The ghost of Galway past

NUASCÉALTA THE History Press’s re-publication of The House Of Gold, perhaps Liam O’Flaherty’s finest novel, does something to ameliorate the wrong done when the book was banned in 1929 by those charged with protecting the Irish people from publications that might lead them to have impure thoughts.

Until now, the only publicly available copy of it in the city rested in the library at NUI Galway. I read it for the first time in 2001 when political activist Andy Johnston used his access to said library to obtain the book and lent it to me.

Books were banned because they were deemed indecent or obscene. The truth is, though, The House Of Gold is more about power than it is about what the late Sid James’ often called rumpy-pumpy.

It is set in the fictional town, Barra, where the big hopes most had for post-independence Ireland have gone down a pretty ghastly dead end. Almost absolute power rests with the avaricious Ramon Mór Costello who owns most of the town and operates in alliance with some even grubbier than usual representatives of the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church.

Ramon Mór is an early 20th century Irish version of JR Ewing, without the excellent put downs and charming personality. Ramon’s wife, Nora, is, to quote Eric Idle: “a bit of a goer”. In the first chapter she sneaks off for an occasion of sin with a left wing dissident, a guy who, if he was around today, would probably be shouting into a megaphone outside Lynch’s Castle when he wasn’t busy messing up the bed sheets of the bourgeoisie.

Nora despises Ramon, but feels at his mercy. It’s also clear she sympathises with the political ideas of the aforementioned dissident: “It make me feel like a criminal, every fair day, to see all these half-starved people coming into town with their cattle, selling them and giving all the money to him.”

In his preface, Tomás MacSíomóin says: “Anyone familiar with Galway, the gaelicisms of its speech and with its people will recognise that O’Flaherty’s Barra is, in fact, Galway. The character profiles that abound are based, undoubtedly, on identifiable inhabitants of that town in the immediate aftermath of the Irish Civil War.”

This book was explosive material when it was first published 84 years ago.

Quite beautifully written; the word dark does little justice to how dark it sometimes gets. At the end of chapter two, Nora is raped by a priest who is one of her husband’s key allies in the greasy till/shivering prayer coalition which rules now the British have gone.

Before the rape, in a scene so bizarre it has the absolute ring of truth, the priest shouts a prayer for the willpower not to rape her: “Lord have mercy on me. I am being swallowed in the abyss of lust. My will is weak. Take this apple of evil from my sight.” He then proceeds.

On one level this priest is just another dude with ‘issues’ that make him a serious danger to women. On another, though, the way he treats sex, as if it is something both disgusting and the woman’s fault, is traditional Irish Catholic ideology at its worst.

It is a great thing indeed that this near masterpiece is back on our bookshelves. Special credit is due to Jenny and Niall Farrell who played an important role in getting it there. The House Of Gold should be force fed to everyone who misses ‘the good old days’ and thinks the Iona Institute has a point.

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