An Irish Country Village

John Gray reviews the second in Patrick Taylor's series of Irish country novels. Watch a video with Taylor below

Think of that old standby of BBC television, Dr Finlay’s Casebook (1962-71). There, in a Scottish setting, we had the ups and downs of general practice in a now vanished age, with the older, irascible, and often wise Dr Cameron, the younger, often headstrong Dr Finlay, and their ever faithful housekeeper, Janet. Here we have the wily and eccentric older Dr Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, the young beginner Dr Barry Laverty, though a rather limper protagonist than Dr Finlay, and their faithful housekeeper ‘Kinky’ Kincaid from Cork.

Dr Finlay was based on AJ Cronin’s Country Doctor, and Bangor-born émigré Patrick Taylor’s first novel in this genre was An Irish Country Doctor (2008), which could have served just as well as the title here. Both Taylor’s books were published first in the United States and have been taken up by Irish imprint Brandon, no doubt in the hope that he can continue the success they achieved with the nostalgia and whimsical humour of Alice Taylor writing about County Cork.

Where is Ballybucklebo? Taylor insists that it is a fictional location, but the maps, the village maypole, and incidental detail say Holywood. We are certainly in north Down, and the book’s earlier American readers no doubt needed the ‘glossary’ of Ulster-Scots and Irish dialects of English. Perhaps for that American audience this is an Oirishised village. Frequent biblical quotation - an authentic touch - is matched by a rather more unlikely cúpla focal from the main participants, and the son of the local Marquis is called Sean. But this is pre-Troubles Ulster, in which Ballybucklebo is already an idealised exception to more prevalent sectarianism. The priest and the minister play golf together.

The novel is a paean of praise for the old-fashioned village medical practice. Not only do they cure people, but they are at the heart of the community, and solve their problems too. This is made rather easier in Ballybucklebo because there are no epidemics, no chronic poverty, and no evidence of disaffected adolescents. Thus, while the medical evidence is convincing enough, high drama hardly arises, except in one failure to make a diagnosis by Laverty.

This case dogs him during what is the rite of passage of his first year in practice, perhaps a central theme of the tale. Yet Laverty lacks the spirit to carry the role, and suffers by comparison with the larger than life O’Reilly.

During the year, with the encouragement of his mentor, he advances from a glass of sherry to a small Bushmills, and is forever getting his corduroy trousers dirty! His girlfriend Patricia has more spirit. A childhood polio victim, she is training to be an engineer. This has to be the main romantic interest. Caught in an apparently climactic thunderstorm on the shores of Strangford Lough they choose to shelter from the rain, though matters are decorously consummated later. Then she gets a three year scholarship to Cambridge and poor Barry will just have to thole it.

We do potentially have an anti-hero in Councillor Bishop, Orangeman, freemason, gerry builder of the one council estate, and male chauvinist pig in his treatment of his sick wife. He is also planning to destroy the local bar, the Duck, and turn it into an up-market haunt for American tourists.

Then there is Captain O’Brien-Kelly of the Guards, a guest of the Marquis, who patronises the ‘peasants’ and is no more than a figure of fun, and one easily seen off when he is persuaded to buy a large number of Irish pound coins (the ones with the horse on them) as Arkle medals, for one pound sterling each. So it is with Councillor Bishop and other threats – they are easily seen off or disarmed.

There are hints of a tougher reality. At the point-to-point the hoi polloi are on the hill, and the ‘peasantry’ are at the rails. There is a care home that does not care. There is a fine characterisation of the Royal Victoria Hospital, and its stratification, with at the top consultants who achieved promotion by avoiding war service, unlike Dr O’Reilly, but even here mere general practitioners out in the countryside can jump queues through their university or rugby team connections.

All such stories, with their numerous threads, require completion, and this one ends with an unlikely wedding in which all the loose ends are tied up, and everyone from the marquis, a benign figure who has played a significant part in making the event possible, to the humblest villager is left content.

For all Taylor’s facility as a writer, we are talking saccharine here, and more saccharine than Ballykissangel and a tale with insufficient substance to justify 400 plus pages. But perhaps in credit crunch times, and in our own still conflicted society, if you are over 50 and you want to escape, Ballybucklebo is the place to go.

An Irish Country Village (Dingle; Brandon, 2009), 429pp., hardback. The third book in the series, An Irish Country Girl, will be published in February 2010.