Eugene McCabe: 'The remnants of the IRA will try to revive the murder and mayhem'

As his ‘Death and Nightingales’ comes to our screens, the author talks to Adrienne Leavy

Eugene McCabe on Death and Nightingales: The novel was conceived by a story/myth I was told by John Collins who worked for us occasionally in our garden. The novel is dedicated to him. Photograph: Pat Langan

Eugene McCabe on Death and Nightingales: The novel was conceived by a story/myth I was told by John Collins who worked for us occasionally in our garden. The novel is dedicated to him. Photograph: Pat Langan

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Eugene McCabe was born in Glasgow in 1930 to Irish parents who originally came from the Border counties of Fermanagh and Monaghan. His childhood summers were spent in Co Monaghan, and the family returned permanently to Monaghan 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 and farmed with his family near Clones on the Monaghan/Fermanagh border, where he still lives. In 1966 he abandoned full-time farming to devote himself to writing. His many awards include the Legum Doctorate from the University of Prince Island in Canada in 1990, 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. He is a member of Aosdána.

McCabe’s writing spans several genres. A master storyteller and dramatist who is frequently compared to Chekhov, he has written a novel, numerous short stories, several plays, a novella and a children’s book. 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.”

In an interview with the Northern Standard in 1977, McCabe explained why he felt it necessary to continually return to this theme in his work:

“In recent times, since the outbreak of the Troubles in the North, I am very conscious that I am a writer living on the border. There is no way a writer can turn his back on what is happening around him. All other themes seem trivial to what is happening around us.”

A scene from Druid’s production of Eugene McCabe’s King of the Castle, directed by Garry Hynes. Photograph: Robbie Jack
A scene from Druid’s production of Eugene McCabe’s King of the Castle, directed by Garry Hynes. Photograph: Robbie Jack

For those readers unfamiliar with McCabe’s writing the following is an overview of some of his most critically acclaimed work which will help contextualise the interview discussion that follows:

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.”

Eugene McCabe in conversation with Adrienne Leavy

When you begin a book or a play do you have the story or the plot worked out in advance?
I know what I want to explore because of some snippet I overheard, read or observed that has lodged in my mind and refuses to go away. Writing about that can expand into something more interesting or, with luck, universal.

You are a farmer by profession, and your connection to the land and the natural world clearly informs your work. Has your occupation, which is by nature time consuming and dictated by the seasons, dictated the trajectory of your writing career? In other words, have you had to tailor the time dedicated to writing to the demands of farming?
When I was first published by David Marcus in Irish Writing in my early twenties, Rupert Hart Davis, a London publisher, wrote and asked me to write a novel. I obliged and he replied saying that it was “unpublishable but found the dialogue alerting”. He asked, “have you thought of writing for the theatre?” Shortly thereafter I inherited Drumard and got married. I was 25 and flung myself into farming which is very arduous, especially for a young man unused to manual labour. Every day I thought about writing but had no energy left to get immersed in anything so demanding as a full-length stage play.

When I turned 30 I realised I would have to make a start or nothing would ever be written. I sold all my milking cows, rented the land and began writing King of the Castle. It was a little over two years before I was satisfied that I had something to submit for production. At this time Irish Life, the most substantial insurance company in Ireland, were holding a competition for the best full-length play to be judged by distinguished judges... Tyrone Guthrie, Micheál Mac Liammóir, Cyril Cusack, Ria Mooney and Seamus Kelly. There were 169 entries. The judges were unanimous that King of the Castle was “outstandingly” and “head and shoulders” above the other entries.

To answer your question, when I’m going to be deeply involved with writing I sell my stock and rent the land. Thus the long periods of silence. For a professional writer my output is small. I don’t have this passionate longing to get to my desk and turn out a novel or a play every two years. On the contrary, I postpone the idea of writing every day as long as I can, provided I am not going to be in trouble with publishers or contracts.

You have written in several different genres. Is there a particular form you feel more suited to, or does your material dictate the form?
It’s really one or the other. After the disappointment of Swift at the Abbey I swore I would never write another full-length play, I would write prose (novels and short stories) where I alone would be responsible for the finished work. I have stuck to this which is why Field Day describes me as “as a reluctant writer”. They kept after me on and off to write a play for them. I politely but consistently refused. I have written no end of adapted stories, mostly my own, for the screen (television) but nothing for the stage.

I read an affinity between your work and that of Flannery O’ Connor. Have you read her work, and if so, do you think she has influenced you aesthetically?
It must be 30 years or more since I’ve read her. I remember not only being impressed but slightly unnerved by the unexpected ferocity of her themes. If I’ve been influenced it’s deep in my unconscious.

