Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

In the preface to one of his works, Donn Byrne made the rather immodest claim that he was the last of the great Irish storytellers. Certainly the statement was an exaggeration, but it nevertheless accurately identified the author’s two main appeals: his gift for engaging the reader’s imagination through romantic and effectively told tales; and his ability to capture in his prose the spirit of the Irish people and the beauty of the land where he grew up. All of Byrne’s fiction, whether novels or short stories, reflects these two concerns and reveals the author’s preoccupation with Irish themes and love of his childhood home.

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DESTINY BAY was the first of a series of Byrne’s works that were published posthumously. In form, it is a collection of nine short stories that are unified by their common narrator, Kerry MacFarlane, who will inherit his uncle’s estate in Destiny Bay. The point of view of Kerry—a thinly disguised version of the author as a young man—gives consistency to the tales as does Byrne’s use of the same cast of characters throughout the book with a different character coming into prominence in each new story. The characterizations in DESTINY BAY are not deep, but they are colorful and memorable in their lovable eccentricities. Leading the cast is the protective, patriarchal figure of Uncle Valentine, with his red beard so huge that it covers his chest like a breastplate, and his blind sister Jenepher, who whistles birdcalls and “sees,” with her wisdom and kindliness, much more clearly than anyone around her. The minor characters are equally romantic and eccentric: Uncle Cosimo, driven to alcohol over love of a Chinese girl he has seen but never met; his faithful gypsy friend Anselo, who travels six years to find Cosimo a replacement for the “Fair Maid of Wu”; James Carabine the prizefighter, who is taken in by a scheming New York singer and left heartbroken; the Spanish Duke’s shy and elusive “grandson,” who turns out to be Ann-Dolly; and her eventual husband, the courtly and sensitive dreamer Jenico.

The incidents that form the plots of Byrne’s stories are as romantically improbable as his characters. Stories such as that of Ann-Dolly’s disguise as Don Anthony, Cosimo’s deliverance from drink and subsequent missionary work in London, and Uncle Valentine’s twelve-year correspondence with Aunt Jenepher under the name of her dead lover Digory, abound in DESTINY BAY, but what ties such scattered events as these together is the ever-present Irish background. The nostalgic mood and vivid setting is established early in the first tale, and this setting remains almost as tangible a presence as the characters themselves throughout the book. Although Destiny Bay is not on any map of Ireland, Byrne’s stories make it a real place, with its thirty square miles of territory on the North Sea, unvisited by any trade save that of the gypsies; with its sometimes gentle, sometimes ruthless coast, and its brown bogland studded with flowers and inhabited only by snipes and moor hens; with its tall mountains purple with heather and its tiny, ten-house village of Ballyfale.

When Byrne died in 1928 in an automobile accident, he was only thirty-nine years old. When one reads his lyrical descriptions, rich with Gaelic imagery and vivid scenes of natural beauty, one feels that if his talent falls far short of excellence, he nevertheless died with a great deal of his potential yet unrealized.

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