Bernard Mac Laverty Essay - Critical Essays

Mac Laverty, Bernard


Bernard Mac Laverty 1942–

Irish novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter.

Mac Laverty has gained considerable attention as an important new author. His novels and short stories deal perceptively with a wide range of human conflicts, from the difficulties of growing up to the ordeals of growing old. His most successful work, the novel Cal (1983), has been particularly recognized for its insightful depiction of the effects on individuals of the hostilities between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

Mac Laverty made his literary debut with Secrets and Other Stories (1977), a collection in which the process of growing up is a prominent theme. While critics enjoyed Mac Laverty's wryly comic tone, they also noted the underlying seriousness of stories that portray young protagonists who confront the reality of death for the first time or undergo other emotional trauma. Mac Laverty's first novel, Lamb (1980), was widely praised as a compelling and tragic story of pure love in an impure world. A Time to Dance (1982), Mac Laverty's second collection of short stories, expands his range to include examinations of growing old along with stories of young people coming of age.

Cal is Mac Laverty's first work to concentrate fully on war-torn Northern Ireland. Nineteen-year-old Cal and his father are the only Catholic family in a Protestant neighborhood, a highly volatile situation. Yielding to various pressures, Cal becomes involved with the Irish Republican Army and drives the getaway car in the assassination of a Protestant police officer. This is Cal's first and last exercise as an accomplice to terrorism. Later, he meets and falls in love with the murdered man's widow, and through their relationship he attempts to overcome his sense of guilt and find redemption. Critics admired Mac Laverty's depiction of the violence of Ulster life, which is conveyed forcefully without sensationalism. However, the novel has also been faulted for not developing the larger social and political issues it introduces and for ultimately remaining a conventional love story. Despite these criticisms, reaction to Cal has been generally favorable, and it is primarily this work which has established Mac Laverty's present importance among contemporary Irish fiction writers.

Patricia Craig

[The stories in Secrets and Other Stories are] completely without affectation or self-indulgence. The themes are simple—loyalty and its failures, compromise, apprehensions of one kind or another. Apart from the boy whose excessive holiness sometimes causes involuntary levitation, the central characters are all unremarkable, but they are presented with that kind of dispassionate authority that makes them stay in the reader's mind.

The settings in time are the 1950s and the present, but the current abnormality of life in Belfast is not stressed. Soldiers in the streets make no more dramatic statement than 'Wot?' when a drunken layabout assures them that they are doing a grand job. Yet their presence has ominous implications and these are summed up in single observation. In 'Between Two Shores', young girls giggling at soldiers are ignored: 'Soldiers before them had chased it and ended up dead or maimed for life'. (p. 49)

Patricia Craig, "Stories of Ulster," in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 23, No. 8, May. 1978, pp. 48-9.∗


[In] the world of Bernard MacLaverty … the loss of innocent illusions is usually comically ironic—not at all as the characters imagined—yet … the loss seems to matter less than the innocence itself.

Several of the better stories in Secrets and Other Stories deal with a boy's loss of innocence or his initiation into a corrupted adult world. Yet in MacLaverty's stories these transitional steps do not destroy the former, innocent world. Indeed, those worlds seem to take on new depths of tenderness and reality by exposure to the new. In "The Exercise," a story reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus' disciplining in A Portrait of the Artist, a boy is caned by his Latin teacher for daring to suggest that his homework must be right because it was done by his father—a mere barman. Both father and teacher warn that henceforth Kevin will have to work Latin problems out for himself. At the story's conclusion, the boy hasn't yet faced telling his father that his assertion, "'Son, your Da's a genius,'" no longer applies to Latin. Yet characteristic of MacLaverty, and in marked contrast to Joyce, this beginning of disillusionment produces no alienation between father and son…. (pp. 130-31)

Several of MacLaverty's comic situations seem material for raucous one-liners, not the stuff which a grant-winning academic dropping allusions to Joyce, Hopkins, and Forster (and Mr. MacLaverty is also one of these) would find satisfyingly complex….

But darkness intrudes...

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John Naughton

Lamb is Bernard MacLaverty's first novel, and an impressive début it is too. The central characters are a man and a boy—the former a Christian Brother who works in an Irish borstal, the latter one of his wayward charges. The story opens in a windswept reformatory on the west coast of Ireland, where a community of Christian Brothers strives to inject a comprehensive fear of both God and man into kids who are either too young for jail or too much for their parents.

