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Return to Ireland: The Black Snow by Paul Lynch: Review

Return to a backward- and inward-looking society; with clear relevance to the modern
The Black Snow by Paul Lynch, Little, Brown, 272 pages, $28.
By: Emily Donaldson Special to the Star, Published on Sat Jul 25 2015

Paul Lynch’s The Black Snow is, like its predecessor, Red Sky in Morning, a fierce and stunning novel written in chiaroscuro; its darkness always threatening to absorb its light. The Irish author’s gnarled, lustrous prose style is peppered with local vernacular; his literary sensibility an ornate version of the American Gothic of McCarthy and Faulkner. Throw in an elastic attitude to grammar and all of this has a thrillingly defamiliarizing effect: though he’s writing in English, Lynch makes you feel like you’ve magically acquired the ability to understand a foreign language.
The Black Snow is set in 1945. But it is Ireland, so the war is happening offstage; the barbarism Lynch wants to explore, at any rate, is of a more intimate kind. Born in Donegal, Barnabas Kane was sent to America to be raised by relatives after he was orphaned as a child. Fearless and resourceful, he would later build Manhattan’s skyscrapers alongside the Mohawk, whose way of talking about their ancestral home induced in him a yearning for his own.
When he returned to his birthplace to farm, he brought with him his American-by-birth, Irish-by-blood wife Eskra, who perceived her new home as “wild and poor, a vision darker than the dream spun by her emigrant parents,” and their infant son Billy. For Barnabas and Eskra, the move wasn’t a migration but a homecoming.
That their neighbours don’t share this view only becomes apparent after the novel’s dramatic opening event: a massive fire that destroys Barnabas’ byre along with his entire herd of cattle and his farmhand, Matthew Peoples.
Devastated, Barnabas resolves to rebuild the byre. With no source of income and no insurance, he turns to his neighbours for help — most had run to his succour during the fire — but like a series of little red hens, each politely refuses him in turn. One makes no secret of coveting Barnabas’ now-empty fields.
Barnabas catches wind of rumours suggesting that a number of townsfolk hold him responsible for Matthew Peoples’ death. Indeed, after Eskra receives a visit from the latter’s bitter, angry widow, strange things start to happen: sheets go missing off the clothesline, the horse falls ill, her honeybees suddenly die en masse. But the crime that Barnabas seems to be most guilty of is being an outsider; Eskra, with her foreign accent and habits, even more so.
Lurking around the narrative’s periphery is the teenage Billy, whom we hear from directly only through a series of journal entries. These allude to a secret burden, one tied to his exploits with an unstable local boy who is later committed to the asylum.
Both of Lynch’s novels tap into that stalwart theme of Irish literature, banishment and exile, symbolized here by the cold cups of tea Barnabas continually finds himself drinking. But The Black Snow is also about the tribalism and xenophobia of a backward- and inward-looking society — a topic with clear relevance to the modern global rise of anti-immigration sentiment. When Barnabas, while scavenging for stone for his byre, dismantles the walls of two century-old abandoned famine houses, his bible-thumping neighbour accuses him of theft and desecration: he would rather the walls stand as mouldering monuments to families long dead than be used as a lifeline to a living, struggling one.
Lynch’s writing is so stuffed with metaphor and simile (he gives Canadian teenagers a run for their money in his use of “like,” the difference being that he uses the term for comparative purposes) that we effectively get two narratives: the story, and its imagistic twin. In his characters and situations, however, Lynch is clearly striving towards the archetypal and the mythic: one of several ways to look at Barnabas is as a mid-twentieth century Odysseus returned to his Ithaca. He even has a one-eyed dog called Cyclop.
A high school English class would classify The Black Snow’s central conflict as man against society; its central tragedy comes from the fact that the society its man is in conflict with is his own.
Emily Donaldson (www.emilydonaldson.com ) is a freelance critic and editor

UCD’s Ulysses Centre aims to be more than a museum

Newman House is to be transformed into a venue to celebrate Ireland’s literary tradition

Newman House: has played host to Cardinal Newman, who founded the university; poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who died in the building; and the most famous alumnus of all, James Joyce
Doireann Ní Bhriain

