In Irish folklore it is routinely asserted that access to the Stray Sod Country is gained by means of the unholy gate. And that once you have reached it, you will find that you have been deceived and that you have now arrived in a place where the world can never be the same again. Your senses will have been overtaken by a heightened faculty of observation which can only result in the most unnamable terror of all — cosmic loneliness.
I have read and reviewed two previous Patrick McCabe novels (The Holy City — the very first post on this blog — and WinterWood). All three of those books feature some characteristics which I’m inclined to label “the McCabe toolbox”. Set in small Irish communities (this one in Cullymore), in the present tense of the novel not much happens — small town life does not have big time events but the little ones are every bit as major to the people who experience them. But looming throughout, and often coming to the fore, are centuries of inescapable Irish history and, most important, folklore which often overtake the mundane of the present with terrifying consequences. What distinguishes McCabe from many of his fellow Irish writers, however, is a third element — the creeping presence of global change (McCabe’s Ireland is the Celtic Tiger, not that of the Troubles) which is imposing new pressures on these sleepy communities just as surely as the folklore of the past is twisting the present.
The “narrator” of The Stray Sod Country, who does make first person appearances and observations particularly in the latter part of the book when he confirms that he is directing the “action”, is what the non-Irish world would call the Devil — he’s known to the locals as Fetch or Nobodaddy. There is no central character to the novel, rather an ensemble of Cullymore residents. The “present” of the novel is 1958 — the Soviets have just launched the dog, Laika, into space. This is the story of a community (influenced by that timeless Devil) and the dramatis personae are the people who live there:
Cullymore was a border town with an equal number of Protestants and Catholics, numbering two thousand in total. It had always been a source of pride for the community that, by and large — unlike so many other places — somehow everyone got along together. Which made it all the more regrettable that the ongoing feud between James Reilly and their parish priest showed no sign of subsiding. In fact, if anything, it appeared to be getting worse.
The setting is Ireland, so you can’t avoid that religious tension but Cullymore is different in the way that it handles it. That parish priest, Father Hand, for example is not preoccupied by Protestant enemies — his nemesis is Father Patrick Peyton, originally from the West of Ireland, now living in the United States where he is known as “a friend to the stars” and for his Rosary Crusade. Father Patrick Peyton, with the help of stars such as Frank Sinatra (yes, the irony of casting Mafia-buddy Frank is deliberate — McCabe has many others as well), is filling Madison Square Garden and his Crusade is attracting much media attention. Father Hand’s response (“…if it’s the last thing I do, I’ll best the infuriatingly smug Mayo toady”) is to commission an Easter week performance of Tenebrae, to be performed in his church by actors recruited from town notables. Preparing for that performance will be one of the key driving narrative forces in the present tense of the novel.
The James Reilly of the previous quote used to be a teacher in the local school until, apparently under the influence of Nobodaddy, he kissed an attractive young male student passionately on the lips one day — he says he doesn’t remember the incident. Led by Father Hand, the community promptly saw to his removal from his job and he now subsides just outside of town in a shack where he carefully maintains a family heirloom, a World War I vintage Lee Enfield rifle, and plots his revenge on the priest. The local constable assumes the rifle is far too old to actually fire; he is devastatingly wrong.
The ensemble cast is very large, but let me introduce just two more: Patsy Murray, the barber, and his wife, Golly (derived somehow from Geraldine).
He’s Catholic, she’s Protestant — Cullymore may be a tolerant community but even then some of the local worthies (most specificly the bank manager’s wife, Blossom Foster) are concerned by the mixed marriage:
— Marrying one of them, Blossom Foster had declared coldly, is of no advantage to anyone and she ought to have known that.
— You know, Protestants have it in them sometimes to be very hard, Patsy Murray heard his wife murmur when they found themselves lying in bed one night, so quietly cruel that it can be difficult to accept.
Like the Father Hand-James Reilly feud, the Golly-Blossom one will continue throughout the novel, escalating slowly but surely under the direction of the omnipresent narrator, be he Fetch or Nobodaddy or the Devil himself.
I have introduced only a handful of the cast (there’s an artist, carpenter, pool hall owner and young IRA recruit among others to be added — and those are just the males) and they all get involved in equally petty feuds. More important for The Stray Sod Country the novel, however, is that every one of them at some point comes under the influence of that Devil and enters the world of “cosmic loneliness” that is the Stray Sod Country of the place where they live.
McCabe’s third element, the inevitable change imposed by the modern world, becomes increasingly a factor in the latter part of the book, but I’ll leave it at that. Suffice it to say that the folk tale which the author works hard to establish in the first half of the book acquires some very modern elements as he brings it to a close.
That supernatural element — and its inherent darkness — means that McCabe is not for everyone since he demands from the reader an acceptance that it might, at the very least, be plausible. If you are willing to grant him that licence, you do enter McCabe’s world of past (the timeless supernatural), present (mundane but marked by continuing petty feuds) and future (there is a bigger world out there that is changing even traditional Ireland).
The fact that I have read three of his works (and have a couple of his earlier novels on the shelves as well) is indication enough that I am willing to enrol in his approach. Personally, I did prefer The Holy City to this one, mainly because the modern thread in that novel was much more present than it is here. Despite that caveat, The Stray Sod Country was an investment of reading time that provided entirely satisfactory results. McCabe’s Ireland differs from that of most of his colleagues — it is an intriguing world nonetheless.