Monday, July 17, 2017

Book Review: The Ghost of Galway Past

The Ghost of Galway Past Kevin Higgins reviews a re-issued fictional classic banned in 1929 by the Irish Free State - 'Stalinist Albania without the sex'.

The re-publication of The House of Gold, perhaps Liam O’Flaherty’s finest novel, goes some small way to ameliorate the atrocious wrong done when the book was banned in 1929 by those charged with protecting the people of Ireland from publications that might lead them to have impure thoughts. Until now, the only publicly available copy of it in Galway City - which is on one level the novel’s subject - rested in the library at NUI Galway. I read it for the first time in 2001 when socialist activist Andy Johnston used his access to said library to obtain the book, and lent it to me. It was a dusty old hardback affair of which I had never previously even heard.

Books were banned, so the official Free State line went, because they were deemed indecent or obscene. The truth is, though, the House of Gold is more about power than it is about what the late Sid James often called rumpy-pumpy. An interesting footnote to the suppression of both The House of Gold and the many other books banned in those decades is that the Justice Minister, my not even slightly liberal near-namesake Kevin O’Higgins, was actually initially opposed to the banning of books.

But concerned citizens campaigned to put that right. In 1926 the snappily named Committee on Evil Literature was set up and did a report on the issue for the Department of Justice. After, that is, spending ten months getting all hot and sweaty reading every ‘filthy book’ they could lay their moist palms upon. Today, such a committee would probably include as members such luminaries as William Binchy, Labhrás O’ Murchú, Breda O’Brien, the ever greasy Senator Ronan Mullen, and the tragic monument that is John Waters. The result was the Censorship of Publications Board which was set up in the generally happy clappy year of 1929. Books by pretty much every major Irish writer of the period were banned by the very active Board. Also banned was all literature giving information about family planning.

The House of Gold is set in a fictional town, Barra, where the big hopes most had for post-independence Ireland have vanished down a pretty ghastly dead end. Almost absolute power rests with the avaricious Ramon Mór Costello, who owns most of the town and operates in alliance with some even grubbier than usual representatives of the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church. Ramon Mór is an early twentieth century Irish version of J.R. Ewing, without the excellent put-downs and charming personality. Ramon’s wife, Nora, is, to quote Eric Idle: “a bit of a goer.” In the first chapter she sneaks off for an occasion of sin with a left wing dissident, a guy who, if he was around today, would probably be found with megaphone and leaflets outside Lynch’s Castle on Shop Street when he wasn’t busy messing up the bed sheets of the bourgeoise. Their relationship is the best possible sort of class collaboration. Nora despises her husband Ramon, but feels at his mercy, which she absolutely is. It’s also clear she sympathises with the political ideas of the aforementioned dissident: “it make me feel like a criminal, every fair day, to see all these half-starved people coming into town with their cattle, selling them and giving all the money to him.”

In his preface, Tomás Mac Síomóin says: “Anyone familiar with Galway, the gaelicisms of its speech and with its people will recognise that O’Flaherty’s Barra is, in fact, Galway. The character profiles that abound are based, undoubtedly, on identifiable inhabitants of that town in the immediate aftermath of the Irish Civil War.” It is widely believed that Ramon Mór Costello is a fictionalised version of Mairtín 'mór' McDonagh, then patriarch of the McDonagh merchant family, who employed much of the town, sold the farmers everything they needed and bought their cattle from them at ungenerous prices set by a ‘free’ market in which the McDonagh’s had a near monopoly for many decades. This book was explosive material when it was first published eighty four years ago.

Even today, it is a dangerous enough book. It wasn’t just neglect that led to it remaining out of print so long. Nor is it a coincidence that it had to go to Spain to find a publisher. The McDonagh’s are still around. Today they are involved in, among other things, property development. Here is a quote from the website of Thomas McDonagh and Sons Limited:

Established over 150 years ago as merchants in Galway, the group of companies operating under the banner of Thomas McDonogh and Sons Limited is now one of Ireland's foremost private companies, with a network of operations and offices throughout the island of Ireland.

It goes on to say:

Throughout its history, the company has played an active role in the local communities in which it is situated. This is particularly evident in Galway, where the company remains actively involved in local business (IBEC, Chamber of Commerce), the arts (Druid Theatre, Galway Arts Centre) and sport (Galway Races, Galway Golf Club).

“An active role”, they most certainly have played. Myself and my wife, Susan, both teach writing workshops at the above mentioned Galway Arts Centre. We may sometimes think we’re classless and clever and free but the truth is otherwise.

The House of Gold is quite beautifully written; the word dark does little justice to how dark it sometimes gets. At the end of Chapter Two, Ramon’s wife Nora is raped by a priest who is one of her husband’s key allies in the greasy till-shivering prayer coalition which rules the town, now the British have gone. Before the rape, in a scene so bizarre it has the absolute ring of truth, the priest shouts a prayer for the willpower not to rape her: “Lord have mercy on me. I am being swallowed in the abyss of lust. My will is weak. Take this apple of evil from my sight.” He then proceeds.

On one level this priest is just another dude with ‘issues’ that make him a serious danger to women.

On another, though, the way he treats sex as if it is something that’s both disgusting and all the woman’s fault is traditional Irish Catholic ideology at its worst. It is a great thing indeed that this near masterpiece is back on our bookshelves. Special credit is due to Jenny and Niall Farrell who played an important role in getting it there. The House of Gold should be force-fed to everyone who misses the good old days and thinks the Iona Institute have a point. It is the story of what life was like in many Irish towns, Galway being no exception, back when the Chamber of Commerce ruled in coalition with the type of rubbish now to be found in Youth Defence. A friend of mine says that Ireland then was like Stalinist Albania without the sex. The House of Gold makes it clear though, that whatever the reality for most of the population, the Catholic clergy always made sure that, by fair means or foul, they themselves did not go wanting in the carnal department.

The House Of Gold by Liam O’Flaherty is published by Nuascéalta (251pp €11.99).

Kevin Higgins is a Galway-based poet, essayist and reviewer, and satirist-in-residence at the alternative literature site The Bogman's Cannon,

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