by Noreen O’Rinn
Ireland is a land replete with tales of the supernatural. It is a place where the Banshee’s cry can be heard on the crest of the wind; it is a place where fairy rings are respected and left untouched; it is a place where the wee folk troop around the countryside. Most of all, it is a place where the uncanny resides in the Irish psyche despite its professed Catholicism. The romance of Irish mysticism is as intoxicating as its Poitin, and has enthralled listeners and readers for centuries.
Peter Murphy plays with this mysticism in his debut novel Lagan Love, which takes its title from My Lagan Love a traditional Irish song that dates back to the 15th century. The song is an erotic and haunting melody and has been performed in recent years by many artists including Sinead O’Connor and The Corrs. Like the song, Lagan Love is also a beguiling tale of seduction and desire.
The story begins in the1980’s, just as the rising Irish economy is giving birth to the Celtic Tiger. Janice, a young Canadian from Toronto, has come to study at Trinity College, Dublin. She is homesick and lonely, and has only managed to make one friend, the levelheaded Sinead. Janice lives a rather timid existence on the edge of campus life, but harbours dreams of becoming an artist. Then, she meets Aidan, a working class poet with all the rough diamond charm of Colin Farrell. He is a rising star and the toast of the Dublin literary scene. Janice is smitten and thinks: “Perhaps, when the time was right, they could become more.”
Janice and Aidan spend a lot of time at Grogan’s pub, where their relationship deepens in a haze of alcohol and superstitions. Grogan’s is both a bustle of gaiety and a refuge from loneliness, where “reality and myth mingles.” This is where friends sharpen their wits in slagging matches and old timers like Gerry have a story to tell for the price of a pint and an ability to predict the future with eerie precision. Not only does the bartender know your name, he can anticipate your needs before you have time to voice them. Grogan’s offers hospitality and Janice settles right in, adopting Aidan’s friends and becoming one of the regulars.
Ah, the path of love is never smooth, as Janice is about to learn. Aidan encourages her to follow her artistic dreams, and assures Janice that he knows all the right people. His benefactor come literary agent, Gwen, is well connected in both Ireland and England. There is a snag: Aidan and Gwen are lovers. He has to find a way to tell Janice about their relationship, but more importantly he has to find a way to free himself from Gwen’s grasp without upsetting their professional relationship. What really complicates matters is that Aidan believes that Gwen is a Lenanshee. A mystic Celtic figure, a Lenanshee is a fairy lover, and a muse who can bestow and enhance creative powers, but, as with everything in life, she comes with a price.
Gwen is an attractive woman, cultured and sleek. Her marriage to Maurice is a perfect arrangement that allows them to maintain a high profile in the art world while leading totally separate sex lives. Gwen is in control of her life and likes to have control over her prodigy’s career and private life. Soon, she had Janice under her spell with the promise of an art exhibit and a glittering career. Gwen certainly has the power to make or break an artist, but does that make her a Lenanshee? Like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Lagan Love masterfully keeps the reader guessing. Does Gwen possess supernatural powers or are Aidan and Janice psychologically unhinged? There is no definitive answer. Instead, Murphy leaves it is up to the reader to decide.
Like the clouds that float above Ireland, casting a series of light and shadow, Murphy’s tale touches on poverty and the effects of prosperity, on faith and on a church that has betrayed its flock, on crudity and the necessity for civility, and on art and its fragility in the hands of artifice.
If Lagan Love is a love song, it is a love song to pagan Ireland, where the wee folk still haunt the airy mountains and rushy glens. It is the perfect book for midsummer nights’ reading.
Peter Murphy was raised in Dublin and now resides in Toronto.
Reproduced with permission from Irish Connections Canada, Summer 2011 edition. http://www.irishcanadamag.com/