by Eugene McCabe
Eugene McCabe’s output has been marked by its high standard and his evenhandedness when depicting the contradictory lives of those on both sides of the religious divide living and dying along the Monaghan/Fermanagh border. He goes beyond the one-dimensional media images of the hate figures and instead presents them with compassion in all their human rounded weakness, strength and wretchedness. As he approaches his 80th year this short book of 112 pages again demonstrates his qualities. His concentrated style demands concentration from the reader. The sisters of the title are direct opposites. Tricia, an extrovert hedonist becomes a nurse and Carmel her demure younger sister enters a convent and the book is a whistle stop account of their lives and inter dependent relationship. It is set in the chain smoking 1950’s.
The sisters matured unalike. The elder, a Titian redhead, was quick witted, flirtatious, more attractive than good-looking. The younger, fine skinned with vulnerable eyes and black hair, was pathologically shy and much more striking. A serious student with the Dominicans, she adapted to convent life and got excellent reports.
McCabe is more interested in Carmel’s story and her life in the convent where the Nuns idolise the Kennedy Family and life has its peculiar strictures. There are comic nuggets.
Slugs she drowned with beer waste from pubs. Through the winter the garden was hung with peanut feeders for resident tits and finches. A pet robin called de Valera fed out of her hand
Then when a young novice, professes her love for Carmel, the young novice is sent from the convent and Carmel is plunged into doubts by the fall out and she leaves the Convent. There is black humour in an old Nun Sister Magda Reilly’s final days then
Sister Martha closed Magda’s eyes by placing two brass sink plugs on them, then closed her gaping mouth by inserting a small statue of St Christopher under her chin
After Carmel leaves the convent she looks after Tricia’s daughter Isabel then goes to work in Cavan as a home help to a sick wife.
The wallpaper hadn’t been changed for a hundred years. Two upright armchairs faced the fireplace. In the high, expansive bow window looking west there was a Monaghan sofa, a sort of carved, mahogany day-bed covered in a Turkish fabric of faded splendour. It got the morning sun and looked down on the sloping garden. The old bank office was rented to a chemist, Mr Maurice Ferguson. Desmond dropped his voice and added, almost apologetically, ‘a Protestant gentleman.’ The basement was, he said, unusual except for the deep-well pump that supplied house and yard. The water was crystal clear and always cold.
When the wife dies and after receiving guidance from a Passionate Priest Carmel marries the funeral director husband and becomes stepmother to a boy. She then becomes pregnant. Tricia comes to visit. There is a betrayal that we know will be forgiven. Such is life. Perhaps not such an original story yet there is much pleasure to be enjoyed in the incidentals. I can imagine Ruth McCabe’s mellifluous voice reading this as a memorable radio, ‘Book at Bedtime.’
Though a master craftsman Eugene McCabe like all writers may make an occasional unclear, which perhaps should have been noted by an editor. It concerns the use of the much maligned term slept.
- His wife had left him, blaming him for her empty womb. Tricia sometimes slept with him if both felt inclined
- With Tricia absent delivering babies, golfing or socializing at weekends, Carmel and Isabel slept together.
Number (1) clearly means they had sex, number (2) means they shared a bed, does it not?