There are plenty of novels on the Irish diaspora set in America, in Australia, in London, but precious few examine the experience of those who went to Glasgow.
Seán Damer corrects this with a historical tale that begins in the Rosses, 1911, after Lord Leitrim’s extortionate rent hikes lead the O’Donnell family to leave Donegal for Govan.
The central character is the daughter, Peggy, who soon finds work in Partickhill as a maid for two sisters, a pair of enlightened teachers. There are paintings by JD Fergusson on their walls; some of those portrayed are naked. Charles Rennie Mackintosh makes a lovely cameo. Peggy is soon exposed to feminist ideas, suffragette thinking, and books by Marie Stopes. This is all new to her. Glasgow is noisy, dirty, and poor; she misses home.
A link with other immigrants, her Gaelic-speaking Highland neighbours, is quickly established. Peggy picks up the patter: she meets chanty wrastlers who are the talk of the steamie.
She is called a Taig but realises the bigotry cuts both ways: her father isn’t impressed at the thought of her going out with a Protestant. Da is an auld bigot: we see him spitting into the fire, we watch appalled as he clouts Peggy across the face. Catholic priests are also represented as fundamentally misogynistic and repressive. Damer is quick to establish his anti-clerical credentials; he’s keen to establish a balance. This is not a one-sided story.
Peggy’s political education is deftly handled and Damer has you rooting for her as she crashes upwards through various glass ceilings. There’s an agit-prop edge to the tale, forgivable given the dreadful social conditions of the time; today’s Tory readers of the Glasgow Herald might find this wearying. The paper is quoted after the 1922 election saying: ‘We cannot view without profound dissatisfaction the significant gains made by Labour in industrial Scotland’.
But Damer’s novel has a particular contemporary relevance. Rangers fans were recently escorted by the Glasgow police as they marched on Argyle Street singing ‘The Famine is over, why don’t you go home?’ to the tune of the Beach Boys’ Sloop John B. Brian Wilson wept.
This a racy read; I’m going to get a copy for my ma’s Christmas.