An ear to the ground


Local stories and the shocking episodes which determine lives are the inspirations in the work of Eugene McCabe, one of Ireland's finest writers. At a time when many writers are accused of publishing too much, the harshest criticism which might be levelled at McCabe is that he hasn't written enough. If ever a writer abided by the dictum of only writing when he feels he has something to say, it is McCabe. "I write very, very slowly and I throw a lot of stuff out." There have also been long silences due to the demands of his farm which at its peak included running 300 ewes.

Despite his relative literary inactivity, McCabe's powerful novel Death and Nightin- gales (1992) - the writing of which partly pre-dated, and ultimately coincided with, the selling-off of his herd of Simmental cattle - towers above most contemporary fiction. Themes of cultural and sexual conflict dominate his dark, dangerous writings. His latest work, Tales From the Poorhouse - four dramatic, multi-layered prose monologues set in Famine Ireland, has already been adapted by McCabe for television and is currently being screened in Irish on TnaG. The stories are brilliant, demonstrating McCabe's faultless feel not only for dialogue but for complex historical and social nuance.

Casting, not money, presented the major difficulty, as the demanding parts also required actors with good Irish. It is interesting to note the monologues have also been filmed in English. McCabe admits to having found it difficult to compress those prose pieces into script form. "There's so much you have to leave out."

McCabe's actress daughter, Ruth, who plays the part of the mother in Tales, says: "When I read the script I knew I wanted to do it. I'd only pass Leaving Cert Irish 1973 to call on. But I would have learnt any language - Zulu if required." Her father smiles at his daughter's expansive gestures and actorly defiance.

McCabe is a calmly insistent, practical individual, a solid gentleman farmer who has lived just outside Clones, Co Monaghan for more than 40 years. McCabe brings to mind an observation which appears in his short story Heritage when he writes of one of his characters: "He had the casual self-respect of a farmer tradesman working over 30 years through the country; tinker or gentry, Papist or postman, he was the same with them all, a man seemingly without worries." Apparently at home here, McCabe retains the air of being from somewhere else, an outsider alert to the nuances of place. His conversation is anecdotal, even random and is shaped by chance observations which invariably achieve an unorthodox continuity of their own.

Now 68, McCabe still resembles a less weathered version of the 1983 Nobel literature laureate William Golding. And he looks younger and less austere in person than he does in photographs.

Last winter he had both hips replaced and remarks that it was after seeing himself on film that he finally decided to have the operation. "I was confronted with this" - he does a fair impersonation of a bow-legged figure walking on the insides of his feet - "and wondered who on earth this broken-arsed character was". The phrase sounds both funny and shocking. Soft-spoken but emphatic, McCabe's conversation moves skillfully between the formal and colloquial. Even so, his earthiness always catches one off guard. Off he went to hospital, "where I was the youngest in the ward". His gait is no longer unusual.

His solid old farmhouse, built in 1835, sits on a height in the middle of his 150 acres - all of which are now rented out. It is unlikely he will sell any of the land. His three sons - one of who lives down the road - and daughter all grew up here. Inside, it is comfortable and without pretension. His study is heated by a stove. A formal portrait of his grandfather sternly oversees the scene. A computer, which McCabe considers a great liberator, has been added. The row of books overlooking the large, work-table-like old desk is currently dominated by historical texts relating to Ireland's poor houses and the Famine, "Ireland's Holocaust". He mentions his love of words and habit of perusing dictionaries. Occupying a large chair is a boxed, facsimile version of Johnson's two-volume dictionary - the 1755 edition. It was his wife, Margo's, Christmas gift to him a couple of years ago. "I use it all the time," he says, and in fact quotes it in the Landlord section of Tales From the Poorhouse.

Tell Eugene McCabe his beautiful home is situated in one of the loveliest parts of Ireland's undulating drumlin country, and he smiles happily but is polite enough to stop short of saying: "I know".

The lake across the road has a story, as does so much of the landscape around here. "A girl drowned herself in it, because of a love affair which went wrong." McCabe recalls the postman who used to bless himself each time he passed it. Only 400 metres away, down the bottom of the road, lies the Border. There was a time when there was frequent military activity and he remembers the bursts of cross fire. It is a lot quieter now. Water is one of several motifs drawn from nature in his Death and Nightingales and, as he says, "this is lakeland country, there are two lakes on this farm".

