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Deliver into darkness

With the sorrowing stories of Heaven Lies About Us, Eugene McCabe gets to the heart of the Irish predicament

Heaven Lies About Us
By Eugene McCabe
Bloomsbury, 309 pp., $24.95

The stories in this wonderful volume were written over the past three decades, and are collected here for the first time. Eugene McCabe was born in Glasgow and has lived in Ireland for most of his life. He is perhaps best known as a playwright, but his novel "Death and Nightingales" is in its unemphatic way one of the masterpieces of late-20th-century Irish writing. His territory is the borderland of Counties Fermanagh, Monaghan, Leitrim, and Cavan, where Northern Ireland and the Republic face each other in a sullen distrust that at depressingly regular intervals flares into violence and tribal warfare; his theme might be summed up in Yeats's pithy lines: "Great hatred, little room,/Maimed us at the start." He casts a bleak eye on the doings of his characters yet manages never to lose sight of their frail, flawed humanity. He is a tragedian who recognizes, in the words of Albert Camus that he sets as an epigraph to the book, the "implacable grandeur" of life.

Some of these tales are almost too harrowing to bear. The first of them, which gives the collection its bitterly ambiguous title, tells of an 8-year-old girl who is driven to destruction by her sexually abusive teenage brother and the willed incomprehension of her widowed mother. McCabe portrays with tact and simplicity the child's struggle and failure to survive in a world of which she cannot make sense. When finally she denounces her brother and is disbelieved, she runs away from home, to her death. The ending is almost Sophoclean in its blank awfulness, as the child's devoutly religious mother confronts a statue of the Blessed Virgin and demands some justification for her cruel loss. "The marble face of the Virgin Mary did not respond to Mary Cantwell's anguish. It continued to look down, smiling."

In all the stories it is a cold heaven that watches over the action and withholds response. McCabe, who was born in 1930, has an older generation's deep resentment of religion, which he sees as having blighted the lives of so many Irish men and women down the troubled generations. For the border people of whom he writes, "native" Irish Catholics and "dour tidy Scots-English" descendants of 17th-century Protestant settlers, their faith is both a badge of belonging and a mark of separateness. Anyone who wants to understand the visceral nature of the politics of Irish partition will learn much from these stories. In one, a poisonously embittered IRA man of the early 1970s looks forward to a time when the "armed struggle" is over and there will be no more "po-faced Prods whipping us for white . . . trash." In another a Protestant landlord in the famine-ravaged 1840s bleakly anticipates the same future: "A parliament of cattle dealers and bank clerks, ruled by a rookery of priests plotting our downfall! Squabbling over who'll rule a mess of beggars! No. No. No."

The famine stories, of which there are a number, will shock readers unfamiliar with this terrible period of Irish history. "The Orphan," the first of four interlocking tales, is a masterpiece, in which Roisin Brady, a teenage Mother Courage, copes with constant hunger, a father's abandonment, a mother's madness, the death in childbirth of her twin sister, and her own eventual consignment to the workhouse. "But I'll fight, I'll do anythin' to stay alive and, with luck, I'll get my hands on five golden guineas and get away to America, because no place in the world could be worse than this except hell itself." In the following story, however, the master of the workhouse, who has taken Roisin into his bed, reflects sardonically on what he knows is her fantasy of escape: "Of course the dream they all dream is America, America, America. Paradise! Happiness! Freedom! Abundance! Meantime, the nightmare is here."

The setting for that nightmare, from which, as Stephen Dedalus remarked, we in Ireland have for so long been struggling to wake, is history. One of the remarkable aspects of this book, and an indication of the Irish inability to forget and move on, is that McCabe can employ the same tone whether he is dealing with the past or the present. The IRA gang in "Victims," which takes an aristocratic Protestant family hostage, expresses the same bitterness and rage as the sufferers in the famine stories. In Irish life, private and public, outrage is abiding.

In the long, marvelous story "Heritage," about a young Protestant farmer who joins the Ulster Defence Regiment -- a state paramilitary organization now disbanded -- in the knowledge that he will most likely be killed by the IRA, the themes of the book, and by extension the Irish predicament, are summed up in a single, terrible sentence: "Land, earth, spades, gravediggers, varnished boxes, women stumbling with grief, men crying." Irish readers may protest that things have changed since the early 1970s, when the story is set. Certainly we have become wealthy -- Ireland is the world's largest exporter of software, and, incredibly, a leading manufacturer of Viagra -- and there is some semblance of peace in Northern Ireland. The veneer of success is thin, however, and one might say of the gravediggers and the varnished boxes and the rest of it what Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams said of the post-ceasefire IRA: "They haven't gone away, you know." These superb, sorrowing tales are not old-fashioned, only timeless. Unfortunately.

Irish writer John Banville's latest novel, "Shroud," will be published in paperback in June.

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