Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 23, 2022

The Colony, by Audrey Magee

Colonisation is a theme common enough in contemporary fiction, but I haven’t come across much fiction featuring the English colonisation of Ireland*.  Audrey Magee’s The Colony, nominated for the 2022 Booker Prize and the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, explores the theme in a microcosm of Irish society on a small remote island in the summer of 1979.  Unlike heavy-handed critiques of colonisation (which have their place in educating readers about its enduring consequences), The Colony is more subtly nuanced in its depiction of a world in flux.

Magee’s island society is insulated from the Troubles which derived from the colonisation of mainland Ireland; there is only news of bombs or car-jackings in this Irish outpost.  Chillingly brief radio reports of sectarian violence punctuate the novel but do not impact on the storyline, except to signal that the violence influences even the matriarch who has staunchly resisted any change to existing traditions. Bean Ui O’Néill (Mrs O’Neill) has a terse conversation with her adult son Francis who regards the dead as collateral damage in a great cause.  Later in conversation with her daughter Mairéad, her shifting certainties are subtly signalled by a pronoun:

***

Hugh O’Halloran, a twenty-eight-year-old Catholic father of five, dies in hospital on Monday, September 10th from injuries received two days earlier when he was beaten by a gang of republican men with a hurling stick and a pickaxe handle.

***

It’s going mad up there, Mam.

It is, Mairéad. Attacking and killing their own.

Mairéad mopped where her mother had swept.

Francis would say our own.

He would, Mairéad.

But you’re not.

I’m not.

Mairéad reached the mop under the chairs.

You used to.

I did.

Not any more, Mam?

I don’t know what to think any more, Mairéad. (p.339)

The book begins with an English artist being rowed across to the island in a currach, clutching his precious painting materials to his chest and regretting his whimsical desire to use the traditional craft instead of a motorboat.  To the ill-concealed derision of the islanders, Mr Lloyd arrives in soaked clothes bearing evidence of his seasickness, but to his face they make him welcome with a cup of tea and eventually he is escorted to the cottage which he has rented for the summer.

It turns out to be unsatisfactory, and his complaints are interpreted as arrogance.  Everything has to be moved so that there is adequate light for him to set up his studio, and worse than that, is that having expected solitude, he finds himself neighbour to a Frenchman, J P Masson, who is conducting a longitudinal study of the islanders’ use of Gaelic for his PhD.  Masson shares the same delusion, that the work done on the island will bring admiration and fame. Masson also shares Lloyd’s irritation that the islanders have chosen to have two summer visitors, because the Gaelic he is there to study, will be ‘polluted’ since the Islanders will have to speak some English with Lloyd.

Masson wants the island preserved in its rustic traditions, not because it suits the inhabitants best, but because it suits his ambitions.  Addressed familiarly as J.P., he ingratiates himself with his hosts with gifts and bonhomie, and on arrival is rewarded by what amounts to a feast.  He fails to see that the much-needed rental summer income he has provided will cease after this, his final visit; and he fails to see that he is sabotaging the household’s potential for future tourism by being so unpleasant to the English artist.  It is as if he thinks he has territorial rights to occupy the island — and to shape its future. And although, as the son of a colonising French soldier who married an Algerian woman, he resisted all his mother’s efforts to have him learn his Algerian language and heritage because he wanted a French life in France — he refuses to acknowledge that Mairéad’s teenage son likewise rejects the limitations of traditions that it is assumed he will follow.

Lloyd OTOH is not really interested in the islanders at all.  He takes them for granted, giving no thought to what he may leave behind him. He came intending to paint only the cliffs and makes an undertaking to refrain from painting any of the inhabitants — but soon carelessly breaks that promise, unwittingly causing conflict.

Always addressed as Mr Lloyd, and called the Sasanach behind his back, he gets short thrift from the outset.  With his stomach still fragile from the voyage across the heaving sea, he is summoned to ‘tea’:

Micheál and Francis were already at the table.  Bean O’Néill set down plates of fried fish, mashed potato and boiled cabbage.  He poked at the food with his fork but did not eat it.

You should eat, Mr Lloyd, said Micheál.

I’m not hungry.

It’s dinner at one o’clock every day, Mr Lloyd, and tea at half past six.

So this is tea?

It is.

It looks like dinner. What does dinner look like?

Tea.

Lloyd laughed.

I’m not sure I’ll get the hang of this.

It’s easy enough, Mr Lloyd.  You eat the same food most times. (p.32-33)

It turns out that the only variation from this monotonous diet is an occasional rabbit, caught by the 15 year-old son of Mairéad, the island’s only bilingual speaker of English and Gaelic.  He has been educated on the mainland, and he recognises that English is his ticket to a different future.  Magee signals his desire to escape the island when this boy introduces himself as ‘James’, as she also signals Masson’s arrogance when — unlike his mother Mairéad who addresses the boy as James — he insists on calling him Séamus, as if the boy and his mother do not have the right to decide the name by which he will be known. Where Masson wants to preserve James as a specimen in his research, Lloyd provides the catalyst for something different. He enjoys educating James — until the apprentice surpasses his master, and then he betrays him.

