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This is Happiness: Comic and nostalgic sweep of rural Irish life

Review: Niall Williams’s novel delivers us back into a world with fewer problems than modern age

This is Happiness
This is Happiness
Author: Niall Williams
ISBN-13: 978-1526609335
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Guideline Price: £16.99

Niall Williams’s coming-of-age novel, This is Happiness, is leisurely, nostalgic, and sweeping in its attention to oral culture, folk stories and local tradition. The narrator, Noel “Noe” Crowe, is 78, and tells the story from across a great gulf of time. Aged 17, he has arrived from Dublin to the small town of Faha, out west, where the rain has been constant for as long as anybody can remember, and the people are eccentric, existing in a world outside of the regulated time of modernity.

In Faha, where he is staying with his grandparents, Doady and Ganga, he meets an older man, Christy McMahon, a kindly and somewhat troubled figure whose history is spun into the narrative, breaking through into Noe’s life, and showing him how to live. Many will catch the echo in the novel’s Christy McMahon with JM Synge’s Christy Mahon, the hero of The Playboy of the Western World, but the characters and their worlds are very different. The degenerate, half-savage world of Synge’s play is replaced in This is Happiness (as the title would suggest) with a much rosier vision of the west. Whereas Synge’s Christy Mahon enters the stage with an unsavoury history, and plays it up, finally enacting an atrocity and receiving a brutal backlash, Williams’s Christy McMahon enters with a difficult past and tries, over the course of the novel, to atone.

Harsher realities

It would probably be churlish to draw too much attention to the novel’s nostalgic comic tone, eliding as it does many of the harsher realities of rural Irish life during the period. Williams’s novel is not a piece of historical realism, and its tone is in keeping with the character of its narrator.

“Time has unpeeled a history of infamy for the country’s institutions, and failures of compassion, tolerance and what was once called common decency were not hard to come upon. Faha was no different; cruelty, meanness and ignorance all had a place then, but as I’ve grown older the instances and stories of them seem less compelling, as if God has inbuilt in me a spirit of clemency I wasn’t aware of when I was younger.”


No doubt, there are those for whom such a statement, early in the novel, will be too blatant a “get out of jail free” card for the narrator. In fact, Noel Crowe insists on such excuses repeatedly. However, we need not expect all fiction to follow the facts of life and history. This is an old-fashioned, romantic, comic vision of rural life, and its nostalgia and ease is for the most part enchanting and charming.

As time and electricity are brought to Faha, there is much comedy to be had. In order to convince the locals, the electricity board, in conjuction with the archbishop, offer a free Sacred Heart lamp to every household that takes on the new technology. The addition of a telephone to a house causes a domestic. Time is “an unstable entity”, with only the family who run the post office setting their clock according to the “pips on the wireless”.

‘Dark weave’

There are chapters here devoted to seemingly minor events – whitewashing houses, trips to the pub, services at church – but local life is lifted into significance through the value Williams places on the everyday. His imagination is thorough and detailed, creating a fully inhabitable world. Of a thatched roof, the narrator notes that “through its dark weave and wove there’s not a glimmer of light, but still you can tell when the sun is overhead. The roof is minutely alive and feels forgiving.” Of the stars on a bike ride home, he describes how “The rain having departed, the evening sky was million-flecked. It felt opened.”

Despite its saccharine title, which overdoes the novel’s sunny disposition, this is a worthy read. In the voices of Faha, an older Ireland is brought to life. This is likely to be a popular summer read, transporting us to a world with fewer problems than our own. It has the ease of listening to an elder tell a family legend or a piece of local gossip. As Noel tells us, “when you get to a grandfather’s age, life takes on the quality of comedy, with aches”.

Seán Hewitt

Seán Hewitt, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a teacher, poet and critic