Ernie O'Malley and Aran Years.
This book of diaries edited by O'Malley and Roisin Kennedy is different in scope and content to the The Men Will Talk to Me publications which have appeared with great frequency in recent years. After the years of revolution, O'Malley enjoyed a slightly peripatetic existence before settling in County Mayo with his wife Helen Hooker, until he moved back to Dublin in 1954. The diaries reproduced here were written by O'Malley on the Aran Islands in 1941 and 1955-56. They are personal and reflect only occasionally on the years 1912-23, and were quite simply, as Kennedy avers in her introduction, never meant to be read by a wider audience. The Aran Islands were, in any case, far from the major centers of conflict in the years 1916-23. O'Malley made a brief effort to organize Volunteers in 1919 but was unsuccessful and Galway's offshore islands feature infrequently in the growing body of work on the revolutionary period in County Galway from historians such as Fergus Campbell, Conor McNamara and Una Newell.
Instead the central themes which emerge here are island life, poverty, economic life, wartime neutrality, and most of all, a personal commentary on the cultural life of Ireland in the middle decades of the twentieth century. The book's dust jacket notes that O'Malley's "unvarnished, often caustic observations provide provocative insight into post-independence Ireland, bringing an anthropologist's eye to bear on his people in this remote outpost of Europe." O'Malley's natural flair and quality as a writer undoubtedly enliven accounts of even the unremarkable and passages illuminate aspects of island culture. Anyone who has grown up in the west of Ireland will recognize his descriptions of the rain in Galway as he and his son prepare to travel beyond the city and towards Aran in 1956. Other readers may appreciate the ability of O'Malley to recreate conversations with both islanders and other visitors revealing the conflicting opinions and perspectives on subjects such as arranged marriages and romantic love (34).
Many of O'Malley's reflections, in fact, dwell on the place of women. He notes that Sean Keating felt the place was a matriarchy but is not convinced by such an idea (75). Instead, O'Malley reflects that women are entirely absent from the public sphere, only appearing at Mass and when he gets to visit the homes of local families. Significant themes almost flicker in and out of conversation; lack of sexual knowledge among young women in Connemara, brief reference to girls being "sent to a home in Tuam run by sisters" (38). Many major issues therefore exist at the edges of the diaries: references to the War of Independence, Civil War and Second World War neutrality and rationing. Despite discussion of the Church, priests are a mostly unobtrusive presence in the diaries, but their influence is more obvious and remains clear in O'Malley's discussions with local families (110).
At other times, O'Malley's writings read like a guide to the major literary and artistic figures of the period. In the first few pages, O'Malley writes of his exchanges with artist Elizabeth Rivers. At other moments, O'Malley offers views on Sean Keating, with whom he shared a "distinctly frosty relationship" (xiv) and Charles Lamb, of whom O'Malley's opinion was not very high either. Others such as Ernest Hemingway are not in O'Malley's social circle though reference to his reading habits point to his tastes and larger literary concerns.
Chief among his preoccupations is a complaint that Ireland has little space or affinity for art. O'Malley reflects with considerable frustration on the place of art in independent Ireland; one of his hypotheses is that the history of the Catholic Church in the country is to blame. O'Malley viewed the early Irish Church as a haven for high art but wrote that its suppression meant the suppression of artistic and cultural endeavor among the wider culture of the majority faith. O'Malley's favored remedy was the establishment of a chair of Ecclesiastical Art in Maynooth, but he had little faith in such an initiative coming to fruition (28). His views on the nurturing of creativity in University College Dublin under the presidency of Denis Coffey is not a positive one. (38).
In the context of Aran, Kennedy notes that O'Malley is more comfortable among those from the professional class and other visitors than he is around the islanders. As much as O'Malley is unquestionably an outsider, this very status in another sense aids his ability to capture life on the island as it provides the critical distance which informs his judgements; it is up to the reader to assess where his findings may be wide of the mark. There is certainly a distance between the idealized vision of the islands in nationalist discourse and the reality which is inescapable here as in other sources. The chief marker of O'Malley's status of outsider is his inability to communicate in fluent Irish with the locals; yet we read in the diaries that they do not understand the state Irish of Raidio Eireann.
Luke Gibbons, in a concise and elegant afterword, correctly points out that O'Malley is concerned with how islands might improve themselves--part of what he describes as the unmistakably modernist impulse underpinning O'Malley's thought. However, it also highlights the sense of isolation between O'Malley and the natives. While there is a restless quality to many of his thoughts, and a genuine and deeply held desire for national betterment, O'Malley could certainly have been accused of looking down on the islanders' tastes; he responds to a Murrisk fisherman's ridicule of bouillabaisse by telling him the French are "the best cooks in Europe" and that he had "a lot to learn" (36).
This book is well organized, and its structure provides context and facilitates sound engagement with the subject and the writer. Cormac O'Malley offers personal reflections in his preface and Kennedy sketches O'Malley's attitudes and the cultural landscape of post-independent Ireland well while still allowing the reader scope to interpret the diaries. The diaries are further illuminated by Gibbons's postscript which effectively places O'Malley's writings in the context of ideas concerning post-colonialism and the encroachment of modernity into island life. His juxtaposition of the memoirs on Aran by O'Malley, an outsider--yet one who was born in the west of Ireland--with the autoethnography identified in Blasket Island memoirs by Mairin Nic Eoin is particularly interesting.
Overall, The Aran Diaries of Ernie O'Malley is a pleasurable read complemented by the inclusion of works by artists like Lamb, Rivers and Maurice MacGonigal, and will appeal to a wide variety of audiences. Scholars of the revolution concerned with O'Malley's career and motivations may get a slightly different insight into his thoughts. Yet, it is probably those with an interest in the cultural politics of independent Ireland and life on Ireland's islands and Gaeltacht areas which will find most to consider in what was intended to be Nobody's Business.
--University of Limerick
Cormac O'Malley and Roisin Kennedy, Editors.
NOBODY'S BUSINESS: THE ARAN DIARIES OF ERNIE O'MALLEY. DUBLIN: LLLLIPUT PRESS, 201 7. [euro]20 PBK.
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|Title Annotation:||Nobody's Business: The Aran Diaries of Ernie O'Malley|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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