Eugene McCabe, author and playwright, dies, aged 90
Acclaimed author of King of the Castle, Death and Nightingales and Troubles screenplays
Eugene McCabe at home in Drumard, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Pat Langan
Eugene McCabe reads Come Dance with Kitty Stobling at the graveside of poet Patrick Kavanagh in Inniskeen, Co Monaghan in 2017 as part of a tribute to mark the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death. Photograph: Alan Betson
Eugene McCabe, one of Ireland’s leading contemporary writers, has died, aged 90.
He made his name as a playwright, his breakthrough play King of the Castle offending The League of Decency in 1964. A stern critic of violent extremism and sectarianism, influenced by a lifetime spent living on the Border, he wrote a trilogy of hard-hitting screenplays about the Troubles for RTÉ in the early 1970s: Cancer, Heritage and Siege.
His 1992 novel Death and Nightingales, described by author Colm Tóibín as “one of the great Irish masterpieces of the century” was recently adapted for television by the BBC. As well as writing a series of highly acclaimed short story collections, most recently Heaven Lies about Us (2005), he also wrote for children and the nonficiton work, Shadows from the Pale: Portrait of an Irish Town (1996).
President Michael D Higgins described McCabe as a writer who “was able to capture the complexity of differing viewpoints, and particularly of those confronted with bigotry and fundamentalism”.
“It is with deep regret and much sadness that I have learned of the death of Eugene McCabe, playwright, author, farmer and member of Aosdána,” President Higgins said.
“Eugene McCabe will be remembered for an outstanding contribution to Irish theatre, for his award-winning television plays and for a body of writing that confronted with courage issues in Irish society.
“His considerable skill as a storyteller was applied in a wide variety of styles and genres, be it novels, short stories, plays or writing for children. He explored complex themes, including the legacy of colonialism and the hatred inherent in sectarianism.
“Like few others, Eugene McCabe was able to capture the complexity of differing viewpoints, and particularly of those confronted with bigotry and fundamentalism.
“Sabina and I were privileged to know him. Sabina has fond memories of her involvement in his play Some Women On The Island. He corresponded with me on my poem the Death of Mary Doyle, on which he made a valuable critique. We were pleased that he was able to be present for the performance in Áras an Uachtaráin of his play Pull Down A Horseman, in February 2016.
“The world of Irish theatre has lost someone who was a powerful and original contributor to Irish letters.
“Sabina and I would like to express our deepest sympathy to his family, friends and all those who will have come to love and appreciate his work.”
Kevin Rafter, chair of the Arts Council said: “Colm Tóibín stated of Eugene McCabe that he ‘only produces masterpieces’, and this is true. Writing across every form, he was deeply committed to language and craft, and his powerful work reached an immense audience. Unafraid of complexity and nuance, he chronicled both the political and the personal, with an eye that was at once searing and humane. Eugene McCabe leaves behind a diverse body of work that will be read, performed and viewed for generations to come.”
Fintan O'Toole said: "Very few writers in history can write genuine tragedies. It's a rare form because it's so hard to do. Eugene McCabe managed it in two different genres. King of the Castle is a ferocious theatrical tragedy, where the audience can see, as we do in the Greeks or in Shakespeare, that forces are being set in motion whose terrible ending is as clear as it is unstoppable. And both his great novel Death and Nightingales and his Victims trilogy of stories have that same force. More than anyone else through the Troubles, McCabe could make us feel the tragic depth of sectarian history, the way two mindsets, each with its own logic, are hurtling towards mutual destruction.
"The reason this stuff is so hard is that it demands of a writer an equal balance between moral passion on the one hand and the absolute control of language and form on the other. McCabe felt deeply the cost of the violence to which he was so physically close and his horror of it beats steadily beneath his work. But he had the skill to rein in that rage, to shape it so delicately that it we are moved, as Aristotle said we should be in tragedies, from terror to pity."