Eugene McCabe: After the disappointment of Swift at the Abbey I swore I would never write another full-length play. Photograph: Pat Langan
Eugene McCabe: After the disappointment of Swift at the Abbey I swore I would never write another full-length play. Photograph: Pat Langan

One of the things that makes the trilogy of stories in Christ in the Fields so powerful is that they the lay bare the alternative perspectives of Catholic and Protestant neighbours at the height of the Troubles. Did you consciously set out to structure the trilogy this way?
You can’t live cheek by jowl with something so all-pervasive as 400 years of a hostile standoff which in this Border area tips into murder and retaliation. We are/were in no way involved but very conscious. I knew I would have to write about it sometime as dispassionately as possible. I dislike bringing class into this but the horror stories take place mostly at grassroots level in the fields and cities. From the middle classes up the entire country is republican but few if any get actively involved.

I was once very startled at a function by the CEO of [a State body] who cornered me about the Victims trilogy which he had watched. He began by saying the trilogy should have been a quartet. Did I ever read about the brutality involved in the colonisation of Ulster? The Flight of the Earls had left the native Irish leaderless. They were driven to the mountains and bogs. Their revenge in 1641 was as merciless as their expulsion by the colonists. They did not recover their lands but did create a fear and hatred of the native Irish which has traveled down the centuries to this day. What had startled me about the CEO’s suggestion was a casual:

“They should get out”

“Who should get out?”

“The loyalists. If they don’t like us they should go back to Mother England”

There seemed no answer to this impossible suggestion till I said:

“Are you serious? The first pilgrims hadn’t yet arrived in America.”

“So what! They’re not killing each other and advertising hatred every year with drums and bonfires.”

He moved on and made me realise that republicanism runs deep through all classes except of course the majority of what’s left of the landed gentry.

There are very few first-hand accounts by ordinary people of life during the Famine, yet the four monologues in Tales From the Poorhouse have an almost documentary feel to them in that they appear so realistic. How much research on the Great Famine did you do in preparation for writing Tales From the Poorhouse? Were there particular historical texts you relied on?
Woodham-Smith has written the most brilliant and balanced account but naturally I read a dozen or more other texts selecting relevant details from each.

In structuring Tales from the Poorhouse were you influenced by Brian Friel’s 1980 play Faith Healer, which consists of three monologues by Francis Hardy, the struggling faith healer, his wife Grace and stage manager Teddy?
Faith Healer is wonderful but many writers were writing monologues for the stage.

The character of Roisin Brady, the subject of the first monologue in Tales from the Poorhouse, has to endure numerous tragedies including abandonment by her father, the death of her twin sister and her mother’s madness, before entering the workhouse where she is preyed upon sexually by the master of the workhouse. Was it difficult for you to create such a powerful young female character?
I suppose imagination is a slightly boastful word to use as a reply, but once embarked on the story I was haunted waking and sleeping by what I’d read and caught up in the horror of her situation. A couple of critics have pointed out that she in a young Mother Courage. This was not a conscious intention on my part but I can understand why they responded in that way. A Finnish scholar Gunilla Bexar dedicated her published work to me, though we had never met. In all her reading about the famine she had come across nothing “so credible and moving”. She thought it a great mistake that I hadn’t used the material of the stories to write a novel and reach the general public. The philosopher and poet Raymond Tallis was given Heaven Lies About Us (which contains the monologues from Tales from the Poorhouse), and in his response to a friend, a professor emeritus specialising in Shakespeare, he wrote that he found the four monologues “overwhelming”. He ended his response by saying “that man is a genius”.

Matthew Rhys as Billy Winter in Death and Nightingales
Matthew Rhys as Billy Winter in Death and Nightingales

Another strong female character in your work is Beth Winters in Death and Nightingales. Like Roisin Brady, her fate seems predetermined by the historical circumstances (both political and personal) into which she was born, yet they both exhibit a determination to survive. Did you know their ultimate fate when you began writing or did that evolve with the characters?
She lived in a love/hate situation. The novel was conceived by a story/myth I was told by John Collins who worked for us occasionally in our garden. The novel is dedicated to him. It was told with such conviction (the names of connected families involved were supplied) that incredible as it seemed, I couldn’t shrug it off. I began taking notes and thinking about how to make it credible. Once begun it took on a life of its own. When I asked what became of the girl I was told she’d left for America that week. That was of course no narrative ending, so it then turned into a complex a tale of revenge.

BBC began filming a three-part adaptation of Death and Nightingales earlier this year. Were you involved in the script development? Have you seen the finished series and if so, are you satisfied with it?
I have not seen the finished work nor any clips from it. I was in email touch with the adapter Allan Cubitt. As a Londoner he was very ignorant about pastoral life. I put him right him about many farming details. I like the casting.

The mothers in your fiction are often harsh, unsympathetic characters. Is that a deliberate theme in your work?
If that is the impression it’s subconscious. Sometimes I find them (mother, sisters, wife, sisters-in-law), a bit tiresome, but that’s a universal gender thing which also applies the other way round.

