We Are Besieged Barbara Fitzgerald

Somerville Press, pp.400, 12.99

This inter-war story of an Anglo-Irish family in crisis opens with a bang. Caroline Adair, recovering from measles at Butler’s Hill, her aunt and uncle’s lovely house in the South-west, wakes in the night to find  Sinn Feiners surrounding the place.

This inter-war story of an Anglo-Irish family in crisis opens with a bang. Caroline Adair, recovering from measles at Butler’s Hill, her aunt and uncle’s lovely house in the South-west, wakes in the night to find  Sinn Feiners surrounding the place. The family are given ten minutes to clear out. ‘Don’t be frightened, darling’, says kind Aunt Moira, ‘they won’t do us any harm, they only want to burn the house.’It’s a big ‘only’. Caroline’s life is for ever altered by the loss of the beloved place, an idyll of ‘soft green lawns, fir trees silhouetted against the moonlit sky, and the sea, satin-grey . . . in the dip of the gorse-covered hill’. The IRA’s night’s work destroys a Yeatsian way of life ‘where all’s accustomed, ceremonious’. Her future decisions, even, eventually her choice of husband, will be shaped by the disaster. Nine-year-old Caroline, who has never set foot in England, struggles to understand why the neighbours and servants amongst whom she has spent her life now regard her as an alien.

Caroline’s implacably loyalist mother Helen makes it her life’s work to stamp out any spark of Republican sympathy in the hearts of her two daughters (Caroline has an older sister, Isabel). Helen’s fanaticism,  tempered but not checked by Guy, her more tolerant husband, warps and divides the family, creating a microcosm of the whole tragic country.

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As one hopes from an Irish novel, atmosphere is richly and tenderly evoked. The Adairs live in a Georgian house in Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin. The mixture of shabbiness and elegance, homeliness and danger, is the backdrop for a tragi-comedy of manners in which half the players are in denial of political and social reality.

We Are Besieged was first published in 1946. Barbara Fitzgerald, daughter of the Primate of All Ireland, wrote it while spending the war years with her children in the Archbishop’s Palace in Armagh. It is more than a historical curiosity. Fitzgerald describes with clarity and pathos a world she knew well, without a trace of sectarian bitterness. Helen’s fanaticism is hateful, and yet we do not hate her; vengeful and deceitful though she becomes, the greatest damage she inflicts is on herself. Isabel, selfish and mercenary where Caroline is sensitive and cerebral, is not condemned either, but is granted a moral reprieve.

Though the story is told almost entirely through the Anglo-Irish characters, Fitzgerald betrays no anti-Catholic prejudice. Even during the torching of Butler’s Hill, she illustrates the divided sympathies of all concerned. A masked gunman helps Caroline save her possessions from the blaze, while her uncle lends his wheelbarrow to help one of his attackers, who is wounded, to safety.

Some of the faults of a first novel are evident. Too much is explained; at times, the reader feels spoon-fed. Some plot devices creak — the inevitable Romeo-and-Juliet tangle solved by a fatal car crash, the stroke that fells Helen just as Wall Street tumbles. Caroline is very good and very beautiful, and she has a mass of red-gold curls.

But it is easy to overlook all this for the pleasure of immersing oneself in a family drama with memorable characters, real settings, and houses, weather, food and clothing vividly described. It’s a highly palatable guide to 20th-century Irish history and would be perfect for television.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Ireland, Irish, Non-fiction, War, War history