One hundred years ago this week…
Today at the blog in this week of remembering two enormous historical events, we look back at Easter Week 1916, when Irish nationalists staged an uprising and strike, in large part roused following the death of Irish Republican Brotherhood founding member Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and the words, at his funeral, of noted orator Patrick Pearce: “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”
Never Be at Peace by M.J. Neary
Set in the first half of the 20th century, Never Be at Peace tells the story of Helena Molony, an actress who dreams of liberating Ireland from British control. The novel is also the story of the 1916 Easter Rebellion and Molony weaves in and out of it along with a sizeable cast of other personages to whom the author, M.J. Neary, pays detailed attention and manages with impeccable skill. There are few undeveloped characters and one result of that is the intense insider view readers are given to the historical rebellion along with its strengths, foibles, inner squabbling and eventual splintering.
Against a backdrop of the theatre, a telling metaphor superimposed on the plans for a nationwide Irish strike and government shutdown, Molony et al., particularly Bulmer Hobson, with whom she engages in an unsatisfying and drawn-out affair, act out their own dreams. This is despite the conflicts raised in competition with each other’s egos, biases, backgrounds, perceptions, demands and goals—even children are part of the make-up of this production, one in particular representative of Ireland herself, in the aftermath of a clash of wills, disregarded in favor of satisfaction of individual wants.
The novel provides fresh insight into earlier groups and their startups, and we read of bands such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), Citizen Army and Irish Volunteers. While they strike an alliance, they are not a true consortium; instead they are given to poor communication and conflicting orders, most notably regarding the scheduled uprising day and the failed rendezvous with a German ship intending to deliver arms. Moreover, the public does not support them as much as previously believed, but the rebels will themselves to continue.
“Oh but it was frightfully comical: red streamers and paper flowers floating in the air. Flags, draperies, carpets! Red through a grey mist…Most Dubliners, even the destitute, view George as a legitimate monarch. While the carriage made its way through the sea of Union Jacks, I leaped forth with a black flag. The feeble old man standing behind me was so furious he struck me on the back with the stick of his Union Jack. But you know, my back is quite stiff, and the stick broke at once!”
Never Be at Peace moves in time past the rising, until the eve of World War II, when we are witness to the aftermath of forty years of dedication to a cause that appears to be in tatters. One chapter entitled “Potato Theatre” recalls a previous statement of Hobson’s, that the potato is the “prostitute of all crops,” and links the absurdity of situations with compassion for the heartache of loss, portrayed by Neary with a balance that utilizes sardonic and dark humor as well as what has to have been an intensive amount of research to get at the private lives of historical figures.
Neary tells this story of these people through an omniscient narrator who retains its presence as we are transported one at a time into the thoughts of various characters. At any given time it is very clear through whose perceptions we are viewing the world, and it works, even as Molony and Hobson retain their positions in the lead. This technique enables readers to see players as the individuals they are, individuals that history has sort of flitted over for “lack of space,” and we are able to identify them later when they at times are initially unrecognized following the brutal passage of years.
Historically, for example, Hobson’s positions were sabotaged, information was deliberately kept from him and he had to develop strategies of his own in order to detect plans, all part of a swirl of events that counterattack themselves and lead to rumors that damage his subsequent political prospects.
While it might be a tad unfair to state that Neary’s Hobson spirals into a caricature of himself, he does nevertheless retain his insistence upon placing his position at odds with forces mightier than himself, for better or worse—and often worse. Neary portrays the stark reality, never attempting to overlay scenes or actions with glitter of any sort. Hobson is determined if at times naïve, and his humor and bitterness frequently cross paths. As he stumbles upon a Sackville Street in the midst of being looted,
[j]ewelry shop owner Edward Burns watches his premises as it is destroyed. . . The spectacle of urban apocalypse mesmerized him.
A gaunt man in his early thirties entered the scene, limping and holding his stomach. In spite of his wrinkled clothes and tangled hair, it was obvious he did not belong to the mob.
[He] exclaimed in a heightened Northern accent, “Connolly, look! This is your noble working class, unshelled, unembellished.” He clapped his hands, cheering the looters. “That’s the spirit! Steal from your fellow Dubliners while you can.”
Likewise, Molony dedicates her life to a cause that she herself helps break down by allowing herself to be misdirected, by others as well as herself, despite her intelligence and strong sense of personality. Of course, in fairness it must be said that she does not see all that readers do, and naturally her responses are colored by events as she occupies them. Still, Neary does not provide excuses, though we do at times see Molony nearing the moments when she needs to reconstruct herself. Her often simple dialogue is nevertheless charged with meaning as she simultaneously sabotages a moment, a statement fraught with significance.
“This is Ireland’s hour of beauty. When all the sordidness and sadness slips from her, when she lies around us simplified in the coloured dusk. Look how the seagulls rock on the golden water. Don’t they remind you of pearls scattered over silk?”
Helena exhaled and tucked a frizzy strand behind her ear. “If I don’t have a cup of tea, I’ll surely collapse.”
This is the story of a moment in time, which involves the people who eyed it, waiting for and planning, and what happens afterwards. It rightfully brings to a wider audience the historical figures whose lives were spent in dedication to that moment, and the failures they experience. Some of the cast are recognizable to many readers; some known well to audiences appear but briefly. Many are bent to the brink, giving their lives—in more ways than one—for the chance at freedom, and none are willing to give up in the face of breakdown in whole or part. As written elsewhere by Irish novelist Liam O’Flaherty, who himself makes a cameo appearance in Never Be at Peace, “There is reason to hope that the failure is only partial in some places.”
About the author
A self-centered, only child of classical musicians, Marina Julia Neary spent her early years in Eastern Europe and came to the United States at the age of thirteen. Her literary career revolves around depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Irish Famine, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl some thirty miles away from her home town. Notorious for her abrasive personality and politically incorrect views that make her a persona non grata in most polite circles, Neary explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand.
Her debut thriller Wynfield’s Kingdom was featured on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the United Kingdom and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. After writing a series of novels dealing with the Anglo-Irish conflict (including Brendan Malone, Martyrs and Traitors and Never Be at Peace) she takes a break from the slums of London and the gunpowder-filled streets of Dublin to delve into the picturesque radioactive swamps of her native Belarus. Saved by the Bang: A Nuclear Comedy is a deliciously offensive autobiographical satire featuring sex scandals of Eastern Europe’s artistic elite in the face of political upheavals.
You can find more about Neary and other books at her blog as well as her Facebook and Amazon author pages. The companion novels for Never Be at Peace, Brendan Malone: The Last Fenian and Martyrs and Traitors: A Tale of 1916, as well as others, may also be purchased at Amazon and Amazon UK. A potential addition to follow up the trilogy is entitled The Lily of Ulster.
Drawings by Alissa Mendenhall, courtesy Marina Julia Neary,
and appear as a separate entity from the novel
A copy of Never Be at Peace was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review