Cathal Póirtéir with his latest choice of reading as Gaeilge
An Diabhal Déanta
Joe Steve Ó Neachtain | Cló Iar-Chonnacht | €12 pb |174pp | 9781784442002
review by Cathal Póirtéir
It takes only a sentence or two of Joe Steve Ó Neachtain’s prose to transport the reader to Connemara. His language is natural and unfussy, while remaining rich and appropriate to his characters and settings. Almost every sentence is a pleasure to read.
Some will have read Joe Steve’s previous short stories, novels or poetry; others will have enjoyed his stage plays, performed over the years by Aisteoirí an Spidéil and Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe; RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta listeners will have enjoyed Baile an Droichid, his long-running comedy soap opera; television audiences would recognise him as playing the much-loved Peadar in TG4’s Ros na Rún for twenty years; and thousands will have memories of the many uproariously funny agallamh beirte (comedy verse dialogues) written and performed by Joe Steve and his wife Máirín at Oireachtas na Gaeilge and other Irish-language festivals. Joe Steve’s death earlier this year was a great a loss to his family and friends in Cois Fharraige and around the country. His death makes this posthumous collection particularly poignant.
There are eighteen short stories here; the shortest of them are only four or five pages long, while the longest are less than thirty pages. Almost all are snapshots of people in a moment of crisis, change or contemplation. The longer stories have a greater complexity but short works, like ‘Tart’, hit home with great economy of word.
They are almost all set in the contemporary Connemara Gaeltacht, with an occasional backward glance at a disappearing traditional society that defined what individuals and community did and how they were regarded, although the events they describe could have happened anywhere: a surprise present that doesn’t have the desired effect (‘Aire na hUibhe’); a mission priest who goes too far (‘An Misinéir Mór’); an innocent child who rejects adult lies (‘An Peaca Marfach’); shock at a joyrider’s death (‘Timpeall i gCiorcail’); the desperation of loneliness (‘Aonaráin’); alcoholism (‘Tart’); reactions to misplaced condescension (‘Nuair is mó an Deifir’); regret for a split-second decision (‘Ar Son na Cúise’); a life fulfilled, unafraid of death (‘Blas ar Bheagáin’); an undying feud (‘Seanspite’); unexpected reactions to lightning at sea that leaves a character more terrified (‘Calm’).
All the stories have their own attractions—some humorous, some serious, some reflective, some reactive. There wasn’t one that I didn’t enjoy, but I found myself paying particular attention to a few that I felt were autobiographical. ‘Súil Eile’ describes a night of glittering celebration in Galway to mark the twentieth anniversary of TG4. Initially reluctant to go, the narrator ends up being invigorated by the infectious atmosphere in the marquee where food, drink and goodwill flow freely. He leaves the bright lights of the television world, only to be brought down to earth by coming across a homeless man lying in the cold and dark by the side of the road.
In ‘Faoi Thalamh’ the narrator is in hospital for radiation treatment for cancer. He has been there a number of times and shows quiet solidarity with a man whose nervousness and fear show that he has yet to come to terms with the disease. The narrator sympathises wordlessly with a young woman who is struggling to keep her emotions in check as she waits her turn. Other patients come and go silently as they are called to the treatment room. The quiet self-contained privacy of the patients is disrupted when an old woman recognises ‘Peadar’ from TG4’s Ros na Rún, where that character has recently died of a heart attack. The woman launches into a series of surreal comments, unable to understand that she is talking to the living actor and not a resurrected Peadar.
Another story that remains with me is ‘Blas ar Bheagáin’, where an elderly Connemara man explains to a visitor, who has been coming to him for years to improve his Irish, that his impending death is not a cause of worry or regret. He has led a fulfilled life where his needs were met by hard work and the natural resources of his local area.
One of the longest stories is ‘Rún Daingean’, which deals with the pressures brought on a family when recession strikes and the once generous bank starts demanding repayments that the family cannot meet. The husband blames lifelong insecurity, shame and bouts of depression on having been abandoned by his birth mother and adopted. He wants to avoid the added shame of bankruptcy and convinces his unwilling wife to uproot the family to start a new life in Australia. They are planning to do a runner when something unexpected happens.
Another story focusing on a family under pressure is ‘Idir Dhá Cheann na Meá’, where the father is struggling to keep violent reactions under control. His wife and mother-in-law insist he sign an agreement promising to abide by new conditions in their marriage or face the end of his relationship with his wife and daughter. He agrees to try. The collection finishes with ‘Úr agus Críon na hAoise’, where a family and close neighbours decide that an old widower has isolated himself too much from the community and is in danger of self-neglect. They install a live-in housekeeper and it isn’t long before they notice that the old man has a new spring in his step.
An Diabhal Déanta is a pleasure to read, with credible characters and situations that can draw a tear or a laugh with equal facility. It is sure to send new readers in search of Joe Steve Ó Neachtain’s earlier books.
Cathal Póirtéir is a writer and broadcaster who has published several books and CDs on Irish folklore, social history and literature in Irish.