People who studied in UCD when it was still on Earlsfort Terrace will remember the building in St Stephen’s Green known as “86”. Few called it by its proper title, Newman House, and far too few knew much about the ghosts of Cardinal Newman, who founded the university; poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who died in the building; or the most famous alumnus of all, James Joyce. My memories of it have to do with rehearsals and performances in the Little Theatre, housed in a tiny room at the top of the house; of heartbreak in the restaurant in the basement; and of college society meetings in some of the grander rooms. To my shame I didn’t know enough to appreciate the building’s wonderful architecture or the depth of its literary history.
Newman House is now to be transformed into the Ulysses Centre, a venue for the celebration of Ireland’s literary tradition. The development was generated and is being steered by UCD with the participation of the National Library. A generous and substantial contribution from philanthropists Martin and Carmel Naughton, along with an injection of capital funding of €2.5 million from Fáilte Ireland means the €10 million project should see the light of day by the end of 2017. Fáilte Ireland said it chimes perfectly with its positioning of Dublin as “City of Words”.
The idea is to celebrate the Irish literary tradition in the centre of Dublin in a way that will attract visitors of all ages, from Ireland and abroad. While a centre such as this must be attractive to tourists – and it is good to see such solid support from Fáilte Ireland – it is also comforting to know the necessary academic rigour in relation to content will be overseen by the academic lead, Margaret Kelleher, chair of Anglo-Irish literature and drama at UCD. She is excited about the fact that the centre will not only celebrate some of our foremost writers (and one hopes, given her interests, that women writers will find their place in the sun here), but will also respond to contemporary Irish writing, complementing the core display with more specific rotating exhibitions. That’s the difference, she says, between a museum and a living centre.
It was here in this building in 1854 that UCD precursor the Catholic University of Ireland opened under the rectorship of John Henry Newman. Newman House has already benefited from some impressive restoration work by UCD and has been open for many years for guided tours, which include a visit to the top floor re-creation of a classroom of Joyce’s time there, and of Gerald Manley Hopkins’s study/bedroom. The Ulysses Centre, with its high- quality, sophisticated design, presenting a rich panorama of Irish literature, will bring all this and much more to the attention of a new public. The project manager, Eamonn Ceannt of UCD, hopes that, apart from bringing in Irish and foreign visitors and students, it will help create a new generation of younger readers too. He insists on the authenticity of the project, in terms of the building itself and of the material that will animate it.
This is what cultural tourism is really about: providing a resource first and foremost for our own people, but also attracting culturally curious visitors with whom we can share this extraordinary heritage. So, well done to UCD, to Fáilte Ireland and to the Naughtons for such an inspired piece of philanthropy. And good luck to them all in bringing this long planned vision to fruition.

Doireann Ní Bhriain is a voice coach

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John Banville to open Lady Gregory/Yeats Autumn Gathering

  Galway Advertiser

At the launch of the Lady Gregory of Coole Park Autumn Gathering 20 15 were ( l-r) Sr Mary deLourdes Fahy, Marion Cox, Ronnie O’Gorman, Rena McAllen and Joe Hassett. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy
Described as “one of the most imaginative literary novelists writing in the English language today,” John Banville will open The Lady Gregory - Yeats Autumn Gathering in September.
It is fitting that Banville, whose stated ambition is to give his prose “the kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has”, should do the honours at this special 21st Gathering which celebrates poet WB Yeats.  His novels include The Book of Evidence, The Sea, which won the 2005 Man Booker Prize, Ancient Light and, most recently, The Blue Guitar (to be published on  September 6 ).  Awarded the Kafka Prize, the Austrian State Prize for Literature and the Prince of Asturias Award, Banville’s screen-writing credits include The Sea and Albert Nobbs.
Recognising the remarkable influence of Lady Augusta Gregory on the development of Irish Theatre and Literature, this twenty-first Gathering highlights her lifelong friendship and patronage of Yeats.  Events will take place in Coole Park and Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’ 15th century castle-home.
Translator of Irish legends and folklore, writer of comedies and fantasies, co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, Lady Gregory was active in many artistic areas. Although her stunning home at Coole Park is no longer standing, several other buildings remain, together with a nature reserve and a well-designed interpretative centre.  Within its historic walled garden, sits the famous ‘autograph tree’ where world-renowned authors such as Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, John Millington Synge and George Moore, carved their initials, marking Coole Park as the centre of the Irish Literary Revival in the 20th century.
Highlights of the Gathering include lectures, poetry readings, social events, plays, a guided walk through Coole Park woods and a tour, ‘Shopping with Mr. and Mrs. W. B.’ in Gort.   The Chairman is Marc Conner, Professor of English and Associate Provost at Washington and Lee University, Virginia, USA.  Speakers include:
Joe Hassett, Yeats Scholar and accomplished lawyer based in Washington, D.C., whose recent donation enabled the re-opening of Thoor Ballylee, will speak about ‘Friends Who Cannot Sup With Us: A Gathering of Shades  Around Coole, Duras, and Thoor Ballylee’.  James Pethica, teaches Irish Studies, Drama and Modernism at Williams College, Massachusetts.  A former Director of the Yeats International Summer School, he will speak on Lady Gregory’s Early Irish Writings.  Award-winning poet, Martin Dyar, recently Writer-In-Residence at the University of Iowa, will discuss Yeats’ 1917 book The Wild Swans at Coole; a centenary-themed lecture engaging with the richness of Yeats’ writing and the historical events surrounding the book.  Moya Cannon, former editor of Poetry Ireland and a member of Aosdána, will join Martin in reading their favourite Yeats’ poems and from their own work.
Thoor Ballylee will resound to special voices on Sunday when Cecily O’Neill, an internationally recognised authority on drama and arts education, will host an interactive event, followed by the Curlew Theatre’s staging of ‘The Muse and Mr. Yeats’, a play by Eamon Grennan, Professor of English (retired ), Vassar College, about the three important female muses in the poet’s life.  Participants can continue to enjoy the Open Forum discussion, plus entertainment and the Candlelit Dinner on Saturday. 

For further information and booking, contact Marion Cox, 1 Kiltiernan East, Kilcolgan, Co. Galway.  Tel: 086-8053917  email: monaleen@msn.com  and www.autumngathering.com