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Peadar O’Donnell: The Big Windows

Bridgid was born and bred on an island off he coast of Donegal, presumably the island in O’Donnell’s Islanders or something similar. However, she marries Tom, who comes from the mainland, and, at the beginning of the book, we see her moving to the mainland to join her husband Not surprisingly, she is sad to be leaving her mother and friends and family on the island.

Like most people, Tom is not well off and struggles. There are, the author says, two types of people there: those that can afford to go directly to America and those that have to go to Scotland to earn enough to pay their passage. The people of the glen, as they call themselves, live from livestock, lime kilning and turf cutting but not, it would seem – unlike the islanders – from the sea.

Brigid is soon welcomed by her mother-in-law Mary (a widow, with two other children in Boston) but we soon see what will be the key theme of this book, namely that the glen ways and island ways are different and the inevitable clash between the two. Mary comments on the amount of blankets Brigid brings and then warns her that the cattle will need to know her, before they allow her to milk them (she is soon proved wrong).

More worryingly, some of the local women are particularly spiteful towards Brigid, jostling her and pulling at her clothes. It soon becomes clear that there is a shortage of men (many either having gone to Boston or Scotland) and the local women resent an outsider taking one of their men and, indeed, a man much coveted by several of the women. This will continue to be an issue throughout the book.

Brigid tries to stand up for herself but is sometimes criticised for doing so, when she is considered to be opposing the ways of the glen women. Mary is one to criticise her daughter-in-law. Brigid does get some support, for example from Tom’s Aunt Peggy, an elderly woman who has spent much of her recent life telling people how she is on her last legs, but still keeps going.

We see various examples of how the glen people and island people differ. For example, it seems that glen people are more superstitious than the island people, something Brigid, clearly a more pragmatic woman, lightly mocks. Things seem to be getting worse, with Brigid seen by some as a disruptive influence.

Tom plays a relatively low key role in this book, often being there but only in the background. However, he does show some sympathy towards Brigid in that she feels overwhelmed by the mountains surrounding the glen and she misses the wide open vistas she had on the island. The title shows what Tom’s solution is.

Mary is very much against the idea of installing big windows and says that Brigid should adapt to the ways of the glen people. This issue seems to cause further disruption. The author comments Who knows how a townland at odds with itself over some sudden departure from pattern, strives to find its way back to peace. If it cannot have peace, it cannot survive .

Funnily enough, it is just this issue that does bring about a sort of healing as, when the windows arrive, everyone helps out in the installation. However, the healing is very much on the surface. What under God brought me here? Why did Tom Manus have to live in a glen that is back at the beginning of the world? Brigid asks herself. Inevitably things do not turn out too well.

This is certainly a fascinating story about culture clash, even if the two cultures are not exactly remote from one another Clearly, neighbours often do clash but O’Donnell makes it clear that the island way of life and the glen way of life are seemingly incompatible. O’Donnell himself lives on Arranmore, an island off the coast of Donegal so he knew what he was talking about.

One other aspect is the use of Irish expressions and phrases, which may not be familiar to those from other parts of the world or, indeed, to the more urban Irish. words like creepy, meaning a milking stool, thole, streel and casan are used throughout the book, adding to the local colour. Some people consider this O’Donnell’s best novel and they may well be right.

Publishing history

First published 1955 by Jonathan Cape