Death and Nightingales
DEATH AND NIGHTINGALES
The novelist, Eugene McCabe, has kindly given the
Teaching English magazine permission to reproduce his reply to two
questions asked of him by a Leaving Certificate student on his
novel, Death and Nightingales.
Q. What is the meaning of Beth’s final reply to Billy Winters, “Unto death, Mr Winters … unto death.”
A. Like her mother the unwanted foetus in Beth’s womb is/was a foreshadowing of future political trouble. That of course was easy to be wise about in 1990 after two decades of 20th century sectarian murder in Ulster! Early on in the novel, there is a description of the house, lands and ownership of Clonoula (taken from Farms, Families and Dwelling
Houses of Fermanagh, London: Longmans, 1883) where you can read details about the history of the Ulster plantation, which is at the heart of this story. The following quote contains the loaded, historical word “escheated” (confiscated) and a reference to the rebellion of 1641. The sense of a colonial class digging in to stay is well defined:
History. Held under chieftancy of Brian Maguire (disaffected) crown escheated 1610. Original house built by Thomas Winters under tenant of Sir John Hume of Tully Castle. Burned in 1641 rebellion. Rebuilt by Clement Winters 1660. Extended by Captain William Hudson Winters (sea) 1793. Gates, yard, gate lodge and the hamlet at Clonoula, etc.
Reverting back to your initial question. The first word of the title is ‘Death’. The novel is permeated by death itself and thoughts of death from the opening paragraph where Beth is woken by the blaring of a
bloated, dying animal and then standing in Billy Winters bedroom imagining him getting a heart attack, and by the description early on of her mother and unborn infant being killed by a frenzied bull.
The use of the bull in this chapter is designed to echo the brown bull of Cooley and the “Pillow Talk” in that enduring myth about pride of ownership (land and cattle) and the never ending power between the sexes, then and now. Following on that, Liam (Gaelic for Billy!) Ward loses a calf and is preoccupied throughout by his plan to murder and bury Beth and abscond with the stolen gold to save his own skin. He represents a callous greed and selfishness not unlike that of Billy Winters and his colonising forbears, the point being that, given power, we, the Irish, would behave in a similar manner given half a chance!
Q. Why did you write the novel?
A. “Why did I write it?” Nuala Ó Faolain chairing a book programme (Booklines) on RTÉ asked the same question with negative emphasis: “I don’t know why he wrote it!” I wrote it because I was fascinated by what seemed an incredible tale and wanted to explore and make it not only credible but relevant to present day readers. You’ll see after the title page, the dedication,
For J.C. who gave me
the bones of this tale
in an April garden
J.C. was John Collins (dead since, alas) a mountainy, Fermanagh, cross-border neighbour and small farmer who lived out by Carn Rock and sometimes helped us in the Garden. Quite casually one April day he pointed across the lake towards the old Clones road where there is now a large area of scrubland adjoining the lake. Away back at the time of the land war a drunk, he told us, sleeping off excess one night in the middle of the scrub land woke up to overhear two men talking and digging what was clearly a grave. A girl’s name was mentioned. He crept away, stopped the girl and told her what he had seen and overheard. She had no reason to disbelieve him. She went home and returned the stolen money. When I asked what happened her he told me went off to America a short time after.
That of course, was a dead end, story wise. The families involved were still, he told us, in the Carn Rock area. He named no names. I didn’t ask for them or want to hear them. I was more than fascinated by details, by the gross betrayal at the heart of this unlikely tale. Clearly betrayal, and its devastating effect, is the major theme in the novel. Critics quite rightly fasten on that. For example, at the outset Catherine deliberately betrays Billy Winters by marrying him while pregnant by one of two men. Mercy Boyle tells (betrays) details about her master to her constable friend which a loyal servant would not disclose. Beth, his stepdaughter, betrays his absolute trust by stealing his gold. The really profound betrayal is Liam Ward’s betrayal of Beth and his intention to murder her. If you want to elaborate this list, you could say Parnell was betrayed by catholic bishops (who preached love and forgiveness and were so blatantly loveless and unforgiving), turning huge numbers of their flock against Parnell’s brilliant leadership, simply because he “loved not wisely but too well”, thereby crippling what might have been the peaceful independence of the entire island. Theft and human greed are not alluded to especially by commentators. Billy Winter’s old gold and land stem from a double theft, the stealing by an ancestor of a shipload of beaver pelts and, then, his moving in on escheated (confiscated) land after The Flight of the Earls.
All empires steal in the name of progress, justice and civilisation! And they are all alike in this. The brown envelopes in our Tribunals are a follow on of this: grubby theft, impure and simple. The examples are endless.
To me the key chapter in the novel is Chapter ten, portraying Percy French, himself the product of a Big House (French Park Co. Roscommon) and, in his own way, as beloved and as enduring as Parnell. It tries to convey the historical reality of the time, to show the complexity and human contradiction involved when the enormous power of Empire bears down on the simmering resentment of centuries.
I hope these few comments are helpful. I’d hate to try to write a piece about Death and Nightingalesunder examination pressure. Good Luck!
The Film Rights of Death and Nightingales
In response to a question on the possibility of a film version of the novel, Eugene McCabe told the Teaching English magazine that the film rights were sold within a month of the novel’s publication in 1992 to the company which made, among other things, Bridget Jones’s Diary. A number of screenplays have been written, including one by Eugene himself. One“Hollywood hot-shot” was paid an exorbitant amount of money “for setting it among wealthy, Irish emigrants in a 19th Century Montana mining Town”, though this, too, was turned down by “the fat men with fat cigars. ‘Too Irish, too down beat!’ They want happy endings to all stories.” Interestingly the company involved made a really good film of Sam Hanna Bell’s December Bride, though, by their standards, it was not a commercial success. Eugene says he believes only one in twenty of the film rights purchased is made into a film and it will be lucky to clear its costs.
Eugene McCabe’s Death and Nightingales is on the list of texts prescribed for comparative study for examination in 2006. The novel may also be studied as a single text, at both ordinary and higher level, for the 2006 examination. Eugene’s latest collection of stories, Heaven Lies About Us (2004) is published by Bloomsbury.
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