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Padraic Colum: The Flying Swans
This novel tells the story of Ulick (also known as Francis or Francie) O’Rehill and his family. We start with the family history. The O’Rehill family were a Catholic family of some importance. For a while, they owned land, even though Catholics in Ireland were not allowed to own land. Eventually, however, they lost the land and became tenants to English landlords. The locals, however, still considered the O’Rehills as the true owners and not the English landlord.
Robert, Ulick’s father, was the second son but, as his older brother, Tyrell, was considered too peasant-like, it was expected that Robert would make the good marital match and continue the family’s fortunes. Inevitably, he did not choose the woman his father had intended him to choose. He first had an affair with a cousin (it was illegal to marry a cousin). When that fell apart, he went to his uncle in France and stayed there three years. When he had a row with his uncle’s mistress, he had to leave but his uncle was very generous and he was able to buy a nice house on his return.
His interest was horse-breeding. However, neither his father nor his uncle approved of his essentially indolent life and approved even less when he married Saba, a herder’s daughter from a very undistinguished family. Robert decided to stand for Parliament but made the political mistake of being anti-clerical, which both upset the voters and his own staff. He lost and the costs of the loss were high. He was hoping his uncle would cover the costs but his uncle died and he mistress successfully claimed all the estate. Bailiffs came and the family was driven out.
By this time, the hero of our book, Ulick, had been born. Moreover, Saba was pregnant with their second child. However, Robert decided he needed to go abroad to make his fortune and headed off to New Orleans, leaving Saba, Ulick and the unborn baby to the care of his parents. When Robert’s older brother made the marriage that his parents wanted Robert to make, Saba was told to leave and go and to live with her father, Breasal O’Breasal. This did not work out too well but Ulick got on with his grandfather and with his two cousins, Michaeleen and Jinnie, though less so with their father the drunken Carthage.
We follow his life in the small town of Cairnthual, his relationship with Anthony Duineen, the colourful local clockmaker, his problems at school, with the rough boys, who mock him for having no father, and the eventual return of Robert, a wiser man, but still poor.
Things still did not work out. Robert, a troubled man, did not fit in and was not happy. He made the mistake of getting involved with a prostitute, helping her against a man who was the father of her child, and getting into trouble with the law. Again, he leaves his family and again, he leaves a pregnant wife. Saba had set up a shop before he had returned but it was barely enough to keep the family. Things get worse, when she has a miscarriage and is very ill as a result.
Ulick struggles to make it through life, trying to help his mother and to look after his younger brother, Breasal, not helped by the fact that he does always conform to what society expects of him. He has trouble with the opposite sex, unsure of how to proceed and losing two potential partners. He has trouble with his job, never sure of what he wants to do in life and where to do it. When his father seems to reappear, the matter does not improve.
No plot summary can show what a wonderful work this is. Colum is a masterful writer, getting into the personalities of his major (and some of his minor) characters. Both Robert and Ulick, the two main characters have their flaws – a rebellious streak in a conservative society, an inability to fit in and a troubled mind, which results in their not knowing what they want out of life and where to find it.
They do differ in many ways, as well. Robert lacks a sense of responsibility, running away from his problems and seeking solace in an easy life. Ulick has a clear sense of responsibility, feeling he has to protect his younger brother and help his mother but is still unclear about where he fits in and how, and what he wants to do with his life.
As a result of these two issues with father and son, instead of the more conventional story of our hero gradually (albeit with the occasional set-back) finding his way, Robert and Ulick both seem to take one step forward and then two steps back. Sometimes, it is their own fault – pigheadedness, selfishness, failure to cope – and sometimes circumstances. While there is hope (but no more than hope) at the end we get the impression that their troubles are not yet over.
I have focused above on the major characters but there are a host of fascinating minor characters. Anthony Duineen, the watch repairer, is both a friend to Saba and a tutor to Ulick but is also a colourful character, a sort of cross between a gentlemen tramp and an honest man, even though he has spent time in jail. Saba’s family – her drunken and abusive brother-in-law Carthage, her sister Allie, and their children Michaeleen and Jinnie all play roles throughout the book. As for Robert’s family, it is Uncle Virgil (nothing to do with the Roman poet but a variation of the Irish name Feargal) who is the most interesting, helping where he can and ending up as a lay brother. From Ulick’s school friends to his younger brother Breasal, from the maid Agnes to the tramps we meet on the road, there is a rich cast of characters, which add to the colour and enjoyment of this book.
For some reason, this book is not very well-known, even in Ireland. It is long since out of print, even in Ireland. This may be, at least in part, because Colum is better know as a poet, a playwright and for his recounting of Irish folk tales. Whatever the reason this is a pity as it is a very fine book.
First published 1957 by Crown