St Patrick’s Day: Irish Novels

the book: Death and Nightingales by Eugene McCabe

published 1992

[set in 1883, county Fermanagh, Ireland. The young women of the household have taken tea to the men working in the bog]

When they came to the cutting bank, there was no one in sight. They could see one barrow loaded ready for wheeling and spreading, the other empty. High above, a curlew wheeled fluting, desolate, faraway. Its mate replied closer. On an upside-down slipe, they placed the cans of buttermilk, tea and baskets of bread, cold bacon and eggs. They could hear the men’s voices coming up from the floor of the bog. Mercy went to the edge of the bank to call them. The three men were about twelve feet down. Jim Ruttledge seemed to be digging sideways into the face of the bog with his slane. Mickey Dolphin hunkering, watched…

Tea was poured. The men sat and wiped sweat from their eyes with sleeves and shirt-tails. Beth added sugar to the mugs, stirring. The early-evening sun was in the bog and a cool wind came from the north; weather to dry turf without the labour of turning. The men’s faces were reddened by sun, arms scorched to the elbow, eyes dazed from work. Nobody said anything much till they had eaten all the food in the baskets and drunk three or four mugs of tea each. High above the slurping, eating and burping, the curlew wheeled, piping. Shading their eyes against the sun, the girls looked up. They could not see it against the blinding brightness. Neither began to eat or drink until the men were replete.

commentary: ‘Taking tea out to the bog’ was certainly going on in rural Ireland in living memory. The men are cutting peat or turf which will be dried and used as fuel; the women bring hot tea and something to eat and everyone stops for a chat.

Death and Nightingales is forever hovering on the edge of being an archetypal miserable Irish novel, but is saved by the high quality of the writing: McCabe is the real thing. Whether he’s doing dialogue, or writing descriptions of the countryside, or looking inside people’s hearts, he is amazing. He moves from one character to the next, telling us their thoughts and views.

The main characters are Beth Winter and her stepfather William – there are sad glimpses of the parental marriage, two people who apparently loved each other, destined to mutual torment because she was pregnant by another when they married. Catherine Winter is dead now, and William and Beth carry on the torment. William is a rich landowner, and Beth suspects he will not let her inherit. She has met a young man called Liam, attractive but wild and up to no good, and fallen violently in love with him.

The book takes place on her 25th birthday: in the opening pages it is laid out that she is planning to murder her stepfather and run off with his gold and with Liam.

So she does that and lives happily ever after – oh no, sorry this is a proper Irish novel and nothing will turn out how it might. The story is beautifully told with some very unexpected moments, as well as quite a wide-ranging look at the politics and lives at the time: Parnell, the fight for Ireland’s independence, religion, the popular composer Percy French – all feature in what is not that long a book.

I loved this from the maid Mercy, quoting her mother on the trials of being a woman:
‘Go, go, go! The mother says it’s a class of slavery.’ 

‘What is?’ Beth asked. 
‘All the “go” what we’re at now and every day, slaves to the fire, luggin’ grub miles to feed men, baking and boiling and cooking, and sloisterin’ with buckets and mops, Sunday to Sunday, Christmas to Christmas: men, dogs, pigs, hens, cats, calves and then childer till they’re fit to fend for theirselves and then we’re fit for nothin’ but the chair in the corner or the box in the ground. “It’s a wonder to God,” she said, “there aren’t more hoors in the world: it’s a short life they have, but more sport in one week than most of us have in a lifetime!”’

The ending is abrupt and slightly mysterious, but bleak. The role of women in Ireland isn’t improving any time soon.

I hope the extracts here show the extraordinary level of the writing in Death and Nightingales.

It is a classic of modern Irish literature, and was recently adapted for television – I haven’t seen the production, and would be interested to hear from anyone who has.

More Irish books all over the blog. John McGahern and John Banville and Molly Keane highly recommended. The big houses of Ireland here. There’s also Yeats, and his grave, and Lissadell. An Irish poem of great beauty, Donal Og, here. James Joyce, of course. JG Farrell’s Troubles provided an earlier St Patrick’s Day entry. WG Sebald visited Ireland and described a wonderful dress
The best modern Irish writers too – Tana French and Marian Keyes. And – to cheer us all up – the incomparable Aisling

Even more Irish writers and books if you click on ‘Ireland’ below.

Working in the bog: photo from the 1880s, courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

A view of Enniskillen in Fermanagh, showing Town Hall Street in around 1880: the concert in the book takes place in the Town Hall. Also from the National Library of Ireland.


  1. The writing is excellent, Moira.That bit from Mercy is priceless! And I love the look it gives at everyday life. It sounds as though there's some dark, 'sideways' wit in there, too, which can do a lot to lighten a book that might be otherwise too bleak.

    1. In other words, it is a very Irish book! And like you say, sideways wit...

  2. Two Irish vintage crime writers are Eilis Dillon and Sheila Pim, which are more light hearted on the whole.

    1. Thanks for those suggestions Kate, I have read Eilis Dillon, but not heard of Sheila Pim, so will look her up now.

  3. I will read this book. Thank you !

  4. I love the word "hunkering". As in, "Mickey Dolphin hunkering, watched…"

    I may look into the writer but you know I have too many books (and too little time to read them) and too many books suggested by you before now...

    The only Irish author I was thinking of this month was Tana French, but I did not know that Marian Keyes is Irish ... hmmm.

    1. Yes, it's a great word, very visual. He is a superb writer, but not incredibly cheering! Now Marion Keyes is cheering. And I do love Tana French...

  5. Despite my heritage, probably not one I'll be seeking out thanks

    1. I'm sure you celebrated St Patrick's Day some other way...


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