Married Quarters review: back to the Border badlands

Shane Connaughton conjures an uneven but intriguing vision of 1950s Ireland

Shane Connaughton outside the Garda barracks in Redhills, Co Cavan

Shane Connaughton outside the Garda barracks in Redhills, Co Cavan

Sat, May 6, 2017, 06:00


Book Title:
Married Quarters


Shane Connaughton


Guideline Price:

A Border Station opens with a boy and his father cycling up a potholed hill in Co Cavan. “To the right towards the Six Counties the land was even, green and healthy-looking. To the left, though, there was only mile after mile of rushy fields, marsh, lakes and bog.” The village they’ve cycled from, Butlershill, is very much on the miry side, a place with “no tarred roads, no running water in the houses, no electric light”. This being the 1950s, a token goat is tethered to a pump on the green, and an unhallowed graveyard sits on a rocky patch of soil, reserved for suicides and unbaptised babies.

This is the local Garda sergeant and his son, Danny, and they live in mildewed married quarters attached to the barracks, where it’s the boy who sleeps by his mother at night, in a bed with police greatcoats substituted for blankets. She is a woman with a “laughing face and a light step”, regardless of her distressed marriage and grossly swollen legs. The sergeant is a man frustrated by his dead-end posting, his notebook full of bicycle theft and unshod donkeys. He dreams of a murder before retirement, and in the meanwhile vents his grievances by battering tinkers, slaying ancient trees and killing wounded rats with a spade.

Father in the guards

Connaughton was born in 1941 and raised in Redhills, close to Co Fermanagh. His father, like those of John McGahern and Dermot Healy, was a guard. But Connaughton is better known in cinema than literature; in 1990 he was nominated for an Oscar for cowriting the screenplay of My Left Foot. A Border Station is his debut, first published in 1989 and now being reissued alongside a sequel, Married Quarters.

Both novels are told in third person but firmly from the boy’s point of view. Danny has an uncanny knack for situating himself within eavesdropping distance of every controversial event to happen in Butlershill over several years. When he isn’t loitering around the barracks he’s listening at his neighbour’s doors or spying on the better-looking women of the parish. In A Border Station his escapades include a penis-measuring contest, a spot of turnip harvesting and a trip to the seaside with a pilfered Communion wafer hidden in his pocket.

His is a spare world, yet it is richer for its sparseness. Connaughton excels at prop placement: the willow-patterned crockery and woodworm-riddled dresser, eggs kept in a “white aluminium chamber pot”, the tilley lamp “dishing out golden light with a creamy sigh”.

Miscreant role models

A Border Station closes with Danny being sent away to school. Married Quarters opens a couple of years later, when he is back in Butlershill for the holidays. The village is visibly modernising, tractors taking over from horses, slates replacing thatch, even the odd TV aerial poking up into the “lark- and pigeon-laden sky”. Each chapter is named after a guard and uses their terms serving in Butlershill as a framework.

The posting represents something of a Craggy Island for officers who have disgraced themselves elsewhere. O’Shea is an alcoholic, Keegan has a history of punching inspectors, O’Keefe is barely tall enough to satisfy the height limit. For Danny, now on the cusp of manhood, his father’s squad of miscreants are the best of a bad lot of available role models.

Politics, surprisingly, isn’t to the fore in either novel. There’s the odd “rattle of machine-gun fire” in the background, and the Irish Army occasionally traipse by on their way to and from patrolling the Border, toting their weapons like “a bunch of cavemen with clubs”. Female flesh occupies considerably more page space. “Divine Jesus,” Danny’s mother declares at one point. “This country’s obsessed with sex. One half trying to do it, the other half making sure they don’t.”

Women are portrayed as simultaneously powerless and vastly mysterious. Confined to “house duties”, they bake currant cakes and launder the “unmentionables” in arcane unison. The author ensures we know at once what shape their bosoms are, from simply “pointed” to “nearly as big as a bag of hay”.

Despite the lapse of almost three decades, the prose has barely changed. Connaughton is strong on dialogue but overgenerous with similes and exasperatingly susceptible to sentimentality. Descriptions that begin as astute and evocative too often subside into the kind of cliches that would be excusable in a memoir but are anathema to good fiction.

For example, a passage starts: “There was water everywhere. In the sky, in the lakes, in the light; running off the hills, off the trees, off the roofs and cornered into barrels; in the lime-bottomed well, in the village pump, in the rain gauge at the rear of the Station . . . ” It ends with “. . . always in the air and constantly on tap in women’s eyes and children’s hearts”.

Both novels abound with enjoyable anecdotes and flavourful details; they conjure an intriguing picture of Ireland in the 1950s – a place unfortunately not quite so unfamiliar as it ought to be – where the Border is of ominous significance, public transport desperately scarce and Garda corruption ridiculously commonplace.

Sara Baume is author of Spill Simmer Falter Wither and A Line Made by Walking