This is an except from the first book I ever published, a kind of Irish De Vinci Code involving an Irish mythological detective (we used to jokingly call it the O’Vinci Code!).
It’s the first in a trilogy (although they’re all standalones) and I have yet to complete the second (not to mind the third) as I’ve been so full-on with the other series I’m writing.
What you need to know:
Following the strange death of his brother, retiree Diarmuid O’Suilleabhain (O’Sullivan) has adopted his nephew Demne, a strange child who was raised in Irish and who has numerous struggles with authority. After beating the child in school for speaking only in Irish, the brutal teacher An Máistir (The Master) is involved in a serious accident and has to leave the profession. Diarmuid is pleased with An Máistir’s replacement, but it turns out Demne’s issues with the 1960’s Irish schooling system are only just beginning.
The Excerpt: Mad Priests and Flying Stones
Within the fortnight, a woman by the name of Miss Kelly was appointed to replace An Máistir and take over the school’s teaching duties. A strict but fair woman, it was generally felt within the community that she was a significant improvement on her predecessor. Of greater importance to Diarmuid was the fact that she was a gaelgoir from the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht and took an immediate shine to the young boy who spoke the language so fluently.
When the school reopened, Diarmuid was much more relaxed about releasing his nephew back into its care. Demne’s new teacher was kind and supportive and the language barrier was no longer a problem. The full potential of a national education, it appeared, now lay out before him.
Within a week, Diarmuid discovered that his confidence in the national education system had been naively premature. Returning from the fields on a Thursday afternoon, he was astounded to find his nephew sitting stiffly at Carraig Dubh in the company of a red-faced Father Byrne. The old man’s initial reaction was one of heartfelt panic. Father Byrne, he knew, was first cousin to An Máistir and must somehow have discovered Demne’s involvement in his recent hospitalisation.
Before Diarmuid had a chance to leap to his nephew’s defence, however, the parish priest leapt to his feet and released a torrent of accusations that were as perplexing as they were vitriolic. Because Father Byrne was practically frothing at the mouth, it took some time to work out what he was complaining about. Slowly it became clear – to Diarmuid’s immense relief – that the ecclesiastical outrage was not related to the assault on An Máistir but to the less immediate threat of his nephew’s eternal soul.
Completing his visit with a warning of severe consequences should the issue not be addressed to his satisfaction, Father Byrne wrapped himself in a cloak of religious self-righteousness and stormed from the house.
‘Safe home now, Father!’ Diarmuid called in his wake, although he could not resist throwing a two-fingered salute at the back of the departing cleric.
Despite the cold, Diarmuid remained outside and smoked a cigarette as he attempted to work through the ramifications of what he had just been told. He was shivering by the time he returned inside but, realising that there was no time like the present, he drew up a stool next to the boy and looked him directly in the eye.
‘So, let me get this straight,’ he said. ‘You don’t know who God is.’
There was a brief silence.
‘I know the one hanging up on the cross in the church,’ the boy admitted. ‘And Miss Kelly and Father Byrne were telling me about three other ones, but …’ He paused. From his demeanour, Demne seemed unsure as to whether someone was winding him up or not.
‘Did yer Da never bring you to …’
Diarmuid stopped abruptly. He had been about to ask whether Demne’s father had never taken him to church. On reflection, the answer to that particular question was patently obvious.
‘Did yer Da ever tell you about God and Jesus and all that?’ he tried instead.
The boy shook his head.
‘A Dhia na bheart!’ the old farmer exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air. Taking a deep breath, he calmed himself and started again. ‘You have to listen to what the priest tells you about the religious stuff, a bhuachaill. You have to do what he says and toe the line.’
Demne’s lips tightened and his uncle repressed a twinge of frustration. Evidently the boy had inherited the family’s gene for stubbornness: the determined expression on Demne’s face was identical to the one he remembered on his brother’s face as a child.
‘But Father Byrne says mad things, a Uncail.’
‘Sure he does, but he’s a man with influence in the community. He’s also the Church’s local representative and that’s a crowd you don’t want to mess with. They’ve a lot of power since the Long Fella did a deal with them and they don’t like the faithful getting ideas above their station. If you come to their attention they won’t leave off until they’ve made you submit to their view of the world, one way or the other.’
‘But it’s not true! That’s wrong.’
Diarmuid regarded his nephew with surprise. Clearly, he was going to have his work cut out trying to educate him in the fine tradition of moral hypocrisy.
‘It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. It’s not about right or wrong, it’s about survival. The Church love going around telling people how they should live their lives. If you want to stay out of trouble you’ve got to put up with that. That’s why we go to Mass on Sundays. It’s not that I believe some big God fella’s going to smack me across the arse with a bolt of lightning, it’s because it keeps the clergy off our backs. If going out there, bending your head at the right time and mumbling some oul shite is enough to keep them quiet then we’re all happy.’
The boy did not seem convinced.
‘Demne, people get upset when others don’t agree with them or don’t believe in the same things they do. If you want to be part of a community you have to blend in. If you’re too different or you stick out, you’ll eventually end up turning them against you. Everyone around here goes to Mass or believes in God – or at least they say they do – so you have to follow suit. Stirring the priests up will only make life more difficult.’
‘Do you like priests?’
Diarmuid stared at him with genuine astonishment.
‘Whatever gave you that idea?’
‘You like Father McCarthy.’
‘That’s different. He’s not really a priest. He just thinks he is.’
‘Maybe I should throw a stone at Father Byrne.’
‘No, you can’t throw a feckin’ stone at Father Byrne!’
‘You didn’t mind me throwing a stone at An Máistir.’
‘Only because you’d already gone and done it. You can’t go around lobbing rocks at people in authority. You …’ he hesitated momentarily. ‘Well, actually, you can, but you wouldn’t be long getting caught.’
‘I’d be clever, a Uncail. They wouldn’t get me.’
‘You’d have to be very feckin’ clever not to get caught eventually, Demne. No, if you go up against the big boys you’ve got to be able to pick your battles. More importantly, you have to pick your defeats – the way that you can choose the fights you want to win.’
It took another half-hour of intense argument before he finally convinced his nephew to adhere to the priest’s teachings – or, more accurately, to pretend to go along with them, keep his head down and get on with his work in school.
This reluctant concession appeared to achieve its objective, however. Within a few weeks, Demne’s troubles at school ceased. To his uncle’s surprise and immense satisfaction, Demne revealed himself to be an adept and natural scholar – although it still irked him that this had only been revealed through the use of English.