The craftsmanship of this novel is in the attention to detail, including its silences — as when the entrepreneurial Micheál explains that his wife is not an island woman, content without shopping, and Mairéad says nothing.  Unlike her mother, she is not content and her silence does not indicate agreement. Quietly, though never fully understanding how much her son wants to jettison his island origins, she supports his ambition to have a different life.

Mairéad is trapped on this island by the fate that took her husband, her father and her uncle on the same day when all three failed to return from a fishing trip a decade ago.  She will always be known as that ‘poor widow woman’ but she resists the expectation that she will marry Liam’s brother Francis, ‘waiting in the long grass‘.  Mairéad yearns to join other members of the family who emigrated.

The Colony shows that it’s women who bear the brunt of nostalgia for traditions… and that those colonised can still have agency in the adaptations that they choose to make.

Audrey Magee is also the author of The Undertaking (2014, see my review) which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, for France’s Festival du Premier Roman and for the Irish Book Awards.

Jacqui at Jaquiwine discusses other aspects of this fine novel too. Also see the review by Ari Levine at Goodreads which includes images of the many artworks discussed in the novel.

Author: Audrey Magee
Title: The Colony
Design by Jack Smyth
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2022
ISBN: 9780571367603, pbk., 376 pages
Source: Kingston Library

*I watched the TV Outlander series, set in Scotland as England was colonising it, but I haven’t read the books by Diana Gabandan.


Responses

  1. Will come back to this in a week or so. It’s next week’s reading group book and I’ve not started it yet.

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    • When you do read it, can you look out for something for me? Mine is a library copy and I won’t grant myself the indulgence of reading it twice when it’s in hot demand, but I’d like to know, how do Francis and Michéal address the boy, as James or as Seamus? What language do they use to speak with him?
      (There is a difference BTW in the way the islanders understand English and with whom they do/don’t choose to speak it. The matriarch is the only one who has no English at all, or at least that is said about her, but again, I’d have to re-read it to know if that’s completely the case.)

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      • I will try to remember. If I forget just ask me as I have the e-Book version, so it should be easy to check if I don’t take it in. Part of my downsizing plan is to buy OS books in e-version.

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        • Thanks…
          I reckon you’ll have a great discussion!

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      • I still haven’t read your review, but have nearly finished the book. His mother Mairéad calls him James. And, Francis calls him James (eg on page 84, page 146). I think Michéal might too but can’t find an example, so not sure. My guess is that given the author calls him James (“said James” etc) that everyone does except Masson. Now, I must get back to the book! I just remembered your question.

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        • Thank you!
          Are you liking it?

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          • Very much … got me in from the beginning. A bit of “telling” from Masson, via his writing, I think, but I can forgive that!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yes, that bit where he’s explaining about the impact of colonisation on language, that was a little heavy-handed I thought.

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              • Yes … that’s the bit. Forgivable but not necessary to be so detailed as it started to feel like a lecture.

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                • Fortunately there wasn’t too much…

                  Liked by 1 person

  2. Straight on to my library reserve list! I am fascinated.

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    • It’s very good! Do check out those other reviews, I particularly like Ari’s one, he’s a bit of a find at GR and I’m now following his reviews, though there aren’t many of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll try to look at this too if I get to the book before I forget. So many books TBR. I thought The Undertaking was really compelling and I am really interested to read Audrey Magee on her own country (that is obviously a significant part of my family history, even though we went all the way to New Zealand, then my grandparents returned and never returned home permanently).

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    • The Undertaking is a great book… reading this one just made me want another book by the same author!

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  4. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Sounds fascinating and reminds me of the work of Brian Friel- especially “Translations”. I’ve recently also read “Factory Girls” which was brilliant, poignant and very funny.

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  5. It does sound very good, Lisa. Always interesting when there’s a close kind of community and seeing how they deal with outsiders.

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  6. I like people – especially journalists who use the lazy construction ‘anglo-celt’ – to be reminded occasionally that Ireland was a British colony until relatively recently. Unfortunately for the Irish, as in North America and the Pacific, the colonizers put in so many of their own settlers (Scottish protestants in Ireland) that the colonized are still struggling to deal with them, and with the settler press which uses arguments for ‘peace’ to maintain the status quo.

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    • Well, I think there’s a lot to be said for peace when the clock can’t be turned back…

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  7. […] Lisa and Jacqui (JacquiWine’sJournal) both reviewed this book last month, and each are worth […]

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  8. Finished now of course, and enjoyed it muchly. I liked your choice of quotes using dialogue – the dialogue was a real standout in the book I thought. And the characterisation. And of course the clever way she explored the theme. A great read.

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    • Yes. Disappointing that it wasn’t shortlisted for the Booker.
      OTOH I’ve just started reading Glory by No Violet Bulawayo, and I’m enjoying it so far. It’s a satire, so I’m just hoping it doesn’t get too heavy-handed, it’s quite long.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes it is … the other books must be fantastic!

        I look forward to seeing your review. I do like a satire but it can be hard to sustain over a long book as you suggest.

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        • The trouble is, I had just started The Cowards by Josef Škvorecký, and it’s really, really good… and then I heard about Glory being shortlisted, and I had it out from the library. So I really must read it ASAP because it will be in high demand, and yet I want to finish the other one too.
          #FirstWorldProblem, eh?

          Liked by 1 person


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