This tale of a girl who grows up on Inishmaan, the second largest of the three Arran Islands, evokes its heroine, her fellow islanders and the world that they live in quite beautifully.
It begins on the kind of day that anyone who lives near the coast in a similar climate will recognise:
“Clouds over the whole expanse of sky, nowhere showing any immediate disposition to fall as rain, yet nowhere allowing the sky to appear decidedly, nowhere even becoming themselves decided, keeping everywhere a broad indefinable wash of greyness, a grey so dim, uniform, and all-pervasive, that it defied observation, floating and melting away into a dimly blotted horizon, an horizon which, whether at any given point to call sea or sky, land or water, it was all but impossible to decide.
Here and there in that wide cloud-covered sweep of sky a sort of break or window occurred, and through this break or window long shafts of sunlight fell in a cold and chastened drizzle, now upon the bluish levels of crestless waves, now upon the bleak untrodden corner of some portion of the coast of Clare, tilted perpendicularly upwards; now perhaps again upon that low line of islands which breaks the outermost curve of the bay of Galway, and beyond which is nothing, nothing, that is to say, but the Atlantic, a region which, despite the ploughing of innumerable keels, is still given up by the dwellers of those islands to a mystic condition of things unknown to geographers, but too deeply rooted in their consciousness to yield to any mere reports from without.”
Grania O’Malley is out at sea with her father, on his small fishing boat. She is delighted to be there with him, to be part of what is going on. Her father’s companion, Shan Daly, who is careless of the welfare of his poor family does not impress her, but she is delighted to encounter young Murdough Blake, her greatest friend.
She was a happy child, curious and confident, and utterly at home in the world around her. Her family was better off than many of the islanders, they were respected, and though her mother had died when she was young her father and her elder sister, Honor, were bringing her up well and she loved them both dearly.
‘To her Inishmaan was much more than home, much more than a place she lived in, it was practically the world, and she wished for no bigger, hardly for any more prosperous, one. It was not merely her own little holding and cabin, but every inch of it that was in this peculiar sense hers. It belonged to her as the rock on which it has been born belongs to the young seamew. She had grown to it, and it had grown to her. She was a part of it, and it was a part of her, and the bare idea of leaving it—of leaving it, that is to say, permanently—would have filled her with nothing short of sheer consternation.’
Her father saw Grania grow into a handsome and capable young woman, and when he died she took on responsibility for the family home. It was a simple two-room cabin, but it was comfortable and familiar, and they knew that many of their neighbours had less space and more people to occupy it.
Grania took care of Honor, whose health was failing; and she worked hard, getting in her own crops of potatoes and oats, and fattening her calves and pigs for the market; and she thrived.
‘Did others find the same pleasure merely in breathing—merely in moving and working—as she did, she sometimes wondered. Even her love for Honor—the strongest feeling but one she possessed—the despair which now and then swept over her at the thought of losing her, could not check this. Nay, it is even possible that the enforced companionship for so many hours of the day and night of that pitiful sick-bed, the pain and weakness which she shared, so far as they could be shared, lent a sort of reactionary zest to the freedom of these wild rushes over the rocks and through the cold sea air. She did not guess it herself, but so no doubt it was.’
Everyone thought that Grania O’Malley and Murdough Blake would marry – and they thought so themselves – but he had not grown up as well as she had. He was handsome, but he was vain, he was lazy and he took Grania’s affection for granted. She continued to love him, but one day when she really needed him he let her down, and then she had to accept that he didn’t love her as she loved him.
Grania struck out independently, but the consequences would be tragic.
The pictures of Island life that Emily Lawless draws are wonderfully vivid. She conveys the unforgiving nature of the landscape and the ongoing struggle for poverty that trapped so many of the islanders; she understands the beauty of the island, and the strong sense of identity felt by the islanders. She sees the joys and the sorrows of their lives.
Her characterisations are rich and complex, and I can believe that this community existed and that these people lived and breathed. Shan Daly would always be feckless and his family suffered for it; Peggy O’Dowd would always be gossiping with the other women; Pete Durane and his father were gentlemen in the best sense of the word; and Teige O’Shaughnesse was a little simple but he was devoted to Grania
She was the star, and I had to both love and admire her. It was lovely to share her joy in her life and her world, but I was devastated when things went wrong.
Her story is a wonderful variation on the new woman novel of the period. Grania loved her family, her community, her world; but her life was circumscribed by them and she had the capacity to do so much more, to be so much more.
But this book is titled ‘Grania: the Story of an Island’ for a very good reason.
It is also a lovely, lyrical account of an island and a way of life that had been unchanged and untouched by outside influences for generations, but would not be for much longer; and it leaves me haunted by that world and by one young woman who lived there.