Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458

In HANGMAN’S HOUSE, Donn Byrne intended to write an Irish novel for Irishmen, people for whom their own country was a passion. An intense love for Irish landscape, horse racing, coursing, Gaelic balladry, hunting, and the writer’s freedom-loving countrymen is evident throughout the book. When the novel appeared, critics may have preferred his MESSER MARCO POLO or THE WIND BLOWETH, but revised judgment is likely to put HANGMAN’S HOUSE above the latter. The book was written in Dublin in 1922 and 1923, while the country was still being harried by the armed resistance of Republican irreconcilables. The state of Ireland at that time is presented in Byrne’s characterization of the Citizen, a splendid man who had direct control over those who wanted to fight for freedom. The novel has been dramatized for the stage and for motion pictures.

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Ireland and the strangely heroic Irish race are the subject of HANGMAN’S HOUSE, perhaps Byrne’s most noted novel. Certain medieval prophets had accurately predicted that Ireland would be tyrannized by England for “a week of centuries” (seven centuries); and that week ended during the 1920’s, the decade in which Byrne’s novel is set. The end of tyranny is the story’s background theme. Despite the cluster of characters, ranging from the Citizen, to Lord Glenmalure, to Dermot McDermot, the dominant presence in the novel is Ireland’s finally realized struggle for freedom. Therefore, the real protagonist of HANGMAN’S HOUSE is Irish history with its centuries of oppression.

Nevertheless, Byrne is not hateful or propagandistic; the few British personalities in the novel are presented as decent men doing their duty, while Catholics are not painted as saints or Protestants as cohorts of the Anti-christ. The one touch of overt Irish flag-waving occurs when a fairly amiable British officer seeks to bribe an Irish child into singing British rather than Irish ditties but is calmly rejected. Otherwise, the novel’s characters move through their lives as their ancestors have done for centuries, living under an oppressive pall that never vanquishes them. The Citizen is the strongest symbolic personality of the story, and Connaught is a victim figure that is almost representative of Ireland itself. A curious void exists in the rather mild treatment of Lord Glenmalure, “The Hangman,” who wreaks vengeance on many Fenians and who coerces Connaught into marriage with a spineless traitor for the most spurious of economic reasons. The selfishness and violence of Glenmalure—whose base actions are outwardly respectable and dignified—are treated more as a commentary on weak human beings than as a portrait of a willfully evil individual. The author’s sensitivity for tints and color as well as his ability to use words musically are evident in the story.

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