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James Hanley: The Furys

This is the first in the Furys series of novels and it is quite a novel. The Fury family live in Gelton – a port city with a large Irish population, which is clearly Liverpool. The father, Dennis, is a former seaman now working in a railway yard. His wife, Fanny, is a hard-working, religious woman who dotes on her younger son, Peter. They had five children – Anthony who, at the start of the novel, has fallen from the mast of a ship in America and is in hospital in New York (we will only meet him in a later novel in the series); Maureen, pregnant and married to Joe Kilkie; Desmond, married to Sheila, and estranged from his family as he married a Protestant and Peter who has been away in Ireland for seven years, training to be a priest at great cost to the family but, at the beginning of the novel, is to be sent home in disgrace. The fifth child, John, died in an accident earlier. We can precisely date the period as much of the action takes place during the General Strike, which took place in May 1926.

There are two main themes to the novel. The first is the intense strife within the Fury family. Part of it is caused by Peter’s disgrace and the old wounds he opens up when he returns to Gelton but much of it is caused by quarrels between Fanny and Dennis; Desmond and his wife, Sheila; Maureen and her mother; Fanny’s sister, Brigid (who accompanies Peter back to Gelton and then has to stay because of the strike), not to mention various other assorted characters. The causes are various – money, religion, Fanny’s father (who lives with them but is unable to talk since a stroke and is, therefore, considered a nuisance), Peter’s future, the neighbours and other causes. We get detailed descriptions of all of this strife and we might wonder how this family survived so much aggravation. In fact, the central theme of the novel is strife.

The second key theme is the strike. Desmond is a Labour Party organiser and a Union representative. The rest of the family is indifferent or opposed to the strike. We do get a clear and detailed picture of two key events during the strike. The first – seen through Desmond’s eyes – is a series of speeches by the Union, which is brutally broken up by the police. The second is another clash between the strikers and the police and soldiers, seen through the eyes of Peter and the very strange Professor Titmouse, apparently a professor of anthropology and a student of crowds. Hanley gives us a detailed and fascinating account of the flow of the crowds and the soldiers, which reads very much like an eyewitness account.

Hanley is not easy reading. If you are looking for a good laugh, you should try elsewhere. But he tells a deeply felt and passionate story of the internal and external strife, unmatched in Anglo-Irish literature, which makes this book – as well as the subsequent ones in the series – well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1935 by Chatto & Windus