Cold Spring, by Patrick McGinley
Things are not what they seem in the fictional world of a Donegal writer whose intriguing novels have received less than their due
Patrick McGinley’s best-known novel is probably Bogmail , first published in 1978, and it’s to be hoped that its welcome reissue by New Island will attract readers unfamiliar with McGinley’s work – nine intriguing, very entertaining novels and an excellent memoir – to a writer who has received less than his due. As regards setting, character and, to use what must be one of McGinley’s favourite words, perspective, his work is quite varied. But there is a distinctive McGinley fictional world too, and, in addition to its undoubted local pleasure and accomplishments, Bogmail is a basic map of it.
The most obvious feature of this realm is that things are not what they seem in it. Understanding is limited, which is a natural condition, after all, or, if you prefer, a condition of man’s fallen state. But few can proceed with whatever they’re about while fully conscious of their limited grasp of themselves, their place in the scheme of things or the nature of whatever the scheme of things is. It’s when they assume that their own personal understanding is paramount, when they think that by implementing their plans they are acting at the height of their powers, that characters unexpectedly lose the run of themselves.
McGinley derives a good deal of macabre humour from this state of mind; how he must have enjoyed The Third Policeman . But McGinley’s novels are not as dark as Flann O’Brien’s masterpiece. Understanding, and its presumptions of mastery and control, may not be a sound basis for dealing with our fellow men, particularly if everybody’s doing it. But it is possible to appreciate the world, and McGinley’s work is studded with striking passages of nature writing as well as accounts of music and painting. ( Bogmail contains some terrific descriptions of both landscape and the music of Robert Schumann.)
An ultimate inability to see our own way is no reason why we can’t see – by which McGinley means take in to the fullest extent possible – what’s in front of us. Apprehension trumps comprehension. And the apprehending experience is the more rewarding for occurring in relation to those properties of the world that we cannot appropriate, the gifts of natural and artistic creation.
Such ideas are advanced in Bogmail , though perhaps with a greater degree of elaboration than is required. But McGinley is no pointy-headed pedant. The novel’s essential readability is maintained throughout, the result of the author keeping his feet on the ground in his use of both a setting he knows well, his native Glencolumbkille, and a conventional fictional mode, the murder mystery, which, of course, makes us want to know. Ultimately, though, solutions are beside the point: Bogmail ’s protagonist, Roarty, is not apprehended by the police, who, throughout McGinley’s work, are the last to know what’s going on. And though a kind of natural justice takes care of the obsessive Roarty, that doesn’t do his opposite number, Potter (yes, he potters), any good.
More to the point is enabling the reader to appreciate why it is more fitting that the English outsider, Potter, a lost sheep, survives rather than the conniving, bad-minded native, of whom we gather there are indeed 99 others.
Potter is a prospector by occupation, Roarty a publican. Regarding the pair of them as a contrast between the clear eyed and the pie eyed is one option. McGinley is not one to be satisfied by cleverality, though, and his emphasis on Potter as somebody who is entitled to his difference, his eccentricity, even his unexpected feel for local tradition, which the parish priest is in the process of violating, reveals a layer of interest in Bogmail that’s as apropos now as when the novel first appeared.
In McGinley’s new novel, Cold Spring , we are back in Glencolmcille, where in the first months of 1948 the weather makes hard sledding of the lambing season in the townland of Leaca.
Situated between the eternal presences of sea and mountain, Leaca is a self-contained community in every sense, a mix of independence and interdependence. Its contact with the world at large is minimal – it has just one car and one wireless, and in other ways is seen in the waning light of the pre-electric years. Leaca’s way of life is co-operative and self-sustaining, with all the locals lending each other a hand to live off the not exactly bountiful land. And, when it comes to it, the community is also self-policing.
The same traditional ethos of collective survival at work to maintain material security is also applied to moral questions. Precedents for such an outlook are found allegedly in Brehon law and are reinforced by the case of a murdered 19th-century land agent who left not a trace behind, though everyone knows where his body is buried. Muiris Mór O’Donnell, who looks and acts every inch a chief, invokes these precedents, believing that the code of vengeance they represent is the only way to deal with the murder of friend and neighbour Paddy Canty – an unprecedented event. And Muiris also administers “the triangle”, the traditional method of carrying out the rough but undetectable justice he has in mind.
Muiris is in no doubt that Paddy Canty’s killer is Nick Ambrose, an English blow-in. Such certainty is part of the ensuing trouble. Another part, though, is others’ uncertainty. The more thoughtful of the Leacans do not share Muiris’s conviction. (I take it a native of Leaca is a Leacan, and in a novel that greatly relies on point of view, perception, making one’s mind up and the like, I wouldn’t put it past the author to be punning on the name of a certain well-known French theorist of mind.) Doubt, father of thought, slowly reveals unsuspected differences among the community members, and ultimately threatens, indeed, the community’s dissolution.
At the same time, McGinley makes it clear that Nick Ambrose is no angel. As a writer he can invent ways out of tricky situations. And the situation he finds himself in is one that, to some extent, he created for himself – though to what extent we can’t be certain. Therein lies the paradoxical pleasure of dire doings at Leaca. More densely layered than Bogmail in its probing of the interplay between the provisionality of knowing and the finality of acting, Cold Spring is also more sparely written, its unhurried narrative momentum unfolding without giving all that much away, like the landscape in which it’s set.
A rewarding and diverting read on a number of levels, Cold Spring also resembles McGinley’s other novels. These are much too intricately put together and too sophisticated in thought to be reduced to anything as simplistic as a message. But they do share a family likeness in their preoccupation with evil and its gratuitous persistence as a part of daily life. The problem of evil makes these works not only whodunnits but, rather more interestingly, why-do-its.
There are very few innocents in McGinley’s fictional world. Nick Ambrose might appear to be an innocent abroad. But that’s not the whole story. And innocence clearly does not begin at home. Often, too, evil comes from presuming to do right according to our lights. Doing wrong comes as naturally to us as anything else, as McGinley sees it, a viewpoint that’s a bit of a departure for the Irish novel, one strong tendency of which is to think in terms of the falsely wronged and their redemption.
Well, maybe stories of the presumed simplicity of innocence are what we prefer, or what we think we’re entitled to – when Bogmail first appeared, a review in the Donegal Democrat called it “a shocking libel on the people of Donegal”.
But, for McGinley, it’s always too late for simplicity. And that’s the characters’ own fault, although they might not know it, or want to know it. Maybe it would be no harm if uncertainty was allowed for.
George O’Brien’s The Irish Novel 1960-2010 was published last year.