Leaving Ardglass. By William King.

by John Boland

Leaving Ardglass is the very dull title of a very good book, one of the best novels to have come out of Ireland in a long time. I hadn’t heard of its author before and on learning that he is a parish priest in Drumcondra I feared that this story of a young Kerryman who becomes ordained in the 1960s would be predictable in subject matter and pietistic in tone. Instead, with bracing assurance and considerable insight, it chronicles not just a personal and spiritual journey but the state of a nation over forty years.

Tom Galvin, the book’s narrator, looks back on a life that begins in earnest when he leaves the family farm to work for the summer on building sites in London. These belong to his elder brother MJ, one of those few Irishmen who – through drive, determination and a forceful personality – have made good in England’s capital, if largely through the labour of his less fortunate countrymen.

MJ is keen for Tom to become part of his building empire, but Tom, though far from oblivious to the lures of the secular life, has another vocation and enrols in a seminary. In the last two-thirds of the book, the author charts his progress as a priest and in doing so tells an engrossing story about modern Ireland.

Tom is intelligent and thoughtful, but he’s also professionally ambitious and it’s a tribute to the author’s novelistic skill that the machinations necessary for clerical advancement (in essence not much different from those employed by his brother) are unblinkingly presented without undermining the reader’s affection for Tom himself, who’s an engagingly sceptical and flawed narrator – turning a blind eye to the shady financial dealings and sexual infidelities of MJ, prone to double-think over his own affair with a young woman and only finally roused to protest when the clerical sex abuse scandals of the 1990s see innocent colleagues betrayed by a hierarchy frantically trying to protect its own worldly interests.

All of this is conveyed in a limpid prose that never calls attention to itself and in character studies so acutely observed  that all the people in the book, whether major figures or not, come vividly to life – a sketch of Tom’s alcoholic niece Margot, for instance, gives her a palpable and poignant identity in a mere few paragraphs.

Indeed, the author’s eye for the telling detail – topographical, social and psychological – lends great immediacy to the various characters in their various locales, whether he’s depicting the brutal badinage and casual violence of the displaced Irish in London, the oily insincerities of the privileged and conniving clergy in Rome or the corrupt antics of MJ and his coterie of venal accountants and sweaty politicians at family gatherings back in Ireland.

And there’s lots of beady-eyed humour, too. The second Vatican Council encourages a clerical freedom in which “theology is jettisoned in favour of interpersonal relations”, seminarians during the Pope’s visit to Ireland rush around “skittish as schoolgirls” while the papal nuncio bans nuns from taking part in the ceremonies by declaring that there’ll be “no broads on the altar”.

Yet the tone is never cheaply cynical. Instead, through his flawed but essentially decent narrator, William King offers a richly textured and deeply felt portrait of a society in flux and of individual people ensnared in  their fallible humanity and helpless in the face of time. The dubious privilege of moral judgment is left to the reader in this outstanding novel.

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