A short story competition named in his honour is Francis MacManus’s surest foothold in posterity these days. But there was a time when, in recognition of novels such as The Greatest of These and Men Withering, MacManus might have been named among the lesser masters of Irish fiction.
The Greatest of These (1943) is a short, curious, touching novel about the efforts of an Irish bishop to rehabilitate the obstinate and reclusive renegade priest who had taught him Latin as a boy. Men Withering (1939), similarly short, is the spellbinding third volume of a trilogy about 18th-century Ireland. It concerns the final, faltering months of Donncha Ruadh Mac Conmara, Gaelic poet and a scholar of Latin and Greek, the last of his kind and a “spoiled priest” to boot.
Blind, impoverished, cantankerous, Donncha Ruadh (“Red Dennis”) broods on injustice and the passing of all things, living out his days among an oppressed peasantry torn between leaving, fighting back, or lying low. (One can’t help but reflect that, for this same peasantry, with the Great Famine just half a century away, far worse was yet to come.)
MacManus (1909-1965) had a prose style that is easy enough to label “gentle”. But he was also capable of great lyricism and was unafraid to swim into the psychological and spiritual depths, where a gift for compression of language, thought and characterisation could come into its own. Comparisons with Hardy and Trollope are tempting, but would also reveal a gulf as wide as the Irish Sea in questions of temperament, historical memory and religion.
MacManus was undoubtedly a religious writer and specifically a Catholic one. “Behind and infusing all the seeming tumult and turmoil,” he wrote, “the apparent aimlessness and quivering pain, there is spiritual reality, the background of Being whereby things are thrown into significant relief.” He also wrote two biographies that are emblematic of the wellsprings of his thinking: Boccaccio (1947) and Saint Columban (1963).
His publishers once summed up Francis MacManus as a man who liked “to travel, especially in Italy, read new books, help young writers and listen to good talk”; and Pedlar’s Pack (1944) is a collection that seems to capture something of the spirit of the man. It includes, for instance, a jewel of an essay threading together three poems of Petrarch, Ronsard and Yeats. There are short stories that alternate between comedy and pathos; and poems that reveal both MacManus’s deeply felt patriotism and stylistic flair.
And then there is a divertissement, set, it would seem, in the afterlife, and more specifically in the celestial parlour of the Sign of the Seven Stars where a “sudden, unusual and constraining silence had fallen on the whole assembled company”. And what exalted company it is. By the end of the first paragraph, we know that, for starters, in the room are Cervantes, Confucius, Aristotle (“jerking his head about as if he had water in his ears”), the 16th-century Irish clan leader and poet Magnus O’Domhnaill, and Dr Johnson, brewing for a row.
The tension is caused by a new arrival, a surrealist poet who has just finished delivering a composition in which “involute hiccups / Cross the Alps in state” and there are “policemen chortling Tannhäuser”, and which concludes with the line “Ding-dong! Poor pussy!” In the ensuing discussion, we discover the presence in the parlour of one giant of religion, philosophy or literature after another, as each pipes up to make a pithy, archetypal point. Ambrose of Milan condemns realism; John of the Cross murmurs about even God descending low; Yeats is seen “arising as if from sleep and waving a stiff, admonitory forefinger” to say something a little haughty about the forsaking of the Parnassian assembly. Goethe chips in, as do Pascal, Aquinas, St Augustine and numerous others. This is pub banter of a very high order. (No barman appears, however. We do not learn what drinks are served.)
Chesterton, “leonine hair lifting gently in a breeze from the everlasting sunlit Elysian Fields”, conducts the conversation and draws it to a rousing conclusion. (MacManus proves an adept imitator of GKC and gives his story the title “Mr Chesterton Entertains the Immortals”.) The surrealist poet, meanwhile, finding himself seated between “the protecting forms of nodding Homer and brisk Geoffrey Chaucer”, is left to conclude that there must have been something out of the ordinary in his poem that brought the celestial house down upon him.
Though essentially light-hearted, the story of the goings-on at the Sign of the Seven Stars is typical of Francis MacManus. Here was a man whose thoughts not only ran naturally from Ireland outwards to the rest of Europe, but from earth to heaven too.
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