THE IRISH DON'T HAVE A monopoly on Ireland. Europeans, Americans, and Canadians have always been falling madly in love with the place, endlessly visiting and gorging on the language, the wit, and the freedom that comes with being welcome in a foreign country. Then they go home and write about it. Often the writing reeks of too many days spent wandering around in the soft moist air and too many nights drinking Guinness. Nothing in Ireland, North or South, is as simple as it seems, and most writers give up when the intricate complications of Ireland become forbidding.
Charles Foran is different from most -- he's spent a lot of time in the home of an ordinary Belfast family and, over the years, discovered more than can be revealed in bars, history books, or university lecture halls. In fact The Last House of Ulster is filled with the daily, unromantic, unpoetic rhythms of life in the McNally family. They make tea, sit around talking, go to mass and work, and negotiate a way of life in a city torn apart by sectarian hatred and monstrous violence. Foran met the McNallys in 1979 and kept going back to them, staying in each of their homes as the family shifted around Belfast dodging the Troubles. This book is about the McNallys and the ways in which their family history mirrors the recent, appalling history of Northern Ireland. It's an ardent book, skilfully written and deeply revealing about both the virtues of the Irish and the mess of modem Ireland.
The McNallys are Catholic, middle class, and happy. With that sort of context, this book can't be a definitive account of life in Northern Ireland (the deep fears of the working-class Protestants aren't part of this account), but it offers a complete picture of people suffering regular, traumatic upheavals and enduring the daily humiliation of isolation in their own city. The family represents Northern Ireland in microcosm -- there's an elder son who served time for IRA membership, a younger son who headed south for Dublin, and a daughter who works as a nurse and faces the reality of guerrilla warfare in hospital emergency rooms. The elder son's nationalist convictions cast a pall over the happy family unit as an enduring reminder of the brutal anomie of Belfast reality.
At the heart of the book is the McNally hearth. Foran writes with remarkable vividness of evenings spent around the fire with conversation, song, and silliness swirling around him. The special capacity of the Irish to mock, joke, and satirize without lapsing into meanness is hard to capture, but Foran has soaked up enough of the chat and the rhythm of the language to make the McNallys ring true even to those wary of stage Irishness. Inside the McNally house there is only benevolence. By recounting the history of the father, who owns a pub, Foran manages to chart the course of Irish history that brought Northern Ireland to the point where Catholics protested, then rebelled, and the full force of the Protestant majority panicked into the backlash that guaranteed a long, merciless civil war.
Foran is wrong about a couple of things. The book ends with a pronouncement about the cease fire that started last summer. He says it isn't a victory for the IRA, but it is; the IRA bombed and murdered its way to the negotiating table with the British and Irish governments. He's also wrong to dismiss the attitudes of some Dubliners he met -- those South Dublin cynics whose indifference to the North seems shallow to Foran. If Ireland has a future, that future probably lies in the hands of those urban Dubliners who want a modem, European Ireland. In any case, the McNallys are decent people and well worth meeting they're the real thing.