That Unearthly Valley -- book review

 That Unearthly Valley
A Donegal Childhood
Patrick McGinley
New Island Books 308 pp. 2011

I know that Patrick McGinley can write. Back in the ‘80s I was enthralled by Bogmail and Goosefoot and other wonderful books that he wrote. I knew he came from Donegal, which is by way of being my home county, but I didn’t know that he came from Glencolmcille. Just this Summer I spent three weeks in Glencolmcille in southwest Donegal. I had last been there back in 1968 or ’69 with my father. My father was the Donegal Development Officer back in those days and sometimes worked with Fr James McDyer, the local priest in Glencolmcille. The Glen, as it’s known, was a good deal different then than it is now and different yet again than it was in 1951, when McDyer was first posted there as a curate. He is credited with bringing material improvements to the area that it was in desperate need of. And, while those improvements were a great benefit, McDyer is not without his critics. McGinley has much on the subject in this book.
In any case, it was pointed out to me while I was there that a little, non-descript cottage that I walked past every day was the boyhood home of McGinley. Then, shortly before I left the Glen I found That Unearthly Valley in the bookstore at Oideas Gael, where I had been co-teaching a class on Irish music. It’s a memoir of growing up in the Glen and I had a fine time reading it, given that the places named were, by now, familiar to me and that the experiences described were, in many ways, familiar to me, too.
McGinley was born in 1937 and educated in Cashel, just up the road from his house, and in Galway. He studied English Literature and Commerce at university and went into publishing in England after a short career in teaching in Ireland.
His descriptions of the moribund Ireland of the 1950s and his compusion to leave are wryly noted but it’s his description of his childhood and most particulary his relationship with his taciturn father that is the core of this book. Fishing, turfcutting and talking take up most of the time and make one long for such a simple existence for oneself. Indeed, I recall visiting the Folk Village museum in the Glen and thinking that a house like the fisherman’s cottage would suit most of my real needs just fine. (My wife, Jean, says I’d need another house just for my books -- but that’s another story.)
The only problem I had with the book was a tendency towards cliché. Differences are described as being like “chalk and cheese’, for instance, and time and again, there are lapses into stock phrases. Things happen “out of the blue”, people “(bear) their learning lightly” or he refers to himself as “not being one of Nature’s optimists”. This is all quite conversational but can be wearing and trite, too. I know McGinley can write and I know he can write better than this.
Still I found the book mostly enjoyable and I’ll probably go back and revisit parts of it

Leave a comment

Add comment