Jamie Dornan and ungodly thoughts in 1885 Fermanagh

Dripping with breathless desire, ‘Death and Nightingales’ offers a tense vision of Ireland

The luminescent Ann Skelly plays Beth Williams, Catholic daughter of a Protestant quarry-owner, while Jamie Dornan plays the dishy labourer Liam Ward

The luminescent Ann Skelly plays Beth Williams, Catholic daughter of a Protestant quarry-owner, while Jamie Dornan plays the dishy labourer Liam Ward

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In one sly and pleasing moment during Allan Cubitt’s stately adaptation of Eugene McCabe’s novel Death and Nightingales (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm), its young protagonist Beth Williams (the luminescent Ann Skelly), the Catholic daughter of a Protestant quarry-owner, regards two paintings that hang together like warning signs.

The first is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, beaming out its pious rays. The second is a busier depiction of dragon-like devils tormenting a sinner. Her company, an extremely dishy Catholic labourer in fine tailoring played by Jamie Dornan gives an arch reading. “The long-tailed lads look to be more fun than the boy with the showy heart,” he says. She smiles. In Fermanagh in 1885, this is as wicked as it gets.

Cubitt, the writer and director of The Fall, has already given us a remarkably Gothic view of contemporary Northern Ireland, almost always seen at night, where horrors lurk in the darkness. Here, the dominant feeling is of a pale hazy light, where evils hide in plain sight.

“The heartbreak of this place,” Beth says aloud, gazing across an impossibly shimmering lough. “I love it and hate it like no place on earth.”

Indeed, everything seems either doubled or edged with enchantment: Beth is described as “the living replica” of her dead mother, who, her father discovered, was pregnant by another man. She imagines the town as a kind of fairyland, and considers all humans “near evil”. When we first see her, in a brisk flash-forward, she is preparing a vengeful potion for William Winters, her tormented and tormenting father (Matthew Rhys).

Like the elegance of Cubitt’s camera, framing the scenes with a painterly eye, the show works best through suggestion. Confronted on her 23rd birthday, a day we discover, for which she has conspired to make secret plans, Beth has a transfixing stillness when she challenges William for “the last time you came in and sat on my bed, kissed me, not fatherly” – and you reel as he does from the words.

Such is the command of the period that no scene seems quite as aggressive as William and Beth arguing over dinner about the poetic merits of Keats. What does he write about, asks William, feigning ignorance. “Death mostly,” she replies, “and nightingales.”

Yet, for all its decorum and silences the programme is hardly staid, slipping between time frames without the dreaded explication of a “two weeks earlier” title, and the enlivening sense that we see everything through Beth’s fascinating perspective.

Some will find it curious that in this tense vision of Ireland voices are raised so rarely in the first of these three episodes. But in a subtly absorbing show of breathless desire, ungodly plans and private dilemmas spoken aloud, it seems only right that the show should have the delicate, conspiratorial quality of a whisper.

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