A Pagan Placeby Edna O'Brien
A PAGAN PLACE is Edna O'Brien's true novel of Ireland. Here she returns to that uniquely wonderful, terrible, peculiar place she once called home and writes not only of a life there--of the child becoming a woman--but of the Irish experience out of which that life arises--perhaps more pointedly than in any of her other works. This is the Ireland of country villages… See more details below
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A PAGAN PLACE is Edna O'Brien's true novel of Ireland. Here she returns to that uniquely wonderful, terrible, peculiar place she once called home and writes not only of a life there--of the child becoming a woman--but of the Irish experience out of which that life arises--perhaps more pointedly than in any of her other works. This is the Ireland of country villages and barley fields, of druids in the woods, of unknown babies in the womb, of mischievous girls and Tans with guns. Ireland has marked Edna O'Brien's life and work with unmistakable color and depth, and here she recreates her homeland with a singular grace and intensity.
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Manny Parker was a botanist, out in all weathers, lived with his sister that ran the sweetshop, they ate meat Fridays, they were Protestants. Your mother dealt there, found them honest.
They put chocolate aside for her because it was rationed, six bars of plain and six bars of fruit and nut. These she stored in the sideboard along with jams and jellies. The sideboard was dark brown, the keys missing, but since the doors opened with a terrible creak it was nearly the same as having them locked. No one opened those doors without the whole house knowing. When the bitter oranges came from Seville in the spring, Manny Parker’s sister made a marmalade and the pound pots were put to cool on the counter where everyone could see them and compliment her on them. She favored a coarser marmalade than your mother and the shreds suspended in the dark jelly were like seeing pet fish in a tank.
The Wattles were in the gate lodge, across the road from the gates. The gates were green, and speared along the top, the hasp missing. One gate was loose in its pivot and when it slipped out you had to hold on for dear life or you fell, gate and all.
They were named the Wattles because their daughter Lizzie went to Australia and came home, and had yellow jaundice. Before she came she sent snaps of herself and they got the Gramophone mended and bought a record Far Away in Australia but she said that was the last thing she wanted to hear and asked bitterly where the pipers were. She threatened to go back but didn’t. The Wattles never opened gates because they didn’t get paid. The two old people had the pension.
Mr. Wattle called everyone Mister and when Mrs. Wattle bought acane chair he said Am I in my own house at all Mister? When the cow did number two into the pail of milk, Mr. Wattle who was milking didn’t see it. The women strained the milk over and over again through a strainer and through muslin but it was still yellow and it smelled. The other time when milk had a smell was when the cows were given turnips or the grass was too rich.
That rich grass was called aftergrass and your father prized it for his horses. If the gates were left open, or if the big stone was not put to them, cattle got in or got out and either ways there were ructions, investigations as to who was to blame. Your mother could not bear to see and hear stray cattle dispersing all over the fields because she had a presentiment that they were going to be there forever, fattening themselves for free. Yet they were never turned out. Only the tinker’s stock was driven out. Tinkers’ ponies were canny. They grazed on the roadside, never shied when cars and lorries went by and if they saw a guard coming had the good sense to saunter off. The tinkers settled in the evicted field that belonged to no one because two married brothers fought over it and neither would let the other till it. Some nights there were lots of caravans there with lights shining through the half doors, some nights it was like every other field, dark and empty and dangerous.
Dan Egan was dead but his name lived on because there was a tree named after him, a horse chestnut. Boys shook it for conkers and if they got caught they got a hammering from your father. Dan Egan was buried over on the island where your mother said she would not go because there would be no passers-by to pray for the repose of her soul. You were afraid your mother might die, before you. Over on the island there were birds and ruins. The ruins had metal plaques on them saying what period in history they were built in. Saints and scholars had lived there. One door had a lintel with four recesses and the stones were as brittle as bread crumbs. Visitors went in rowboats and walked around the ruins. On a fine day the surface of the lake glittered like tin but it never happened to be like that for a regatta.
