BookBlast Review of The Settlement by Ruth Kirby-Smith, set in Ireland in 1921 when trouble flares up after partition under British law by the Government of Ireland Act which created Northern Ireland..
“He stood at the edge of the pavement, exactly on the corner, a full head higher than those around him. Olivia waited for him to dip his head as a sign of respect, but he stood there, very still, his hard blue eyes fixed on the oak coffin. Then he stepped forward and it seemed for a moment that he wanted to touch the coffin, to make the last contact with her grandmother before she was buried. Slowly, he lifted his head back, looking to the sky, then he jerked forward and spat a long stream down the window of the hearse.”
When all else fails and no peaceful solution can be found to end a struggle to control a country or a region, to achieve independence, or to force a change in government policy, warring camps form, families and communities are divided, and the killings and atrocities begin. The time and place and context might vary but the root cause for people taking up arms against each other is always the same: the pernicious polarisation of hate.
If a civil war becomes entrenched, violence is institutionalised and “power over” gang rule backed by ideological justification becomes the norm, often with outside powers interfering and dramatically changing the face of warfare (71% of civil wars record at least one intervention). Visceral hatreds are passed down through the generations. Obvious examples being the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (since 1948); internal conflict in Myanmar (since 1948); war in Afghanistan (since 1978); the Somali Civil War (since 1989); the Syrian Civil War (since 2011) . . . the list is a depressingly long one.
Assaulted on TV and online by 24 hour news reports about military conflict, terrorist attacks, human rights violations and other troubles, viewers are increasingly switching off in the face of such relentless negativity. An alternative way in which to get greater depth and understanding of socially and politically relevant events is to read engaging stories based on snippets of living history combined with a vivid imagination and a strong emotional charge.
A Bitter Legacy
Ruth Kirby-Smith researched her family history after the death of her father, and discovered a rich seam to mine. The Settlement is the result. Set at the beginning of the last century, it is based on events in the run up to the partition of Ireland which sparked civil war and a century of unrest. Her parents lived in Co Armagh in a village close to the border with Co Monaghan. The county line became the border between the two new states of Ireland, north and south, in 1921.
“I don’t recall when he started referring to the settlement, but it became a constant worry to him, one which he would fret over and badger me about until I was cross with him.”
It is 1984 and Olivia has returned to her family home. She and the villagers are alarmed and dismayed when Michael O’Connell spits at the coffin of her grandmother, Sarah, a well-respected matriarch. Olivia is staying for a few days to go through her grandmother’s papers, and finds a red leather notebook in the desk drawer.
“No daughter of mine is going to university. You will marry well and raise children, as is expected of you.”
Sarah was a strong-willed, intelligent young woman. Attracted to the liberating message of the Suffragettes, any hopes of attending university were crushed by her father. Jilted by Hugh, heir to Clanhugh Estate, in favour of marrying a grand English woman, Sarah married Theo, a wealthy widower in his sixties, in 1910. An astute businesswoman she helped him to make a success of Lindara Hotel. And she was a good stepmother to his son, Samuel, only a few years younger than her.
“We were like a colony for England, and had a relationship and a mentality that was colonial. It gave us an inbred sense of inferiority, just as it gave them their God-given superiority. With our Irish brothers we were at least one and the same.”
Theo is involved in the anti-home rule movement with those in Ulster wanting to remain part of the United Kingdom. Sarah is resolutely against the idea of a divided Ireland and promises her husband to keep her personal views private.
The Irish Citizens Army is formed in 1913 as a defensive force to protect strikers. By 1916 it is agitating for independence and rebelling against British rule in Ireland. The political unrest and a sense of doom is worsened by the shock of a huge death toll at the Battle of the Somme in which the Ulster Division ranked fourth in the table of losses with over 5000 casualties of whom 2000 died.
Sarah and her stepson are drawn into gunrunning, which compromises her principles. As Theo becomes increasingly senile he nags Sarah about something called ‘the settlement’, but it is only later, in 1919, when she opens a letter from the bank one morning, that the grim realisation of what it involves comes to light.
After Theo dies, Sarah marries her secret lover, John Brown, a charismatic, maverick entrepreneur and gun runner for the Ulster Volunteer Force. Their son, Jim – Olivia’s father – is raised by a foster family because Sarah and John are so busy running their business. They only reclaim their son when he is ten years old. The little boy is not happy at his new school.
“The atmosphere in the village was bleak, with old animosities resurfacing and squabbles breaking out between neighbours.”
When there is a brutal murder, Sinn Feinners and the O’Connells – a musical family and workers at the local Blackwater Milll – are blamed for it. A deadly game of tit-for-tat killings begins, spreading fear. A bullet could come at you out of the blue any day.
The texture of the past comes alive through colourful descriptions of village life, shopping in Belfast, escaped pigs causing havoc at a garden party, and the snobbery of Hugh’s snooty, spendthrift English wife arranging for deliveries of food for Lindara training camp.
The Settlement i is a singular novel about resilience. Ruth Kirby-Smith illuminates the way one family is impacted by the most contentious issue in Irish politics, reverberating through a community and through the generations. The challenges faced by an intelligent, resourceful woman struggling to get ahead in a conservative church-bound society make for moving reading.
“I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system,” Mary Robinson
2021 is the centenary of the partition of Ireland in 1921. Civil wars that are resolved are a cause for celebration. The Troubles in Northern Ireland lasted from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, ending with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Today, the uncertain post-Brexit future could spark a return to violence in Northern Ireland. Fortis est veritas.
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