The King’s Prey, by Susan Peek

 

Terrible but true, Princess Dymphna flees Daemon, her father who, in his madness believes her to be his late wife, Odilla. He demands that Dymphna marries him. With the aid of her confessor and a few companions, Dymphna flees across Ireland and eventually reaches Belgium.

Susan Peek stays true to the Lives of the Saints’ outline for St. Dymphna. She fills in the gaps with a fast moving tale of her companions, especially two brothers, Brioc, her minstrel and Turlough one of her father’s soldiers. Like the fog of war, confusion and misinformation plague Dymphna’s escape. Peek amplifies tensions and leads her characters into conflict, danger, and excruciatingly painful decisions.

Although the words Irish and Catholic seem to be welded together, Dymphna story shows her not only as a Christian but a consecrated virgin living in a pagan household. Her father’s druid companions ignore her religious values and agree to the king’s intended incest.

Dymphna’s plight resonates with many young women in society today. She suffers attempted sexual abuse in her home. She becomes a homeless runaway, a refugee, and a victim of violence and the uncontrolled mental illness of her father. Through all of her flight, she places her hope in God and takes consolation in His protection. She submits to God’s will. In the end, through her intercession, God showers blessings on her friends. She remains a patron of those troubled with mental illness.

Turlough and Brioc dominate the novel. Their entire family dies of disease and famine. The older brother, Turlough makes a desperate choice to save the young Brioc, setting them at odds for many years. Turlough cannot persuade Brioc of his love. In fact, every attempt to help Brioc convinces the younger brother that Turlough plans to kill him. Throughout most of the book, Turlough attempts to reconcile with Brioc. His attempts are thwarted by conditions related to Brioc’s own mental illness. Dymphna brings the brothers closer.

 

Susan Peek writes for the younger readers, a word that will rouse them. She has devised a clever, perhaps labyrinthine tale, a tragedy of errors on the part of Brioc and his wife, Ethlynn. They experience a difficult life, and their role in Dymphna’s escape only deepens their pain. Peek delivers a spellbinding tale of suspense.

 

The King’s Prey should appeal to young, religious Catholics, but would engage people of other faiths and ages. Victims of family sexual abuse, runaways, and refugees can see in Dymphna a courageous companion. Hers is a heroic tale and will grip the reader’s emotions.

 

Since I am a fan of Saint Dymphna, I wanted a greater focus on her life and thoughts. Unfortunately, little information is available. The story of the brothers, although fictional, did have an impact. The most powerful moments came in the last chapters of the book where Dymphna rewards her friends, and the brothers have a chance to untangle their relationship.

 

Of all the characters, I liked Turlough the best. He always loved Brioc, made difficult decisions to save him, and responded to Brioc’s rejection without malice.

 

Susan Peek’s mission is to bring to light some of the forgotten saints such as Saint Magnus, the Last Viking, and Saint Camillus de Lellis. The King’s Prey clearly brought attention to Saint Dymphna. I would like to see more research into her life and her patronage extended in a world that is in woeful need of her strength.

 

The End of the Hunt, by Thomas Flanagan

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As Ireland marks the centennial of the Easter Rising, Thomas Flanagan’s nearly two thousand page trilogy—The Year of the French, The Tenants of Time, and The End of the Hunt—immerses readers in Ireland’s struggles between 1798 and 1923, culminating with the creation of the Irish Free State.

The Year of the French describes the ill-fated attempt by the “Dublin Directorate,” a cadre of nationalistic philosophers and poets that attempted to bring a version of the French Revolution to Ireland. French soldiers joined the poorly armed Fenians of County Mayo against the landlords and the constabulary. After an initial Fenian success, the English army surrounded the rebels. They took the French soldiers as prisoners of war and bayoneted the surviving Irishmen.

The Tenants of Time tells of a later uprising, led by Irish-Americans who shared their military acumen developed during the American Civil War.

The third volume, The End of the Hunt—with a cast of thousands, including dozens of historical characters speaking in their own words—addresses timely and universal issues, including oppression, terrorism, and compromise. The story begins after the Easter Rising but reflects on the Rising’s leading characters and events: the survivors, those that died, and importantly the widows of the fallen Fenians. It tracks the careers of guerrilla operatives and their evolving relations with the leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, progressing to their eventual choice of sides in the Irish Civil War.