There were cattle on the island belonging to the butcher, bullocks. They made themselves at home on the graves, disentangled the wreaths, trampled on the glass domes and chewed flowers that were supposed to be everlasting. Those flowers were of calcium and looked like bones but no corpses showed above the ground because the graves were dug deep.
If dead people appeared it could only be at night, the way Dan Egan was said to appear under the shade of the tree named after him. Whenever his name was mentioned your father said Poor devil, God rest him. Your father and he got drunk together, played cards and clicked girls. Your father didn’t mention girls but there was a photo of them both on a sidecar, each with a girl, and each couple with a rug over the knees. It was taken at the Horse Show to which they went annually. They went everywhere ttogether although Dan Egan was a lot older. When the lake was frozen they walked nine miles to an all- night dance, and Dan Egan insisted on draaaaagging a boat behind them and your father was bucking, but providential it was because on the way home in the morning the ice began to go. When they got in the boat they found they had no oars and Dan Egan was cursing and blinding and they were bobbing around like that between the floats of ice until a coal boat went by at midday.
Your father met your mother at that dance but didn’t throw two words to her. Your mother was all dolled up, home from America on holiday, had a long dress and peroxide in her hair. Your mother put the eye on him then and got her brother to invite him up to their house to walk the land.
Your father could guess the acreage of any field by walking it. That and horses was his hobby and off nights with Dan Egan for sing-songs and out on the lake shooting duck. Dan Egan and he lived in a big house with an old tiddly nanny and when they got home drunk in the mornings she used to bring up shaving water and whisky, a mug of each. Kept a roaring fire they did in one room and in all the other rooms there were bats, and mice, and dark pieces of furniture.
Your father was an orphan but his old tiddly nanny took care of him and when he wanted shaving water or a headache powder all he had to do was press a bell and when the green gong trembled in the kitchen his old tiddly nanny said Bad cess to you but went to him all the same.
Your father burned the house sooner than let the Black and Tans occupy it as a barracks. Not even a candlestick or a cruet could he take away as a memento because that would have been theft. The house got burned but the old cellar remained and your mother used it as a dumping ground. Your mother dumped ashes there and the empties that were not charged on and broken crockery and the entrails of the cockerels that got killed and drawn every Saturday in summer, in preparation for Sunday’s dinner. She gave herself the worst parts of the chicken, the skin, the Pope’s nose, the posterior bits. She sent one once a month to your sister Emma along with a cake and some butter.
Emma had airs because she was born in New York. Often she slighted you and said you were trash and said Be off, trash. She pedaled fiercely on her bicycle so that you couldn’t catch up.
She was his favorite. He called her Whitehead. She got the watch. The watch made a black rim on her wrist and she told you that was known as oxidization. She had a bracelet too that was expandable. Once it got caught above her elbow and had to be damped and forced down. It got buckled.
There was not much jewelry lying about the house, his gold watch, some necklaces, and loose pearls in a soapdish that were skinless and without glow. Your house had no gongs either, and no cellar, but it had marble mantelpieces in all the rooms and constellations of flowers in the centers of the ceilings.
In the chimneys crows nested. Crows preferred the chimneys to the trees because the trees were prey to the wind. Around the tree trunks were plaits of ivy so thick and matted that they were like shields. The crows pecked at the ivy. They were black and lustrous and were always on the go, circling around and around, cawing and crying.
