Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Engaging and always interesting, but no masterpiece

Armagh-born Darran McCann, a former journalist with The Irish News, is a graduate of TCD and DCU. In 2010, he secured a PhD in Creative Writing from Queen's University Belfast, where he now teaches the subject.

After the Lockout is his first novel, a historical narrative his publishers rank with the works of Roddy Doyle, Sebastian Barry and John McGahern.

Such a comparison is premature. McCann is learning the craft of literary fiction; he is not yet a master of the art.

It is set in 1917, soon after Victor Lennon - a veteran of the General Strike lockout (1913), and a Citizen Army participant in the 1916 Rising - is released from Frongoch internment camp in Wales. He is anti-capitalist, anti-clerical and a demagogue.

Lennon suspends his class war in Dublin to return to Co Armagh to rescue his father, Pius, from the demon drink, restore the family farm to its pre-eminent economic position in the community, and revive a dormant romance.

Treated as a hero by the youth of his native village, Lennon spouts his Communist catchphrases and inevitably clashes with his doctrinaire parish priest, Stanislaus Benedict. Verbal and literal fireworks ensue.

The clash between religion and socialism reaches a climax with the lockout of Lennon and his supporters from the church-controlled parish hall, and Lennon's proclamation of a Soviet commune in the village.

In a short novel (239 pages), it's not easy to create the context of time and place.

The opening section, set in Dublin, reads more like a 1917 Thom's Street Directory and a survey of political events and personalities of the time.

The seediness of the red-light Monto district in the inner city does not ring true. The period feel of the city of Armagh is much better realised.

The author's editor has done him no favours. It was never possible to hop on a train at Amiens Street and hop off at Harcourt Street station (not unless one took a scenic route via Bray).

The Big Wind of 1839 actually occurred on the Feast of the Epiphany, not Pentecost.

On the plus side, McCann effectively employs three narrative voices: one for Victor Lennon's view of events, another (in italics) for Lennon's memories and musings, and the traditional third-person voice keeps the story rattling along. John McGahern used a similar narrative structure in The Dark.

After the Lockout would have been a better novel if the author had concentrated on the smaller canvas of south Armagh, and peopled it with fewer and more rounded characters.

It's hard to feel sympathy for either Victor Lennon or his hardline parish priest. The novel is engaging, always interesting, but is not the masterpiece his publishers believe it to be.

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