Monday, August 24, 2009
Review of Turlough by Brian Keenan
Review of Turlough by Brian Keenan, Vintage, 2001
This novel is many things at once. It is an exploration of darkness in its many dimensions. On the surface it tells the tale of the life story of the great, famous, or even infamous, Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1735), one of the foremost of Irish musicians and composers. It recounts Turlough’s struggle to come to terms with his blindness as a young man after a bad bout of smallpox.
On this level, then, this novel recounts the struggle of Turlough Carolan to make sense of his life now that he has lost the gift of sight. It tells how he painfully learns to come to terms with his blindness with all its trials and tribulations and how he eventually learns to see anew through the interventions of his father and mother, the wise old cailleach, Fionnuala Quinn and his long-standing patroness, Mrs McDermott-Roe.
On another level this is a novel about descending into the blackness of our own individual unconscious and then surfacing with some traces of our own identity as human beings; about learning to cope with the shadow side of our psyche as well as its deep darkness in places. In this sense, we are all troubled creatures like Turlough O’ Carolan.
In reading the acknowledgements, we learn that Brian Keenan took a lot of persuading - by leading musicians - to write this novel. He doubted that he had the musical knowledge to it, but the musicians persuaded him that he had, because Turlough’s struggle was the struggle of all artists in their efforts to forge their creations, whether in word, stone, paints, metals or in music. They also convinced him, that having gone through the sheer hell of four and a half years of captivity at the hands of Shi’ite Muslims in Beirut, he was more than admirably suited for plumbing the depths of Carolan’s struggle, not alone with his hell of blindness, but also with his desire to forge something artistic and liberating from that struggle. Keenan has also told us in his wonderful book An Evil Cradling that during the horrible years of his captivity he was often sustained by the presence of Turlough O’Carolan. Hence, this novel is an intense and very profound one indeed. One senses that one is reading from a mystical work at times as Keenan explores the intricacies of the human soul and its sufferings as it goes on its journey to cobble together some meaning from its experiences in this life.
There is much darkness and blindness in this novel, consequently, but fortunately and inevitably, indeed, there has to be much light and great vision. To this extent, Carolan embodies the struggle between light and dark in himself (and in the nation, and probably in all humankind), and the message of this novel, if one were bold enough to impose such a moralistic stance on it, is that we need the interplay of both to achieve our eventual redemption. For Carolan, that redemption and that healing comes through the beauty and the mystery of music.
There are other forms of darkness in this novel, too. There is the constant darkness of the poverty of the Irish peasantry and even of the old Gaelic Chieftains who are reduced in number and status and are very down at heel indeed. Remember, these were the times of the Penal Laws. Keenan manages, with masterly strokes, to paint for us an atmosphere of contemporary Ireland as one of oppression, poverty, depression and almost complete doom. Almost, because music is not too far away to lift these ills - even momentarily.
O’Carolan is painted as a larger than life character, ugly and pock-marked by smallpox, garrulous, bawdy and a very prickly character indeed, who is easily aroused to anger. He is also an inveterate drinker who praises the benefits of alcohol many times throughout the pages. He is also prone to using bawdy language, replete with curses of a traditional Gaelic stamp. These curses are marvellously imaginative and are a treat to read. In all of this we get a sense of a very rounded character, strong in spirit and in language, always ready for a fight in words - once only with his fists as he punches and nearly chokes an offensive piper in an alehouse - and with a deep attraction to the women.
The strength of this novel lies in all the above characteristics that I have pointed out, but perhaps the overall strength of the work lies in Keenan’s admirable conjuring up of the Ireland of the Penal Laws, of his understanding of Gaelic folklore, of his easy use of native Irish trees and plants and his intuition that Pagan Ireland was and is never far away, even though we may have trumpeted more loudly its Christian or Catholic apparel.
It has been wisely said that Celtic Spirituality owes as much to our Pagan past as it does to our Christian or Catholic roots. Keenan is to be praised and admired for his realisation of this important fact. This reader, at least, loved the way he effortlessly moves from Catholic to Protestant to Pagan ceremonies with an ease only a Celt or Gael can understand. Remember, the holy wells of Ireland had the names of Gaelic deities associated with them before they were “re-baptised” with Christian ones. And indeed, Lough Derg, where Keenan has his O’Carolan pay two visits, was itself a place of Pagan pilgrimage, as was Cruach Phádraig, before they both were rechristened for Christian ears. In a sense, then, there is a lovely, and indeed lively, continuity between the Pagan and the Christian in popular Irish devotion. The priests, as Keenan and O’Carolan, know only too well, have and actually do forget this at their peril.
Keenan’s Carolan is acquainted both with the Rath of the fairies and with the Church of the Christians, though he tells his friend the Bishop that he never had much time for the inside of churches. Again Keenan’s Bishop is no narrow-minded Catholic - he seems very open to everything in nature and has great respect for the Pagan traditions. However, there are some very conservative clerical gentleman also portrayed in the novel.
This novel, of its very nature, is an intense one, to say the least, and its subject matter is very profound - personal and national darkness and blindness and how these may be overcome if only we have the courage of our hidden “lights” as it were. Keenan is saying that Carolan is calling on everyone to let their lights shine, not to keep them hidden under a bushel. He had let his light shine through the power of his music.
There is much heady debate about the nature and role of music in this novel and the debate often occurs between Carolan and his friends and patrons: especially with the O’Connors of Greyfield: The O’Connor Don, his brother-in-law, Bishop Thaddeus O’Rourke, and his son Charles O’Connor. These debates are well researched and are often profound insights into the nature of music, poetry and art. Perhaps one of the most amusing, and at times also astoundingly profound, is the Rabelaisian encounter between Turlough O’Carolan and his great friend the poet Charles McCabe. This type of debate, often fuelled by alcohol as well as learning, is very traditional in Gaelic literature and it is in the tradition of, say, the debate between St Patrick and Oisín.
All in all, this is a well structured and profound offering to the reading public by Brian Keenan. One hopes he will write much more, and indeed, one wonders where his profound imagination will take him.