Shan Bullock's 1924 novel is republished by Turnpike Books, but is Bullock really 'the Thomas Hardy of Fermanagh'?
Once described as ‘the Thomas Hardy of Fermanagh’, London-based Shan Bullock was the author of 14 novels. They are mainly set in his original home terrain on the Fermanagh Cavan border, and in the fictional Protestant community of Thrasn’ in the pre-First World War era.
The Loughsiders (1924) has been recognised as the best of them, yet has been largely lost from sight. Now another London-based Fermanagh man, James Doyle, has rescued it under his new imprint, Turnpike Books. Does The Loughsiders justify his idealism?
Bullock immediately establishes his claims as a naturalistic writer of a high order as he describes a fishing expedition by his main protagonist, Richard Jebb. This has all the hues of an idyll, and provides an opportunity for scene setting. Looking up from his boat, Jebb sees:
'… the encircling countryside, cut into its thousands of little green fields by thousands of tall green hedges, dotted with its white houses standing often in the shelter of poplars and orchards, beautiful always in sun or rain because of its wide undulating greenness lying there beneath its soft Irish sky.'
We are brought down to earth when we discover that Jebb’s pursuit is ‘not so much fishing as slaughter’. Toil Jebb must do like all loughsiders, but even he can be moved by a Fermanagh dawn. ‘Then away beyond Emo and Thrasna River the sun rose, and with a glance of his big eye changed everything.’
But ever and again we are pre-occupied with realist detail. We can follow those bream caught in the opening episode as they are fried or dried. We come inside the thatched and white washed cottages within which they are eaten, and where the modest furnishings are precisely catalogued.
Courtship in this world is devoid of romance. Jebb fixes his eye on Rachel, daughter of the more prosperous Nixon’s next door, but he only does so after bewailing the labours of housework and concluding that, ‘Some woman ought to be doing this job for me.’
Negotiations with Rachel’s father precede any approach to her, and are conducted in much the same way that loughsiders talk of the prices of pigs or eggs. Nixon is anxious to ascertain Jebb’s worth. Jebb is dissatisfied with Nixon’s vagueness about the dowry – ‘But, as Murphy judged about the workhouse skilly, it would be more satisfyin’ if there was a fleshy bone in it.’
That is a good example of ironic repartee, Thrasna style. Rachel is not behindhand at it either in rejecting him.
All have their weaknesses. Jebb has somehow failed to flourish during ten years in America. The Nixon mother is a kleptomaniac, and her husband literally falls foul of his love of the bottle – it is the death of him.
Sins cannot be kept at bay despite endless biblical injunctions. Only Jebb doubts the efficacy of prayer – ‘Lord, all the squeaking that rose from the world and never got sign or answer!’
Certainly God’s own country conspires against them. After Nixon’s death, his sons cannot manage the farm. ‘Fields going back to wild nature, rushes, thistles, weeds, untrimmed hedges, choked ditches, neglected gaps and fences.’
Then there is one of those Irish summers. ‘It was a bad year, of a kind worse even than is too common in the Loughside country. A bleak springtime merged into a cold, wet summer, varied only by odds and ends of seasonable days… and then disaster.’ Bullock then has more than fair claims to Hardy’s fatalism, but Hardy only succeeded because he combined it with passion.
There is no danger of that in The Loughsiders. The people are ‘slow-blooded’ and suffer from ‘awful reticences’. Not only do they lack passion, they are too old to engage in it. Jebb is in early middle-age and ‘not altogether luring'.
The women at Nixon’s funeral ‘all had a certain sameness of aspect… smoke-dried, toil worn, dyspeptic'. James, who contrives to play a surprisingly dynamic role in the plot, had to retire from the RIC because he was hit on the head during a Belfast riot and is ‘simple’, but he does have his RIC pension.
Even Rachel is ‘withering’ in the face of misfortune. She still hopes to avoid being married off like ‘a beast at a fair’, yet marriage offers no more than the prospect of security and comfort.
One of the Nixon sons, Jim, offers more of a spark, but his gallivanting and gambling takes place off stage. He is infected by the same jealousies about property that afflict the older ones, though with a greater capacity for violence. That necessitates his removal from the scene altogether.
We are accordingly spared any ultimate Hardyesque disaster. Far from it. Jebb, who had been so inept in his pursuit of Rachel, proves to be a master at plot resolution in romantic melodrama mode, and in the end all find happiness of a sort.
The Loughsiders then has its high points but falls well short of a great classic re-found, even if it deserves a significant place in the history of Ulster fiction. It will fascinate anyone with a Fermanagh connection.