The casual, almost cheerful, brutality of the place is well evoked. In particular, there is an economical portrait of one Brother Benedict, the chief disciplinarian of the establishment, which will bring out the weals on any former client of the Brothers who chances to read it. The regime proves, in the end, too much for Michael Lamb, alias Brother Sebastian, who decides to quit the Order after his father dies and leaves him a little money. In departing, however, he takes with him a young epileptic called Owen with whom he has built up an affectionate relationship over two years….

The novel traces the development of their relationship under the pressures of flight, and chronicles the gradual closing of their options with sympathy and skill. It's a story which could easily have degenerated into schmaltz, but Mr MacLaverty keeps his nerve all the way, and brings off an ending which, though predictably tragic and moving, is in no way sentimental.

John Naughton, "Hitler in the Amazon," in The Listener, Vol. 103, No. 2656, July 3, 1980, p. 25.∗

Julia O'Faolain

"Lamb" reads like one of Aesop's fables. Plain, suspense-filled, streamlined, whittled down, it has the nerve to ignore verisimilitude in the interest of reminding us that reality is often more innocent and desperate than we think. Dostoyevsky was good at doing this, children's stories sometimes come close to it, and the aplomb with which Bernard Mac Laverty pulls off the trick in this first novel makes it look as easy as kite-flying….

[Owen and Michael] are two of a kind: innocent—Michael's love for the boy is not sexual but Christlike, and it is significant that his job at the Home was teaching carpentry—wary, but incapable of foresight, and the wavering growth of trust between them is tactfully and movingly graphed. (p. 13)

Some English reviewers of this novel were unconvinced by Michael's innocence about money—he is shocked to see how fast it goes—and they thought it flawed the narrative. This ignores the blend of canniness and simplicity common among monks, and Mr. Mac Laverty's persuasive implication that the flaw lies in the way things are. Though the events are seen through Michael's unsophisticated eyes, the author manages to convey parabolic resonances. For instance, the false name under which Michael checks into their first hotel is Mr. Abraham, and when he tries to give Owen a reading lesson, the story he happens on is that of Icarus. The reader feels menace before either lamb has a whiff of it. Intent on immediate problems—Owen's wetting hotel beds and having an epileptic fit at a football match—Michael takes a while to see the greater fatality pressing upon them. When it overtakes him in the dark passion of the final page, the reader is drawn into an emotional affinity rarely achieved by serious writing in our time. "He had started with a pure loving simple ideal but it had gone foul on him, turned inevitably into something evil. It had been like this all his life, with the Brothers, with the very country he came from." The country Mr. Mac Laverty comes from is Northern Ireland, and although the political allusion is unobtrusive, it is enriching. Simple ideals are indeed perilous; the rings of resonance widen to engulf us all. This is an impressive book. (pp. 13, 22)

Julia O'Faolain, "Irish Innocence," in The New York Times Book Review, November 2, 1980, pp. 13, 22.∗

Thomas Kelly

The tales [in Secrets and Other Stories] are recognizably Irish for setting and wit—here with the bite of a Belfast accent—and usually display that ease of language peculiar to the Irish writer and exasperating to the American or British. MacLaverty has obvious talent and discipline, but he often lacks the consciousness of the tradition and techniques with which he is working to achieve successfully the modern voice within anecdotal structures.

The opening story, "The Exercise," is endearing, the sort that usually promises a good collection. A young boy thinks his father, a publican, can do no wrong; he gets the man's help on a Latin lesson; next day, the boy is chosen to read his answers...

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James Campbell

[MacLaverty's prose is] vivid and virtually faultless. He has the knack of breathing life into a character in the time it takes to say a simple sentence and he never loses his awareness that the first duty of the writer of fiction is to tell a story. Following his recent first novel, Lamb, A Time to Dance is a splendid collection of short stories. The longest of the ten is undoubtedly the best: 'My Dear Palestrina' is about the relationship between a gifted, if reluctant, boy pupil and his flamboyant music teacher. Miss Schwartz. The boy strolls through whatever piece his teacher happens to set him, and as she stands by the piano week after week in only a black silk dressing gown while he tries to keep his mind...

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Alison Weir

Short stories are fashionable and none more welcome than [A Time to Dance and Other Stories] by Bernard Mac Laverty. His tone is sombre, his material human. Without resorting to those Gothic pieces of description that point up the moral in many a story written by his contemporaries, he shows us how tragically cruel we are to one another. Yet Bernard Mac Laverty observes the human race with love and heaps loving detail on each story. Mild though they are, there is infinite satisfaction in the carefully drawn settings and the formation of the characters. Each movement is recorded, from the old men and their aluminium frames (one the unwavering pourer of illicit malt whisky at the old people's day centre to...

