17 January 2006

BOOK REVIEW: Lessons from Ireland's time of troubles


A physician-author recrafts an historic event into a struggle of love versus loyalty

By Philip Hall

In the endless annals of humans' inhumanity to our own kind, Northern Ireland's decades of "troubles" are but one brief chapter. Except perhaps for the Irish, the carnage and potential lessons from that era have been obscured by America's disastrous adventures in Iraq. But such forgetting is opportunity lost.

In Ulysses, James Joyce has Stephen comment that "History . . . is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Ireland is now among Europe's most prosperous and peaceful nations. Perhaps we should be less profligate with our attention.

Ulster-raised Canadian author, doctor and reasonably talented sailor Patrick Taylor has written Now and in the Hour of Our Death, a cracker of a novel that takes us back to deeply divided Northern Ireland of 1983. On Saturday Sept. 25 of that year, a large number of Provisional Irish Republican Army "Provos"—the BBC initially reported 38 but later estimates were more than 130—escaped from the infamous Maze maximum security prison near Lisburn. One prison officer was stabbed and later died, while five others were injured but survived, one shot in the head. The largest prison breakout in British history, this event at "The Kesh" became a major government embarrassment. Ten escapees were recaptured within hours—four discovered underwater breathing through reeds in a river close to the prison—and another nine by the following Wednesday. By 1992, four more had been apprehended and three were killed in ambushes. The rest were either pardoned during Northern Ireland's peace process or disappeared for good.

Dr. Taylor has re-crafted this historic event into a compelling tale of passion and internal struggle between loyalty to a cause and love for a soulmate.

The book is a sequel to Dr. Taylor's Pray for Us Sinners (2000, Insomniac Press), set in 1974. It is unnecessary to have read it to enjoy its sequel, but I was so captured by this latest narrative that I reread Sinners for its similarly gripping story and writing skill. The characters in both use raw Ulsterspeak, for these works would be shallow simulacra without that blunt reality.

The narrative moves back and forth with counterpoint between the outer tension of County Tyrone and the inner tension of Fiona Kavanagh, who had retreated to the peace of Vancouver nine years before when her lover, Provo bombmaker Davy McCucheon, was incarcerated indefinitely in the Kesh. He is among the escapees, and with that I will leave this first-rate story for you to discover for yourself. But be prepared to read masterful use of antithesis; Dr. Taylor is not an author who scatters clues as to how his stories will end.

He leaves unanswered whether any good came from the lives lost from and ruined by Ireland's cruelly violent troubles. But I think that is intentional, if not the central point of his story. Permanent closure of the Kesh was written into the Good Friday Agreement, and the last inmates transferred in September 2000.

With eloquence, Dr. Taylor offers reflections of both the darker and lighter aspects of the human soul and a hint as to why the murderous troubles finally burned out.

Philip Hall is professor at the University of Manitoba and a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at St. Boniface General Hospital.

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