Does being a border writer mean that, by definition, you are going to be marginalised? That would certainly seem to have been the case with Eugene McCabe, the Clones-based writer of at least one great play, one masterpiece of a novel and some of the most powerful short stories to have come out of Ireland in the past half-century. He deserves to be ranked up there with William Trevor and Frank O’Connor in the canon of great 20th century Irish writers, but rarely is.
One of the problems may be that for a man who is now over 80, McCabe’s output has not been voluminous. Another may be that he writes about the deeply unfashionable people of the border region – both sides of it – in all their savage divisions, sorrows and loneliness. He has never shied away from the darkest and most controversial issues in Irish life. King of the Castle, the play which first brought him notoriety in the 1960s, was about an ageing, wealthy farmer who hires a travelling labourer to sire a child on his young and unhappy wife, and it about the darker side of sex. ‘Sex is the currency of the play, the language into which everything else – greed, history, the rise of the self-made man – is translated’, wrote Fintan O’Toole. And sex in Ireland in the 1960s was still largely a taboo subject.
Death and Nightingales – which Colm Toibin has called McCabe’s masterpiece – is a gothic novel of love, murder and sectarian hatred in the 1880s: the decade of Parnell as the uncrowned king of Ireland and of the terrorist Invincibles. Billy Winters, the conflicted planter and Beth, his accursed Catholic ‘daughter’, are unforgettable characters: Fermanagh versions of the tormented souls of Lorca’s Andalucia or Chekhov’s Russia.
Heaven Lies About Us, his collection of short stories published in 2005, begins with a terrible tale of a child’s death after sexual abuse by her brother. In the words of the English writer and critic Ian Sansom, the rest of the stories – and particularly the triptych ‘Cancer’, ‘Heritage’ and ‘Victims’ – are ‘like burning beacons, warnings from history’. McCabe writes of the border counties as ‘a dim, hidden country, crooked scrub ditches of whin and thorns stunted in sour putty land; bare, spade-ribbed fields…housing a stony-faced people living from rangy cattle and welfare handouts…To them a hundred years was yesterday, two hundred the day before.’
This is ‘troubles’ writing at its bleakest and finest. ‘I have never read fiction that renders with such economy and brutal force the co-existing truths of sectarian hatred and entangled cohabitation. For readers keen to experience the power of which fiction is capable, the dread and sorrow it can elicit, the linguistic excitement it can provoke and, above all, the thrill of seeing anew, and more profoundly, what one thought one knew, McCabe is indispensable,’ wrote the American novelist Claire Messud.
I would make these dark stories required reading for all Irish and Northern Irish sixth formers, both for the brilliance of their spare use of language, and – more importantly – because this vision of black hatred and bloody murder should convince them like nothing else of the absolute obligation to do all in their power to ensure that never, ever again will neighbour take up arms against neighbour in the northern province of this island.
McCabe – perhaps uniquely among Irish Catholic writers – is equally able to write about the terror and contempt of Protestant border farmers and UDR men as he is to portray the anger and vengefulness of their Catholic neighbours and historic adversaries. And he is able to see into the wounded humanity of both communities and evoke sympathy with the most unlikely people, people driven demented by religion and politics and death and drink and bigotry.
I met Eugene McCabe once over 30 years ago. I visited him on his farm where the driveway – in the way of so many border back roads – actually crossed from Monaghan into Fermanagh and back again. He couldn’t have been warmer or more welcoming to a young, raw and rather ignorant BBC reporter doing a programme about the Protestants of County Monaghan. After the interview, his son gave me a lift through the February snow to Dublin to watch a rugby international at Lansdowne Road.
McCabe is also a fine writer of love poetry, and I’m going to finish with the final lines of one of those poems, ‘For Margot for a lifetime’ (which is the frontispiece to Heaven Lies About Us):
…Now Winter’s marching round Drumard
We’ll log up stoves against the coming cold
Much to live for, still more to remember
And never, ever talk of growing old.
Light can catch the glory in November
Of summers past and though God gives no sign
When love is all there is no final line.
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.