Hunting for an age old connection to the land


ESSAY: Molly Keane’s devotion to horses and riding gave her a love and understanding of the Irish landscape that seeped into her fiction, writes ROBERT O’BYRNE

THE BIG-HOUSE novel has been a staple of Irish fiction ever since the publication of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, in 1800. One of the genre’s abiding features has been the tendency to stress a seemingly unbridgeable fissure between the occupants of the big house and the rest of the Irish population. Often the demesne, with its stone wall surrounding the house’s parkland, has provided a convenient metaphor for the divide between these two parties.

In The Last September(1929), for example, Elizabeth Bowen wrote of Danielstown, her imaginary big house, that its demesne trees “made a dark formal square like a rug on the green country . . . The house seemed to be pressing down low in apprehension, hiding its face, as though it had her vision of where it was. It seemed to huddle its trees close in fright and amazement at the wide light lovely unloving country, the unwilling bosom whereon it was set”.

Yet there has been one novelist who, far from emphasising a gulf between the big-house demesne and the surrounding countryside, has sought to explain the former’s natural place within the Irish landscape.

For much of her career Molly Keane wrote as MJ Farrell, and the 11 books published under this pseudonym are to be the subject of a celebration next weekend at Woodbrook, in Co Wexford, not far from where she was raised.

A consistent feature of those early novels, all set in imaginary Co Westcommon, is Keane’s love of the Irish terrain in its entirety; she celebrated Ireland without ever romanticising its harsh reality. In her earliest book, The Knight of Cheerful Countenance(1926), written while she was still a teenager, she describes tiny fields “which scarcely had grazing for the lean goats, and strings of dispirited ducks which roamed them, yet the kind Irish sunshine turned to emerald the green places where water from the hills ran down their sides and warmed the loose round stones of the walls which hedged the poor land in these pathetic patternings”. As Diana Petre observed in 1988, every one of Keane’s books is dotted with such passages, “which cause the reader to stop and go back to re-read slowly with joy”.

Those re-readings make plain Keane’s devotion to an Ireland she had come to know through negotiating much of the land on horseback. As Petre remarked: “You can touch a Farrell/Keane countryside and you can smell it.” She went on to quote a passage from Young Entry(1928) in which a group of early-morning riders “jogged by blackberry-filled hedges and twisting by-roads. The sky lightened slowly to disclose the witching sadness of the Irish countryside . . . there a haunting, wet, little wood, where the old twisting birch stems were like crooked, silver spells; and the tang of the purple loosestrife rose on the smoke of the morning”.

As a young woman Keane’s great passion was hunting, a pursuit that has always traversed social demarcations in this country. “Very little of the picturesque correctness of attire to be met with in an English field was to be seen,” she writes of a hunt in The Knight of Cheerful Countenancebefore noting that participants – then as now – included representatives of every social group, including small farmers whose kit “was uncomplicated to a degree, consisting as it did in the mooring of the trouser leg in the vicinity of the ankle by a bicycle clip”.

In 1937’s The Rising Tideshe comments once more on the egalitarian nature of the sport in Ireland, noting how at the end of a day’s hunt Cynthia French-McGrath, one of the monstrous matriarchs who populate her work, would sit in a pub drinking with whomever else was found on the premises.

Years of riding a horse, as opposed to passing through the country inside a car, provided Keane with an understanding of the specific rhythms of the Irish landscape that she would bring to her fiction. Hence for her the divide between the big-house demesne and the rest of the countryside did not exist; one naturally folded into the other.

In Taking Chances, published the same year as The Last September, she depicts the view from the drawing-room windows of Sorristown that begins in a parted fringe of silver beech trees before passing over lawns and thickets of rhododendron and crossing a river to meet a rise of low hills. Then finally, “last, but always watching over Sorristown with love and brooding, are the mountains, beautiful with a secrecy of death, and kind as solemn mothers”. This is the big house accepted as an integral part of the local topography, not spurned as an alien imposition in the manner of Bowen’s Danielstown.

Nowhere is Keane’s love of the Irish countryside more explicitly expressed than in 1931’s Mad Puppetstown. Here the residents of the big house are forced to flee to England following the IRA’s killing of an English army officer who had been paying court to one of the family. “Would you go back to Ireland?” Keane has a well-meaning but uninformed Oxfordshire hostess inquire of the novel’s young protagonist, Basil. “Such a hopeless country, and everyone one knows has had to leave.”

But Basil yearns more than anything to go back to the country he was obliged to quit, and to bring with him his cousin Easter, who still owns Puppetstown. England, he tells her, is too crowded and the hunting there too vulgar, and they need to find “a littler, wilder sort of place”. When she goes to bed that night, inflamed by Basil’s words, Easter is caught by a memory of mountains – “mountains of a clearest violet, and a cold, thin wind blowing . . . The charming spell was here now. Never would she escape it, and so in delight she slept.” By the novel’s close Basil and Easter have returned to Puppetstown and joyfully vowed to remain there. So too did Molly Keane remain in Ireland and through successive novels demonstrate both her informed love of the countryside and for the place of the big house within it.