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Rubbing Along

James Ryan

The Luck Penny, by John Maher, Brandon, 294 pp, €14.99, ISBN: 978-0863223617

On a visit to her sister in London in 1849, Liza Drew, wife of the Rev John Drew, a minister in the small parish of Aghadoe in the Irish Midlands, bumps into her husband’s friend and fellow student of ancient scripts, Mr Westmacott. She is startled. For several minutes, she teeters on the brink of fainting. Westmacott is supposed to be with her husband in Ireland, deciphering a Babylonian inscription. But as it quickly emerges that government business had forced him to cancel his trip at the last moment calm is gradually restored. This episode, like many other expertly realised ones in John Maher’s The Luck Penny, subtly illuminates the dilemmas, both personal and collective, to which the ambition to determine the course and outcome of things gave rise in the era. The “giddiness” that comes over Eliza when she bumps into Mr Westmacott is accompanied by a “presentiment that all was about to fall apart”. And so it is, but to satisfactory effect – as eventually transpires.

Eliza Drew, English born and bred, firmly believes, or so it seems at the outset, that if the correct steps are taken things will proceed as desired. This belief, arguably a central tenet of the middle class Victorian mindset, can be regarded as loosely rooted in the then popular philosophy of determinism. The extensive arrangements Eliza puts in place for her husband and the older of her two daughters while she is away place her firmly within this philosophical outlook. So too does her carefully planned journey to London with her younger daughter, Theodora. They set out from Aghadoe, heading first for Dublin on the recently completed railway. There is some shopping to be done. They go to Pim’s department store. Dress-making fabric and lace are purchased. Instructions are given to have the items sent to their hotel. There is no room for error;: they are catching the Kingstown steamer the next day. To make absolutely sure no such error occurs Eliza tips the man charged with dispatching the goods, giving him what she calls “a luck penny”.

Coincidentally, the man in question – one “Fox” Keegan – had once been employed in the brewery in Aghadoe and so is known, though not particularly well, to Eliza. He is, as will be seen, a continuous presence in the novel. The goods are duly delivered and next day mother and daughter set off for London. Faith in the notion that things can be made proceed as desired is maintained throughout. So when in the course of her sojourn in London, Eliza bumps into Mr Westmacott at the British Museum, it is not merely an encounter with a person whom she believed to be elsewhere: it is an affront to her world view, a challenge she is momentarily unable to meet. She feels unsteady and is helped to a nearby office. A glass of water “wrapped in a silk handkerchief” arrives.

Viewed from afar Mrs Drew might readily be dismissed as a lady trying – in keeping with the times – to create the impression of a delicate sensibility. But not so, her panic-induced weakness is triggered by a crisis of faith. Things, despite the arrangements she has put in place, have not gone as planned. Chance, saboteur of the best-laid schemes, has intervened. Disturbing though this realisation is, Eliza has in fact been edging her way towards it, albeit subliminally, for some time. Through her friendship with Mrs Tours, the seamstress in Aghadoe, she has had occasion to question her own modus operandi, not least the value she places on control and containment. And so the scene is set for an ideological conflict, sharp-edged Victorian determinism vs time-hewn Gaelic wisdom, with some of its attendant pishoguery. Maher’s handling of this conflict is impressive. He allows it to simmer quietly beneath the surface, never letting it become the polemic it might easily have been in the hands of a lesser writer.

“It’s an ill wind, Mr Westmacott…’’ Eliza says as they part.

“My, my, Mrs Drew, I do believe I detect an undercurrent of superstition in your words.’’

A gentle censure, but a censure nonetheless. And one Liza Drew takes to heart, resolving there and then to “put some sort of distance” between herself and the main inspiration of this “peasant talk”, Mrs Tours. It is a scene worthy, in some ways, of comparison with any one of the episodes in the novels of EM Forster which expose the dilemmas faced by those, Mrs Moore in Passage to India for instance, who cast aside the business of empire and adopt local ways of interpreting the world and their experience of it.