Catherine Martin, Minister for Arts and Culture, said: “Eugene McCabe was a master storyteller and dramatist who spent most of his life in my own home county of Monaghan. While he produced a great volume of literary works, he will probably be best remembered for his trilogy of plays which he wrote in the early seventies based on the differing traditions in Northern Ireland. These plays received critical acclaim and were produced and screened by RTE in 1973. It is a day of great sadness for Ireland to lose such a talented writer after other great Irish artists that we have lost in recent times. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.”
Born in Glasgow in 1930 to parents from Fermanagh and Monaghan, he made his home near Clones, Co Monaghan, on the family farm where he lived and worked as a farmer and a writer for the past 65 years. His childhood summers were spent in Monaghan, and the family returned there permanently after the outbreak of the second World War. He was educated at Castleknock College in Dublin and later University College Cork, where he studied English and history.
Upon graduating McCabe returned home to the farm. In 1966 he abandoned full-time farming to devote himself to writing. His many awards include the Butler Literary Award for Prose from the Irish Cultural Institute in 2002, and the AWB Vincent Literary Award from the American Ireland Fund in 2006. McCabe is married to Margot Bowen and they have four children, including the actor Ruth McCabe. He is a member of Aosdána.
Writing in The Irish Times in 2018, US-based author and critic Adrienne Leavy wrote: "Reading McCabe’s vital body of work, it is clear that Colm Tóibín’s assertion that “Eugene McCabe only produces masterpieces” is no glib praise. In sparse poetic language McCabe unflinchingly dissects the corrosive legacies of colonialism and sectarianism on the entangled communities living in the border counties of Fermanagh, Monaghan and Cavan. His work is further distinguished by a pronounced absence of didacticism as he explores the nuances of human behavior and the roots of ingrained hatred.”
In A Tribute to Eugene McCabe, published by the Centre for Cross-Border Studies, Andy Pollak sums up the genius of McCabe’s work thus: “McCabe – perhaps uniquely among Irish Catholic writers – is equally able to write about the terror and contempt of Protestant border farmers and UDR men as he is to portray the anger and vengefulness of their Catholic neighbours and historic adversaries. And he is able to see into the wounded humanity of both communities and evoke sympathy with the most unlikely people, people driven demented by religion and politics and death and drink and bigotry.”
One of McCabe’s first plays, King of the Castle, premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1965. The play centres on the character of “Scober” MacAdam, an elderly, impotent farmer who is married to a much younger woman. Scober was born in poverty, and his early life of depravation has shaped his character. Avaricious and cunning, he has made his fortune and purchased a former “Big House” in Co Letrim. His neighbours and employees envy his wealth, and when rumours of his impotency threaten his pride, Scober hires a drifting journeyman, Matt Lynch, to impregnate his wife. The play was controversial at the time due to its unflinching examination of the recent Irish past and because of its stark exploration of sex as a bargaining currency; however, it went on to win the Irish Life Award at the festival. In many respects, the harsh, uncomfortable world that Scober and his wife exist in is reminiscent of the rural Ireland Patrick Kavanagh excoriates in his anti-pastoral long poem, The Great Hunger.
In the early seventies, McCabe wrote a trilogy of short stories, Cancer, Heritage and Siege, which he subsequently adapted for broadcast by RTÉ in 1973 under the title Victims. The first story, Cancer, won the Writers Award in Prague and took second prize in the Prix Italia. Collectively, the trilogy were gathered and published in one volume in 1993 under the title Christ in the Fields. In these stories McCabe examines the divided loyalties and heightened emotions of individuals who live in the Irish Border counties.
In sparse, bleak prose, replete with local dialects, the Protestant-Catholic impasse is starkly portrayed by characters whose independent agency is tragically compromised by virtue of their historical inheritance. Eoin Flannery reads these stories as ones which “expose the limits of monolithic ideological thought as it manifests in irredeemable sectarian hatred”. In Cancer, the republican point of view is explored. Jody McMahon is wasting away from the physical disease while all around him, the cancer of violence and sectarianism is destroying the community in which he and his brother live. Following this is Heritage, where the conflict in Northern Ireland is seen through Protestant eyes. Here, a young, well-meaning Protestant farmer is goaded into joining the Ulster Defence Regiment by his bigoted mother and her brother. He receives a death threat from the IRA, and knowing that eventually he will be killed he commits suicide by driving into an army checkpoint. The final story, Siege, concerns a small IRA extremist group who take an old aristocratic family hostage. Over the course of the siege the inability of these two groups to understand the other’s perspective is tragically laid bare.
