The `fighting Irish' in myth and memory

No Country for Young Men, by Julia O'Faolain. New York: Graf Carroll & Graf. 369 pp. $19.50 Don't read the blurb on the dust jacket of this novel. If you do you probably won't open the book, and that would be a pity for you would miss some unusually skillful writing.

Not that the blurb is inaccurate: The story does include such Gothic-sounding elements as a deranged nun incarcerated in a convent against her will 50 years ago, as well as murders, treacheries, and treasure. And it takes place in urban Ireland - an uncomfortable place to read about. Even the title is discouraging.

But start reading and Miss O'Faolain's art holds you fast. She conjures up an Ireland with an atmosphere so vivid that one is convinced of its authenticity.

Keep a firm mental hold on the family tree printed at the beginning of the book, for the author has used one dedicated Republican family, the O'Malleys, to show how varied are the influences and people that make up the ``fighting Irish.'' She switches us dizzyingly back and forth between the '20s and the present day. If you get lost, remember that mythical moments belong in the past. For instance the doomed Christmas ball the Irish Republican Army gave in a ``borrowed'' stately home was obviously a 1920s affair. More mundane occasions belong to the present, like the evening spent in a pub where all the regulars suffered from primitive tooth work. (``All around ... were Draculas, Bugs Bunnies and hay-rake grins'' or ``cheery false teeth.'')

Fifty years ago when the Republicans split over the treaty with Britain, the Irish Americans dispatched Sparky Driscoll, according to this story, to spy out the land and decide which side should get their support - and dollars. Somehow Sparky got himself murdered (the Irish didn't rate Irish Americans too highly). Now politically innocent Californian, James Duffy follows his footsteps. James's secret mission is to gather material for a propaganda film on behalf of the United States Banned Aid featuring the martyrdom of Sparky Driscoll. The Irish government must be led to believe it will be a ``nice nostalgic movie about the Grand Old Fight'' full of interviews with ``just ordinary Joe O'Does.''

James, blundering around where no self-respecting angel would dream of treading, unwittingly stirs up new suspicions and old sleeping mysteries: Why was that nun shuffled off into a convent? What really happened to Sparky? Nor is that the whole of James's dangerous folly. He falls in love with a married woman, a member of the puritanical O'Malley family. An intelligent, vital woman, she feels, she says, like ``a character from `Moby Dick' trying to live in `Cranford.''' Their affair is a passionate one with no salacious detail left to our imagination.

Perhaps O'Faolain includes the episode to emphasize how sadly the church and the IRA have wasted the energies of its women, condemning them to destructive boredom.

She makes another point too: From his football days, James ``knew about the energy which comes in the pit of exhaustion and that negatives can breed positives. He was ready to believe that a repeatedly defeated island, throttled by ancient and fermented rage, might be the place to breed passions of a transporting magnitude. He was eager to grapple with such a passion and for the apparatus of negation which must, like a trampoline, catapult him into ecstatic orbit.'' And with a typical wry touch O'Faolain adds, ``He did not, at the same time, wish to distress his wife.''

As for the more expected kind of Irish passion, O'Faolain seems to feel that modern day Republicans are losing the fiery zeal that motivated men like Owen Roe: ``His vision,'' his sister-in-law believed, ``lit up the shapelessness of life, like those blades of reflected moonlight which sometimes turn a nocturnal sea into gnashing of bright steel.''

Nostalgia, of all things, seems to be largely to blame. It has set in like a rot. James finds it a ``country populated by pillars of salt,'' where even the literature is ``full of Renunciation. Dig my grave both deep and wide. Laments. Goodbyes ... No commitment to anything but giving up ... leave me alone and I'll sing a song about it.''

Even in the '20s the rot was at work. An old man remembers when he lived in America and sat in Murphy's Irish saloon, ``singing about going back to Erin. He closed his eyes to concentrate on the words and his voice throbbed with a nostalgia which showed him so sunk in memory that he was longing to return to where he bodily was.''

Perhaps as one of O'Faolain's characters maintains, ``memory is the opposite of thought.''

No country for young men, indeed.

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