Eilís Dillon
Across the Bitter Sea

Hostile Reviews

The English have a phrase 'past history', meaning something that's settled, or that we're prepared to forget. A whole world of security lies behind that little phrase. A nation with a different history couldn't have invented it. In the face of oppression, a consciousness forms in which there is only present history. Where identity is threatened, its continuity becomes crucial. This comes over very clearly in Eilís Dillon's Irish novel Across the Bitter Sea, where the songs of the 1798 Rebellion are sung again at the Fenian Rising, and where the names of individual Fenians are still known and hallowed in 1916.

The novel begins with the mass evictions and emigrations that followed the Great Famine in 1847. The worlds of landlord and tenant meet in the person of Mary MacDonagh, sold by her mother as tallywoman, or mistress, to George Flaherty of Moycullen. Rescued and married to an Irish crofter, she is still visited by George's son Samuel, to whom she had been a second mother. Samuel's generosity brings them through the Famine, and when he defies the class barrier by asking to marry her daughter Alice, she cannot refuse. Alice, too, cannot disobey: but her love is already given to Morgan Connolly, a tenant's son educated as a protégé of Moycullen. This continuing triangle forms the prism through which subsequent Irish history is reflected.

The early chapters of the novel have an authentic documentary power, but as the network of relationships spreads through the second and third generations, the whole structure begins irresistibly, and incongruously, to suggest a Fenian Forsyte Saga. The Easter Rising becomes rather like a Sports Gala, with Morgan's grand-nieces running messages round every corner, and his grandson doing well in the Sniping Event. When a national legend begins to put on weight in this way, it is perhaps a sign that it is finally slipping into past history.

"Fenian Forsytes", by Roger Garfitt, in The Listener

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