Eliza Drew, as Maher establishes later in the novel, has good reason to value Mrs Tours’s time-hewn wisdom. The prevailing demand for a stiff upper lip response to emotional suffering has inhibited her for many years from grieving for the death of her young son. At the time of his death the family lived in Belfast, soon to uproot and move to Aghadoe in the belief that they could leave their tragedy behind. That tragedy, of course, has stayed with them, their inability to speak about it deepening its impact. Significantly, the seamstress, Mrs Tours, divines Eliza’s need to grieve and, in a scene that boldly pits Gaelic heart against Saxon sangfroid, teases Mrs Drew’s grief to the surface. She is urged to “Leave him go” – to let go of her dead son. She shudders slightly, “as though someone had sent a galvanic charge through her body”. Her grief finds a focus, “not a face, as she might have expected, but a light. The radiance of a child’s soul, she was sure.” However, once outside the warm atmosphere of Mrs Tours’s cottage she “is suddenly overwhelmed by a morbid sense of wrongdoing at having crossed into the fields of fancy”. It is a crisis of allegiance, one which mirrors and amplifies her encounter with Mr Westmacott in London. Indeed Mrs Drew might be seen almost as a character from a morality play – with two opposing forces vying for her soul, the triumph of one over the other ultimately bringing resolution.

By the end of her week’s stay in London Eliza is no longer in this troubling predicament. In the course of an afternoon excursion into Oxford Street she loses her way – shades again of Passage to India – and in trying to find her bearings wanders into a back lane tavern in which there is a bawdy show in progress. She is astounded to find that the actors, three in all, are capable of playing a whole variety of roles and between them creating an illusory world. Something of the artificial nature of the actual world dawns on her. This notion gains credence when, continuing her journey, she happens upon scene after scene of poverty, degradation and disease – all at the very heart of the empire. It is a revelation, one that leads to enlightenment and from there to a choice. She can suppress her own perceptions of the world, thereby persisting in a stoicism broadly seen to serve the purposes of Empire. Or she can respond to the world as she herself perceives it and act accordingly. In conversation with her sister Hetty a day or two later she asserts: “We should make up our own minds about things.” Distressed by this new-found independence of mind Hetty says: “I think this Mrs Tours woman has put some strange notions into your head.” To which Eliza replies: “Mrs Tours is like a sister to me, Hetty.” It is a triumph both for Mrs Tours and for independence of mind.

Unlike Eliza Drew, Mrs Tours is deeply rooted in her own community. There is no possibility of her experiencing a crisis of allegiance because her allegiance is to all of humanity. Sinners, saints, Catholics, Protestants, rich, poor, young, old, Mrs Tours’s concern knows no boundaries. Neither does her curiosity, or indeed her frankness. But before moving to Aghadoe to consider her place in the scheme of things, it is worth noting how skilfully Maher sketches the shocking inequalities of mid-nineteenth century London. As Pat McCabe observes on the dustjacket, “his feel for London and the past never errs”. This is a well deserved accolade, indeed one that might be revised and expanded to include Dublin, Belfast, Rathdowney (Aghadoe) and Tullyroe (Tullyrone). Maher loses no opportunity to exploit the metaphorical potential of disease, in particular the cholera epidemic sweeping London at the time. “Was this to be the true price of Empire, then – the release of some malignant Hindoo or Mohammedan genie that punished those who trespassed on its demesne.” Equally enhancing is the way in which images of the cholera-ridden city through which Eliza meanders evoke the hapless wanderings of Aschenbach through the streets in Mann’s Death in Venice. In addition, the debate about the manner in which cholera spreads is deftly constructed to underline the prevailing struggle between theistic positions and those held by the burgeoning scientific establishment. It is a backdrop against which the advances of the last century seem truly magnificent.

Aghadoe, situated in south Co Laois, is presented in The Luck Penny as a town in which the Protestant and Catholic communities, despite the economic, social and educational privileges enjoyed by the former, live in relative harmony. Not, by most accounts, an untypical view of how things were in this part of the world. Laois, together with its neighbouring county Offaly, had been planted some 300 years previously in the first systematic attempt by the Crown to locate “English subjects born either in England or Ireland” in confiscated Irish territories on a large scale. Predictably, the scheme was vigorously resisted by the dispossessed septs, notably the O’Moores and the O’Connors. Five decades of near continuous and bloody hostilities with the Crown forces saw the demise of these and the other insurgent clans. So by the end of the Tudor era in 1603, Laois and Offaly, now called Queen’s and King’s counties, were, on the face of it at least, an integral part of the realm. Well fortified and easy to supply garrisons in Maryborough (now Portlaoise), Philipstown (now Kilbeggan) and Parsonstown (now Birr) ensured they remained so.