What was classified as a front garden had pampas grass, Devil’s pokers, and apple trees that hadn’t grown to their full stature but weren’t dwarfs either. The pampas grass was in wayward clusters, more blue than green. It was a foreign grass, stiff in stem and with a knife edge. It was from the old days, the gone days, when the place had its ornamental garden. You put that part of your hand between thumb and forefinger to the knife edge, that flap which if it got cut could lead to lockjaw. That was courting disaster. The grass was scythed once a month, the hedge clipped. Nettles had to be kept at bay. Nettles had a white flower that no one admired. She sent you around the fields to gather some for young chickens. She gave you a saucepan and shears and told you to drop them directly as you cut them, so as to protect your hands. You suffered a few stings to be devout. You crooned and baritoned in order to intimidate small animals that were lurking in briars and low coverts of foliage. Nettles had an iron content. Cabbage had iodine. Cabbage was frequently on the menu. It was one of her specialities. She was liberal with salt and pepper and these condiments combined with cabbage and mashed potatoes made a lovely compound. Good with turnips too or for that matter any of the root vegetables. If there was fresh meat he had it, a chop nicely done. The dogs got the bone. They tussled over it. They were huge and were the color of lions. They were called Bran and Shep, Bran after an ancient hero’s dog and Shep because it was such a convenient name. They went off at night, across fields, so did badgers and hares and foxes and wildcats and owls and rats and weasels and moles, all enemies, all springing at each other, all letting out their primeval cries. In the morning on the way to school, you saw things, tracks, fur, feathers, and once a paw with its long nails intact. You skirted the fort of dark trees.
It was a pagan place and circular. Druids had their rites there long before your mother and father or his mother and father or her mother and father or anyone you’d ever heard tell of. But Mr. Wattle said that was not all, said he had seen a lady ungirdled there one night on his way home from physicking the donkey. The ground inside was shifty, a swamp where lilies bloomed. They were called bog lilies. The donkey went in there to die and no wonder because the shelter was ample. No one would go in to bury it. It decomposed. The smell grew worse and worse and more and more rampant. The dogs carried the members around, the bits, big bones and little bones, and they were scattered everywhere and in the end were as brown and as odorless as twigs.
The dogs had a routine. They slept during the day. They had places under the hedge hollowed out to their shape and they moved around the house depending on the elements. The wind ruffed their coats, drew attention to the ranges of tawny in them. They were half brothers, had had the same mother, a Shep, but conflicting fathers. They convoyed her when she went to Manny Parker’s sister’s shop to collect chocolate or to pay something off her bill. Her bill was unending. No sooner had she paid something than she made a new purchase but there was an understanding between her and Manny Parker’s sister, a tacit understanding.
You always ran home from school. Your friends jeered. Called you sutach, called you suck-suck, called you diddums and spoilsport and clown and pissabed. On the way home from Mass diarrhea ran all down your legs and you got behind the wall and stayed there until everyone had gone, the men tearing to the pub, the doctor and Hilda in their cars, the people on bicycles, the pedestrians and the sacristan who had had to stay behind to quench candles and lock the big oak door. Your mother was not vexed, said it could happen to a bishop. Your friends passed remarks about it, wrote notes to each other, referred to it as the Incident. Your friend Jewel wrote on the blackboard to remember the Incident, marmalade in color, behind a certain wall on the Sabbath day.
Before your first Holy Communion Jewel and you practiced receiving the Host. You received bits of paper from each other. You had to hold it for as long as possible, for as long as it was likely to take the body and blood of Jesus to melt into you. The bits of paper soaked up all your saliva but it was not a sin when they grazed your teeth whereas it would be a sin if the Host were to. That was your main preoccupation on your first Holy Communion day, even though you were being admired by all and sundry because of your finery. Your shoes were buckskin and your veil had sprays of lily of the valley wrought into it. Yours was the finest veil. Your mother saw to that. Our Lord didn’t touch your teeth but there was a crisis afterwards. When Lizzie asked you to pose for a snap you stood against the railing and a corner of the veil blew up and got caught on a spear and would have been in shreds only that the priest rescued it. Your mother went on about what a close shave it was and you got five shillings and there were sun showers and that was your first Holy Communion. Jewel had a tea party to which you were not invited. Your friends were not friends the way your father and Dan Egan were.
When your father talked of Dan Egan his eyes filled up with tears. He and Dan Egan were arrested as they walked out of a public house and unfortunate it was because Dan Egan was carrying a bulldog revolver. Told the Black and Tans it was for shooting hares and rabbits but the Tans didn’t swallow that, and the pair of them were shoved in the lorry and brought to the nearest jail.
Tied together they were and inveigled to split on their comrades but they didn’t and they even got kicked and belted but they didn’t give in. Bound together all night without being let talk and had their faces dipped in a rain barrel whenever either one of them nodded off. Grigged too, with stories of what they would fancy for supper, trout or chicken. And when Dan Egan had to do number two they were still tied together and that made them buddies forever.