His surroundings inform his work and the various faces of Ulster - political, natural and cultural - are his sources. Local life provides the rest. "Why would I write about anything else, there's so much here?"

Born in Glasgow in 1930, the third of seven children, McCabe describes his early years as very comfortable. "My grandfather had farmed on, - what? - 20 acres with a scutchmill at Shercock; my father left home at 14, he was but one of a big family. He went to Glasgow, which is where people from Ulster went just as the Southern Irish tended to go to Liverpool. He was very clever, not a reader. I'm sure he never read a book - but he was smart. And became a very successful publican and also had a hotel, the Georges Hotel. Yes, we were well off."

McCabe's early schooling was as a border in St Andrew's in Edinburgh, a prep school, run by the Benedictines. McCabe's father was 16 years older than his mother who he remembers as "very religious. There was always a lot of music. She was also a very gifted musician." Each year the family spent the summer holidays at their holiday home just outside Clones, on the other side of the town from where he lives. Monaghan was a good compromise as his father came from Cavan and his mother was a Fermanagh woman. "It was quite an elaborate house, it's now an old people's home," he says. But the year McCabe turned nine, the family didn't return to Scotland. "Hitler marched, and my father announced `we're staying'. I remember the moment. You do remember things very well at that age. It was very quiet, he stood at the window and made his announcement. If it hadn't been for the war, I would have grown up a little Brit." He laughs at the way history created this other life.

He continued his education, again as a boarder, this time at Killashee in Co Kildare. At 12 he went to Castleknock College in Dublin. There, he didn't shine. "Well I was good at English - but I was such a dunce at maths, it seemed I had no hope of a future and was left to my own devices."

Having found himself speaking about his schooldays, he begins to remember that time in earnest and comments: "A far more important thing happened to me, it was back at St Andrew's. I would have been six. There was a stone-throwing incident and I got hit in the head." The principal came to the infirmary and asked McCabe who had thrown the stone. "Of course I knew" - even now, more than 60 years later, he remembers the boy's name - "but I wouldn't say. Even at that stage I had learnt that you didn't squeal. I think it was very important."

On leaving school he went to University College, Cork where he studied English and history. Of all the places he has lived, Cork is the only one which has not yielded up a story. "I don't know," he says with mock surprise, "maybe I was too happy."

Reading was a habit he acquired early in life: "I just read outside the course and found myself discovering Gide, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy - and a lot of Greene - none of it on the course but they opened my eyes." The stories of Liam O'Flaherty were also important, "particularly the nature ones". He also read Sean O'Faolain and Frank O'Connor. And of course Joyce. "The Dead must be one of the greatest of all and Mary Lavin, that collection, The Tales of Bective Bridge is wonderful." Of contemporary writers he praises William Trevor. "He's so good it's hard to know what to say about him."

On graduating from college, McCabe was faced with two choices. "I could teach which I didn't want to do. Or farm. I came here." It was 1955. Drumard House had been in the McCabe family since 1940. "My maternal grandfather and father had bought the place as a sort of investment." The real reason is more complicated, it was also a way of having the property come into Catholic hands. "You could say my being here is a form of sectarianism." Later he adds: "The house always changed hands every 30 years. We've been here for 43 years, the longest so far." Before settling in Monaghan, McCabe had already married Margot Bowen. He came to farming determined to succeed. "I was serious, I was no hobby farmer. It was advanced farming. I loved it." Within a couple of years he was running a herd of 40 Friesians. "I think they may have been the first in Co Monaghan."

Writing seems to have forced itself on him. "I was listening to some early RTE radio plays and I thought they were appalling, I thought to myself `I can do better than that' and decided to have a go." He sent off his first play, A Matter of Conscience "in about 1959 or '60". Hilton Edwards accepted it. By 1962 he had begun work on the play

which would become King of the Castle. He sold off his Friesians. The play tells the story of a young, frustrated wife married to an ageing, avaricious and impotent farmer. Determined to acquire an heir, the farmer needs a young man to sire the child and sets about this with a cool deliberation more usually associated with the purchase of stud animals. True to McCabe's methods, it was based on a local story. "I heard it from a clergyman."

