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Austin Clarke: The Sun Dances at Easter

Austin Clarke wrote about the myths and legends of Ireland and this book falls firmly into that category. The book is partially about an obscure Irish saint – Naal, also known as Natalis, whose well is meant to help infertile women become fertile. The early Catholic Church was opposed to such wells being used for healing, as this was deemed to be pagan but they cleverly decided, as the Irish people continued to use them, to co-opt them and given them a Catholic blessing. St Naal’s well, however, did not receive the blessing but is still frequented by infertile women at the time of this story (probably about a thousand years ago).

Our story focusses on Orla who had been married to an Irish lord, Flann, for around two years. She is very concerned, because she has not yet become pregnant. She is envious of her relatives who seem to manage to produce numerous children. One day, she comes across a strange hermit. He is very large and very shabbily dressed but he does tell her that she will soon have a son but that she must go the Well of Saint Naal. He then proves he has some magical powers by rapidly almost flying over the hill. She mentions it to her maid, Blanaid, who knows the place well, as she is from there, and tells her that it will take two days’ journey to get there. They should leave as soon as possible, as the Feast of Saint Naal is in two days.

She makes preparations and only tells her husband Flann, when he returns that evening. He is very much against it, as it will make him look foolish if his wife goes there and thinks the whole business is nonsense but he is gradually persuaded by his wife. The next day Orla and Blanaid set off.

Much of the book tells of their adventures en route to the Well. Some of these are quite simple. For example, when they see a group of children playing, Orla wants to play with them. However, they meet a young man, Enda. He had been training to be a priest at a famous monastic school. At first, he had enjoyed it very much but then had become somewhat disillusioned. He is sent on a special mission to another monastery to carry some manuscripts but, at these places, he sees bitter rivalries and in-fighting. He is also disillusioned by the fact that really holy men who performed miracles no longer exist and we can only read about them from the past. He has also yielded to pleasure which cannot be named (presumably sex) but was now penitent but still disillusioned. When Orla tells him about the hermit, he is cheered up and decides to accompany them in the hope of meeting a miracle worker. Later in the journey, while they are staying at a convent, Orla sees some major construction of a church going on at night but Blanaid had not seen it and there is no evidence of it the next morning, so it is assumed that she was dreaming.

On the way, Enda entertains them with two long stories. The first concerns Ceasan, a hermit in training (under the guidance of St Patrick). He is visited in his lonely hut in the wood by Eithne, a woman who is clearly high-born but who claims not to remember who she is, except for her name. She wants to learn about the gospels from him but also seems to be associated with sweet music and she produces some fine food. Inevitably, Ceasan is tempted. It soon becomes clear that she is the foster daughter of Angus Oge, the old Irish god of love and that the story is a parable about the continuing influence of pagan Ireland on Christian Ireland, with Ceasan struggling against the pagan inside him.

At the well, strange things happen and Orla and Enda (without Blanaid) end up in a hut, where some wonderful feast seems to have miraculously appeared. It is during this feast that Enda tells his second story, about the Irish lord, Congal More. He has married, for the second time, and his wife, Fial Fairbrow, is much younger than him. The Abbot-Bishop of Midhe is visiting and all the people including Congal and Fial, are there. While the Abbot-Bishop is talking, there seems to be some disturbance. This comes from a monk who is mocking the Abbot-Bishop. We soon recognise the monk as the one seen by Orla, who forecast that she would have a son, if she went to the Well of St. Naal. The monk’s behaviour gets worse and worse, so Congal sends soldiers to arrest him. However, despite his rags, which keep falling off, and his girth, he seems to elude them all the time. Eventually he runs away, with the soldiers in hot pursuit, but they cannot catch him. Congal mounts his horse and sets off in pursuit. He soon overtakes the soldiers but cannot catch the monk. When the monk enters the forest, Congal follows but is hit by a branch and falls from his horse.

When Congal awakes, the monk is standing over him. He soon realises that it is no ordinary monk but Angus Oge. Angus tells him that his wife is cheating on him with a younger man and offers to help him spy on the couple, without being seen. Congal accepts but, to his horror, he is turned into a goat and Angus disappears. He has a series of hilarious adventures as a goat, including seeing his wife and the young man together, but wakes up in his own bed, the goat story apparently a dream.

Back in the (not) real world, some invisible force kindly clears up the meal and Orla and Enda nearly end up in bed, till they manage to see sense and break the magic spell.

It is quite an enjoyable and lively story, particularly if you are interested in Irish myth and legend but certainly not great literature. The struggle between the Christian way and he pagan way is clearly highlighted on several occasions and the pagan, in the form of Angus Oge, certainly adds colour to the story and does not always come out badly. However, it is not difficult to see why this book has not been reprinted and is not much read now.

Publishing history

First published 1952 by Andrew Melrose