Clashes of Culture – An Irishman’s Diary on Dostoevsky in Kavanagh Country and Casement meeting Conrad

Bringing it  all together – actor Peter Duffy

Bringing it all together – actor Peter Duffy

 

Although he died almost 140 years ago, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky has aged surprisingly well.  

This is partly because (in the book The Possessed) he can be said to have foreseen his country’s revolution – or at least the rise of totalitarianism – and the fact that it would end badly. But in general, it was because he was a great writer and psychologist, whose understanding of the human condition transcended his era, and his rather chaotic life.

That helps explain why he will feature in a novel theatrical trilogy in Dublin’s Smock Alley next week, sandwiched between two Irish writers: one from slightly before his time and one after.  

The former is William Carleton, who in 1817 – a few years prior to Dostoevsky’s birth – left his native Tyrone on foot, bound for literary glory in Dublin. The other member of the trio is Patrick Kavanagh, who more than a century later, would follow in some of Carleton’s footsteps.

The man bringing them all together is actor Peter Duffy.  

And as suggested by the title of his trilogy – “The State of Us” – he thinks each still has something worthwhile to say on the plight of humanity, Irish and otherwise, in 2017.  

He witnessed the aftermath of what Duffy calls Ireland’s 'worst atrocity' of the 19th century

Being from South Monaghan himself, Duffy is a Kavanagh specialist, so his acclaimed one-man show of The Great Hunger will anchor the series. But he has local expertise on Carleton’s contribution too, because it was in or near what became Kavanagh Country that the Tyrone man famously stopped en route to Dublin 200 years ago.  

So doing, he witnessed the aftermath of what Duffy calls Ireland’s “worst atrocity” of the 19th century. This Carleton later turned into first-person Gothic in the short story Wildgoose Lodge, which will be the focus of a second part of the trilogy. That was high on drama, however, low on nuance. Duffy’s “Wildgoose Lodge, Carleton, and Me” will set the tragedy in context, then and now. 

As for Dostoevsky, he certainly never visited Kavanagh Country, but his books did, to great influence. When the Inniskeen poet made his celebrated walk to Dublin in 1931 to meet his mentor George Russell (AE), his reward was an armful of books including The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot.

For a time subsequently, after inhaling too deeply from the latter book, Kavanagh took to playing the role of a Monaghan Prince Myshkin: a holy fool, scorned for his unworldliness until (as he hoped) gradually gaining respect.  

Maybe he was working on the character even before he read Dostoevsky. As Kavanagh’s biographer Antoinette Quinn has pointed out, he didn’t have to walk to Dublin. He could have taken the train.

The Polish-born Conrad went up-river on a journey that inspired his novel Heart of Darkness; the Irish Casement on a road that led to rebellion and death on a gallows

In any case, it’s The Brothers Karamazov that provides the third part of Duffy’s trilogy, via The Grand Inquisitor, a chapter in which the atheist Ivan cross-examines his brother, the novice monk Aloysha, on the concept of a benevolent God.

Ideally, Duffy would have presented all three together on the same night. Alas, that might have been a bit too epic for most theatre-goers. The shows will instead be staggered over a two-week run, starting with The Great Hunger from Monday until Thursday next, although all three will feature on the last day, “Super Saturday”, November 25th. All details are at smockalley.ie

That’s not the only meeting of odd literary and historical bedfellows in Dublin this month, as it happens. There will be at least one other, thanks to a talk in the Royal Irish Academy next week on the combined subjects of the revolutionary Roger Casement and the writer Joseph Conrad.

Unlike the members of the Duffy trilogy, those two did meet in life, and in fateful circumstances. For a brief period in 1890, they shared humble living quarters at Matadi, in the Belgian Congo, where the collision of the natives and their colonial overlords would leave a deep impression on both.  

After that, they went separate ways: the Polish-born Conrad up-river on a journey that inspired his novel Heart of Darkness; the Irish Casement on a road that led to rebellion and death on a gallows.

Their odd friendship was given imaginative musical treatment last year, in a collaboration between Colm Tóibín and Donnacha Dennehy during 1916 centenary events at the National Concert Hall.  

Now, as part of the Polish Embassy’s “Year of Conrad in Ireland”, it will be the subject of a lecture by Casement scholar Angus Mitchell. “The Horror! The Horror!”: Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, and History’s Heart of Darkness” is at the RIA on Tuesday 14th at 6.30pm. Admission is free and all are welcome.

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