Shane O’Neill: ‘Grand Disturber’ of Elizabethan Ireland is historical fiction on a grand scale

Bolder than Scott, aspiring for comparison with the great canvases of Hugo and Dumas

In contrast to his half-nephew, Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, who has received surprisingly little fictional or dramatic treatment ( Brian Friel’s Making History being an obvious exception), Shane O’Neill has for long been the subject of considerable imaginative re-creation.

The circumstances of his rise and fall were the subject of several stories and plays composed largely by writers of a nationalist persuasion in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in E Boyd Barret’s extensive novel, The Great O’Neill (Boston, 1939). But even since he has attracted the attention of such able writers as Dell Shannon (writing under her real name as Elizabeth Linington) and PL Henry, whose powerful Ulster Is Mine was published as late as 2002.

Brian Mallon’s Shane O’Neill: ‘the Grand Disturber’ of Elizabethan Ireland is now the latest contribution to this venerable literary tradition. It is by far the longest of such exercises, extending even beyond Boyd Barret in its over 760 pages, and it is in many ways remarkable and unique.

Those who identify as ‘professional’ historians both within and outwith the academy have been notoriously sniffy about historical fictions for reasons of greater and lesser respectability. On the lesser side there has been mere pedantry: ‘Napoleon could never have had that interview with Marshal Ney at that time, because Napoleon we know was in Paris and Ney was in...’ – God knows where!


Or ‘there was no use of the car bomb in the Irish war of independence because the technology had not been invented yet!’: an assertion made in regard to Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins to which a wise old soldier once observed to me ‘If Mick could have had access to car bombs, he’d have bloody used them!’

More respectable have been reservations about ideology, thought and sensibility. To re-present, for example, Thomas More or Thomas Cromwell as modern sensibilities struggling bravely with either ethical or ideological or political problems to which we can readily relate is highly engaging, as the enormous success of A Man for all Seasons and Hilary Mantel’s series of novels clearly demonstrate. But it is also misleading and anachronistic.

The mental (and indeed spiritual) world within such men moved was in multiple ways vastly different from ours. Their understanding of God, and of the Devil, of the universe, of nature, of history, of science and of man was (while in some respects no less contentious) profoundly distant from the modern temperament. So profound a gulf, which is apprehensible, and in part measurable, only by sustained scholarship and erudition, can only, and necessarily, be bridged in fiction by more or less deliberate occlusions of language and sensibility. Writers of historical fiction, if they are to be intelligible to a readership beyond the specialist scholars, must make such concessions.

But these actions of silent modernisation are fraught with risk. Again the observations of my ancient warrior may be invoked. So indifferent to the anachronisms of guerrilla warfare , he inveighed against one aspect of Jordan’s film: ‘As a gentleman, Collins would never have exposed Kitty (McKiernan) to the scandalous implications of her appearance in a hotel alone with him as depicted in the movie’. And again: ‘none of us would have dared to use coarse language before a lady’.

These remarks go well beyond prudery: they are expressions of a culture of conduct and of discourse which, while powerfully operative in a certain past, has since then lost its valence in ours. Bridging this gap between our sensibilities and the sensibilities of the past without doing extraordinary violence to the sensibilities of the past is the real challenge of historical fiction; and some of its practitioners have succeeded more effectively than others.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a supreme instance , and likewise Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma; and among more modern instances I might include Joseph Roth’s The Radetsky March and in more recent decades Graham Swift’s Waterland and his little gem Last Orders. These are remarkable achievements which transcend the cavils of academic historians. But certain similarities apply. First, they have chosen historical periods of relatively near propinquity to the time of their writing (Waterland is only a partial exception); and more importantly, they are deeply engaged with questions surrounding both the processes of history, the way such processes are experienced, and the way they are expressed either in fiction of history. Such, among others, are the classics of the form.

It is in relation to such layers of critical response that Brian Mallon’s massive and magnificent novel about Shane O’Neill may be judged. To begin with the least respectable level of pedantic correction. Leaving petty matters of detail and circumstance aside (why should any of his readers be engaged with such intricacies of ancient history?), I might mention two. One is that in recounting the dramatic circumstances of Shane’s killing, the novelist has chosen to revert to the old propagandist account of murder at the feast which, while being highly dramatic, is hardly more interesting than the more likely circumstances discovered by recent scholarship.

More seriously, the author’s decision to begin his novel in 1559 (the year of Shane’s inauguration as the O’Neill) rather than far earlier, say at Shane’s birth (c. 1530) or amidst the massively violent and devastating civil war that raged within Tir Eoghain in the late 1540s and early 1550s during which Shane killed off most of the opposition within his family and generated a great deal of internal enmity, is curious.

But such reservations aside, it should be said that this is a fiction based on a deep immersion in the historical sources , both English and Irish, and a shrewd and intelligent assessment of those sources. Evidence of this critical command of the materials is to be found in several instances where Mallon corrects the historians, as for instance in his insistence that Catherine McClean (here spelled with a K), Shane’s last spouse, was not held prisoner as a sex-slave, but was a willing and loyal partner.

Even more significant is the importance Mallon pays to the struggle between Shane, the Vatican and the English government over the appointment to the vacant See of Armagh, as Shane struggled and ultimately failed to have his foster-brother, Terence Donnelly, appointed to the see. This was a major issue of contention which until now has received less attention than it deserves.

Mallon’s assured, though unstated, familiarity with the sources underpins one of the central themes running though this novel – the immense gulf between the cultural world of Shane and Gaelic Ulster and the cultural world of the English court, and its appendage in Dublin Castle.

But the success of this juxtaposition has been achieved not only by erudition, but by a keen ear for idiom and language. Like most historical novelists Mallon has faced the problem of ‘translation’: it is more difficult than it might appear to make Elizabethan English really understandable to modern ears ( Shakespeare notwithstanding); but it is of course impossible to render the spoken Ulster Irish of the 16th century. But unsurprisingly, perhaps, as a distinguished actor and director he makes very good use of direct speech; and in doing so exercises his skills at ventriloquism to a very high degree. Both in its several set pieces, and in the overall imperative of his narrative, Mallon transcends the well-nigh insuperable obstacles that faced any and all attempts to bridge this gulf between these two cultures or these two discourses.

With powerfully drawn characters and a vigorous, and often witty, dialogue, this is historical fiction on a grand scale. Comparable not to Swift or Mantel, bolder in its contours than Scott, but aspiring for comparison with the great canvasses of Hugo and Dumas. It is a distinguished contribution to the remarkable literary tradition of Shane O'Neill's fictional re-creations.
Shane O'Neill: the 'Grand Disturber' of Elizabethan Ireland by Brian Mallon is published by Red Branch Press, €18.75. Ciaran Brady is Professor of Early Modern History and Historiography at Trinity ColLege DubLin and author of most recently Shane O'Neill (revised and expanded 2nd edition, UCD Press)