The Valley of the Squinting Windows: a century without pity
Brinsley MacNamara debunked idyllic 1918 Ireland in a novel devoid of charity
Brinsley MacNamara: took too obvious a pleasure in debunking the myths associated with romantic Ireland.
Brinsley MacNamara, whose real name was John Weldon, was born on September 6th, 1890. His father, James, a school teacher, lived with his family in Hiskenstown, Co Westmeath, before relocating to Delvin in 1905. Fascinated by the theatre, Weldon the younger moved to Dublin in 1909 and joined the Abbey as an actor, adopting the stage name Brinsley MacNamara. He would subsequently publish plays and novels under this nom de plume, many of which are quite innovative and of a high artistic quality.
However, MacNamara will forever be associated with his first novel, The Valley of the Squinting Windows, published in 1918, at a time when Ireland was still recovering from the failed nationalist rebellion of 1916 before embarking on the War of Independence the following year. The novel’s pitiless portrayal of provincial Ireland, with its hypocrisy, back-biting, religiosity and violence, might well have been more warmly received if it had appeared prior to 1916, but the mood of the country in the wake of the Rising was not receptive to such an unflattering picture of Irish mores, whether authentic or not.
Also, the close parallels between the fictional setting of Garradrimna and Devlin led to the public burning of the book in that town and the ostracisation of the Weldon family. In fact, public feeling was so hostile that there was a lengthy boycott of James Weldon’s school, which had serious financial repercussions for the family – this is all well-documented in Padraic O’Farrell’s excellent study, The Burning of Brinsley MacNamara (Lilliput Press, 1990).
A notice from The Irish Times on June 8th, 1918, declared The Valley to be “a very disappointing novel” because of the extravagantly sordid picture it painted of Ireland, before concluding, rather dramatically: “It is not a book which any Irishman can read with honest pride, and we gladly close it and hope never to open it again.” Writing in 1950, Benedict Kiely referred to MacNamara as an “uncharitable satirist of uncharity”, whose “twisted . . . calumny is reprehensible”. Twenty-seven years later, Peter Costello concurred with this view, maintaining that MacNamara was “a cynical young man who pilloried his neighbours in a bitter first novel of uncharity”.
There is no place for hyperbole, didacticism or personal statement in good fiction. So while MacNamara was within his rights not to court patriotism and popularity, equally he should not have fallen into the trap of settling old debts, which is what he appears to have done. The Valley is purportedly inspired by events that actually took place in Delvin and a number of the dramatis personae were still alive when the novel was published. This clearly had the effect of raising the temperature in the Westmeath village and of arousing deep antipathy among many of its inhabitants.
The novel’s plot is quite complex. Nan Brennan (née Byrne) is the proud mother of John, who is studying for the priesthood in England. Her marriage to a drunkard, Ned, is made somewhat endurable by the thought that she will one day see her son say Mass and be a respected figure in the community. As a young woman of great beauty, Nan had attracted the attentions of a wealthy local farmer, Henry Shannon, and became pregnant by him.
She was condemned from the pulpit, abandoned by her lover, and her child was taken from her immediately after birth. Nan is told that the baby was stillborn, but in actual fact he was sold to Henry Shannon and brought up as his own son after his wife died giving birth a short time later. Nan heads to England to start a new life. She meets and marries Ned and then takes the fatal decision to return to live in the valley, where the inhabitants take callous delight in informing Ned of his wife’s previous wanton behaviour. Unable to forgive her, he devotes his life to drink and indulges in occasional bouts of violence on his wife.
All this would have been endurable if John Brennan had been able to stay true to his mother’s dream that he become a priest. However, he realises that he doesn’t really have a vocation and finds his mother’s vindictiveness and lack of charity difficult to take. He reacts to one of her many character assassinations of a neighbour by saying: “It is good, mother, that we are not as the rest of these.” The irony goes straight over his mother’s head, however. The novel revolves around John’s gradual discovery of his family’s secrets and of his own weaknesses.