Not surprisingly, the Dublin audiences of 1964 were uncomfortable about being faced with an Ireland which was still too recent to be ignored. McCabe, however, has lived to see his controversial play become a period piece. It was revised at the Abbey in 1989, with Ruth as the young woman. "The audiences then needed the historical distance to put between it and them. But it did cause an uproar all right." He smiles at the memory of the then Professor of Irish at University College Dublin, Dr Murphy, writing a letter of condolence to his mother, "she expressed her `sympathy for this awful play Eugene has written' ". HOW does he feel about it now? "I'm very glad I wrote it. Even though at the time it was disembowelled as a dirty play." It also won the Irish Life Award. Two years later Pull Down a Horseman was produced to commemorate the anniversary of the 1916 Rising. Gale Day was McCabe's response to an Abbey Theatre/RTE commission to mark the centenary of the birth of Patrick Pearse. By the late 1960s he was building up his livestock again and had cattle and sheep, he continued writing but had moved to fiction. He was also involved in writing The Riordans.

It is not surprising that McCabe has written Tales from The Poorhouse. Even as a boy he was fascinated by the Famine and its horrors. This, combined with his shortlived ambition to be a poet, resulted in some "Keatsian" efforts. At 12 he wrote Milltown After the Famine of which he can only remember two lines. "I know the family scutchmill had caught my imagination." A scutchmill is used in processing flax. "It was that which probably drew me first to the subject of the Famine - it acted as a visual as well as historical reminder." The events of the Famine years, however, were to remain in the back of the writer's mind for a long time.

In 1976 the short novel Victims was published, almost nine years after he had written it. The stories Cancer and Heritage were published in 1978. But the farm was demanding and none of his sons worked it, so there were literary silences. Meanwhile, The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991) described him as "a highly gifted, if reluctant writer". But writer's block has never been a problem. It has been a matter of time and the necessary inspiration from local sources. For McCabe it is never personal, always local. "I keep my ear to the ground."

After a 14-year silence, Death and Nightingales took many readers by surprise. By now, McCabe had retired from farming. "I was older, stiffer and was making more money from writing." The novel had been born of a memory, a fragment of hearsay and the legacy of cultural tensions existing between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. McCabe heard a story about a woman who had come upon her lover as he and a pal busily dug her grave. She found herself staring into the hole where he would place her on killing her after cheating her of the money he had tricked her into stealing from her stepfather. Set in Fermanagh in 1883, the narrative opens with a Shakepearean evocation of nature in turmoil which acts as a metaphor for the novel which is a study of deception, betrayal and abuse of love. Beth Winter is the daughter of a Catholic Ascendancy woman who, when pregnant by another man, marries a Protestant several years her junior. The marriage quickly becomes a travesty. In response to the atmosphere of mutual recrimination in which she grows up, the girl slides into a trance-like state of perpetual tramua. It is extraordinary characterisation. It is a remarkable novel possessing the texture and inevitability of the traditional, 19th-century novel. It took him "about five years to write".

Last year, after another habitual silence, McCabe published Heaven Lies About Us a stark story about incest in which a young girl is brutalised while her religious mother sustains a self-protecting web of denial.

He sees his career as having moved in four phases - King of the Castle, the Christ in the Fields trilogy, Death and Nightingales and Tales From The Poorhouse, "but not forgetting that story," (Heaven Lies about Us), "I think that is an important one". Ask him about death and religion and he deftly throws the questions back, "who doesn't think about death? Two of my sisters are gone. Though at this particular moment I'm not preoccupied by death."

He says much of the same of God, "I don't believe in an afterlife. But. . . " He refers to a series of interviews with Irish writers which appeared some years ago, the conclusion of which appears to be that no Irish writer believes in God. McCabe looks thoughtful and mentions as an afterthought: "I think of that comment Shaw made about people going to church for entertainment and to theatre for enlightenment. I think it's very true. We do learn about life from plays and fiction. But anyhow," he says as if to formally conclude his digression and resume an earlier line of thought, "I suppose each morning I wake up I think to myself `well, I can count on having another day'. I am conscious of time running out and there's a lot of gaps for me to make up. I've a lot of writing to do."