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Novel set in Ireland (“a perfect snapshot of rural life…”)

19th January 2015

A Good Confession by Bridget Whelan – novel set in Ireland and London of the 1960s.

IMG_0013This delightful, read-at-one-go novel provides a perfect snapshot of life in rural Ireland in the early 60’s and also a poignant view of the difficulties faced by Irish migrants coming to London in search of work. A Good Confession is superficially a simple story, well told and easy to read and yet it is also disturbing. For those of us who have lived through the early 60’s, it serves as an unsettling reminder of all that was awful about that period.

The novel opens with a tragedy: young Cathleen Brogan’s husband, Mick, dies, leaving her to bring up two young girls in miserable rented rooms in 1960’s London. Mick has been working as a labourer and his death leaves her with virtually no income. Life looks pretty desperate but then Father Jerry, Mick’s cousin, turns up to comfort her. The Irish community regard Father Jerry as something of a saint and it isn’t long before Cathleen finds herself growing a bit too fond of him. Seeking comfort from confession, she doesn’t realise that she is actually baring her soul to the man she loves.

If this was all there was to this novel, it would be simple indeed but under this haunting story there is a subtext. Whelan manages a very subtle but nonetheless effective criticism of the priesthood. She conveys the way in which priests in that period were revered to the point of idolatry by Catholic communities. Sometimes it makes you laugh, as when Kitty, Cathleen’s mother, gloats over the superiority of Father Jerry to her friend’s family priest, “Father Pius Pity-face in Patagonia”. But Whelan also reminds us that this same reverence masked the corruption and cruelty which was an integral part of the Catholic Church at that time and the ending of the novel highlights the arrogance that it was all too easy for priests to fall into.

Whelan is a very skilful writer; her characterisation is masterful and she has captured the cadences of Irish speech perfectly. Cathleen’s mother, Kitty, is a delight, not least because of her colourful turn of phrase. But the real power is in her depiction of the less admirable characters. The hypocritical headmistress of the girls’ school will live with me for some time and the hideous Thady is a superb creation. The author, I note, is a prize winning short story writer and that doesn’t surprise me in the least. This novel has the tight structure of a short story with not a single paragraph wasted and it is this that makes it such a page turner.

A Good Confession doesn’t give the reader a sense of place so much as a sense of time. The rural Ireland of the early 60’s is recreated powerfully; Whelan doesn’t spare the reader any of the elements – poverty, prejudice, ignorance and cruelty and all overlaid with a veneer of religion. It might well prompt the reader, however, to visit Farran, County Cork to see, hopefully, how much better it is now.

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

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