Curious thing: Brinsley MacNamara on rural Ireland’s murderousness

Copies of The Valley of the Squinting Window were burned in the novelist’s native Delvin

Brinsley MacNamara and Flann O’Brien

Brinsley MacNamara and Flann O’Brien

 

Brinsley MacNamara, the pen- and stage-name of John Weldon from Delvin, Co Westmeath, is famous or notorious for his novel The Valley of the Squinting Windows, a phrase that became part of the language in Ireland for a long time. Now that we’ve got the social-media tech giants to keep an eye on us and harvest our data, the local postmistress no longer needs to steam open letters – not that there are many of those (local postmistresses or letters) around any more either.

The novel provoked such a furore that copies of it were burned in Delvin shortly after its publication. “They burned my book in the best medieval fashion and resorted to acts of healthy violence,” the author later wrote. It’s hard to imagine such a reaction, healthy or otherwise, to the publication of a book nowadays when we seem so busy getting on with burning our planet.

Benedict Kiely (in A Letter to Peachtree) recalled that MacNamara had the habit of prefacing what he was about to say with the expression “Curious thing”, and he gave the following interesting example.

“Curious thing, he says, how landscape, buildings, environment and physical surroundings can affect the character of people. Take, for instance, your average Dublin workingman. A rough type, a man with a young family, he goes out to the pub in the evening. He drinks a pint, two pints, three, four, five, six, perhaps 10 pints. He’s a noisy fellow. He sings. He talks loudly. He argues. He may even quarrel. He staggers, singing, home to the bosom of his family, in tenement, apartment or corporation house, goes to bed quietly and, soundly, sleeps it off.

“But down in the soft midlands of Meath and Westmeath, where I come from, things are different. The heavy heifers graze quietly and the bullocks are all beef to the ankles. The deep rivers flow quietly. Your average workingman there is a bachelor, living most likely with his maiden aunt, and in a labourer’s cottage. In the quiet, green evening he cycles six or seven miles into the village of Delvin for a drink. He drinks quietly: one pint, two, three, anything up to 10 or more. In the dusk he cycles quietly home … and murders his maiden aunt with a hatchet.

“Curious thing, environment. Curious thing.”

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