Monday, November 2, 2015

Touched by the Thorn, by Maura Laverty

The other day, while I was browsing on-line for copies of more of Kate O'Brien's books, I thought to check for Maura Laverty as well. And it was serendipitous, because that day there were two I didn't have: this one (published in the UK as Alone We Embark), and Liffey Lane (Lift Up Your Gates in the UK). I knew that Liffey Lane is set in Dublin (in the slums no less), so when I saw that Touched by the Thorn is set in the country-side, I decided to read it first.

What I hadn't realized is that it is set in Ballyderring, the small town in County Kildare that is also the setting for Laverty's Never No More. This story takes place later, so to my disappointment we don't meet Delia Scully or her loving Gran again. But at the heart of the story is someone a bit like Gran. Julia Dempsey had gone away from Ballyderrig to become a cook in Dublin, but she came home to care for her parents, and to inherit their little shop. She sells home-baked treats as well as sweets and cigarettes, and she makes a bit of money keeping lodgers. She "was the only landlady in the place who would board Balties," traveling show people. It is the arrival of "The Bohemian Concert Party, fresh from their successes in all the principal towns in Ireland," which sets the story in motion. "Julia Dempsey said afterwards that it was an unlucky day for a great many people when the Balties came to Ballyderrig in 1928." The most unlucky is a young woman who falls in love with one of the performers and breaks her engagement to a local farmer. That step sets off a chain of misfortune and pain for three families that stretches over many years.

The second section of the book jumps forward almost a decade, into the early years of World War II (the book was published in 1943). I don't think that I have ever read an Irish novel set in this period. It was an interesting contrast with what I've read of Great Britain and the U.S. There are shortages, particularly of food, and what they have is of poor quality - a problem for Julia's baking. No one seems to be queuing for rations, however. There is an exodus of workers over to Britain, for jobs in the defense industries. The more nationalistic citizens of Ballyderrig strongly object to this. Unlike Never No More, there is a political element to this book. One character is an active member of the IRA, which at least in this area is busy drilling and recruiting rather than carrying out any kind of actions. However, the young man argues frequently with Julia about the group. He and Julia disagree about patriotism, and about Irish workers helping the British war effort. "Do you want Hitler to win then?" Julia asks him. "We mightn't be so much better off if we had him over here. I didn't hear that the people in the countries he took are delighted with him." A page later the authorial voice speaks of "two classes of Irish patriots."
In the first class are men who find it possible to love their own country without hating another. Their dreams are too full of gladness for what is good in Ireland and of sorrow for what is bad to have room for the ghosts of past wrongs. And their days are too busy with doing what they can to better their own small corner of the land to leave them time for gunning. In the other class are those whose love for Ireland is deep and sincere, and whose hatred for England is equally so. They are the fighters, and many men think that hatred is necessary to a soldier. . . A blow when he is sore, an injustice when his heart is raw, and the hatred comes suddenly to him, changing him from a mild, fairly contented being into a gunman.
Maura Laverty understood both groups, but she made it clear which she thought was right.

But the heart of her story is people, not politics. As with Delia's Gran, Julia Dempsey's neighbors come to her for her listening ear and her advice. Some of their stories are dark ones, full of pain and anger, and Julia does what she can to help. She is a lovely character. "Perhaps it was because Julia never married that she gathered loves and friendships as Johnny Dunne gathered pound notes." She is particularly concerned about Mary, her goddaughter, and Molly, her young shop-assistant. There is also Teedy, the daughter of her friend Nora in Dublin, who comes to live with Julia after her mother dies and her father remarries. In another echo of Never No More, Julia finds her way to the girl's heart through cooking. When Julia tells her about a "golden web" of spun sugar, to put over a "flummery when you want it to look extra fancy," which her mother used to make for birthdays and Christmas, Teedy begs her for one. Julia can't make it with the beet sugar that is then available, but fortunately someone shares some loaf sugar. The adventure that Maura Laverty spins out with Julia's sugar! Then too, Ballyderrig itself is at the heart of her story, and she writes movingly of its beauties in the different seasons.

Maeve Binchy wrote an introduction to the Virago edition of Never No More, which made it clear how much she admired Maura Laverty's work (including her iconic cookbooks). This book in turn reminded me of Binchy's novels, set in small Irish towns. I know that Liffey Lane, set in Dublin's slums, will be a very different book, but I know it will be written with the same clear-eyed affection and empathy for the people living there.


  1. I hoped for a moment that you'd found a Maura Laverty book I didn't know, but as I started to read I realised that it was familiar. Interesting that we had similar feeling but pulled out different details.

    1. I thought I remembered that you had reviewed this, but I couldn't find it. But now I'm realizing was probably on the old site. The different titles do sometimes make me think too that there's a book I've missed.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!