They were let out in the morning with a warning, but when they got out on the street no one would give them a lift home and they had to walk without benefit of either tea or whisky. From the beltings he got, Dan Egan developed epileptic fits and when the Free State was established he applied for a pension and was given it, but your father got none and they came to blows and a coolness set in.
Once he died, they became the best of friends again and your father often told of the evening soon after their arrest when they set fire to the big house and how methodical they were = soaked doors and wainscoting and floors and window frames all with petrol, and drenched rags which they scattered around. Your father told how they had to wait for nightfall and how all that long day they told stories and split matches and how just before they did it Dan Egan said he’d give his eyesight to see the Tans’ faces when they saw a conflagration on the site that was to have been their headquarters. The Tans had it all worked out that they’d occupy your father’s house being as it was spacious with ample accommodation for themselves and for prisoners, with fireplaces, and woods nearby, an indoor pump, a ballroom, everything a battalion would need. When they’d done the deed they had to run for it, and in opposite directions along back roads and byroads. When your father got to the house that was supposed to shelter him they had the wind up so he had to go on and on, shanks-maring it, and finally the people who took him in were strangers altogether but they treated him nicely.
He hid in a potato pit. It was there he contracted eczema and it stayed with him all his life and he had to get yellow ointment for it, from a woman who did cures. She cured warts and fits and your mother said she would not like to get in her black books because she wouldn’t be surprised if she was a witch. There was always smoke from her chimney and around her window, wraiths of it. At Mass she reeked of smoke and no one wanted to sit near her. She picked plants and gathered stones and when foraging she cackled to herself. She was a widow.
When your father crawled out of the potato pit at night his legs were weak as water and when he went across to the farmhouse there were girls there singing and cutting up seed potatoes for sowing. It must have been spring. Your father never asked them their names. Your father said how in the old days people would give you a shilling or take you in but your mother said that was all baloney and that distance lends enchantment and he told her she didn’t know what she was talking about because she didn’t know Dan Egan or any of these people and she said no she didn’t, but very standoffish like she didn’t want to.
Jobbers she called them, his friends = the cattle dealers, the horse dealers, the feather merchants, and Sacco.
Sacco came; he did tricks with matches and with a handkerchief, then he moved the lamp to appoint the shadow and with thumb and forefinger he did a movement that was like rabbits’ paws dancing on a wall. He made four shadows with only two fingers, one set higher than the other. That was magic. He was a magician. He had steel-rimmed spectacles. He complimented her on her bread. Before she cut it there was a perfect sign of the cross on the top where she had etched it unthinkingly on the raw dough. Sacco began to describe the marriage pattern. He said it was love at first, frequent journeys to the bed, matinee and evening performance, the hay not saved, the calves not fed, then after the first child a bit of a cooling off, the man going out nights and the subsequent children begotten in drink, then squabbles, ructions, first Holy Communions, shoes having to be bought, a lot of troubles and late in life the man back at his own fireplace spitting and banging and grunting inanities to his own wife.
Your mother was furious, nearly took the cake of bread away. Your father changed the conversation, asked when the fair at Spancehill was. Sacco not only knew the day but had advance information on the breeds of ponies that were going to be on sale there.
You knew your father and the Nigger would go together, the Nigger would put on his leggings and his accoutrements and your father would choose one of his soft felt hats, and bid for ponies he had no need of. They would lead them home gray ponies or dappled on a master reins and intern them in a house for a few days until they forgot the presence of their own mares and the sniff of their own lands. They would break them in then.
Your father had given the Nigger a site and that meant he had a right of way and he went in and out at all hours, tearing drunk. They christened him the Nigger because he had berries on one cheek that were the color of beetroot and when he moved his jaw they swayed and made everybody laugh. Some called them carbuncles. On fair days and race days strangers bought pints for him, to do the trick with the jaw. Though they laughed and split themselves laughing, he himself never did, he just did the trick and downed the pints.
