James Charles Roy is a youngish American journalist whose passion for Irish antiquity has led him to the kind of adventure more often enjoyed by those Victorian gentlemen who found scholarship as thrilling a pastime as, say, power politics or blood sports.
Equipped with automobile, oilskins, ordnance survey maps ("one-half inch to the mile") and an impressive knowledge of the religious literature as well as the archeological history of early Ireland, Roy has embarked on a personal investigation of the historical meaning of 15 ancient sites, scattered across the island. To read this handsomely designed book with its sensitive (mostly scenic) photographs is to accompany the author on an erudite yet companionable ramble through several millennia of Irish life--from the Neolithic to the 12th Century.
Starting with Newgrange, the journey progresses through 15 chapters, each named for a site that is key to the mores and essential concerns of the Irish who built, worshiped and lived there long ago. Some sites are already known to casual tourists and perusers of picture books--places such as the town of Armagh with its obviously venerable visual charm, and the Hill of Tara, that well-established if misunderstood totem of Celtic pride, just an easy drive from Dublin. Other of Roy's choices are much less familiar and less accessible but none the less fascinating.
In County Antrim, for example, we are led up slippery, fog-shrouded Tievebullagh to the Stone Age ax quarry where workmen's tools lie as they were dropped at the end of a busy day, some time before Christ's great-great-great-great-grandfather was born. Later, we visit the remote stretch of Donegal seacoast where the 6th-Century Celtic prince, Columcille, deciding "Christ is my druid," founded a religious community whose ruins still radiate "an aura of the primitive Celtic church . . . more easily perceived than any place in Ireland." And, moving onward with the inexorable flow of centuries and Irish Christianity, we arrive at Conmacnoise in County Offaly, where two monastery towers spiral high above a flat plain--attesting to the terror of the heathen Norse who pillaged the island's very heart but then settled down to rear Irish-Viking children and practice local trade.
Pivotal to Irish history as the chosen sites and their architectural remains are, however, this book is not just a guidebook or an archeological survey. The oratories, monasteries, passage graves and other monuments Roy describes serve finally as departure points for his more lengthy descriptions of the principal phases and central personalities of Irish cultural development in this period--with special emphasis on Irish religious thought.
Drawing on wide study of such diverse sources as astronomy, folklore, church history, geology and early poetry, Roy introduces us to the society of Ireland's (perhaps) aboriginal sun worshipers, to the Heroic Age of the warmongering Celtic tribes, and to subsequent transformations in the Celtic way of life wrought by invaders, missionaries and emissaries from continental Europe--from page to page supplying vivid portraits of the likes of an aging St. Patrick, a morose St. Malachy and a manipulative Queen Maeve.
Throughout, Roy's style is that befitting a gentleman scholar--albeit a very serious one. He is lucid, conversational and free of the difficult terminology that clouds so much other writing on these subjects. He sometimes stutters his convictions incoherently: "the purest Celtic Age would never survive intact. It would, over centuries, squirm, fall back, revive, crumble." But he also possesses a good-humored candor that invites understanding of matters otherwise arcane. Discussing the beginnings of priestly celibacy in the Irish church, he confides, for example: "Abstinence from sexual relations between man and wife was a fine penitential exercise: It gave a person more time to pray."
The narrative is further warmed and made human by the author's on-going account of the present-day circumstances in which he pursued ancient truth: how he haggled with a boatman here, camped in a rainy field there, and how he encountered certain tourists, churchmen, professors, rabbits, sea birds and candy-smeared children who (often unwittingly) contributed additional insights into the nature of the Irish past.
"The Road Wet, the Wind Close" is, all told, a compassionate book, as well as a work of passion. Richly anecdotal, yet intellectually disciplined and honest, it shares with readers both the specific complexity of early Ireland and a more general joy of learning.
Once, as the 4-year-old Samuel Beckett and his mother climbed a hill near their suburban Dublin home, he remarked, "The sky is farther away than you think, is it not, mama?" And she answered him, "It is precisely as far away as it appears to be."
