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Worthy Grounding in Irish History, With Romantic Subplot
on 10 August 2005
Walter Macken is Ireland's favorite historical novelist. Any Irish person questioned has read at least one of his works, years ago.
According to the cover, The Silent People is the second part of Macken's brilliant trilogy of the dark years in Irish history. Fortunately, there's nothing to stop a newcomer from joining the saga at this novel's page 1, and walk away with a feeling of completion at the close of 346.
In a shell too nutty, Macken's The Silent People follows a young Irish countryman from rural Connemara in 1826 throughout his contacts with all the major events, persons and themes of the Irish history's next twenty years. As is proper, conflict sets the pages turning. Dualta is pronounced Jewel-ta, but there's nothing feminine about the way our hero stands up for himself and unhorses the landlord's wicked, horse-whip lashing son into the deepest pile of manure on the street.
Macken is accessible. There's no subtlety encountered during the first sixty pages. Bad guys wear high-topped hunting hats, pulled low to shade all but the evil glint in their highborn eye. Action-packed good guys wear flat white caps- or, devil take 'em- are too impoverished by their oppressors to afford headgear at all. Young adult readers will have no difficulty being engaged or- this is a compliment- moved.
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle distilled exactly such injustice to become a classic. That's an exception. To its further credit, Macken's novel raises questions and not just an outcry. One of Dualta's missions, six months after joining the rebels, is complicated when the economic enemy they are burning out bravely makes a fair defense of his actions, before being whacked into unconsciousness. Huh! Dualta then commits to the most dangerous undercover work, as a Trojan Horse within the manor house of the evil landlord himself. Preconceptions are challenged when the landlord proves to be a hard man, but fair. Dualta takes a shine to him. Shinier yet is the landlord's beautiful, spirited daughter.
The Silent People is a worthy read. Sure, it covers the country in an unlikely portrait from rural West to squalid Dublin. Major historical figures like Daniel O'Connell are encountered on mountainsides, swiftly delivering monologues encompassing their philosophies and current dilemmas to the main-character absolute strangers. Whose names O'Connell remembers twenty years later, off the top of his head. It's a historical novel. Leon Uris is guilty of the same, and it can be argued that even Booker-prize winning Peter Carey presents the same Irish love of land and brutal tragedies with no less horror and ambiguity. This is history made human, all sides of the argument visited at least briefly and with an entertaining romantic subplot.
Fave Bit: the secret to successful education is the teacher's right to smack students. First published 1962! There's history.
After the requisite religious, cultural, economic, political, literary and agricultural issues are addressed, it's time for the climactic Famine. Hunger, disease, injustice, crime, emigration, and death are capably revealed. There's no way to airbrush the devastation of this event. Left thus without stupid jokes, I have nothing to say and must bow to Macken's treasured novel. Read it for yourself, question it, discuss it. You'll have the starting point for an understanding of subjects deeper.