Going home drunk he took off his breeches by the water pump and when girls and women went by, he said Come here missie, until I do pooly in you, but if the guards or the sergeant went by he insisted that he was having a footbath. The girls used to fly past and when he couldn’t catch them he did pooly anyhow, that was not pooly at all but white stuff. Then he went on home cursing and blinding and laughing like a jackass.
Your mother said he would burn the house, which was a shack, over his head, and that he would die without a priest. He kept a roaring fire going and he read all the old almanacs and knew the predictions about wars and weather and the end of the world and things. His hero was Christopher Columbus. He used the almanacs as handles to grip the kettle and though the edges were scorched he never let the words burn, he loved the words.
Your father said he made a great cup of tea, your mother said it was like senna. Your mother tackled him one day, asked when he was moving on to his own part of the country and his relatives.
He looked at her, he said You’re an ignorant woman, I hasten to tell you, you’re an ignorant woman. After that he went in and out with a sack over his head so that she couldn’t accost him.
Your father said what harm was it to give right of way and a bit of land to a poor man that needed it. Poor man, she said, sourly.
Your mother and father were goodnatured in two different ways. Your mother sent slab cake and eggs to Della, the girl who had consumption, but your father gave potatoes away and turf banks and pasture. Often there was strife over it.
One day your father had a pitchfork raised to your mother and said I’ll split the head of you open and your mother said And when you’ve done it there will be a place for you. And you were sure that he would and you and your sister Emma were onlookers and your sister Emma kept putting twists of paper in her hair, both to curl it and to pass the time. Later when your mother felt your pulse she said it was not normal, nobody’s pulse was normal that particular day.
Later still, when your mother told her sister, your Aunt Bride, she added things that did not happen, like that the prongs of the fork were on her temples and heading for her eyes, like that she stamped her foot and dared him to. Which she didn’t. She added touches of bravery. An emergency might have occurred but that Ambie came to the rescue.
Ambie lived in your house but was always threatening to go. He and the Nigger were mortal enemies, Ambie stood up for your mother and the Nigger sided with your father. They could not be left alone, together, for fear of attacking each other over political issues. They had to be together when the cattle were being hauled into the lorry and sent to the city to a mart.
The city butchers favored the cattle that came from the sweet land. The grass differed from place to place, was sweet, was sour, was saline, depending on the mineral content. The clover made it sweetest of all and the cows even munched the clover flower.
It took three men to get them into the lorry. They were up at cockcrow. It was teeming. The beasts kept slipping and sliding over the runway and Ambie and the Nigger were cursing and blinding at each other and the beasts were bawling, and no one could get heard. Ambie positioned himself on the back of the lorry, intending to grab them by the horns as they were hustled up, but it was a right tug-of-war between him and them, they trying to pull him down and he trying to pull them up and the Nigger saying Shag whenever Ambie let go and the beasts slipped back down again. It took the best part of an hour. Afterwards everything was very quiet and the dogs were disappointed when all the commotion died down.
Your mother said that their language was choice but she was not scandalized as she was hoping that the cattle would fetch a good price.
She told Ambie that they would never have got dispatched but for his presence of mind. From time to time she flattered him. She was afraid he might take a figari and leave.
He was saving money. He earned extra money through the killing of pigs, at which he was adept. He had his own knife and his own spattered overalls. He slit their throats then held them upside down over a container to catch the blood that was essential for the black puddings. You seldom watched but you heard. The squeals of each particular pig reached you no matter where you hid, no matter where you happened to crouch, and it was heart-rending as if the pig was making a last but futile appeal to someone to save him. Hens never did that, hens only wriggled and expired.
The dogs did not like those squeals either, they hid under the table and appeared only when there was offal and things being sorted out, not that they ate it, they merely examined it. They had selective tastes.
Your mother gave strips of pork away, the choice bits to the professional people, the doctor, Manny Parker’s sister, and the sergeant; the cottagers got lesser pieces, knuckles, and crubeens for boiling. It took hours allocating the different portions. When you delivered them you got praise or sometimes a sixpence.
