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Austin Clarke: The Singing Men at Cashel

The early part of this century saw many Irish writers look back to their past, either the historical past or the mythical past and often the two overlapping as part of what was known as the Celtic Twilight. Both poets and playwrights – famously Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory but many others as well – produced many fine works based on the Irish past. Novelists in this tradition, however, were less common and those that did write such works are now generally forgotten outside Ireland and often in Ireland. Austin Clarke was best-known as a poet and dramatist but he did write three novels, which are long since forgotten. This novel was published in 1936 and was never republished, not least because it was banned for a long time. It can be obtained but not cheaply.

The novel is set in tenth century Ireland and tells the story of Gormlai (the spelling in this book, though it is also spelled Gormflaith). Gormlai has appeared in other Irish works such as Clarke’s poem about her and Ethna Carbery‘s poem about her. She was a scholar and poet of some renown. The novel recounts her three marriages, each one different in their own way.

The novel starts with her first marriage to Cormac mac Cuilennáin (called Cormac of Cashel in this book). We actually start with Anier Mac Conglinne. Anier, like his six brothers, was training to be a priest. However, he was gradually realising that wine, women and song were more interesting than priesthood. One day, during a lecture, he walked out and never looked back. At the beginning of the book, he is pursuing the second of his trilogy, having heard the voices of two women. However, they tell him that Gormlai is to be married and the third of the trilogy takes precedence. Anier is a composer of poems set to music and he is aware of Gormlai’s great reputation as a poet and he is eager to see her. He sets off to the wedding ceremony, which, he knows, will last late into the night. At this point he seems to disappear but will make a few more appearances during the course of the book.

At the wedding, the focus is now on Gormlai. She is not happy. Indeed, we get a long description of the wedding feast, at which she sits, silent and morose. She has only met her husband for the first time that morning and realises that she now has to go to Cashel with him, a complete stranger. She will miss her room, where she studies and writes poetry. She will also miss her step-brother, Nial (who is secretly in love with her). She is even more nervous as she prepares for bed or, rather, is prepared by a variety of other women. When Cormac arrives – a man of saintly and ascetic disposition – she is concerned but so is he. He has been taught to control his emotions but is sexually aroused, to his disgust, when getting into bed with her.

The marriage is not a happy one. He is far more concerned with his intellectual and religious endeavours than with his marital obligations. He spends the days on affairs of state and the nights on private study. Initially, Gormlai copes, as she is able to mix with the intellectuals and discuss intellectual matters. However, these are often concerned with abstruse philosophical and religious issues and not with the poetry that she is interested in, so she soon loses interest. When he goes off to Dysart for religious discussions, she is allowed to use his study. There she finds numerous religious books, many of which suggest that women are the root of evil. The marriage ends as abruptly as it started.

On hearing the news, Nial rushes back home but finds that Gormlai has already remarried. Her new husband is Carrol of Leinster. He is the complete antithesis of Cormac. He is rough and brutal. He has three sons from a previous marriage, two of whom are older than Gormlai. This marriage is no more successful than her first one. Indeed, he bullies her. When he starts a war, fighting Cormac but bringing in Gormlai’s father as an ally, Gormlai flees with Nial.

I can easily see why this novel has not had a huge success. Clarke certainly tells a colourful tale, full of both historical characters and legendary/fictitious ones. The latter include Ban Gluna Mor, the Big Knee Woman who, incorrectly, foretells that Gormlai will be pregnant by Carrol, the strange hermit who has not seen a woman for twenty-five years and then sees Gormlai, and, of course, Anier, whose lively adventures keep appearing. However, it is written in something of flowery style, there is a lot of agonising, particularly by Gormlai and Cormac, over their feelings and their religious principles, and, for most readers, even Irish ones, the characters will seem entirely alien. Nevertheless, it is good to read a novel, as well as poetry and plays, about Ireland’s heroic period, and good to know that the novel was alive during the early years of Irish independence.

Publishing history

First published 1936 by Allen & Unwin