Review: Two Irish Lads by Gerry Burnie

When cousins Sean and Patrick McConaghy set sail from Ireland in 1820 to settle in the wilderness of Upper Canada, they have no idea what obstacles and opportunities await them in this new land. Sean and Patrick know little about clearing land, building a shelter and farming. But with hard work and the help of new friends, including squire Nicholas Nealon and blacksmith Timothy Logan, the McConaghys prosper. They also discover their emotional and physical love for each other-a relationship that, at the time, was illegal and fraught with danger.Told in a series of journal entries, reminiscent of a nineteenth-century novel, Two Irish Lads captures the difficulties of settling in the wilderness, earning a livelihood in a new country, and concealing the nature of their relationship from neighbours. The young men’s new life is punctuated by scandal, murder, tragedy, and hard-fought adventure.In a narrative told with understanding and humour, this is a heartening tale of personal growth, the struggle of the human spirit to overcome almost insurmountable circumstances, and the fierce determination of two young settlers to succeed in spite of it all.

Review by Alex Beecroft

First of all, I want to say that I love the cover of this book. It’s really tasteful – which is in keeping with the dignified prose and story inside. The forest reflects the forest from which our heroes must carve a living, and nothing about the book screams ‘gay romance’ as if gay romance, by its very nature had to exclude the possibility of a book being a beautifully written, serious piece of fiction.

This is one of those rare occasions when the blurb is an informative and accurate guide to what you’re actually getting in the book. The story is the tale of Sean and Patrick’s journey from Ireland to their new country; their claiming of their own land; the community they find already established when they arrive, and how they fit into it. It is, on the whole, a gentle and positive tale where something – the luck of the Irish, perhaps? – ensures that things tend to work out fairly easily for our heroes. The young men arrive and easily find a perfect place to claim. They are helped to build a cabin by the local community, and taken under the wing of the local magnate, Mr. Nealon, who treats Sean as a substitute son. This naturally smoothes things out for them, allowing Sean to become schoolmaster and then magistrate of the community pretty much without effort.

Nealon expects the two lads to marry his daughter and his ward, and, in time, to inherit his property and authority. And really, although this is a bit of a problem given that Sean and Patrick are in love with each other, I’m not sure that – in their situation as 19th Century eligible young gentlemen – it should count as anything other than another un-earned benefit.

A fly in the ointment appears in the shape of an unpleasant priest who begins to turn the villagers against them by the underhanded expedient of suggesting they might be gay. A situation which their threesomes with the village blacksmith doesn’t exactly help. A few tense moments do actually ensue as it looks as if the two of them will get lynched and/or accused of the subsequent murder of the priest.

But fortunately their luck holds out, they defend themselves successfully against the murder charge, and once they’ve done that, everyone seems to forget the accusations of sodomy levelled against them. With the evil priest removed, the villagers can return to being all sweetness and light. Sean and Patrick are received back into the community, and agree to marry the girls, but in another twist of the remarkable luck which has served these two so well, even that turns out happily in the end.

The beginning of the book is told in a very authentic sounding 19th Century journalistic style, which I enjoyed very much for its verisimilitude. The author clearly knows his period extremely well and is capable of sustaining an engaging but authentic writing style. Unfortunately, the author also wants you, the reader, to be aware of how much he knows, and he peppers the book with numerous footnotes which, in my opinion, do nothing to advance the story. In fact, in my case, they only succeeded in jerking me out of the story and damaging my suspension of disbelief. This was particularly irksome given that many of the footnotes seemed to be of the ‘yes, they really did believe that!’ kind – which are unnecessary, since as a reader I automatically assume the writer is correct unless I happen to know otherwise.

Looking back on what I’ve said so far, it looks as if I didn’t enjoy the book, but in fact I very much did. Once I’d learned to ignore the footnotes, I loved the immediacy of the journal format, which made the book read like an adventure actually written during its setting. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey on board ship, and all the little details about travel, logging, frontier society, wolves, fairies, how to build a log cabin, and the 19th Century legal process were fascinating to me. The author’s immersion in and fascination with the period made reading the trivial and not so trivial doings of the characters an education – like reading the best kind of text book, the kind that entertains you while you learn.

I liked the serious and capable Sean, and found him a pleasant and reliable narrator. I loved the fact that throughout the book, you could hear the Irish accent in the prose. And I was gripped by the slow but sure unfolding of the storyline, right up until the happy ending arrived, in my opinion, rather too early and rather too convenient to be believed.

It’s beautifully written and beautifully researched, a highly accomplished piece of literature which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. But on an emotional level it left me slightly tepid. I enjoyed it the way I would enjoy reading a history textbook, rather than the way I would enjoy reading a novel. I think possibly because I had very little sense of real peril for the characters. I learned very early on that their remarkable Irish luck would see them through, and it did, every time.

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2 Responses

  1. Alex,
    I am glad you enjoyed this. I have been touting this book ever since I discovered it six months ago. Now, maybe with an Alex Beecroft endorsement, it will get some attention!

    Mark

  2. *g* Thanks Mark! I hope so :) It’s definitely one of the best I’ve read this year. I’m just a particularly harsh critic ;)

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