1971 Shortlist – The Big Chapel – Thomas Kilroy

Thomas Kilroy is a highly decorated writer having won the Guardian Prize for this novel and according to the Man Booker website his awards include “the Heinemann Award for Literature; The Aib Literary Prize; the American-Irish Foundation Award for Literature; The Rockefeller Foundation Residency; the Kyoto University Foundation Fellowship; and a Prix Nikki Special Commendation.” better known as a playwright, having ten published plays and a number of adaptations to his name.
His only novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize back in 1971. A story based on a “notorious” religious scandal in Ireland in the 1870’s (but one I knew nothing about until I read this and subsequently researched the events), this is a complex but rewarding work.
Essentially the novel deals with Father Lannigan’s disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church over their decision to wrestle control of education in the local town of Kyle. This leads to escalating support for either the Father or the “new” Christian Brothers regime whereby the whole town is brought into revolution.  The “Master” of the school remains somewhat neutral in the events however the main characters, his two sons, Nicholas and Marcus, are drawn into taking sides. Meanwhile the Master’s adoptive daughter, Emerine, falls in love with her “brother” Marcus and the local wealthy amateur scientist Horace Percy records the downfall of the town in his journal.
November 15th; Proctor called again to ask if I would join the supporting list of the priest. Urged that it was our struggle too. I asked, what do you mean, OURS?……
November 16th; A man drowned to-day in the flooded river. It is said he was a vagrant. The American Army sergeant is still on his Great Walk from Gretna Green to London’s Guildhall carrying his flag. As a species we are capable of the most elaborate tomfooleries.
This book starts thirty years after the events of the town and therefore you know the result of the upcoming civil unrest prior to any narrative taking place. There are a number of, what I would deem, significant events which are only briefly mentioned, and the chronological sequence of events is not always strictly adhered to. But in my opinion this works so well, as this is a novel which is looking at character development, the reasons for their internal beliefs, their religious and existentialist struggles. This is an extremely well researched novel about dogma, rigidly sticking to one’s views, character definition and the little complexities in life. On Lannigan:
He was a man who could only love and be himself at an extremity, out on some dangerous edge of life. It was this bloodless, gormless army that’s finally defeat him if he allowed it; they would crush him if he wasn’t careful under their ability to reduce everything to this mediocre dribble of half-interest, half-dismissal. He craved the attention of those that hated him with a passion; while he had that, he had life…
Although a novel I took sometime to become involved with, once I became entrenched I was entranced and one that I finally thoroughly enjoyed. Having now read something else from the 1971 shortlist I can state that in my humble opinion this would have been a more worthy winner over and above V.S. Naipaul’s “In A Free State”.
For a full detailed historical explanation of the novel’s events see the article at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb162/is_1_32/ai_n28971096/?tag=content;col1
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