Not only have religious and political differences caused deep divisions in Irish society, but the effects of class have historically been equally insidious. In your writing you explore the issue of class through characters who are the descendants of the original Ulster planters. Did you do much historical research in this area?
I knew/know and was friendly with some Big House people. At the same time I was conscious that hundreds of years of breeding and domination and an appalling history of oppression will not ever be forgotten. Their behaviour during the Famine and the mass emigration of a million impoverished Irish during the Famine backfired into a strong Irish-American lobby which brought about the Good Friday Agreement. It was pressure on London from this lobby that ended the violence.

In 1998 you published a children’s novel. Cyril: The Quest of an Orphaned Squirrel.
I wrote it for Paddy my son who was dying from an infected appendix. He survived. It has been selling quietly ever since.

Your novella, The Love of Sisters, is a story of betrayal and reconciliation between two radically different sisters. What was the inspiration for this book?
A familial scandal. Naturally I changed a lot of details.

Many of your characters seem to embody the dilemma of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who famously stated in Ulysses that history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. Did Joyce’s view of Irish history inform your approach to writing?
I was familiar with that observation by Joyce, but any or all of us that are aware of everyday atrocities worldwide must come to the same conclusion.

Eugene McCabe reads Come Dance with Kitty Stobling at the grave of Patrick Kavanagh in Inniskeen, Co Monaghan last November as part of a tribute to mark the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death. Photograph: Alan Betson
Eugene McCabe reads Come Dance with Kitty Stobling at the grave of Patrick Kavanagh in Inniskeen, Co Monaghan last November as part of a tribute to mark the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death. Photograph: Alan Betson

Aside from Joyce, whose stories in Dubliners exhibit the same linguistic economy and realism found in your work, were there any particular writers who influenced you? Are there any contemporary writers (Irish or otherwise), who interest you?
Albert Camus’s The Stranger had a powerful effect on me and must influence the darkness of my writing. And yes, Joyce was an enormous influence. Even in a few sentences you can spot his hand. Only Shakespeare (and some few others) have this unmistakable originality... The recognisable brush stroke of an inimitable master.

The Catholic Church comes in for some harsh criticism in your work, particularly with regard to the control it exercised over the lives of Irish people for so many generations. For a variety of reasons, the pendulum now seems to have swung the other way. What are your thoughts on this?
I began my education at six years of age with a French order of nuns in Co Kildare. I am grateful to them only in that they included the Old Testament (selectively), and introduced me to wonderful prose and great stories. From there I went on to Castleknock where I endured the soutane and the claustrophobia of an all-male atmosphere.

I took an arts degree in Cork (too tedious to explain why Cork), then an agricultural college, farming and marriage. We have been living in this house for 63 years. While my mother was alive I observed the externals because of her extreme piety. Thereafter I stopped practicing and have nothing but contempt for the institution, its history and shameless hypocrisy.

Your play Pull Down a Horseman was first produced at the Eblana Theatre in Dublin on Sunday, April 17th, 1966, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. Another one-act play, Gale Day, was a co-production between the Abbey Theatre company and Radio Telefís Eireann to commemorate the Patrick Pearse centenary. Fifty years on, what are your views on the recent 1916 centenary celebrations?
More subdued than 1966. The old enemy and its brutality have not been forgotten. The great men of the rising and the civil war that followed are fortunate to be dead. Connolly’s dream of a socialist Ireland was pure fantasy. George Bernard Shaw wrote to Michael Collins’s sister condoling with her on the death of her brother but pointing out that had he lived he would have experienced nothing but bickering and disappointment. We are still a conservative and largely churchgoing people although the young are not even interested enough to have contempt for the church which has evaporated like an unpleasant dream. Pearse would be like a lost soul in modern-day Ireland though he is still venerated by some of the older generation.

King of the Castle was revived in 2017 by Druid Theatre and directed by Garry Hynes. To what extent if any did the audience reception differ from the original reception the play received?
In the 1964 production I noticed that not a woman was clapping. The general reaction to that production was a numbed silence, though the Irish and cross-channel reviews were all consistently favorable. The recent production by Druid was warmly received. We have grown up.

Both the Good Friday Agreement and the recent Brexit referendum present different aesthetic opportunities and challenges for stories about the contemporary and future Irish border. Are these themes that may find their way into your work?
It’s too early to guess what the reaction will be, but I imagine the remnants of the IRA will creep out of the woodwork and try to revive the murder and mayhem. I doubt if they’ll get any public support. I suspect there will be political change if a hard Border emerges.
This is an edited version of an article that appears in the Fall/Winter edition of Reading Ireland: The Little Magazine, edited by Adrienne Leavy. Its focus is writers from the province of Ulster. Death and Nightingales begins on Monday, November 26th, at 10.35pm on RTÉ One and on Wednesday, November 28th, at 9pm on BBC Two

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