Irish RMT’other day I picked up for the umpteenth time on The Irish R.M  by E.E. Somerville and Martin Ross.  Very briefly, they tell (from the first person point of view) the story of Major Sinclair Yeats, a Brit Army officer of Irish extraction, who takes up a Resident Magistracy in the west of Ireland, thereby voluntarily retiring from late-Victorian Britain to life in the Dark Ages.

It’s been a couple years since I last dipped into these short stories which I thought I knew so well, but I must say that the hiatus has convinced me all the more that their comic descriptions of life in the West of Ireland around the turn of the century, as seen through the eyes of the Anglo-Irish gentry, are pure masterpieces.  How about a little Major Yeats?

I look back to that first week of housekeeping at Shreelane as to a comedy excessively badly staged, and striped with lurid melodrama.  Towards its close I was positively home-sick for Mrs. Raverty’s [hotel], and I had not a single clean pair of boots.  I am not one of those who hold the convention that in Ireland the rain never ceases, day or night, but I must say that my first November at Shreelane was composed of weather of which my friend Flurry Knox remarked that you wouldn’t meet a Christian out of doors, unless it was a snipe or a dispensary doctor.  To this lamentable category  might be added a resident magistrate.  Daily, shrouded in mackintosh, I set forth for the Petty Sessions Courts of my wide district; daily, in the inevitable atmosphere of wet frieze and perjury, I listened to indictments of old women who plucked geese alive, of publicans whose hospitality to their friends broke forth uncontrollably on Sunday afternoons, of “parties” who, in the language of the police sergeant, were subtly defined as “not to say dhrunk, but in good fighting thrim.”

That, of course, is just an example of the narrator himself.   The nuggets from the various ranks of the Irish themselves, including Flurry Knox, Slipper, Mrs. Cagodan, Walkin’ Aisy and others, are pure gold, too.

And before you ask, yes, I have seen the tee vee dramatization and no, I did not like it (although I wanted to, since I’m a fan of Peter Bowles).  As I hope the above snippet demonstrates, the humor of these stories is not just in the actual events depicted therein, but also in the way they are retold, something that is almost always impossible to translate from the written word to the screen when dealing with first-person narration.  (I’ve long argued that this is why, or at least one of the main reasons why, the Jeeves & Wooster series leaves me so flat.)

Somerville and Ross originally wrote these stories in three batches, the latter two tacked on due to reader demand.  I’ve got a battered old paperback copy of the complete set that was released when Maastherpiece Thee-ya-ter ran the tee-vee series back in the early 80’s.  It seems to be out of print now.  You’ll have to do a fair bit of hunting among the newer editions of the stories (all of which seem to be partial only) in order to collect them all.  However, IMHO, it would be well worth the effort.

One other thing:  I was first introduced to Somerville & Ross by a college girlfriend.  (Yes, the same one who summoned me after a white-knuckle ride up I-95 in the pouring rain one Thanksgiving break because she was so upset by the fate of King Lear.)  Later, I came across a description of the same time and place from the other side, as it were, by the native Irish playwrite John Synge’s grittier works.  (In fact, I played a minor role in a stage production of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, for which I was able to provide invaluable footnotes to the director regarding such obscure words and phrases as shebeen, potheen and “Sunday travellers”.  The short stories and the plays come at their subject from two widely variant angles and with considerably different purposes, and yet the affinity between them is quite interesting.  If I could hop in the Way-Back Machine and go back to write a senior English major thesis, this would be an interesting idea to work up.

Advertisements