The intricacies of the Gaelic system of land tenure were generally not understood at the time, particularly the notion that it was the people who, in effect, gave the land to the head of the clan, rather than the other way around as in the English feudal system. This meant that dispossession was as real and hard-felt a grievance for the bothán dweller as it was for the clan chieftain. The themes of conquest, dispossession and plantation running through The Luck Penny are informed by this notion and accordingly presented as a significant factor in defining both Catholic and Protestant identities. But crucially, they are not allowed dominate. They emerge as a despotic bid, perhaps best to say another despotic bid, to impose a new and radically different set of social, economic and religious values on a people of whom many have only partially assimilated the values propagated by Christianity, thought to have arrived 1,500 years or so previously. One person who will not “be said or led by anyone but kept her own counsel …” is Mrs Tours. That is not, of course, to say she is unprincipled. Quite the contrary, but her principles are self-selected and are, as Maher often implies, much the better for that: “Mrs Tours’ knowledge was of another type altogether. It was the wisdom of the ages, gathered at countless hearths.” It is also fundamentally different in character from the knowledge garnered by the Rev Drew from his Babylonian inscriptions, which though enriching and edifying, is seen more as a hobby or enthusiasm than something which could inform or augment a value system.

Mrs Tours, with her altogether different type of knowledge, is highly thought of by everyone in Aghadoe. Her counsel is sought by rich and poor alike. Her kitchen, by virtue of her quasi-oracular presence, has a confessional atmosphere, luring those who enter to unburden themselves of anything that might be troubling them. Though frequently called upon to mediate in disputes, she also takes it upon herself independently to set things to rights. She is, in short, the heroine of The Luck Penny, or perhaps its anti heroine, since she has few – if any – of those ladylike attributes admired by the Victorians.

As with all Maher’s characters, she comes with her own linguistic register, her own voice, soon to become instantly recognisable. It is as consistently plausible as it is enjoyable. Her humour is sharp, hard-hitting and memorably ribald, not least for its colloquial tone. Referring to Mr Doheny, layabout husband of the Drews’ cleaner, Bridget, and feckless father of their big “tribe” of a family, she ponders:

A pity that stook of a husband of hers doesn’t put himself out a bit more, and she wouldn’t have to scrub and scrape for the likes of the Drews. Less mickey and more money is what is needed in that quarter.

This and a great many other incisive observations are voiced in interior monologues or soliloquies which effectively convey the drift of her thoughts. They are also the contexts in which she announces her plans and schemes, sometimes coming across as irritatingly assured of her own indomitability and self-consciously cute in a folksy sort of way. These shortcomings, of course, add to, rather than take from her authenticity. She is a welcome foil to Eliza Drew, uncovering her holier-than-thou social delicacy as both superficial and personally damaging.

If the novel can be said to be guided by a particular view of the past then such a view must necessarily embrace the notion of this part of Ireland as having a multi-layered society. It comes across as a place inhabited by individuals who have absorbed, in varying degrees, elements of the many different cultures that have taken root there over the centuries. And while mainstream Catholic and Protestant ethics are seen as the dominant forces, the emerging cultural hotchpotch includes a good dollop of paganism. Also included are the practices of some of the very small Christian minorities who have settled in the area such as the “Dippers”, a name originally given to the Anabaptists and now sometimes used in reference to Christian Witnesses. Sizeable Huguenot elements in the north and north-east of the county, together with nearby Quaker settlements, add to the complexity of this tableau. These groups are largely, though by no means exclusively, made up of the descendants of those forced to flee from religious persecution in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Settling in what was then a distant corner of the British realm, they give this part of Ireland a unique identity, an identity that Maher convincingly establishes. The process of assimilation at play here is further elucidated by the Rev Drew’s ongoing attempt to decipher the Babylonian inscription, in that the many different linguistic elements he identifies there, some of them clumsily imposed on those that went before, testify to a rough and ready amalgamation of different cultures.

The language of empire sliced into syllables, in clay and stone. And the hidden, silent language in between. A language of signs, not sounds. Of crude pictures.

This sophisticated analogy, which is maintained throughout the novel, takes on further significance when finally it becomes apparent that Drew is not going to crack the code, at least not satisfactorily, since there isn’t a single code, a single language, a single culture; there is just an intricate mix.

