Mise Eire, Miserere

Colum McCann, TransAtlantic

Bloomsbury, 320pp, 18.99, ISBN 9781408829370

reviewed by Amanda Civitello

‘American poets keep going down to the shoreline to struggle with their daemons,’ writes critic Harold Bloom, and Colum McCann’s beautiful new novel TransAtlantic shows that the Irish do it, too. In McCann’s novel water, whether the Atlantic Ocean or the Irish Sea, is the site of mourning, with waves the backdrop for all manner of sorrows. Water is a fitting constant for a novel of such vast scope: TransAtlantic crosses generations and continents, following the intersecting lives of historical luminaries and a family of fictional laywomen, tracing their aspirations and numbering their troubles.

Troubles: a word synonymous at once with sorrow and inconvenience and yet also a word imbued with a particular grief: with politics; with religion; with loss; with murder. For TransAtlantic is not only a story of quotidian triumph and mourning, of the ordinary things which give meaning to our lives, but a chronicle of Ireland’s turbulent history from the potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century to the nationalist conflict of the mid-to-late twentieth. TransAtlantic weaves a mesmerizing tale by following the fortunes of Lily Duggan, a maid serving in an Irish Quaker home when Frederick Douglass comes to stay. Inspired by Douglass, Duggan immigrates to the United States. Duggan’s descendants populate the novel, and, in their own time, make transatlantic crossings to return to Ireland.

Written in the present tense, TransAtlantic possesses a degree of immediacy about its style and tone that lends vibrancy to the text. McCann’s language is almost hypnotic in its fragmented, impressionistic sentences; his style is perfectly suited to the nonlinear narrative. The novel’s central idea – the transatlantic crossing – could be perceived as a gimmick, but this is not so. After all, McCann made a crossing of his own: born in Ireland, he now lives and writes in New York City. The moving, spare prose and the compelling characterization make the novel’s engagement with the transatlantic crossing a meaningful motif.

Quiet novels, those in which much of the action is anterior and much of the conflict internal, succeed or fail on the strength of their characterizations. TransAtlantic is a novel replete with rich, engaging original characters and compelling portraits of historical figures. John Alcock and Arthur Brown, the first pilots to make a nonstop crossing of the Atlantic, come to life along with their plane, a modified Vickers Vimy, which is a character in itself. Careful research results in an illuminating depiction of Frederick Douglass: McCann creates his Douglass through a fascinating internal monologue which explores the tension of Douglass’s newfound wealth and stature with his experiences as a slave. We follow Douglass as he buys a new suit and considers clothing as a kind of armor; we watch him disappear into his room when he feels unmoored, pushing his body to the limit by exercising with barbells made especially for him, cast from melted slave chains. American Senator George Mitchell, a key figure in the peace talks of Northern Ireland in the mid-to-late 1990s, consented to interviews with McCann, enabling the author to imbue his reimagining of Mitchell's experiences with direct knowledge.

Poet Eavan Boland has written extensively on the predominant narrative of Irish history, arguing that it excludes women. In TransAtlantic, McCann makes the convincing argument that the real feminine history of the island lies in the forgotten stories, in the portraits he paints of crying beggar children and of grieving mothers. In a particularly moving passage, Frederick Douglass’s carriage happens upon a woman, delirious with hunger, clutching an infant. She entreats Douglass and his companions to save her child, but the baby is already dead. It is an arresting moment. For McCann, then, the truth of the Irish narrative lies in these ordinary lives, in the numerous unnamed who lived parallel to those whom history remembers.

The novel’s finest passages are those that focus exclusively on McCann’s recreation of such characters. His is a rich imagination deeply rooted in reality; at times, however, the reality of the historical characters threatens to overwhelm McCann’s thoughtful and quietly powerful ordinary folk, who are pushed to the periphery. A simple maid, after all, is no match for Frederick Douglass – and that means that when the reader does come across Lily Duggan’s compelling, moving narrative, he must pause to recall who she is. This is even more pronounced when Duggan’s descendants are introduced in chapters centering on Alcock and Brown, and the work of Senator George Mitchell.

