plan to murder and bury her. Liam had a debt he could not walk away from as he had robbed money from the Fenian brotherhood. Beth has no choice but to replace the gold in the cabinet but as she does so Billy catches her, beats her violently and throws her out of the house. Beth has nowhere to go but to Liam’s cottage where she tells him of her pregnancy which flips his perspective on the situation and now full of remorse, which she knows is guilt, he agrees to go back out to the island where Beth can stay for a few days in hiding.
This is where Beth turns into a dark angel and is as ruthless as her stepfather. On the way out to the island she manages to capsize the boat and she lets Liam drown , then swims ashore and makes her way to the cottage.
Meanwhile Billy finds out (again, Dummy McGonnell) that she was headed to the island and finds her there alone. She tells Billy of Liam’s drowning and her pregnancy, Billy says they should marry as they are “tethered both to treachery” it is here that they acknowledge their intertwined tragic lives. Billy asks Beth if she is hurting and she replies “Unto death Mr.Winters, unto death”.
The overall conclusion from the book club was that this is a very well written novel, rich in dialogue and prose and with characters , certainly not all likeable but for the most part believable taking in the context of the time. Most of us felt it was well worth reading but because of it’s dark overtones and themes it was not always an enjoyable read, but for me that is the hallmark of a good writer, one that stirs your imagination and takes you to another time and place, even if it is an uncomfortable one.
Dublin Unitarian Church