McCabe’s only novel, the critically acclaimed Death and Nightingales (1992), is considered a modern classic of Irish literature. Part historical novel, part Gothic love story, this deeply moving tale takes place over a 24-hour period on the 25th birthday of Beth Winters, a young Catholic girl who lives with her Protestant step-father, Billy Winters, who is a landowner. Beth’s deceased mother was a Catholic who married Winters knowing she was pregnant by another man, a deception he could not forgive. Alternating between affection and cruelty, Winters’ conduct drives Beth into an affair with Liam Ward, a young Catholic labourer, who hates Winters for his wealth and power. To say any more about the plot would be to spoil the novel for readers; however, one of the main themes running through the book is the fatalistic sense that the characters are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Just as he did in the short stories set in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, McCabe here explores the issue of a nation divided by religion, politics and class struggles. Set in the beautiful Fermanagh countryside in 1883, just one year after the Phoenix Park murders of the new chief secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his under-secretary, Thomas Burke, Death and Nightingales exposes the Catholic - Protestant violence lying beneath the surface of this community of landowning farmers and tenant labourers. As in James Joyce’s Dubliners story, Ivy Day in the Committee Room, the figure of Charles Stewart Parnell looms large in Death and Nightingales. However, unlike Joyce’s story, which takes place on Ivy Day (the anniversary of the death of Parnell), the figure of Parnell is very much a live presence in Irish politics at the time McCabe’s novel is set. Various characters refer to Parnell either approvingly or disparagingly throughout the book, a device which allows the reader to quickly gauge their political persuasions and loyalties.
In 1999 McCabe published Tales From The Poorhouse, four dramatic, multi-layered prose monologues set in 1848, at the height of the Great Famine. The overlapping histories of the four characters begins with an opening monologue of a young girl admitted to the workhouse, followed by the stories of the master of the workhouse, a besieged Protestant landlord, and the young girl’s insane mother, also committed to the workhouse. No one gets off easily in these stories. Not only critical of the Protestant landlords who did not do enough to help their tenant farmers, Tales from the Poorhouse is also highly critical of the hypocrisy of the local Catholic priests and the gullible Irish who let their lives be ruled by a church that was guided by its own self-interest.
Heaven Lies About Us (2004), brings together a collection of short stories McCabe wrote over a three-decade period, including his border trilogy and famine monologues. Taken together, these stories offer a necessary corrective to the idyllic version of Ireland promoted by various tourist and government bodies. Beginning with the terrible tale of a young child sexually abused by her bother, McCabe’s prose immediately draws the reader into the world of his flawed characters and the struggles of the Irish soul.
Reviewing this collection for the Telegraph, Claire Messud encapsulates the allure of McCabe’s fiction: “For readers keen to experience the power of which fiction is capable, the dread and sorrow it can elicit, the linguistic excitement it can provoke and, above all, the thrill of seeing anew, and more profoundly, what one thought one knew, McCabe is indispensable.”
Asked by me in a 2011 interview which song he would like played at his funeral, he replied: “All Through the Night sung in Welsh by one of the great Welsh choirs. In an interview with David Norris we agreed that the lone piper had become a cliche at funerals. I opted for Michael Flatley dancing down the aisle in front of my coffin all the way to the hearse. We agreed it would be interesting but very expensive!”
Speaking then of his deep connection to Drumard, the family farm near Lackey Bridge, he said: “ The familial associations are inescapable. Having to leave would be a kind of death That is why I plan to have my ashes spread in the ground of an early [7th century ] Celtic church on the farm.”
The author is survived by his wife Margot, his children, Ruth, Marcus, Patrick and Stephen, and his 13 grandchildren.