Constant tensions and shifting allegiances—Cathal Póirtéir on Súil an Daill, by Darach Ó Scolaí
by Cathal Póirtéir
Darach Ó Scolaí‘s latest novel will please fans of his earlier prize-wining historical novel An Cléireach and will delight anyone who enjoys stories of dynastic succession, conspiracy, intrigue and shifting alliances.
Set more than a hundred years earlier that his previous historical novel Súil an Daill is set in mid sixteenth century Gaelic Ulster, last bastion of Gaelic supremacy in Ireland and under growing threat from English forces intent on subduing the Gaelic lords of the north.
However that historical element lies on the fringes of this story which centres on internal rivalries between those vying to succeed Conn Bacach Ó Néill as Earl of Tyrone.
There are constant tensions between Conn Bacach, his son Feilimí Caoch, his nephew and tanáiste Niall Conallach and their assorted allies and enemies among the native Irish and Scottish mercenaries.
Add to this unstable situation a mix of church politics and influence, unresolved land disputes and shifting allegiances and we find ourselves in a world where no one is sure where the next threat will come from, who will strike the next blow or what the eventual outcome will be. This is a tale where most of the characters actually have cloaks and daggers.
I was delighted to see a cast list of the major players at the beginning of the book and found it useful in keeping tabs on who was who in this initially unfamiliar world.
A bit like nineteenth century Russian novels, many of the characters are referred to by more than one name or title and, with such a large cast, I found myself referring regularly to the listing of the family dynasties and others actors just to reassure myself that I hadn’t become confused.
By the same token, the maps of the Tyrone and Oriel of the time were a great help in keeping track of who was where and where they were heading next in a story where characters are in constant motion.
A touch of Machiavelli
Living off his wits through all of the power plays is Conchúr Mac Ardail, a cleric trying to manoeuvre himself and his family safely through the court and ecclesiastical politics of Gaelic Ulster.
Mac Ardail is an astute observer of how the powerful act and react and is constantly trying to ensure that his favourite, Feilimí Caoch, will succeed his father as the powerful Earl of Tyrone.
This is a time of great change in Europe, the beginning of the Renaissance as we now often call it, and the well-read Mac Ardail is hoping that by influencing Feilimí Caoch that he can create a leader in tune with the new humanist values being espoused by enlightened thinkers in Italy.
As an educator Mac Ardail imagines an enlightened leader founding a university in Tyrone that would teach the humanities as well as more traditional disciplines of learning in Ireland.
There may be a slight touch of Machiavelli about Mac Ardail and his covert diplomacy and manipulations but our sympathy is with him more than any other character as he struggles for what he believes to be the good of the polity and the future of his family.
From early on in the story we are warned to be wary, as Mac Ardail is, of the fickle capriciousness of powerful men while being compelled to follow their every move.
Rich and evocative
The author manages to create a credible medieval Ulster by supplying detailed descriptions of the landscape, the dress, the castles and the way of life he deduces from the historical record.
The language register he calls on to do this is rich and evocative of the time, remaining entirely understandable while, from time to time, echoing older literature in presenting us with unusual words that remind us that the events described were happening almost five hundred years ago.
Leaving his achievements as a publisher to one side, Darach Ó Scolaí has become one of the most important Irish language writers of his generation and Súil an Daill will add to his growing reputation. It has already won a literary prize in Oireachtas na Gaeilge and it will be no surprise if others follow.
Although I see no overt claim to it in the book, where the story ends in Súil an Daill and where Irish history took later events, makes me hope that Darach Ó Scolaí may have intentions of continuing this story in a further volume.
Cathal Póirtéir has specialised in researching, presenting and commissioning Irish interest material in various radio formats and in books, including history, literature and folklore in Irish and English, as well as current affairs and drama.