The Peripatetic Reviewer
DUBLIN. — To shift from Boston to Ireland in the spring is more than a transatlantic crossing. It is a shift from a country still brown and drowsy with winter to one which is eagerly green and studded with daffodils; it is a shift from haste to leisure; a shift from the twentieth century to the eighteenth. The first thing that strikes you after your landing at Shannon is the leisurely politeness with which the Irish live. The Customs are unflurried and good-natured as they pass your luggage through. At Limerick, where you pause for a few hours awaiting your plane to Dublin, men take time to fish for trout on the low tide of the Shannon; and you, with your elbows on the parapet of the bridge, have time to watch them. The angler closest to me, in boots and a faded brown tweed overcoat, landed a good fish and I lifted my hat, thinking it a happy omen.
Then back to Cruise’s Royal Hotel for a leisurely luncheon — hot, thick pea soup, thin slices of roast beef with boiled praties and the inevitable sprouts, topped off by a gooseberry tart with custard. There was no office to return to, and the plane did not leave till midafternoon, so one lingered over the meal and invented thumbnail sketches about the local characters at the neighboring tables.
To enter Dublin at dusk is to step straight into the eighteenth century. In the half-light this beautiful city with its squares and parks, with its bridges over the Liffey and the pastel crooked houses on cither shore, its Trinity College, its St. Patrick’s, and its limitless chimney pots of the great mansions on Fitzwilliam Street, is a living likeness of the town Dean Swift loved.
The traffic is a lot more dense now that there are cars rather than carriages, but the pedestrians — granted there is a change in costume — look the same. I know of no more romantic city in Europe; but curiously enough the whole story has never been told: the story of what went on in these town houses with their spacious rooms, with as many guests as children, and with a bevy of servants sleeping under the stairs; the story of the Protestant Anglo-Irish who were just as passionately Irish as the Roman Catholics; the story of the rebels, the risings, and the restraint; the story of the wealth as it flowed in from the country. Who will tell it?
After a night’s rest I went forth to buy a pair of Wellingtons — the half-boots so indispensable in the spring mud and to consult the local outfitters, Garnetts & Keegan’s, about the proper flies to tempt the salmon in the River Boyne. It was a friendly consultation, which lasted over an hour. The head man, who had been fishing the river the previous Sunday, told me that the Boyne was still in winter flood, still rising because of the March rains, and that my chances were a hundred to one against raising any fish with a fly. “This is what we are spinning with,” he said, trotting out a Golden Sprat and some metallic-looking baits, heavily weighted. “Best have them in your kit, even though you can’t use them with your light rod.” With my boots I was also sold a hat, rainproof and warm, of tan whipcord with an elastic under the chin. I cannot say it became me; neither could he. “Let’s face it,” he remarked; “you will never win a beauty contest in that hat!”
So then to County Meath, to that hospitable house, Bective, standing on a high shoulder overlooking the river, with its windows facing towards the Mount of Tarn. The river was up way over its banks, and as brown as consommé. Thence I was driven each morning, after my Irish bacon, to fish the pools at Slane —that lovely three-mile stretch of the river belonging to the Earl of Mount Castle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more beautiful pools on this side of the Atlantic, and there wre fish in them which kept coming to the surface, but alas! they were all on the move, few holding in any pool. All the local boys were fishing with spinning rods and wooden or metal bait, plugs weighted down by sinkers which they arced in to a depth of nine or ten feet. A total of 5 fish, the largest 25 pounds, was taken along our stretch of river on Saturday and Sunday, compared with the 170 which were killed in February and the first half of March. I, with my flies, never had a follow! But, Lord! I didn’t mind, for the Irish sky had opened its windows by Sunday afternoon. The sun was pouring out, and the river, the great beeches on the green banks, the white laurel and the clumps of daffodils everywhere, made a scene that was mighty restful to the spirit.
I took my lunch with me each day and ate it with a little nip of John Jameson in a tiny boathouse on stilts at the water’s edge. With my feet up on the opposite bench and my back resting against the wall, I could hear and see the river going about its business. There are gratifications in the art of notcatching: the sweet smell of salmon was in the air — indeed, it fairly exuded from the frayed jacket of my gillie — and I had had the sight if not the feel of his majesty.