From a formal perspective, this tendency of the fictional characters to fade into the background might be considered a failing of the novel, but I disagree. McCann’s privileging of historical characters is little more than an occasional inconvenience, and his manipulations of the narrative and his reader’s expectations are both deliberate and pointed. Central to TransAltantic are the various acts of violence we humans inflict upon each other, from the violence of the capitalism that exported Ireland’s successful crops while her people starved during the blight to the violence of armed conflict, of indifference, of prejudice. The novel’s exposition of these acts of violence shines as a result of McCann’s careful juxtaposition of the powerful with the quietly great, as in the comparison of Frederick Douglass’s escape from slavery with Lily Duggan’s flight from famine. McCann evokes the devastation of the potato blight through wraith-like women, begging children, festering streets and an abject poverty that horrifies Douglass as he tours the country. We see Duggan’s desperation as analogous to Douglass’s, for she cheats death in her escape just as he did.

This approach to historical fiction raises a perplexing question: why is McCann’s retelling of Irish history so heavily weighted towards the non-Irish? The answer is simple: TransAtlantic emphasises the foreigners who came to Ireland because it allows the reader to encounter Ireland from the perspective of those arriving or leaving, or through that of strangers to its islands. We see Ireland from the air in the first passage, as Alcock and Brown, tempest-tossed by the biting cold and burning snow over the Atlantic, break through the fog and spy the Irish coastline: ‘Rising up out of the sea, nonchalant as you like: wet rock, dark grass, stone tree light. Two islands.’

McCann excels in these evocations of the Irish landscape, conjuring up all its vibrancy and intensity, as when Senator George Mitchell arrives on its shores: ‘Leaves stirred about him. Odor of moss and reeds and trout. It thrilled him to think there were still moments like this.’ Of all the many settings of the various chapters – London, Newfoundland, the Midwest of America and more – only Lily Duggan’s home in Missouri is described as thoroughly. Ireland itself becomes a kind of character; presented as far more than a simple backdrop, the Irish coast, cities and countryside are imbued with a degree of vitality.

Over the course of the novel we come to know the character of the land intimately. We see it through the eyes of the voyaging stranger, Frederick Douglass, in the age of the potato blight and from the perspective of George Mitchell in the age of the Troubles. By the time we reach the final chapter we see Ireland from the perspective of a born-and-bred Irishwoman, Lily Duggan’s great-granddaughter Hannah, the only Irish-born character to remain in Ireland. There is little in the way of the magical realism that characterizes the Ireland of the preceding chapters, for the Irish coastline that has always been home to Hannah is heavy with memory, not latent mysticism. ‘I wanted then to take every murdering bastard in Northern Ireland, and have them sleep for a night in my boy’s blue rowboat, out on the lough, in the dark, among the reeds, turning in primal celtic patterns,’ rails Hannah, living alone on her five-acred island, waking each morning to the sunrise over the lough where her son was murdered in the early dawn.

In TransAtlantic, McCann engages with the most painful periods of Irish history through the experiences of forgotten women like Hannah. Mise Eire: I am Ireland: the lyric of the Irish narrative, written by Patrick Pearse in 1912. Mise Eire: the lyric reworked by Eavan Boland, reintroducing women to their place in Irish history. Every nation’s landscape is marked by a litany of violence, of course, and TransAtlantic becomes a paean to Ireland’s perseverance, for its pursuit of equality in the face of slavery, for its pursuit of peace and its show of mercy in the face of abject violence, whether in the gift of a coin to starving mother or the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. TransAtlantic is, in several ways, a tale of many such mercies. There is profound beauty about the Ireland of TransAtlantic, just as there is deep sorrow; just as there are many tales of torment for one entry in history textbooks, there are many narratives of Irish history. TransAtlantic is more than worthy of standing among them. For through it all: Mise Eire, Mise Eire. Miserere.
Amanda Civitello is a freelance writer based in Chicago. A graduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois), she holds degrees in art history and political science.