Peter Somerville-Large is best known for his non-fiction books on Ireland, including “Dublin, Irish Eccentrics, The Grand Irish Tour, The Coast of West Cork.” He is now in his eighties and lives in Kilkenny. In this elegant novel he charts the life of Paul Blake-Willoughby, born into the Anglo-Irish Ascendency in 1929, product of a mixed marriage, with an aristocratic Catholic soldier father and an eccentric staunchly Protestant mother.
Surprisingly, in the era of Ne Temere, the parents agree to let Paul choose his faith. Much of the early part of the story centres on the sometimes hilarious pitches made by both churches to recruit him. At one point a priest ponders bringing in the heavy artillery of John Charles McQuaid. Enough said. Here, as elsewhere, there is a serious side to the author’s whimsical and gentle approach.
Take elements of ”The Irish R.M.”, “Brideshead Revisited” and P.G. Wodehouse and set them against the background of De Valera’s Ireland. It is all there, the 1940s and 50s, in evocative detail, or just hinted at. Ireland during World War Two; the rationing, the lack of basics, the mounds of turf in the Phoenix Park, cars modified to run on charcoal. Paul’s boarding school, with its privations, bullying and caste system will strike a chord with many. There are intimations too of sexual abuse, while the Magdalen homes are treated as a source of cheap domestic labour.
Paul’s big house, a decaying mansion too expensive to repair and renovate, is portrayed in all its awfulness: too cold to heat, a leaking roof and infested with vermin. The family share it with servants and a melange of dogs, cats and a parrot. The servants come and go, knowing their place, for class distinctions are paramount, with one hilarious exception. Friendships are confined to persons of similar class, which in the book’s case include some memorable and eccentric personalities, none more so than Paul’s mother.
The story explores themes of snobbery, bigotry and infidelity and is peppered with outrageous jokes, remarks and occurrences. The author’s eye is sympathetic but incisive. Splendid and highly recommended.