In the afternoons I was less zealous and more in tune with the Irish leisure. I changed flies and experimented, with no results. Once I hooked into a small pike, and once I must have landed my bait on the very nose of what my host called “a stale fish” — a big salmon who had been loitering in the run, showing his red belly from time to time. He took up a new position ten yards downstream, and I could almost hear him mutter. Such was the sum of my achievement, but not of my happiness.
In country and back again in town I kept asking myself, Do the Irish show sign of the tension to which we have all been subjected by the demon bomb? Yes, I thought, in small ways: by a flurry of libel suits; by occasionally voicing their old-time grudge against the English; and by deploring in the public prints, as well they may, the almost unstoppable bleeding away of their young manhood. (How will Ireland find the work and the incentive to keep her young men from emigrating?) But for most of their hours, the Irish live in an unfretfill sanctuary, leisurely in what they do, polite to strangers, hospitable to the guest — one’s visit is never long enough, and throughout it one listens to the lilt and the rhythm of the Irish voice: the artificial imposition of Gaelic has not yet impaired their musical appropriation of the English language.
The moor and the stream
One of the best stories in Paul Hyde Bonner’s sporty collection, The Glorious Mornings (Scribner’s, $3.75), has to do with an Irish stream and with Joe, a most knowledgeable donkey who from his vantage point on the Rajah’s Rock would indicate where the salmon were lying. Joe, a modern leprechaun, would be a find for Walt Disney, and had I had his braying assistance on the Boyne, things might have been different. There are twelve stories in The Glorious Mornings, all of them told with a zest for hunting and fishing, and with an understanding of fathers and sons in action, which I’m sure was drawn from Mr. Bonner’s experience
—indeed, the book is dedicated to “My sons — Good Sportsmen all.”
The author does not exaggerate the killer’s instinct; he sets the scene, be it a trout pool in Pennsylvania or a duck blind on the Eastern Shore, the low country of South Carolina or the Highlands of Scotland, with color and naturalness, and he brings out the companionship between angler and guide, husband and wife, father and son, which, more than the kill, makes such forays memorable. Proper sportsmen will savor these stories no more than two at a time, so that the book will last: and as an incentive I mark as my favorites “The Pump House Key,” which has to do with an ancient woodchuck in Upper New York: “The Rajah’s Rock” and “The Blue Charm,”which have to do with salmon in Ireland; “Mollie,” which has to do with a most winsome more who loved the quail of South Carolina; and, for the father-and-son relationship — now competitive, now affectionate — “The Caddis Hatch” and “A Bitter Dawn.”
A bleak quartet
Peter Matthiessen, whose story “Sadie” was a prize winner as an Atlantic “First,” is one of the ablest young writers to emerge from New Haven since the war. He is by intention a tight writer: he begins with a situation of tension and screws it to a higher pitch. This is his device in his first novel, Race Rock (Harper, $3.50), and I’m sorry to report that the story will be disagreeable to many readers. It concerns four Americans, all in their twenties, who have been attracted to each other since childhood: Sam, who has proved a failure as a painter; Eve Murray, who was his wife; George McConville, a wealthy young broker who has made Eve his mistress and, as she thinks, pregnant; and Cady Shipman, the embittered veteran who in his rough way also attracts Eve.
This quartet, whose pecking order has long been established — Cady the bully, George the sycophant, Sam (“Sissypants”) who tries to fight back, and Eve their common girl — are presented with all their debilities in the first few opening pages. In the story that follows, Mr. Matthiessen in his counterpoint of present and past seeks to tell you why they have become what they are. But his aims are in opposition: his first and most compelling is to show you the deterioration, no matter how repellent; his second, to recover the integrity of his quartet where he can. It is a losing battle.
The author is at his best in his scenes of direct, action: Cady and the cat, the sea wind and the fishermen, the drunken Russian Roulette — here, we say, is a writer, observant and of power. He is beyond his depth when he depicts the elders at their Sunday dinner. And he is very, very unsure of himself in his similes and metaphors, which clutter up the story and make it self-conscious: “Indoor associations, careening forward like ancient odorous dogs”; “the snarling wells like carnivore’s jaws”; “she wiped a fleck of his laughter from her cheek.”These are but three of many instances where Mr. Matthiessen has been trying too hard. The novel arouses curiosity; I want to find out. But in the end, for lack of sympathy, I am left with the bleak question, “So what?”