Life-enhancing tale against the odds
John, you know when your mother was young she was hired out at Allen's over at Rushey. Well, what you don't know is that she had a baby. Allen was the father. Then she was taken from Allen's. Father married her€ She had a baby every year after that€ John, Father was not good to Mother."
It was about 15 years ago that John Throne's late mother at last found the words to speak of his grandmother's life in Donegal.
The words simmered in his mind until eventually generating his first novel. The Donegal Woman was published in July. It has been the talk of the county ever since. It casts an excruciating light on a hidden corner of Ireland's history.
I remember John Throne in Derry in the late '60s, a Protestant from across the border preaching revolution in the Bogside. He has been involved in socialist politics ever since. His sister, Mary Hamilton, is an Ulster Unionist councillor in Derry. She was the only one of the family who stood at his side at the launch of his book.
"Of course I did," she said when I bumped into her in the Guildhall a few weeks later. "He is telling the truth. You have to tell the truth." A journalist in a Donegal newspaper made much the same point a couple of weeks back, quoting a woman who had bought a copy in the local grocery store. "Sure, it was every woman's story back then."
Like so much else that has helped shaped our Irish existence, North and South, everybody knew but nobody said.
The Donegal Woman tells the story of Margaret Wallace, hired out at 12 by her father to a local farmer, abandoned to a life from which love and beauty had been banished, where she laboured all hours knee deep in pig droppings, slept on straw that the rats scurried through on the floor in a barn and was battered every day by insult and humiliation, isolated, beaten, abused, raped, impregnated, then discarded again, sold at 14 for the price of a cow (£8 at the time) with the blessing of the bishop as a slave into marriage to a Protestant land agent and informer - couldn't have the child contaminated by Catholics - a brute who treated her as a beast of burden and "a place to put his thing".
The man almost spoke with her when her mother died but he didn't. "To speak to her other than to give her orders, or to criticise her for not carrying out his orders correctly, was threatening to him."
His dourness and cruelty came from the fact that his spirit too had been twisted and crushed. There is a brief moment where he dares tenderness. Stroking her pregnant stomach as he has sex on her, he finds himself thinking of "the hard time she had€ She was a person, she was a good person€
"But then he became terrified and he panicked and he leapt back out of her, and he roared at her€ 'To hell with you, to hell with you€' Her and her belly and her round softness and her€ To hell with her."
Throne depicts him recalling the roars of his father: "It's the Lord Taverstocks, the Browns, the Bishop Wilsons and the police and the army that run this country. Keep right with them and you'll never go too far wrong€ Don't be thinking like them Fenians€ They want to fight the powers that be. Look where it gets them. We may have little, but they have less."
The bully, too, only a pawn in the game.
The Donegal Woman wears its politics on the sleeve of its tattered, stained blouse. This is the novel as socialist tract and polemic for women's liberation. Commentary and context are spelt out in the text. There are no flowery touches, few poetical allusions, no concessions to the niceties of literary style. The structure is straight-line. The sex scenes are as unemotional as anything since Last Exit To Brooklyn. The characters, for the most part, are coarsely drawn. There isn't a scene in 400-plus pages set in Donegal that you could imagine on a postcard.
The landscape glowers throughout on the pitiless action.
And yet, somehow, in the end, it's an uplifting, life-enhancing story of a child who grows into brief, strong adulthood through the unvanquishable spirit of motherhood and an instinctive sense of other brighter possibility.
We have had stories before on the harshness of life for the unwealthy of Donegal in past times, the aching eloquence of Patrick MacGill, the forensic anger of Peadar O'Donnell, but nothing like this, nothing as steady-eyed in its gaze or as relentless in its detail, as unflinching in its depiction of the class and gender contradictions that distorted humanity and stunted sexual and spiritual growth from generation to generation, like a dark curse passed down, a dumb inevitable condition never to be mentioned.
Maybe it took the deep shifts in society since the '60s and the revelations of more recent years to unleash the language for telling the story of Margaret Wallace that John's mother knew to the end of her days must be made known.
You'll look differently, probably more darkly, on Donegal for reading this book. And not just on Donegal.
This is the most powerful piece of new writing I've encountered in 2006.
If you still have a Christmas present to buy for someone of serious mind, here it is.
€ The Donegal Woman, Drumkeen Press, £10.