‘There are those who must flee Ireland to see Ireland plain’
Author Brian Moore’s fame does not rely on his short stories but they add to our understanding of him
Brian Moore: “For the great majority of writers born and brought up within its shores, Ireland is a harsh literary jailer. It is a terrain whose power to capture and dominate the imagination makes them its prisoner.”
Brian Moore returned to Ireland in October 1945 after his service in the British ministry of war transport. He had served across much of North Africa and Europe and had witnessed the liberation of Auschwitz. On this visit he attended the funeral of his uncle, Eoin MacNeill, a founder of the Gaelic League and the first president of the Irish Volunteers, the man now remembered for attempting to call off the 1916 Rising. Moore was proud of his uncle, describing him as “a life which changed the fate of the Irish nation,” and wrote of the funeral:
“Here, in neutral Ireland, it seemed that De Valera and his political foes, kneeling in prayer at my uncle’s funeral, were historic figures from a dead past. I believed then, with the optimism of a generation weary of the chimera of Irish bloodshed, that our divisions would die with the deaths of these old antagonists of England.”
These two sentences convey many of the reasons for Moore’s lifelong distance from Ireland. There is the exasperation with “neutral Ireland” still conducting its politics of “a dead past”. Moore would explore that in his novel The Emperor of Ice-Cream where the young hero, Gavin, joins Belfast’s air raid precautions unit, when he wears its uniform his aunt describes him as “dressed up like a Black and Tan”.
Gavin’s father cannot forget his hatred of England, even in its opposition to Hitler, but at the end of the novel, as Belfast is destroyed by German bombs, he admits his mistake: “his father’s world was dead”. The world Moore declared as “dead” in his fiction remained in place for decades. Judith Hearne’s Belfast is also Eamon de Valera’s Ireland.
In 1970 Moore wrote about the civil rights movement: “we cannot be left any longer in the dead hands of our Unionist masters”. It is striking how often that word “dead” is repeated when Moore writes of Ireland and its politics.
After the funeral Moore immediately left Ireland, briefly stayed in London, and travelled on to Poland where he worked for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. In 1948, he emigrated to Canada and began the career that made him one of the most acclaimed novelists of his generation.
In editing The Dear Departed I have collected eight of Brian Moore’s short stories, the first time they have been published together, from his early years as a writer. These stories were originally published in a variety of magazines between 1953 to 1961, the period when his early novels were published: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne in 1955 up to The Luck of Ginger Coffey in 1960. These short stories, and those early novels, were written by the young man who had moved to Canada (and later, the US) to escape his family and Belfast, who knew that, as he wrote in a review of Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems: “there are those who must flee Ireland to see Ireland plain.”
Also in this review of Heaney’s Selected Poems Moore complains of the lot of the Irish writer: “For the great majority of writers born and brought up within its shores, Ireland is a harsh literary jailer. It is a terrain whose power to capture and dominate the imagination makes them its prisoner.”
Moore was determined to write about his own preoccupations, not Ireland’s, even if many of those preoccupations centred on the Ireland of his youth.
The “Ireland plain” that Moore depicts in his early stories could be that of James Joyce. The story Grieve for the Dear Departed has an air of Joyce’s Dubliners. In Dublin, a mother mourns the death of her husband while looking forward to the return of her son, Michael, for the funeral. Sixteen years earlier Michael had argued with his father, “she never knew the exact right of it, except that Michael had been disrespectful about the clergy,” and left for America. In another story, Uncle T, another young man emigrates to Canada after another dispute with his father over religion and visits his uncle in New York (the uncle had left Belfast a generation before after an argument over religion with his father), only to find that exile does not lead to fulfilment: “Drink, that was an Irish weakness. Self-deceit, that was an Irish weakness.”
The first story in The Dear Departed, A Vocation, describes two young boys discussing their school retreat and evokes the overpowering role Catholicism has over their young minds and the control the Church held over society during Moore’s childhood. Moore said of it, “it’s about the only thing I can consciously remember writing about my childhood.”
These three stories may be Moore’s most autobiographical writing, and show a young man working out his feelings around his childhood and family, their close links to the Gaelic Revival (and the loyalty due to the nationalist movement that grew out of that), Catholicism and the immutability of a father’s opinions. In his early novels much of his characters’ despair comes from the realisation that once the older generation’s beliefs are demolished there are no alternatives to replace them. To find alternative beliefs Moore had to emigrate.
In 1980 Moore reviewed John McGahern’s Getting Through, describing them as stories “of small pinched lives, of regret for what might have been, of failed chances and momentary joys”. That description could also apply to Moore’s own Irish novels, from The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne to The Feast of Lupercal. Moore had greater ambitions than novels of “small pinched lives” Canada (and later, the US) provided him the freedom, the expanse of imagination, to allow him to do that.
Several of the stories in The Dear Departed show Moore looking for freer lives. He found another identity, that of a Canadian writer (after all, Moore took out Canadian citizenship in 1953 and kept it even after moving to the US in 1959). One of the stories in The Dear Departed, Lion of the Afternoon, once appeared in an anthology titled A Book of Canadian Stories (Alice Munro also appears in it). In another story, Off the Track, a pair of Canadian tourists find their visit to Haiti an uncomfortable reminder of the pampered security of their lives.
The most gleeful story is set in Montreal and takes comic revenge on organised religion. In Hearts and Flowers a group of homeless men are offered a Christmas lunch in return for singing hymns, instead they march out onto the Montreal streets, singing God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen, collecting enough money for “Beer, wine. Gallons of wine.”
Moore’s literary fame, and reputation, do not depend on his short stories but their publication adds to our understanding of him. The best stories, Uncle T in particular, show the vulnerabilities that drove many of his novels and remind us that in leaving Belfast Brian Moore became its greatest novelist.
James Doyle is publisher of Turnpike Books