Although the history of the period is a matter of record, Thomas Flanagan re-presents the facts in flesh and blood, with romance, adventure, glory and tragedy. He rotates the narration and point of view among six characters, exposing many facets of complex issues. One narrator may build suspense leading to a critical event. The next may look back at the consequences of the event, rather than the event itself. Early on, point-of-view characters work in concert. Later, some wish the others harm.

The brightest thread among the interwoven stories features a romance between a Castle Catholic widow, Janice Nugent, and Christopher Blake. Janice craves excitement through a relationship with Blake, a suave Fenian “gunman” with close ties to Michael Collins, a leading figure in the Irish Republican Army. This romantic tragedy forms the final knot in the skein of stories, and features prominently in the haunting conclusion to The End of the Hunt.

The Easter Rising of 1916 was neither the origin of the Irish struggle for independence nor its conclusion. The Irish had endured 700 years of occupation, humiliation and genocide, “but an enduring people were becoming a risen people … able to conquer because they could suffer the most.” Padraig Pearse at the burial of O’Donovan Rossa declared, “They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”  Within months “a Republic was proclaimed by Pearse from the steps of the GPO [General Post Office in Dublin], and it was ratified by his blood and the blood of the other men who were shot with him at Kilmainham [Gaol]” .

The English suppression of the Easter Rising of 1916, and the execution of sixteen of its leaders, gave rise to a unique reaction: a “different kind of war and a different kind of enemy. … Fellows with a few thousand rifles bringing an empire to its knees, an imperial army no less … .”  Unfortunately, these same Irish patriots were later to “fall fighting each other, killing each other.”

If the British Empire began with the capture of Ireland, then its demise began with Ireland’s liberation. A living nation, Ireland would rise from the graves of its martyrs. Prime Minister Lloyd George—his own government caught between the Tories, the Irish Republican Army and the demands of the Empire embroiled in World War I—confirmed Irish sentiments when he said, “Lose Ireland and the rot begins.”

The Fenians made a nuisance of themselves. Small, guerilla units—“flying columns”—waged an ugly war, and sooner or later, they hoped, the English would get tired of it and make a deal. When they ambushed their first lorry filled with RIC (Irish policemen working for the English), the Tories called them a “murder gang” and advocated the reincarnation of  Cromwellian genocide.

To compound Lloyd George’s difficulties, the flying columns of the IRA, which today might be called terrorist cells, continued their hit-and-run, take-no-prisoners attacks. They burned houses of loyalists and 258 abandoned RIC police stations. A massive attack on the Custom House in Dublin destroyed centuries of stored records belonging to nine government departments, wiping out England’s bureaucratic control of Ireland.

Both sides agreed to a truce and a potential solution to the seven centuries of England’s control of Ireland. Neither Éamon de Valera nor Michael Collins, leaders of the two factions on the Irish side, liked what Lloyd George and Winston Churchill had to offer—the division of Ireland into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, both still bound to the King of England. They realized that Ireland would get no more than England would give. The alternative was to continue the war, but against a much larger and better organized British military. They also realized that those who fought and the widows of those who died would accept nothing less than a Republic. Furthermore, should the government of Lloyd George and Winston Churchill fall, a Tory-controlled Parliament would bring fire and the sword into Ireland.

A compromise could give the Irish freedom to run their own affairs. To the Republicans (as in IRA), compromise betrayed the sacrifices made in the name of the Irish Republic, proclaimed on the steps of the GPO during the Easter Rising.

Mick Collins led the delegation to London and eventually compromised, accepting the Irish Free State. The Tories considered him nothing more than a gunman, although liberal Englishman and the newspapers had developed a crush on Collins, as if he were a Twentieth Century Scarlet Pimpernel, a master of disguise and intrigue, the brains behind the “flying columns.”

De Valera led the debate against the Free State. Although the Provisional Irish Parliament approved it, factions of the IRA rebelled, leading to the Irish Civil War.

Flanagan’s storytelling charms the reader, although at times strays into a maze of seemingly unrelated prose. Elsewhere, clarity prevails in both the narration and dialogue. In the heel of the hunt—the final chapters—the reader feels the pain of separation from a host of tragic, but all too haunting characters who must remain locked between the covers of the book.