The local clergy are either concerned with amassing great fortunes or with keeping a tight control over the moral conduct of their parishioners
Myles Shannon, brother of the now deceased Henry, encourages a friendship between his nephew, Ulick, and John Brennan, out of a desire to revenge Nan’s spiteful plot with the local postmistress to ruin his chances of marriage to a woman from Dublin whom he adored. Myles’ plan works and the two young men spend a good deal of time together during the summer holidays drinking and discussing women.
Problems emerge when John falls in love with the local national school teacher, Rebecca Kerr, who, unaware of John’s feelings, becomes besotted with the philanderer Ulick. Like his father before him, Ulick woos and then abandons the young woman. Discovering that she is pregnant, Rebecca has no choice but to leave her employment. John resents his friend’s callous mistreatment of Rebecca and tries to prevent her from leaving.
But the young woman is well aware that someone in her position will be torn to shreds if she remains in the village. She visits the local chapel for the last time and reflects: “It was the place where, on Sunday next, mean people would smirk in satisfaction as they sat listening in all their lack of charity and fullness of pride . . . The realisation brought the pulsing surge of anger to her blood and she rose to come away.” She then spots the two local priests who promptly avert their eyes, “as if to avoid the contamination of her as she ran from the House of God”.
John’s moral collapse is complete when, in the course of a vicious struggle, he kills his half-brother before throwing the limp body, with weights attached, into a deep lake. To his horror, he subsequently discovers the real identity of Ulick and at the end of the novel falls drunk into his mother’s arms, prompting her to remark: “There were two of them now.” The role of heredity is a recurring trope in the novel, which displays many examples of melodrama and exaggeration. Apart from the kindness of the local school principal (clearly modelled on MacNamara’s own father), who gives money to the disgraced Rebecca, there are very few characters with any redeeming qualities.
Nan shows no empathy towards the young schoolteacher, even though years previously she had found herself in the same unenviable position of being pregnant outside of wedlock, and it is difficult to have sympathy for her when John abandons the priesthood and follows in the steps of his drunken father. The local clergy are either concerned with amassing great fortunes or with keeping a tight control over the moral conduct of their parishioners. Women who fall prey to unscrupulous men are unmercifully chastised and marginalised. Sex outside of marriage is perceived to be the result of the woman’s weakness whereas men are free to walk away from the problems they have caused.
One hundred years on, The Valley of the Squinting Windows, is an important landmark in Irish cultural and literary history
In his preface to the Anvil edition of The Valley, Benedict Kiely wrote: “Brinsley MacNamara had grown tired of the portraits of his countrymen as a lot of cheerful buffoons whose main function was to entertain the tourist, the more civilised fellow who brought colour postcards of the Irishman with the caubeen and the shillelagh and huroos in his mouth.”
While such stereotyping definitely needed addressing, it is questionable if it was absolutely necessary to go so far down the opposite path by portraying Irish people as lacking any real humanity. Writing in 1968, Seán McMahon noted that although MacNamara’s castigation of the malevolence and narrowness of the valley people was justifiable, the writer’s decision to chronicle these vices in such loving detail called his “moral attitude” into question. He concluded: “The book lacks detachment and, in spite of an apparent sympathy, mercy.”
MacNamara challenged the idealised view of an easy-going idyllic Ireland and put in its place an uncompromising depiction of a race of people who seem intent on inflicting as much damage as they can on one another. MacNamara’s impatience with cant and humbug, though admirable in some ways, does betray the lack of detachment highlighted by McMahon.
Equally, he took too obvious a pleasure in debunking the myths associated with romantic Ireland. That said, one hundred years on, The Valley of the Squinting Windows, in addition to contributing an expression that has entered our everyday lexicon, is an important landmark in Irish cultural and literary history. Not a bad legacy, I suppose, for what is a flawed work of art.