At card games Ambie cheated and won geese and turkeys which he sold. Before he sold them he stuffed them with oats to put the weight up. Some buyers were crafty and waited for the geese and turkeys to do number two and the tailor’s wife presided with the brass scales.
Ambie shot a neighbor’s goose and would have got summonsed only your father squared it with the guards. Your father had influence, got a crime hushed up a long time before, not for himself, but for one of his friends. One of his friends shot a girl because she wouldn’t serve him another drink, shot and missed. But it was still a crime and the man was charged with attempted manslaughter. And your father went and saw the girl and her mother and gave them soft soap and money. The man was deported to Australia instead of getting jailed and he was never heard of again and your mother said that was destiny for you.
Your father was a peace commissioner and spoke up for Ambie, said the shooting of the goose was accidental, said Ambie thought it was a wild swan that had strayed in off the lake. Normally they were at loggerheads, disagreed about everything, how to foot turf, or how to treat a dog for distemper.
Ambie came from a rocky place where hardly anything grew and where the small fields were divided by stone walls instead of grass banks or lines of trees. At Easter time they killed a kid there. That was their speciality. His mother sent your mother a red Christmas candle. His mother and your mother had never met. Ambie carried the candle the whole way, in his left hand, and only when he was getting down off the bicycle did it snap and your mother said A bull in a china shop and Ambie laughed as he handed it to her.
When she got cross you quaked but Ambie had a different ploy, he sucked air between his teeth. His teeth were rotten. He sucked air or he twiddled the signet ring that was made of aluminum. It was aluminum culled from a plane that had crashed. People went to look at the wreckage the way they went to look at scenery or quins if they had been born. It was a two-seater German plane that crashed by mistake. The pilot went into the sea. There were notes about it between heads of government. But it did not break hearts the way the doctor’s death did, because the pilot was a stranger. There were bits of him everywhere and parts of the car were taken as souvenirs. Your father took a door handle.
The doctor crashed into a telegraph pole and everyone said he must have had home brew taken. The telegraph pole was new, otherwise he would have known it, because he knew that road backwards. A hurley field got christened after him.
He had had two wives but he never acknowledged the second one and when patients asked how she was he always said My wife is deceased. His second wife was drunk at first Mass, fell off the end of the seat into the aisle. When he got killed she went away and was never heard tell of again. Then the new doctor came and he and his wife were all the rage at first, and had card games specially in their honor. His wife had a teddy-bear coat and a flapjack and said that her people were people of note. Your mother said she was artificial. They kept their bread in an enamel tin with Soiled Dressings written on it.
Copyright © 1970 by Edna O’Brien
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This is my first reading experience with Edna O'Brien and won't be the last! Being of Irish descent, I I was fascinated by her account of life in a small Irish town. At first I thought the narrator was talking to a child but as I went along, i realized the child was grown and I wondered why such a narrative with an adult, but I thought maybe it was for some purpose such as the woman being ill or in a coma. Now i realize the narrator was also the "You" as she was speaking to herself. Pretty amazing and not easy to sustain such a plan over a period of any length of time. Through her narrative self "You" relived her childhood into young adulthood, telling the story of her home life, the village in which she lived in the late 1930s-early 1940s and the people she had encountered along the way in her life. It was part coming-of-age story, part romance, and part memoir. The book was funny, heartwarming and tragic, just as all lives are. I was so into the story of "You" I almost felt like the woman could have been myself but for the grace of God and my Irish ancestors who came to America in the 19th century. It could have even been the life of a cousin or aunt whose branch of the family did not leave. Pretty mind-blowing stuff. I am so glad I didn't speed through the book and took the time to savor the story and think about this book and how it is so personal and that is what good writing can do!
The description sounded so enticing and, loving so many things Irish, I could not wait to settle down with this novel. Unfortunately, what ensued was a boring monologue from a nameless narrator "to" the person about whom the book was written addressed only as "you". Various other characters are introduced without identity so the reader is totally lost as to how they even fit in. Occasional high points, but for the most part, a draggy, murky, confusing waste of time.