Since the onset of political violence in Northern Ireland (popularly but inaccurately known as Ulster) in 1969, a large number of novels have appeared, varying widely in quality and genre, purporting to depict the character of the opposing sides, the impact of the violence on noncombatants, and occasionally, going so far as to sketch in a certain amount of historical and sociological background. Some of these works have reached best-seller lists, and some of them are not entirely devoid of literary merit. None, however, begins to approach the range of allusion, intimacy of detail, and bitterness of exposition present in Nothing Happens in Carmincross.
That so comprehensive and devastating a statement has been made by Ulster’s senior novelist should not be thought surprising. Yet, there is a note here, similar to but more audible than that in the concluding quartet of stories in Kiely’s acclaimed collection, The State of Ireland (1980). This note, which is of lamentation—piercing yet subdued, furious but stoical—goes beyond fictive glibness and artistic puppetry to express the despair of Benedict Kiely, citizen and son of provincial Ulster. Perhaps this note has swollen in volume as the author has come to realize that the impatience with the sociopolitical reality of his native province in his early work has been harnessed for exclusively destructive ends by some of his fellow citizens. Where Kiely may have sought to reveal injustice and initiate discourse, the aim of the militarists (of all persuasions), as Nothing Happens in Carmincross implies, is to reduce the world they live in to silence.
The journey made by the protagonist, Mervyn Kavanagh, from his comfortable academic position in the southern United States to his native village of Carmincross is made in the name of harmony and renewal: the wedding of a favorite niece. Yet, with the destruction of the village by bombers, it becomes clear that Mervyn has been traveling toward the unspeakable. Despite his being nicknamed Merlin, no charm, spell, or formulaic utterance can protect him, try as he might to use the glories of English poetry as talismans and traditional Irish ballads as amulets. One of the novel’s least-harsh ironies is that Mervyn the academic has a mind like a haunted house.
Nevertheless, despite having nightmares of increasing severity, Mervyn does have a wonderful holiday prior to his arrival in Carmincross. The delights of normality are his to enjoy, largely in the person of an old girlfriend, Deborah, who accompanies him northward. (Carmincross is situated, as are the settings of most of Kiely’s novels and stories, in western county Tyrone, a placid, river-rich country—in Kiely’s imagination, an Eden.) To keep the sense of vitality alive, and to show the mind to be as playful as the body, Mervyn pretends that he and Deborah are the mythical Irish lovers, Diarmuid and Gráinne. It seems natural for him to do so; his mind is compulsively allusive. Moreover, to provide a romantic precedent for present pleasures reveals an understandable yet not entirely explicit need on the part of both Deborah and Mervyn to defend themselves against the depredations of the day—namely, the incessant reports of Northern atrocities. If their route to Carmincross parallels, as is suggested, the route of a celebrated retreat by a sixteenth century Irish chieftain, Deborah and Mervyn are anything but on the defensive. If the elopement of Diarmuid and Gráinne ended tragically, no such possibility is contemplated by their modern counterparts. The couple’s unusual yet simple happiness is ironically glossed by the novel’s structure, which places the section entitled “The Honeymoon” before the one called “The Wedding.” Since Mervyn is Merlin, Deborah’s name too must be allowed the resonance of its biblical origin. She is a prophet, Mervyn jokes. Tragically, her witnessing of the murder of a British soldier does foreshadow more traumatic killings—not only that of Stephanie Curran, Mervyn’s niece and the bride-to-be, and not only that of Cecil Morrow, an amiable policeman and one of Mervyn’s boyhood friends, but also the murder of a place, Carmincross.
Much of this novel’s rich, dense texture is provided by detailed references to notorious episodes from “the troubles,” as Ulster’s ongoing political violence is euphemistically known. In fact, the central event, the murder of Carmincross, is clearly based on the destruction, also with numerous innocent victims, of the village of Claudy, county Derry, some twenty-five miles north of Omagh, county Tyrone, capital of Kiely country. (This event occurred on July 31, 1972, and has already entered Ulster literature and song by being the subject of a ballad by the poet James Simmons.) As Mervyn discovers, the violence is as inescapable as it is incomprehensible. Stories about it break in unexpectedly on Mervyn’s consciousness. Violence is presented as an atmosphere, an additional dimension of the environment. Because...
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