The vexing incident--as recounted here, in the novel "Molloy"--was to be introduced several times in writings that would establish Beckett as one of the most artful and most inaccessible of 20th-Century prose virtuosos. And it is easy to imagine that the stern and clever mother who so reproved her little son also gave him much food for thought, and urged him toward the tireless parsing of reality and unreality that became his adult preoccupation.
Eoin O'Brien--a historian, who received Beckett's help preparing this book--notifies us, however, that " 'The Beckett Country' concerns itself more with topography than with personality, more with the ambiance of a life style than with those who participated in that life." And he states that the main purpose of this copiously illustrated volume (10 years in the making, and 5 pounds avoirdupois) is to show how the external phenomena of Beckett's early life in Ireland from 1906 till about 1931 pervade not just his early writings but also the works of his maturity. Many of these better known novels and plays--such as "Waiting for Godot," "Endgame," and the "Molloy" trilogy--were composed in the language of Beckett's adopted country, France.
O'Brien suggests that the unmistakably Irish features of Beckett's language, of his characters and dialogue, and of his mise en scene , have been unremarked till now largely because his French apologists have not recognized them--and because Ireland's scholars have averted their eyes from the countryman who so ill fits the conventional mold for an Irish author. (S. J. Perlman's claim "before they made me, they broke the mold" might equally have been Beckett's.)
To correct the oversight, O'Brien has painstakingly reassembled the physical and social landscape inhabited by the young Beckett and then unveiled its exact image in passages of writing selected from virtually all of the author's major works as well as his more obscure ones. In keeping with its topographical orientation, "The Beckett Country" unfolds as a series of places and spaces, not along chronological or developmental lines.
The book opens with a description of the front bedroom in the house in the prosperous village of Foxrock where Beckett was born (when "the sun had not long sunk behind the larches," a moment that he remembered clearly and often wrote about). Then it proceeds, chapter by chapter, along "the old back-roads" of neighboring mountain and seashore that young Sam explored with his father, into the heart of that Dublin City "abounding in common comings and goings rather than the fashionable aspects of city life" that engaged Beckett's developing interest: the streets of the old quarters, the pubs (with "the weary proletarians at rest on arse and elbow"), the schools, social clubs and--most important--the lunatic asylums.
O'Brien's sparing verbal description of these places, their historical associations and animating life in the early decades of the century, is illuminated by maps, diagrams, and many photographs, old and new, that evoke the visual richness of the scene, and also the extreme diligence that went into making "The Beckett Country." Readers will find here not only portraits of the infant Beckett at his mother's knee and the schoolboy Beckett in his cricket blazer, but also, for example, photos of the Pomeranian dog reincarnated as a love object in the opening pages of "Molloy," and the actual postman who whistled on his rounds of Foxrock and, later, in "Watt" and other works.
For scholars and Beckett devotees, there should be considerable excitement in this rediscovery of Beckett's Irish milieu, and in the passages of previously unpublished writings that O'Brien has included. For those of us who only occasionally encounter Beckett's work, there is a broader drama to be enjoyed here. As if in proof of the "theory of contraries that so often occurs in Beckett's writing," we see how the solipsistic, abstractedness of the prose--the quality that makes it seem so aloof--is in fact often the product of Beckett's minute examination of material life, and his profound sympathy for things outside himself. We witness afresh how motive forces of sensuality and sentiment help create masterful cerebration--as when, for example, Beckett (writing "Texts for Nothing") scrutinizes a bathroom fixture in his childhood home: "a round shaving glass, double-faced, faithful and magnifying . . . imagining I saw me there, lurking behind the bluey veils, staring back sightlessly, at the age of twelve, because of the glass, on its pivot, because of my father, if it was my father."
Inevitably, this revelation of the contrariety and unity in human response whets our interest in the nature of the particular human under discussion: in Beckett himself, his "personality." We're unable to disregard the emerging profile of a tremulously sensitive, isolated youth, in love with his father, apprehensive of his mother, a talented athlete and scholar--an heir to all the bright prospects of "the son of a Protestant gentleman" of bourgeois, Anglo-Ireland whose deepest identification came to be with the disadvantaged, the deprived and deranged, the "placeless," and who left Ireland behind.
This profile, like a distant, significantly shaped promontory, looms over every byway of "The Beckett Country."