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Deirdre Donahue

In his second book of short stories, A Time to Dance, Bernard Mac Laverty recalls the fears of childhood and imagines the indignities of old age. This Ulster-born writer, now living on the Isle of Islay, explores the world of the very young and the very old, the innocent and the helpless. His best stories map out a frightening terrain where the inhabitants smash up against reality.

The collection's best story, "The Beginnings of a Sin," traces the disenchantment of a fatherless Irish altar boy named Colum. Called a "creeping Jesus" by his older brothers, the child has the ardor of a very young and very earnest soul. He idolizes an old priest, failing to see, as every villager knows, that the...

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John Walsh

"Give me a big enough wedge and I'll split the world" says, young Cal McCrystal [the protagonist of Cal] in an uncharacteristic burst of rhetoric. But all around him the world is already split beyond the powers of healing—he lives with his father under a kind of siege, in the last Catholic household on a Protestant estate…. He is beset alike by the Protestant toughs who beat him up on the way home and set his house ablaze, and by the implacable Republicans—the murderously clodlike Crilly and the smoothly rational Skeffington—who try to elicit his support on IRA missions.

Above all he is beset by guilt—the memory of a killing in which he drove the get-away car, and the memory of a...

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Valentine Cunningham

Marinaded in legend, memorialised in endless song, televised nightly, no politics are more self-consciously alert to the way they appear on stage than the Irish sort. And Bernard Mac Laverty's gripping new political thriller, 'Cal', grips not least because of its attentiveness to how things look, and to how people obsessively watch themselves, within the Ulster frame. Mac Laverty's people keep wanting to take snapshots of, as well as potshots at, each other. Eager voyeurs, they peer continually through windows, through lenses, through camera shutters. What they, and we, see are beauties and terrors awesomely mingling.

Telling moments are stilled, with daunting indiscriminateness, into the illuminated...

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Francis King

Significantly, Bernard MacLaverty's [Cal] opens with the words: 'He stood at the back gateway of the abattoir …' The North Ireland here depicted is itself a giant abattoir; and just as the hero, the eponymous Cal, has given up his job as an animal slaughterer, so too he wants to opt out of the human slaughter in which, press-ganged by a former school-friend, he has ineluctably become involved. Unfortunately, it is easier to quit the abattoir than to quit the Cause. As one of his associates ominously tells him: 'If you're not part of the solution, then you become part of the problem.'…

Mr MacLaverty describes the sad, straitened, passionate lives of his characters with tremendously moving...

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Anatole Broyard

How strange it is to read about a religious war in an English-speaking country in our time. Yet that's essentially what Bernard MacLaverty's "Cal" is about—the undeclared war between Irish Catholics and Protestants in Ulster.

It seems almost surrealistic to hear a Protestant in "Cal" talk of being "ruled from Rome," or living "under the yoke of Roman Catholicism." We wonder how much of this fear is real and how much imaginary. If it weren't so bloody, we might be glad to see people quarreling about spiritual matters for a change, actually arguing about the fate of the soul….

Cal himself is a rather empty young man, not yet beyond redemption, but poised between good and evil…....

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Jack Beatty

Political hopelessness hangs thick over Cal, a novel of love and guilt set against the backdrop of the Troubles. More, it seems to have infected the author, a well-regarded Scotch-Irish writer, with a lethargy of spirit. For despite many admirable touches, Cal lacks that energy of language, invention, or plot through which art transcends tragedy while depicting it. (p. 3)

The very terms of its story limit the novel's range of representation and meaning. Cal is a 19-year-old Catholic youth lured into a loose affiliation with "the Movement," the euphemism Mac Laverty uses for the Provisional IRA. A year before the novel opens, Cal sat behind the wheel of a getaway car while a Provo gunman...

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Michael Gorra

With "Cal," one feels again the "terrible beauty," in Yeats's phrase, born of Ireland's torments. Its power is all the more impressive because nothing in Bernard Mac Laverty's first novel, "Lamb" (1980), quite prepares one for the beauty of this novel, for the delicacy and poise of its account of a teenage boy's futile attempt to stay clear of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. "Lamb" was the expertly told but unbearably claustrophobic story of an Irish Christian Brother who flees from a reform school with a student he loves and eventually murders. "Cal"'s world is as harsh as its predecessor's, but whereas "Lamb" could only shock its readers, this novel has the capacity to move them.

The novel is...

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