TWENTY-NINE years later, the route directions still resonate: “You drive as far as Malin Head and reverse 10 mile”. These were given to my brother Tom in 1986 when he received an invitation to what turned out to be one of the more singular book launches he ever attended.
While the venue - Clonmany, Donegal - may be somewhat isolated from what is euphemistically called civilization, the book that was launched on that August evening is one of the more defining texts of the Irish rural experience during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Although The Last of the Name has gone through several editions since 1986, and has been translated into Irish and French, with a German translation in the offing, the new, handsome edition, allows those who have already read it a wonderful opportunity to discover new treasures therein, and those who have not already had the pleasure of reading it, the chance of losing themselves in this comprehensive, if not iconic, account of life on an isolated part of Ireland, from the late 18th century up to WWII, with barely a reference to life outside the boundaries of the narrator’s own parish.
The paperback version of this new edition has both the original English version, and the wonderful Irish language version, with the translation by Nollaig MacCongáil, interspersed by a number of essays recounting the genesis of the book and its value and impact on Clonmany. The hardback also includes a CD of Donegal and Druid actor Sean McGinley’s audio version of the book as broadcast on BBC Northern Ireland.
The genesis of the book is a story in itself. As the blurb on the back of this edition tells it Charles McGlinchy (1861-1954 ), weaver and tailor, lived his entire life on the Inishowen peninsula in Donegal. Never married, he outlived his siblings, none of whom left an heir and became “the last of the name”. McGlinchy was a natural storyteller and in the latter stages of his life, the local schoolmaster, Patrick Kavanagh, would visit McGlinchy to talk about his life and times.
Kavanagh kept a careful record of his friend’s words, it is said, in school copybooks. His son Desmond went to school in Derry where he became a friend of Seamus Heaney, a friendship that was to last a lifetime. In due course, Kavanagh showed the copybooks to Heaney who said this was a minor classic and that Brian Friel was the man to edit it.
Heaney was to say of the finished book: “The Last of the Name represents the life work of two extraordinary Inishowen men, and although it is a posthumous publication, it already feels like a minor classic. By his subtle care for the story which Charles McGlinchy had to tell and for the words he used to tell it, Patrick Kavanagh maintained the great tradition of these Irish country schoolmasters who have helped to give voice to the local cultures which they loved and served. This is a book full of emotional truth and the beauty of immediate trusting speech, overbrimming with folklore of great imaginative richness.”
From the very outset, the reader is listening to the voice of an old man who, in two simple sentences, transports us back 200 years. The tone is so intimate that all concept of time and place is lost and the magic that is being woven by words is so enthralling that, by page five, the reader is chewing McGlinchy’s tobacco and by page 10 is spitting into the fire with him.
Indeed the narrative is so engrossing that while the panorama of 200 years passes before the reader’s eyes s/he never leaves McGlinchy’s fireside. While the principal aim of the author is to have the story written down for posterity – for even then it was recognised that change was inevitable and that most of the old ways and customs would be lost forever – the book takes on a life and vigour of its own offering the reader a unique opportunity to experience a classic account of the Irish cultural experience.