Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


Tipperary by Frank Delaney








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Frank Delaney’s historical novel, Tipperary, is a love story on many levels, set at the turn of the 20th century. It’s the story of the love between individuals, the loving restoration of a finely built castle, the love of freedom, and the love of the land. By using alternating narrators, Delaney presents two perspectives on the story: a contemporary speculation and a historic record written by protagonist Charles O’Brien. All the major leaders and writers of the time find a place somewhere in this narrative. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 30-33:

In today's terms, Mr. O'Brien's reaction may seem excessive. Not in Queen Victoria's reign, when the idea of romantic love, descended from the times of the troubadours, had well and truly taken root. In an era where prudishness and repression were equated with prudence and re­sponsibility, all that was left to a man by way of expressing love was the report of his own passions.

The poets had led the way; "Byronic" had long been a shorthand term for passionate emotion. Charles O'Brien, in common- with so many other men of the day who fell suddenly in love, had solid precedent for seeing himself as a dashing and romantic figure. Windswept and interest­ing, moody and wild with love pangs, he was prepared to surrender all for love.

But he was a little older than the typical Byronic figure with the brooding lips and flowing white shirt. This was a man who had already lived well more than half the male lifespan of the day. He had claimed no prospects that he could offer a girl. And he seemed to depend upon his paternal family and home far more than the typical man of his time.

My first complete memory that is to say of a cohesively remembered moment with its own Beginning, Middle, and End—comes from my life at the age of almost four. I have other fragments from times before then, the commonplace memories that I expect are found in all small children: my father lifting me high while I looked down at his laughing, exerted face; a curtain fluttering at an open window; a butterfly finding its way. into the drawing-room and mistakenly alighting on a flower in the furni­ture's fabric; the taste of sugar upon buttered bread, which Cally gave as a treat; the tightness of a shirt-collar, worn to be gracious when Grand­mother Goldsmith or Aunt Hutchinson came visiting; the quiet hum of, deep, approving conversation as my parents pored over my mother's ledgers. (Father was an excellent and successful farmer.)

That very first memory, though, brought my introduction to fear and its thrill, and it took place in the safest of surroundings. Our domestic bathing arrangements never varied; Cally or Mrs. Ryan took responsibil­ity for my hygiene until the age of ten—when my father, with whispered asides to my mother, consigned it to me alone. He supervised me, and in due course taught me to shave: "Keep the razor wet!" One evening, early in 1864, Mother came rushing to the kitchen, where I was often to be found among the women (I was quite their pet), and she cried, "Bathing! We must bathe Charles now!" Her urgency puzzled all until she ex­plained in whispers—and then Lally became urgent and raced me to the bathroom, half-carrying me. Mrs. Ryan, who was as stout as a hip­popotamus, huffed along after us.

Hot water was brought upstairs, and I was washed as never before. So distressing did I find this that Mrs. Ryan and Lally conspired to tell me.

Mrs. Ryan: "A girl's after dying in Limerick. You have to be scrubbed and scrubbed."


Cally: "She died of an awful thing."


Mrs. Ryan: "An awful thing altogether."

"What's an awful thing?"

They looked at each other and agreed with their eyes.

Mrs. Ryan: "She was a leper."

I thought they meant that the girl had somehow jumped off some great height and died.

"Why do I have to be scrubbed because she leapt?"

The women began to laugh; Mrs. Ryan had her hands in the tub washing my feet, and her great forearms all but heaved the water every­where. When they subsided, the women grew serious again.

Cally: "She had the leprosy."

Mrs. Ryan: "She caught it off a sailor's clothes that she was washing." Gaily: "An African sailor, he was—he had it. A black fella."

"What's leprosy?"

Cally: "Your nose falls off."

Mrs. Ryan: "And your hands with it."

Cally: "They have to give you a bell to tell everyone you're coming and they're to get out of the way—so's they don't catch it."

"How can you ring the bell if your hands have fallen off?" Mrs. Ryan: "Well, you can."

"Is it a big bell?"

Mrs. Ryan: "No, no, a small little bell and you've to shout and warn them."

"What do they shout?"

Mrs. Ryan: "I s'pose they say, `I have the leprosy, I'm a leper.'"

Cally: "No, they say, `Unclean, that's what I am, unclean.' "

Such a gift to a small boy! That night, to Mother's horror and Father's delight, I took the serving bell from the dining-room table and went about the house calling out, "Unclean! Unclean!" But it was true; a young servant-girl had contracted leprosy in Limerick and died.

Another memory: three years later, early in 1867, our house became a place of secrets and furtiveness. At night I would wake suddenly at the sound of hooves or a cart or carriage rattling and jingling. Once or twice, I went halfway downstairs and watched as big men with long beards came through the front door, hauled off their greatcoats, and greeted my father. I heard much talk of "ships" and "landing" and "rising"—which I took to be the motion of the ship on the crests of the sea.

Beyond my imaginings, I achieved no knowledge of what lay behind or beneath these visits, and my questions at breakfast next day accom­plished nothing other than deflection and a caution from my mother: "Charles, we don't like people knowing our business." Even if I didn't un­derstand the words, she conveyed an unmistakable force of meaning.

Years later, I discovered the reason for this nocturnal activity, which lasted many months. The Fenians, an international assembly of zealous republicans dedicated to the independence of Ireland from England, had planned—and, indeed, carried through an insurrection or uprising, hence "rising." Much of it had been focused in our province of Munster and, in due course, with Tipperary as a crucial member, the other five Munster counties, Cork, Kerry, Clare, Limerick, and Waterford, intended to flame with rebellion, which would then spread to the rest of the country.

Unfortunately, as has so often been the case in Ireland, two constant facts of Irish life prevented the rebels from gaining wide ground: the weather and loose tongues. On the night of the rising an unprecedented snowstorm hit the country. In addition, everybody around us—the local priests, the local newspaper editor, the local washerwomen and shopkeep­ers, the police and the army—knew all the plans in advance. Wagging tongues saw to it that little blood would be shed for Ireland that night.

"All cloak and no dagger," said my father when speaking of it to me years later. "Too many saddles, too few horses."

I asked him what he meant.

"They were generally useless as rebels," he said. "Great company, though. Great to argue with over a drink."

Yet History has credited them with "the Rebellion of 1867," even though handfuls of men here and there, with old muskets and some pitchforks, were merely rounded up by police, the more threatening ones lodged in the cells for a few days and the rest sent home. The Cork Exam­iner newspaper carried reports of numerous arrests, but the Fenians had, as yet, been mainly drilling and marching, and had not fired a shot. Such was the level of Irish uprising in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Then, when I was ten years old, the countryside resounded excitedly to a significant political development. Mr. Gladstone, the Prime Minis­ter, saw his government pass a Land Act for Ireland that permitted ten­ant farmers some new rights. They now had to be compensated for any improvements to their farms, and eviction could occur only for non­payment of rents. However, since the landlord could raise the rent at a whim, the protection, when scrutinized, seemed infirm. My father's pro­nouncement seemed to echo the country's response: "Well, it'll give us something to talk about for a long while."

Delaney has a grand way of telling stories, and by using multiple narrators, he multiples the ways in which he can weave together the complicated tale of Tipperary. Some readers may be frustrated by the alternating voices, and the length of the novel, but lovers of Ireland will be especially pleased with the ways in which Delaney captures the people and the volatile era with such skill.


Steve Hopkins, February 21, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the March 2008 issue of Executive Times


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