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An Irish Country Girl

July 1, 2010

An Irish Country Girl
By Patrick Taylor
Forge Books, January 2010 $24.99 320 pages

I picked this up from the library, a little disappointed that it wasn’t an audiobook. I’d listened to two previous installments of Patrick Taylor’s series, An Irish Country Doctor and An Irish Country Village. There’s something about stories of rural doctors, read aloud with nice accents, that helps me wind down, even sleep, at night. Set in Ulster at the start of the 1960s, Taylor’s stories focus on two doctors in the fictional Ulster town of Ballybucklebo. They’re general practitioners, with some very mild and small town medical drama. It’s like James Herriot, for people.

At first, I was disappointed that An Irish Country Girl wasn’t an audiobook. It’s mostly set a few decades previous to the stories of Dr. O’Reilly and Dr. Laverty in Ballybucklebo. Told in a series of flashbacks interwoven with the present, this is the young girlhood of the doctors’ housekeeper, Mrs. Kincaid, known affectionately as Kinky. It’s the story of her young dreams, her desire to be a teacher, and her first love. There’s also an excellent undercurrent of magic and Celtic mythology woven throughout. There’s a ghost, and the Sidhe, and a fox and a raven that seem cannily and spookily human. Also a very big spider I don’t want to think about. Eeeyurgh!

After two audiobooks’ worth of commonsense medicine and Dr. O’Reilly’s acerbic wit, a magic-infused tale was a massive shift. Having heard the first two, I had John Keating’s voice in my ears, giving me the almost melodic accents and turns of phrase of County Cork. “I will, so.” “mavourneen.” “And this is what it was,” to begin a story. And of course, eejit. Craic. A cushla..

Maybe the two audiobooks attuned me to the contrast, or maybe it’s that the story of young Maureen O’Hanlon is so much more particularly personal, but the rhythms of spoken Irish language seem much more evident here, rising and falling to shape the narrative itself. It’s her story, and I’m noticing a stronger sense of voice. Maybe it’s a question of evoking an earlier time than the Barry Laverty doctor novels, reflecting a different kind of Irish culture, or of drawing on Celtic mythology, like Selkies and the Dubh Sidhe. Or maybe it’s Taylor’s way of getting fully inside his point-of-view character, Maureen. Would the rise and fall of the language reach out to a reader who didn’t already have a mental map of the sound? I have no idea.

I know a few words of Gaelic. Liam, a very good friend, used to run a Gaelic class, teaching us the words he knew. It was largely by ear– we’d practice the sounds of the words, write them down phonetically, and sort the spelling out later. (The curriculum: How to order beer, basics of greetings and conversation, some aphorisms, and a bit of grammar. In that order.) Gaelic comes into play in Maureen’s tale, a scattered word here and there. Something that Taylor does with the text that I like, is anchor both a Gaelic word and a sort of phonetic interpretation of it, often in the same passage. So you get one character talking about the “Dubh Sidhe,” and then shortly after, someone says “Doov Shee.” fleadh and then flah. It’s a good grounding in the sounds of Gaelic, with a glossary of Gaelic words and some of the local or mystifying phrases at the back to fill in any gaps.

I keep going back and forth as to whether I want this as an audiobook. It would depend a lot on the reader’s voice. How seamlessly it could become Maureen’s voice, sliding back and forward in time, looking at her girlhood as it happens and with the perspective she’s gained over the years.

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