Pssst, pass it on – An Irishman’s Diary on gossiping neighbours and ‘The Valley of the Squinting Windows ’
A Dublin friend who moved to a Kerry town a decade ago soon gave up on British weekly magazines “because the local gossip is far better”. Photograph: iStock
A century ago, with the sulphurous crack of a match, the good people of Delvin, Co Westmeath, set fire to a book. The Valley of the Squinting Windows by Brinsley MacNamara – real name John Weldon – was published in 1918 as a vicious take-down of ruthless Irish rural life.
Ostensibly set in the fictional village of Garradrimna – Weldon’s neighbours in Delvin recognised their town’s topography – and themselves – and revolted.
“They burned my book in the best medieval fashion and resorted to acts of healthy violence,” the author wrote later, recalling strong reviews – and sales.
“The country as a whole did not dislike my picture of Irish life or say it was untrue.”
True or not, rural revenge is relentless: his schoolteacher father in Devlin was boycotted and Weldon left after a failed lawsuit against the local priest who banned the book. All in all, marketing gold for a tale now largely forgotten beyond its immortal title.
The plot revolves around a villager dubbed a “woman of shame” by the local priest, her home an off-limits “abode of lust”. Besides her lonely work as a seamstress, she battles the whispers about her character with “sweeping denunciations of others” and a never-ending piety competition with other local women, “degrading the mysteries” to a “continual caw of calumny”.
Her neighbours are a pitiless collection of biddies, alcoholics, gombeens, grabbers – all possessing “thickness... a quality particular to the hush of grassy places”.
Locals send their children to school only to get gossip on the new teacher, who is dallying with the nephew of the local squire. The affair is monitored closely, “eyes trained like Howitzers”, by the local postmistress who feels it is her moral duty to steam open all letters to keep abreast of local events.
The local priest is a powerful but oddly distant figure, Irish Catholicism less a moral cudgel in daily use and a more noble gild for the poisonous local lily of the valley. By its conclusion the valley has “so powerfully arranged its villainy” that several residents break under their “singular and special persecution of each other”.
For a modern, urban reader the book is a hoot: potboiler and melodrama in one, bursting with purple prose. Characters are either mean, naive or both and yet there are enough clever, biting observations with a ring of painful experience about them.
It is no masterpiece – more Peyton Place than Madam Bovary, one recent critic sniffed. But Peyton Place is one of the best-selling books of all time because it was a compulsive, pitiless expose of pettiness. Its Irish cousin is no less so and, while Garradrimna has a fraction of the sex going on in Peyton, it more than makes up for it in blackmail.
For readers raised in, or familiar with, rural Ireland, it’s fascinating to see the reach of rural Ireland’s control mechanisms long after the book was published.
A friend who spent the 1980s living in a rural Limerick town still recalls how locals gossiped if someone washed their bed sheets too regularly – or not regularly enough. A Dublin friend who moved to a Kerry town a decade ago soon gave up on British weekly magazines “because the local gossip is far better”.
A century on, Irish windows still squint – but in the opposite direction: in, not out. Under the guise of social and architectural improvement, viewers of Room to Improve cackle quietly from the comfort of their living rooms at others’ interiors – and then cackle again after their house emerges the other end looking like last week’s house, and the one before. (Brinsley MacNamara would have had great fun with the show’s window obsession: any size as long as they are massive. Ostensibly to let in the light, such windows in the Irish climate are more suited to give a better view of the horizontal rain.)
Revisiting the “squinting windows” a century on is a welcome antidote, too, to the unquestioned narrative that rural Ireland today is being sacrificed, squeezed and sucked dry by Dublin.
Young people are moving to Dublin in their thousands, we hear, because Dublin refuses to share the jobs and infrastructure with the regions.
But what if many young people are fleeing rural Ireland, too, for for the same reason they always have: to get away from what, a century ago, MacNamara called the “happy carnival of destructive gossip”?
How else do you explain the desperation of Dublin’s real-life “Room to Disimprove” property market where, for €1,200 a month, you can rent a one-room hovel with a bed on top of the kitchen cupboards?
Still squinting, a century on, this book (available to download free on Google Books/archive.org) cries out for a new life on television.