The Year of the French, by Thomas Flanagan

“Inequality is the root of social evil.”    4:28 AM – 28 Apr 2014

We reel from the impact of violence, persecution, massive migrations and political divisiveness, yet similar tribulations plague humanity over the millennia. History’s lessons unlearned, like demons, repossess the house from which they were driven. If we find ourselves too close to modern conflicts, a visit to another time and place may allow a dispassionate consideration of the root causes of social evils.

The setting: County Mayo, Ireland, 1798, a century and a half after the enactment of Oliver Cromwell’s Penal Laws against Roman Catholics, depriving them of property and citizenship in their own country. “A system more ingeniously contrived, first for the debasement, and then for the continuance of that debasement, of an entire people cannot easily be imagined.”

Flanagan speaks through the voices of characters such as Anglican vicar Arthur Broome who describes his Irish neighbors, “I have myself seen families huddled in the sides of hills where they had hewn out holes, entire families where the small ones cowering and rooting beside the gaunt form of a woman.” He expresses the Malthusian sentiments of the time, “Thus I have heard it proposed by men, no more inhumane than most, that the recurrent famines are Providential, and will in time bring down the population to a proper size.”

Broome identifies the source of the English Protestant attitude toward the Irish and Catholics: “All their lives, from the first stories told them by mothers or nurses or school-fellows, they had been instructed that the Papists were a dark and mutinous race, wedded to violence as though to a witch.” A people steeped in “idolatry and superstition.”

“What business have Papist peasants learning to read and write?” says Captain Cooper, descendent of one of Cromwell’s troopers, a member of a long line of magistrates, who keep the Papists under control, forbid citizenship, ownership of property, the right to participate in government or study law. Over the centuries, Red coated Protestant yeomen are given a free hand to burn, whip and torture until they extract confessions and arrest anyone they suspect of rebellion.

To boost profits from his farm, Cooper turns his acres to livestock grazing, evicting a tenant family with no concern for their survival. The “Whiteboys of Killala”, a militant organization of aggrieved Catholic peasants, nail a letter to his door with the words, “You count your cows in children’s lives.” They promise retaliation against his cattle, escalating a vicious cycle of mutual reprisals.

The long repressed Catholic peasants want the “triumph of the Gael,” the restoration of the Irish nation. It is said, “They didn’t know what they wanted, but they knew what they hated.”

The United Irishmen, composed of wealthier, better educated Protestants, Catholics and agnostics, share ambitions with the Whiteboys, but work for the creation of a republic in the image of the French Revolution. They plan to rule Ireland in place of the English. The time is ripe for rebellion, especially when the regicidal Directorate of the French Republic promises soldiers and weapons, aiding the Irish and annoying the English.

Flanagan’s narrators represent both the English and Irish points of view. The English are benevolent but firm. Insurrection is a capital offense: high treason. General Cornwallis, of Yorktown fame, expresses interest in Catholic Emancipation. Meanwhile the principal absentee landlord of County Mayo supports abolition of the African slave trade and attempts to better the life of London chimney sweeps. He funds his charities on the backs of his starving Irish tenants.

The Irish narrators reflect the ideals and then the dreadful reality of the conflict. The Catholic Church is largely ignored, although the bishops and most of the priests preach against rebellion and urge loyalty toward King George. The Orangemen’s rhetoric dwells on the exceptions, such as the famous Fr. Murphy, who rouses the Irish peasants, armed with pikes to attack the Redcoats, despite their muskets, bayonets, cavalry and the cannons with their grape and chain shot.

Owen Ruagh MacCarthy, poet, drunkard, wanderer and teacher gleams as the most brilliant thread in Flanagan’s tapestry. From the first sip of the morning jug to the parting glass, Owen steals the show. Well loved, especially by women from Kerry to Mayo, his friends among the poets recite his works in Irish and English. The reader will not forget MacCarthy.

Flanagan weaves some seventy characters, some historical, some fictional, into the texture of this saga of the pre-diaspora Irish. His account of their suffering and survival over hundreds of years sensitizes us to the plight of racial, religious and ethnic groups that share a parallel history of repression and inequality. When we see them today on their trek to freedom, remember that the Irish made a similar journey.