In the Province of Saints
In the Province of Saints opens abruptly with the death of a village woman, Mag Delacey, in the middle of a particularly harsh winter that destroys crops and livestock. Events of that fateful season make a permanent impression on nine-year-old Michael McDonagh, as he watches the carcasses of sheep hauled away. His father, John, home from America, has to work off a debt caused when Michael’s dog kills a neighbor’s sheep. Michael is stricken to hear his parents constantly quarrel and one day finds his father weeping over the grave of the recently deceased Mag Delacey.
John McDonagh comes and goes three times over the next five years, departures that are more acts of abandonment than the results of financial necessity. Each time Michael mourns the absence and yearns for his next meeting. The novel then charts the doomed fortunes of the ruptured McDonagh family, as mother Moira slips further into illness and emotional isolation. Young Michael’s closest attachments are to his Uncle Oweny, who dies suddenly in his car, Lugh McConnahue, a simple farm laborer who nurtures the boy and offers paternal wisdom and acceptance, and Cait Delacey, a classmate with whom Michael has a budding, innocent relationship.
As the novel moves chronologically from one episode to another, Michael is repeatedly confronted with death and sinister rumors. He watches his father grieve when the man’s brother dies, he finds Lugh’s battered body in a river, his mother contracts what is certainly terminal cancer, and he learns that Cait’s mother was likely murdered by her father. The young boy is confused initially by the insults and stray remarks of fellow villagers until he eventually discovers that his father and Mag Delacey were once lovers, that John Delacey slowly poisoned his wife as a result of the betrayal, that Cait may very likely be his half-sister, and that his Uncle Brendan is either a sympathizer or member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
As the boy struggles with revelations and emotions that scald his heart, the reader encounters a bleak portrait of claustrophobia and hopelessness. O’Malley is clearly concerned with exploring the dynamics of small-town life, in this case the village world of rural County Wexford. O’Malley avoids the cliche of conflating rural life exclusively with Western Ireland, thus the inhabitants of New Rowan, less than one hundred miles from Dublin, are not hopelessly isolated yet live far apart from the modern world. With so little outside stimulation, they are left with rumors, gossip, and generations-old resentments. Thus, Moira McDonagh is as embarrassed by her husband’s fecklessness as she is by her impoverished condition. More embarrassing still is the fact that the whole town knows her business, “Oh, and they’ll have a grand old time of it when I sign up for the dole and the child allowance. Moira McDonagh this and Moira McDonagh that . . . and they call themselves Christians, all of them bloody hypocrites.”
In this world of inbred hatreds and grievances, which explode into the open at consistently inopportune moments, one would expect people who are forthright and loquacious, yet Michael aches over the fact that truths are either overheard surreptitiously or intuited. No one, apart from Lugh, can articulate exactly what they feel or what is most important to them. Michael yearns for a confidant, yet each time he tries to share intimacies, he is stifled by “the timeless silence that bound us all.” Similarly, when Michael and Cait wait out a storm in an abandoned cottage, the boy mixes comforting intimacy with painful distance, “Listening to the rain and to Cait’s breathing, feeling her body wrapped within my own, I stared up through the slats and raindrops shimmering there at the edge of the roof and the gutter, at the edge of night, and felt all the things we could not say pressing down upon us.” Perhaps the most devastating silence comes after the boy sees the bottle of poison that killed Cait’s mother on display in the family kitchen and insists she destroy it; once accomplished, she is so angry she never speaks to him again. The people in New Rowan live among but rarely with one another, each isolated in his or her own thoughts and hurts.
Closely linked with the idea of provincial village life is O’Malley’s portrait of Ireland at the end of the twentieth century, a place barely recognizable today given Ireland’s position as an economic tiger in the European Union. Indeed, part of the novel’s power is its ability to capture the last vestiges of Old Ireland as it is transformed into a markedly different place in the twenty-first century. O’Malley deftly reveals the cultural beliefs and superstitions that have informed and animated Irish life for...
(The entire section is 1949 words.)