The sinking sands of Coolanagh – After The Rising by Orna Ross. Available on Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K.
`WARNING!’ they shout. `DANGER! The Sands on this side of the Point are Unstable and Unsafe. Do not Diverge from the Path.’
Orna Ross has written a masterpiece and in this age of exaggeration and hyperbole I hope I can convey just how exceptional is her book After The Rising.
There is not a spare word nor a trite phrase anywhere in this book – the prose is absolutely gorgeous.
She clearly and lyrically tells the story of Cogadh Cathartha na hÉireann (The Irish Civil War) and its after effects through the research and recollections of Jo Devereux, who has come into possession of a chest containing her family’s terrible secrets. The war between the Free Staters and the Republicans claimed thousands of Irish lives and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael live on as reminders of that terrible conflict.
A wise nun leading a pre-Cana class told me years ago that the social pathology of a family muscles its way inexorably from generation to generation unless some one person consciously decides to stop it and repair the damage. In Orna’s book, we follow that damage in the Parle, O’Donovan and Devereux families.
Orna writes a battle scene as well as anyone, and in this work tells the story of Cumann na mBan , the women who supported the losing side, the sinking side, and of Norah O’Donovan from a Free Stater family who loved Barney Parle a Republican partisan and of his sister Peg Parle in love with Dan O’Donovan and the tragic – never melodramatic – consequences. And in a more recent incarnation, we learn of Jo Devereux’s love for Rory O’Donovan, made impossible by the opposing loyalties of their ancestors.
She writes of the complexities of mother-daughter relationships made ever more complex in a time of war by hardened ideologies; of patriotism; of love for dear old Ireland; of out-of-wedlock pregnancies then and now.
The reader is treated to the epics and legends like Táin Bó Cúailnge and the way they are inextricably woven into the Irish consciousness.
And her gift for narrative brought me near to tears more than once.
“The window frames Mucknamore in full seductive act. Over to our right, the setting sun throws streaks of orange and pink and red along the sky and the sea borrows and flaunts the colours like they’re its own. Waves shimmer around the curve of the Point and Coolanagh and between the island and the sea, flat sands glisten with foam. Above it all, seabirds circle and swoop, silver-and-gold underwings flashing in the dazzling, dying light. ”
” Peg felt the mystery of a long marriage. The long melding of days and doings felt, in that moment, more significant to her than the melding of bodies to which everyone, including herself, gave so much attention. All that seemed a small thing to hold beside her father’s gentle lifting of his wife out of her sickbed, the lightness of her once-strong frame in his arms, the unexpected gratitude in the hands that slipped round his neck. Beside the living, companionable togetherness of them, which Peg had sometimes felt but never witnessed. It was a balm to her now. JJ carried Máire”
Ross (née Áine McCarthy) was raised in County Wexford, home to Vinegar Hill where 20,000 British soldiers put down The Rising of 1798, hence the title, After The Rising. It was an intensely personal experience for me to read this novel, because two of my ancestors were United Irishmen and my father’s family was divided by that Rising, and later in the American Civil War, my ancestors were again divided as were thousands of others.
If you are interested in Irish history, in the contribution of women to that country, in the complexities of families striven by ideology, in the glory of the written word, you will want to read this book.