Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Carolan’s Farewell

I am one of those Luddites who doesn’t even own a smart phone, a Kindle, a Nook, or a whatever, but I do wonder what would it be like if novels on digital devices had a sound track. Maybe such things already exist. If they do, then Charles Foran’s novel, Carolan’s Farewell , should be paired with the harp music in The Carolan Album by Máire Ní Chathasaigh & Chris Newman. It would be like the perfect pairing of wine and cheese, in much the same way that Beaujolais goes with Camembert.
Some of Charles Foran's books in our personal library.

A couple of weeks ago, I started rereading Carolan’s Farewell, and was still enjoying rereading it when I attended the Mission Folk Music Festival. On Sunday morning, there I was butt-in-place, book set temporarily aside, and utterly captivated by the music of Máire Ni ChathasaighPatrick Ball and Ailie Robertson. Immediately afterward, I hustled said butt off to the CD tent and bought The Carolan Album.

The liner notes are extensive, and after I had downloaded the CD onto my iPod – at least I have one of those – I listened to it while reading the rest of the novel on the ferry. The sound track was almost a necessity if I was to continue reading, since several young men sitting two seats over were talking, each one louder than the previous one, about their drinking and womanizing prowess at some event two days ago.

Life is usually too short for me to have the luxury of rereading novels, but I do find that rereading them often tells me as much about myself as it does about the book. For example, I can no longer abide Anais Nin.

I first read Carolan’s Farewell in September 2005, immediately after reading a review in the Globe and Mail: Lyrical, ambitious.... A richly imagined landscape.... The melodies of this novel resonate long past its final pages. How could I not buy it?

At the time, I knew little of Irish history from the early 1700s, apart from the iconic touchstones: 1641, Cromwell, Derry, The Boyne. Significantly, all touchstones were battles, a limited perspective of any people at the best of times. Foran’s novel is not about battles, although it references many of them. It is a fictional treatment of one of the last of the pre-modern harp composers, Turlogh O’Carolan and his trusty sidekick, Owen Connor aka Owen Ballach in 1737.

It is a bit of a Don Quixote tale, except that in this case the knight in rusting armour has the body and habits of a Sancho Panzo, while his companion is the one who is rational and a virgin. Although Carolan’s harp music is what he is known for, a short verse that he once wrote is quite revealing:

A while drunk
A while mad
A while tearing harp-strings to shreds
Smoking tobacco, going insane
This new fashion we practiced and never will we part from it.

As in the writing of Cervantes, Foran’s contrasting characters work to good effect. Each man has a foot in a separate era: Carolan in the oral and Connor in what Marshall McLuhan calls the manuscript culture. Not that it is that simple. Although Carolan continues to mourn all the losses experienced by Catholics in the past century, he also makes a curious choice when he includes the Protestant Ango-Irish James Butler, Duke of Ormonde, as one of those who he both toasts and respects. 

Connor also makes a similarly curious choice when one of the two books he chooses to steal from the Maguires’ decaying aristocratic household is one written by Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), a Protestant, who was born at Drumalig, Co. Down - his Presbyterian family having fled Scotland as a result of the Covenanters conflict. Connor quotes him often, and shares the passage: every man, whether captive or servant, has the right to resist tyranny. By identifying with much of what Hutcheson says and stands for, and at the same time identifying with much of Carolan says and stands for, Connor straddles the divide between the old and the new. He prefigures what will emerge in the next generation when Presbyterians and Catholics make common cause during the uprising of 1798.

Unlike Anais Nin, Foran stands up to a rereading, especially when the music of Carolan goes hand in glove with the text. For me though, my second read was a very different read from the first since my own reading about Irish history in the intervening years has introduced me to many of the real life events surrounding these characters. A further plus was that the immediacy of the descriptions was exactly as I recalled them. They triggered recollections of the prose of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, Sir Walter Scott’s Old Mortality, and Caroline Blackwood’s Great Granny Webster

As in his earlier book, The Last House of UlsterForan situates his characters and tells his tale primarily from the Catholic perspective. At the same time, whenever one of his characters uses a broad brush to paint either side of the faith divide, the authorial voice seems more interested in looking at the injustices that result from abuses of power than to put white hats on one lot of people and black hats on the other. Just as in the choices of heroes made by the characters of Carolan and Connor, truth is more nuanced than party lines permit.

It is the same perspective that Foran brings to his writing on China, Hong Kong and Vietnam in his two non-fiction books: Sketches in Winter: A Beijing Postcard and Join the Revolution Comrade: Journeys and Essays. Lest you think the latter too academic to dip into, it isn’t. My favourite essay in the latter collection was Pray to the Lord of the Lotus. It closes with:

Scramble down to the river and find an abandoned barge. In the vessel lay the bodies of those you hold so precious, and so wished to protect, and then cast off the shore. Float out into the water. Float out to the sea. Here is now and here is how now must be. Pray to the Lord of the Lotus. Pray to be awakened.

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