I listened to this audiobook after reading the review in Reading Matters, a lover of Irish literature. I almost gave it up when I began to recall that I am often not entertained by reminiscences of elderly Irish men, but kept going and found it worth the occasional irritation. It is a good story, especially impressive as it is a debut work.
Over the course of a long night, Maurice Hannigan toasts five people important in his life, the device used for him to tell us the story of his life. As he tells us many times, he is not good at being a thoughtful or kind human being, but this is a moment of truth for him. Truth, too, is hard for him to come by. Sometimes his recollections are predictable and sentimental, and sometimes they are poignant and appealing.
Maurice’s family were poor dairy farmers; he and his mother brought in money working for the Dollard family, the local gentry, who were despicable at a every turn. The son Thomas beat poor Maurice regularly and his mother was denied the morning off the day her older son died. Because he was so unsuccessful at school, Maurice left early and began working when he was quite young. We later learn that dyslexia interfered with his ability to learn to read. As it happened, he was quite adept at acquiring land, and by the end of his life, he owned all the Dollard land holdings.
We learn that Thomas’s cruelty to Maurice is directly related to the beatings Thomas receives from his father. One day while Maurice is working near the house, he overhears Thomas being beaten for playing with a valuable coin which he throws out the window. Maurice picks it up and the fortunes of the Dollard family take a turn for the worse. The father always blames Thomas for losing the coin and Thomas never loses his obsession for trying to find it. The coin in question is an Edward VIII gold sovereign, known as the “coinage that never was,” never circulated because Edward VIII abdicated. Its other notable characteristic is that Edward broke with protocol and insisted on facing left, thinking that was his better side. One of these coins sold for over £500,000 in 2014. This coin with its interesting history plays an outsized role in the trajectory of the two families, a pleasing piece of the story.
Maurice’s victory is complete: a son-in-law comes to Maurice to beg for a better price for the last bit of land, planning to turn the grand house into a hotel. Though Maurice admires him for it and gives him more money, the humiliation he inflicts is relentless. And it continues to the next generation when Maurice becomes a silent partner with the daughter who now runs the hotel and would have lost it without the cash infusion. In the end I found there was too much dithering about who was more guilty–my sympathy was always with Maurice, however much humiliation he doled out with the money.
One last note: I won’t give away the end, but want to remember how much I disliked it, perhaps unfairly.
Anne Griffin, When All is Said, Thomas Dunne Books, 2019, 326 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library.