Modern gem of Irish literature rescued from oblivion

The Weaver's Grave, by Seamus O'Kelly. Dublin: The O'Brien Press/Greenwich, Conn: Devin-Adair. 135 pp. $13.95. First published in 1919, one year after its author was buried with patriotic pomp as a hero of the Irish cause, Seamus O'Kelly's ``The Weaver's Grave'' has experienced the fate accorded more than a few literary masterpieces: After winning immediate acclaim, it fell into an oblivion relived only in part by the efforts of the occasional anthology editor. It has drifted in and mostly out of print for years.

The republication of this extraordinary tale of a search for a burial plot among the disheveled ruins of a graveyard in the inhospitable reaches of western Ireland represents a welcome attempt to keep this singular gem of Irish literature alive.

``The Weaver's Grave'' is the only thing of quality that O'Kelly, a fiercely nationalistic journalist and minor playwright, ever wrote. (The four other stories included in this edition bear this out.) Whatever the explanation for the appearance of so fine a work in the canon of so mediocre a writer, O'Kelly did, in this one story, manage to put his considerable gift for rendering local color in the service of a powerful and lasting vision of the strength of the human spirit.

Its central characters are two old men summoned to locate the weaver's grave -- Cahir Bowes the stone-breaker and Meehaul Lynskey the nailer. The physical afflictions and deformities of these two Beckettian characters are more than offset by the vitality of their extravagant and exuberent language.

The most remarkable emblem of this affirmation of human will and determination in the face of loss and suffering is a third old man -- Malachi Roohan the cooper, to whom the weaver's widow goes for information after the stone-breaker and the nailer fail to find the grave.

The theme of ``The Weaver's Grave'' is hardly original. What makes this novel worthy of survival is its convincing evocation of the tough, sinewy landscape and people of this desolate patch of the world, reminding us again of the truth of playwright John M. Synge's statement, in the preface to his poems, that ``it is the timber of poetry that wears most surely, and there is no timber that has not strong roots among the clay and worms.''

Gregory A. Schirmer teaches at University of Mississippi.

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