Maher does not ignore the hostilities to which the clash of different belief systems give rise. There are a number of references to the violence between Orangemen and Ribbonmen at Dolly’s Brae, near Castlewellan in Co Down, in 1849. As well as killing thirty Ribbonmen, the Orangemen fired on children crossing the fields, shot domestic animals and strangled chickens. The reference is not made to account for Catholic recalcitrance; rather it serves as a contrast to the relatively easy relations that exist between the different belief systems in Aghadoe. In that way, Queen’s County at the time might be seen as something of a blueprint for multicultural living, though not, it must be added, for power-sharing.

The Luck Penny contains a staggering array of language registers, each supporting and elucidating a particular viewpoint or mindset. Their variety and inventiveness are evocative of Under Milk Wood, itself much indebted, of course, to Joyce. The success of Fox Keegan as a character owes much to this careful attention to language, but before considering him, it is apt to consider Maher’s linguistic dexterity in greater detail. One of the many registers, all of which are seamlessly integrated, is that borrowed from the so-called trashy romantic novel. Short excerpts from a work called Lorna Lovegrove among the Moors are presented to account for the flightiness of the Drews’ eldest daughter, Judith. It is worth quoting at some length.

The hot winds coming in over the desert sands burn the soul and singe the senses. It is only the very hardy that can withstand the torture of the long, searing days of the summers of Araby. On the most terrible of those days, when even the yellow scorpions cowered under rocks, Lorna took refuge in thoughts of England with its green swards and fresh pastures … she thought of Roddy. Of Roddy Dunbar, in his fine frieze coat and jet black top hat …

The not inconsiderable difficulties in which Judith finds herself as a consequence of her identification with Lorna Lovegrove in Araby are anticipated, and discreetly and effectively handled by Mrs Tours, giving rise to a series of developments that make up one of the many well-integrated sub-plots in the novel. Less engaging – though by no means unengaging – is the more prominent whodunnit plot. While this creates a context in which Fox Keegan’s place in the scheme of things can be presented, the motivation of those who set out to discover that place is not so well established as the motivations seen to underlie other quests. Accordingly, it is eclipsed by the many more finely-tuned narratives, of which Mrs Drew’s journey through London and the independence of mind to which it leads, serves as a good example.

Another, equally significant journey is Fox Keegan’s to his native Tullyroe to see his dying father. Reminiscent of Leopold Bloom’s journeying through Dublin, it is extended throughout the entire novel and reveals much about the Ireland of the time. This reinforces the theme of diversity and makes for a welcome change from the many accounts of the era, both fictional and otherwise, in which the Big House, the parish priest and local Republican zealots constitute the pre-eminent power centres.

It is important to note that Tullyroe, though not far from Aghadoe, is in a different county, Kilkenny, one with a strikingly different history of settlement and cultural assimilation. This difference is subtly employed to establish the identity of both places. The fox, we are told, on several occasions, has no home. The fox, on the other hand, is clever. Both are defining characteristics of Fox Keegan. He “could be at rest nowhere, being caught between the planter and the peasant. Was it the likes of Fox Keegan who paid the real price for conquest?” Son of a small tenant farmer, highly intelligent, insightful and more literate than most of the planter class, his place in what is, in effect, a feudal system has prohibited him from realising any of his potential. Equally, his intellectual gifts and education set him apart from his own people. This is signalled early on in the novel in a scene referred to in brief above – his chance meeting with Liza Drew and her daughter in Pim’s. The episode sees some very clever play centred on the fact that a luck penny is not, or rather not necessarily, a penny as such. In this instance it is a shilling, and accordingly can be seen to symbolise acceptance of the authority of the Crown, “taking the King’s, or Queen’s, shilling”. In giving the shilling to Keegan, who works in the dispatch office of Pim’s and is thereby responsible for getting the fabrics to her hotel, Eliza Drew is affirming her ascendancy status.

“The luck penny, Mr Keegan … here you are.”

That took him aback alright. The smile on the lips suddenly gainsaid by the anger in the eyes, the sort of vengeful anger the likes of Keegan couldn’t hide, no matter ow they dressed it up in all kinds of smooth talk.’’

“Are you sure it’s not the Queen’s shilling in disguise, Mrs Drew?”

The history, topography and architecture of Laois are, and continue to be, well chronicled. Not so well chronicled is the array of different voices, particularly those heard in the post-famine era. The Luck Penny brilliantly catches these voices, together with the cultures they represent.


James Ryan teaches in the School of English and Drama at University College Dublin, and the School of English at NUI Galway, where he is currently writer in residence. His most recent novel is Seeds of Doubt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2001)

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