A medieval Irish monastery under siege by the forces of darkness, who find their breach in the cell of the unfortunate brother Fursey, a monk blessed with a stammer who thus can’t adequately perform the rites of exorcism required to keep the monastery safe.
The premise alone, regardless of the excellent execution, should be enough to steer you towards this lost classic of Irish comic writing. Mervyn Wall’s novel (which, I believe was also made into a BBC radio play at one point) was as unfortunate as its protagonist in many ways. Like much of the Irish writing of the 1940s and ’50s it was overshadowed by Mr Joyce, and his disciple Beckett.
True, Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan both managed to crawl out from under the shadow cast by Joyce (in O’Brien’s case actually with the help of a mild recommendation from Joyce, who described his debut novel, At-Swim-Two-Birds as “a very funny book”), but Wall’s work has tended, sadly, to remain the object of attention solely for English-lit undergraduates, or those lucky enough to have discerning friends ready to recommend.
There are plenty of reasons to read The Unfortunate Fursey, but perhaps the best is that it is a great introduction to two distinct and important Irish literary traditions – the comic, and the fantastic.
Both traditions exist elsewhere, obviously, but both have a particular resonance with Irish writers thanks to Ireland’s particular history. Dark gothic novels like Stoker’s Dracula, Sherdian Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas, or Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer reflect a subconcious unease, on the part of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, with their position of power in society. Meanwhile the comic tradition, with the likes of Sterne, and Swift, through to Wilde, Shaw, and even Joyce concerned itself with satire, wit, and irony in the face of dramatic social and political imbalances.
By the ’40s, when Wall wrote The Unfortunate Fursey, independence had, in theory, removed many of the driving forces for both these traditions – but the dominant role of the Catholic Church in Irish society, coupled with the remaining problem of partition and the national question, meant that writers like Wall and O’Brien still had plenty to spur them on. The provincialism that Joyce had denounced so thoroughly in Dubliners still reigned (the World War in neutral Ireland was officially ‘the emergency’): in the 1950s Frank O’Connor found the best way for him to realise his full potential as a writer was to take up the offer of work in the United States, while as late as the 1970s some of Ireland’s greatest writers, like John McGahern, were still being accused of writing filth.
Robert Goode Hogan, in his study of Mervyn Wall outlines the Dublin novelist’s importance in the Irish tradition,and some of the reason why his work is not, perhaps, better known:
There has been a good deal of confusion about satire because it has often been regarded as a literary form. Thus, traditionally, Jonathan Swift is a satiric writer, and Gulliver’s Travels is a satire; while Richard Brinsley Sheridan is a comic writer, and The Rivals is a comedy. However The Rivals contains a good deal of satire among its other comic elements of wit, parody, and humour. So it would probably be clearer not to speak of Gulliver’s Travels as a satire and The Rivals as a comedy, but of Gulliver’s Travels as a satiric fantasy and The Rivals as a satiric comedy. When we make this dry, but not entirely academic distinction, we may begin to see why a writer like Mervyn Wall is a rare and valuable phenomenon in Modern Irish Literature.
In his novel Leaves for the Burning, Mervyn Wall has written a serious realistic novel with many touches of satire; in his novel No Trophies Raise, he has written a satiric comedy with some touches of wit, humour and effectively uncomic sentiment; in The Unfortunate Fursey and The Return of Fursey, however, he has wedded the manner of satire to the genre of fantasy rather than of comedy. This wedding makes him both interesting and memorable.
Fantasy is not, of course, everybody’s cup of tea. The form is so arbitrary and so individual that it alienates many readers who are uncomfortable without the familar feel of reality in their fiction. To the literal-minded, fantasy, because it could not happen, is therefore not worth contemplation. Satire has never been universally popular either. For one thing, its statement is often implicit rather than overt, and it uncomfortably pushes one to serious grapplings with morality. When the manner of satire, then, is wedded to the form of fantasy, the result is not inevitably a popular success, and that fact may partially explain the relative obscurity of Mervyn Wall.