Irish writer A. O’Connor returns with A Great Beauty, a name which I absolutely despise because it diminishes the quality of the historical writing within. Finding success with previous titles such as By Royal Appointment and The Footman, A. O’Connor is firmly ingrained in the Irish historical fiction scene. Michael Collins is immortalised in the 450 pages and the reader sees the rise of Collins, the man, the lover and the political figure.
The novel is sympathetic towards the cause of the Irish struggle for freedom and independence. Michael Collins, ever elusive and stealthy, leads the war in Ireland, while De Valera is depicted as seeking funding for the new Republic in America, from the Irish-Americans. An early mix of brawn and beauty sets the scene for what becomes the divide in Irish loyalty.
A friction is present early on between Collins and De Valera, with Collins igniting passions in the Irish and almost a vote of no-confidence cast in De Valera when he returns to his country.
At the core of this fight are two women, leading the fight in Ireland and generating support in England. The famous Kitty Kiernan, love interest of Harry Boland and Michael Collins is juggling society’s expectations of her, unmarried and loving two men for whom life is not promised; a bullet never far away. She bears the pressure of the family business, the family name and the weight of the love she feels. She provides solace to Collins when he needs a pocket away from the nightmare of bullets and the fear, a family when he has none, and she provides an ear when he is burdened with heartbreak over the love he bears for her sister. Including Kitty was inevitable but could have run a very real risk of painting her as inconsequential or a powerless woman in a time of rebellion. To the author’s credit, she had a worthy role to play and she was beautifully developed as a character.
Across the water was self-proclaimed Irish-American Lady Hazel Lavery, wife of the famous artist Sir John Lavery and in her, a more spitfire character is portrayed, perhaps the kind of spitfire I would have liked to have seen Kitty become. She is a very beautiful woman, with men of wealth and importance making very public and direct propositions to her. Her husband, some 20-years her senior, bears these advances with humility and graciousness, reminding himself that it is to him she returns to each night. That beauty allows her to enter into the upper ranks of English society, attending evenings with the Prime Minister and other notaries. These opportunities eventually all become a window through which she tries to generate support for the Irish cause, boldly telling the Prime Minister where he is failing and what the correct course should be.
Again, A. O’Connor faces the possibility of suggesting that the whole war business could have been sorted by a pretty face with some strongly voiced opinions. Yet, again he succeeds in his attempt, thus showing that the war was not just Michael Collins, not just the Black and Tans, not just those who were sent away and never returned; it was much more than that.
Ireland was a country with roots and branches creeping into every country and a strength sustained those roots, a belief which united every single person of Irish descent who believed in the idea of Irish freedom and independence. Those who hid the fighters played their role, as did those who fed the fighters, the voices who spoke up in support, the beautiful faces who used their beauty to be heard; these all contributed to achieving the Ireland as it stands today. A. O’Connor writes well, he pens a very fast and easy read and he illuminates everything good about Irish history, immortalising our figures.
(c) Dymphna Nugent
Dymphna Nugent blogs at The Book Nook on Facebook
Order your copy of A Great Beauty here.