August 16, 2007
Book Review: Tipperary by Frank Delaney
Ireland. The word conjures up many images. Green fields, low mountains, picturesque tranquility; rough and tough fighting men, beautiful ladies, and fair haired children; great authors, great fighters, and a fight for nationhood that spanned centuries; each image a part of Ireland, each depicting a land of many facets. To most readers, Ireland is the home or birthplace of Yeats and Shaw, Wilde and Joyce. The Irish urge to create beauty from within their indomitable spirit led to many a feat in all spheres of life.
It is this spirit that Frank Delaney captures in Tipperary, his third US publication. Delaney is himself an émigré from Ireland, born in the very town where the novel is set. His knowledge of the town and its environs comes through clearly, as does his experience as a BBC broadcaster and judge for the Man Booker Prize.
Tipperary is told primarily through the voices of two men, separated by a generation, one living at the dawn of the 20th century, and the other at the dawn of the 21st. They are both historians, one writing a personal and contemporary history, the other a commentator on the first. Charles O’Brien, the former of these, is a man of Victorian Ireland, a gentleman born in 1860 to an Ireland depopulated by famine. It is from him that the reader receives most of the story. O’Brien tells of the tumultuous times in which he lived by keeping a personal journal, something he calls a “small personal history of Ireland in my lifetime – a life of love and pain and loss and trouble and delight and knowledge.” The other historian, Michael Nugent, discovered Charles O’Brien’s text and interrupts the narrative often to explain or verify O’Brien’s assertions or historical accuracy. However, unbeknownst to Nugent, he has a personal stake in the story, one which develops as the plot progresses.
The plot follows O’Brien as he pursues April Burke, a woman twenty years his junior with whom he as fallen in love, but who vehemently rejects him. In the process, he meets with famous Irish notables of the period such as George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Charles Stewart Parnell, and even Michael Collins, highly esteemed leader of the Irish Republican Army. April is discovered to be the heir to Tipperary Castle (which had lain unclaimed for fifty years) in a time when the landed aristocracy is greatly out of favor in Ireland. Many of the Irish wish the return of their ancestral lands to the people and civil and military unrest are on the rise. Against this backdrop April pursues her land, and Charles pursues her. Ultimately, it is a love story, one of a man for a woman, and of a people for its land.
The novel itself is beautifully written. Delaney switches back and forth from the contemporary history of the late 1800s and early 1900s by Charles O’Brien and the commentary on that text by Nugent. Some readers will find the switches difficult to follow, but this reviewer did not. Delaney made sure within the first sentence, sometimes even the first word, to ensure that the reader knew he had moved from Charles O’Brien’s history to Nugent’s commentary and vice versa. Other voices are later introduced by Nugent to help explain the circumstances surrounding O’Brien’s life such as O’Brien’s mother, Joe Harney, and even April herself.
Delaney has written a novel which delves into the psyches of the various Irish and Anglo-Irish of the period. Their desire for nationhood and the love of the people for their land are a driving force within the story. And yet, he has made it all deeply personal by telling us of the story of Charles and April. In their relationship, we see Ireland reflected.
The first two chapters spend a great deal of time on back story and setting, and readers may find it slow and difficult to read, as Delaney writes O’Brien using a Victorian style. Since O’Brien’s reminisces fill the majority of the first two chapters and the first part of the third, those unschooled in Victorian language may dislike the tone and voice. It is necessary to set the stage for the mystery that comes next, and the reader would be well advised to pay attention. In chapter three, more voices are introduced, and the plot twists and turns in such a way as to make a mystery that is both intriguing and beguiling.
Delaney is a master of the voice. Each of his characters is unique in the way they write, from O’Brien and his Victorian style, to Nugent and his historian’s need for accuracy. From the random and chaotic nature of April Burke’s letters, to the colloquial voice of Joe Harney, each character sees Ireland in a different light, and so illuminates an era of much personal and political turmoil. It is “a story of a passionate romance within an epic struggle for nationhood,” told in a variety of perspectives, but always realizing that history is always personal, and never objective.
I highly recommend Tipperary. It is storytelling as only the Irish can tell.