Joe O’Connor’s novel Star of the Sea is one of a number of works of fiction to draw on the Irish music idiom as a lubricant for their strategies. The graphic, nineteenth-century-style language and presentation are laced with occasional tasty ballad references, a conscious and interesting effort made to visibly place indigenous music as the popular culture of the 1840s.
But weaknesses raise questions. Specifically – in relation to what writer Sebastian Barry asserted once in The Sunday Tribune – if modern fiction is moving closer in its researchedness and realism to journalism, how accurate should period-specific literature be?
Admirably, Joe O’Connor has researched his music and dance contexts well, but how the information is used has a disturbing feel of cut and paste. Attention is drawn to this by a liberal inventiveness which is applied to certain other contemporaneous references. For instance, Star of the Sea, the ship upon which the action happens, is described as having the same mix of funnel, masts and steam-driven, side-paddle wheel as the boat which had made the very first steam-and-sail-propulsion Atlantic crossing in 1819 (The Savannah). But, contradictorily, The Star is indicated in the book as having been built 52 years before that, in 1767, nearly 20 years before steam was ever used on the sea at all.
Since it is unlikely that O’Connor’s boat could have been an aged sailing ship which had been refitted with engines and paddle wheels, the description was most likely come up with because it was vital to his plot. Fine, it was probably necessary in order to justify descriptions of horrendously squalid conditions on board and because it is important to the author’s action that all classes from rich to destitute, the healthy, the diseased and dying, should be on the one vehicle. Since it would be unlikely that the upper classes would have been travelling at that time on (cheaper, slower, older and unhealthier) sailing ships, then it was necessary to conflate boats of two technical eras to achieve the necessary cohabitation. But creative plot construction aside, the misplacing of steam in the earlier era does gnaw at confidence.
So too does the issue of lighting.For, also on board, a Tilley lamp is used. Unfortunately this is 68 years before this paraffin-vapour, mantle lamp was invented, and six years before its fuel, paraffin oil, was known about.
If it seems pedantic to point this out about fiction, mea culpa, for fiction writing by definition is about the freedom to stretch the boundaries of imagination and reality. But this is not science fiction, and if one places a ship in a mis-matched technological era in order to enhance the sense of drama, is not the credibility of the otherwise excellently-woven and multi-layered tale disturbed? And if to an aware ear it is wrong, then the book’s anti-hero Mulvey might just as well have popped on a gramophone record (from the same future period as the Tilley) for entertainment.
And that would have altered things considerably.
Dance, song and tunes
All of this is just to set the scene into which music comes in the form of dance, song and tunes. The author describes Mulvey as taking to the country at night: ‘trudging out to shebeens or crossroads dances’. Shebeens, yes, but dance outdoors in February? House dances might be more accurate for the period or season. And was dance not more a community activity in the 1840s, rather than a situation with low lights and booze as it is today, as is suggested in the text? (Although of course drink and sex were around.)
That aside, the issue of singing and song-writing is more problematic. Are these ‘art’, or are they just yobbish ‘behaviour’? The author’s fair-day and bar-room characters appear to not know the difference between any chancer of a gobshite and an actual singer. For our Mulvey somehow, suddenly, out of the blue becomes an accomplished singer and songwriter, with people showering him with loads of money, while also, ‘even though he knew he was ugly’ the girls ‘found him attractive … would crowd around him or ask him to dance’, and he can’t bate them off. All this despite the fact that he never sang before, didn’t talk, couldn’t dance, had nothing to say, never washed, was destitute and reeked of piss. This might, at a deluded stretch, be a fringe feature of the guitar bashing outer reaches of post-1960s fleadh protocol. But it doesn’t seem likely in the conservative social environments (and high standards of song and singers?) of a century and a quarter earlier. But one never knows, for perhaps pre-famine, pre-Lynx Irish girls were brainless, feckless and hard up.
Contrary to this, the description of Mulvey making a new song is actually tremendous – a model indeed of wit and cleverness wherein the author excels in observation of process. The problem is that the character Mulvey produces, as his first effort, both perfect lyric and tune, the former in neat Hiberno-English with Gaelic assonance (it could of course happen). So slick is it in fact that later in London a gullible Charles Dickens ‘collects’ a Cockney version of it from him, codded by the singer into believing it to be authentic London crime-world lore. The ‘collector’ here is, additionally, portrayed as a cheap, cultural thief. At this point the reader snorts loudly. Such a reprobate as Mulvey with no ‘previous’ in the world of song, so to speak, at age nineteen would be unlikely to have been able to put together the song – no more that he could have hopped into a Ferrari and won the Grand Prix. Surely there were standards in singing – especially in the mid-nineteenth-century golden age of oral communication, before the crutch of recorded sound?
As for instrumental music, another character in the story recognises the reel ‘The Bucks of Oranmore’ being played as ambient music in a Dublin brothel – on piano. Ah for Jasus’ sake! And, again, Mulvey identifies a tune which he knows to have multiple titles (such as are the result of dissemination to different locales). If the number of tunes in the past was limited within any area, and travel, repertoires and occasions of music were local, surely this kind of awareness was not around among punters until the period after Francis O’Neill’s published collections six decades later (1903 and ‘07) at best, and in fact not really documented until Breandán Breathnach’s Ceol Rince na hÉireann in 1963? Finally there is the rather odd inclusion of a music-notated bar of the tune ‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’ in a landlord’s letter. Were he a ‘gentleman piper’, or an amateur collector, fine, but in the absolute absence of sight or sound of any music in the ancestral homestead as described by the author, well, credibility is strained. The inclusion of ‘traditional’ – but in that period ‘popular’ – music references must be surely applauded. And the book’s apparent sub-design of according song such a proper – and generally ignored – place of value in history is actually accurate, and noble. But perhaps better attention to era is needed? For here – to a mere musician – the overall impression is one of a gratuitous spicing with period melodic and social features.
All this aside, Star of the Sea is a great five-dimensional read with powerful ambience, one which in its millions of sales no doubt has been an emotively memorable educator. And indeed this argument here is pure pedantry. But why not?
Published on 1 May 2006
Fintan Vallely lectures in traditional music at Dundalk Institute of Technology. He is author of several biographical and ethnographic books on the music, and is editor of the A-Z reference work Companion to Irish Traditional Music.