King Goshawk and the Birds – Eimar O’Duffy

Sometimes I read simply for pleasure, when I read this novel I had no intention of writing anything about it, but when I went to log my reading on that Bezos review site I found that only FIVE people had entered a rating, I was stunned as this is an outstanding work. I then thought I better jot down some thoughts as it may lead to a few more people reading the book. Please note – I didn’t take notes throughout my reading so this is a quick look, recalling, off the top of my head, passages that have stuck with me.

I’ve consulted the Ricorso Irish writers database to ensure that Eimar O’Duffy actually existed. Why? His novel ‘King Goshawk and the Birds’, “republished” by Dalkey Archive in 2017, states that the book was “originally published in 1926”, set in the future the depictions of a Capitalist society gone rife, and especially the references to war, were too close to current truth that I felt there was no way this work could have been published before World War II.

‘King Goshawk and the Birds’ is the first novel in a trilogy, a Menippean satire, the next two volumes being ‘The Spacious Adventures of the Man in the Street’ (1928) and ‘Asses in Clover’ (1933), the second was due to be published by Dalkey in 2018, however I’m not sure it has actually made it to the printers and the third volume is available through Veritas Books.

Veritas Books has a precis of ‘King Goshawk and the Birds’ as an introduction to their edition of the third volume.

‘King Goshawk and the Birds’ is set in a future world devastated by ‘progress’ and ruled by King Capitalists. King Goshawk, the supreme King Capitalist, decides to buy up all the flowers and birds, placing them in the theme parks for which an entrance fee is charged. Enraged at this desecration of nature and human rights, an ancient Dublin philosopher calls the mythical Cuchulain back to earth. He sires a son, Cuanduine, whose task is to right the wrongs perpetrated by the capitalists.

Here is the opening summary of Cuchulain from the Myths and Legends Encyclopedia;

Cuchulain, one of the greatest heroes of Irish mythology and legend, was a warrior in the service of Conchobhar, king of Ulster. Best known for his single-handed defense of Ulster, Cuchulain is said to have lived in the first century B . C ., and tales about him and other heroes began to be written down in the A . D . 700S. Cuchulain’s adventures were recorded in a series of tales known as the Ulster Cycle.

So we have a setting, referencing Irish mythical characters, however it is not in the straight narrative flow where the riches of this novel lie. This is a deeply black satirical work, scathing of capitalism, and the rolling over of the working classes, the antipathy of any character other than the Philosopher, and the defeatist attitudes of all. It covers the media, manipulative journalists, the arts, cheap literature, the church, parliaments, millionaires clubs and a whole lot more.

Using a range of techniques, you don’t know what the next chapter will bring. For example one chapter is the newspaper that Cuanduine  is holding, being new to Earth he doesn’t understand what a newspaper is, the Philosopher explains; “It is written down the news of all the things that happened yesterday in the world; and to-morrow I shall get another which will relate all that happened to-day.” “But how, asked Cuanduine , “can the truth be ascertained in so short a time?” “I did not say that it told the truth,” replied the Philosopher. “I only said it told the news.” Here are a couple of examples from that newspaper:

A general strike is threatened in British coal mines as a result of the proposed cut of two shillings per week in wages. The Coal Trust have issues a statement that it will be impossible to work the mines at a profit unless the cut is accepted.

A five-roomed house to let. South Suburbs.
Moderate rent. No children.
Cosy house. Two bedrooms, sitting-room, kitchen, bath.
£150 and taxes. No dogs. No children.
Delightful house. Five miles from city. Six bed., four reception rooms. Billiard room, conservatory, stables, garage, kennels, garden and kitchen garden. No children.
Fine house, beautifully situated in own ground ten miles from city. Children objected.
Gate lodge to let. Five rooms. No dogs, no poultry, no children. Suit married couple.
Perfect house. Situated on own grounds. Beautiful scenery. Healthy climate. Five bedrooms, four reception. Day and night nursery. School-room. Large Bower garden. Playing field, with goal-posts., etc. Tennis-court. Suit married couple. No children.
Pigstye to let. 10s weekly. Suit large family.
Victorian mansion. Beyond repair. Situated in formerly fashionable quarter in heart of city. Reasonable rent. No objection to dogs, cats, poultry, canaries, tortoises, goldfish, axolotls, or even children.

There is a later part of the novel where two rival newspapers battle to provide coverage of Cuanduine’s tour of England:

One half of the Press of England was in those days owned by Lord Mammoth, and the other half by Lord Cumbersome. These two potentates had bought up all their smaller rivals, and would have bought up each other if they could: for though both were staunch upholders of the principles of competitive civilization, they knew better than to allow any competition against themselves if they could help it.

Cuanduine, being a descendent of a mythical legend, is far from educated in matters of etiquette and courts numerous women at the same time. One incident about his transgressions is presented as a play “A Comedy of Loves”.

By having a mythical descendant, Eimar O’Duffy is able to use the innocent and incorruptible eyes to put a mirror on society, a base society, one that has allowed all of the world’s birds and flowers to be plundered for capitalist gain. A message of almost 100 years ago about nature being usurped for wealth creation by just a few.

We have countries in dispute over minor differences, unable to come to terms over a minor clause in a ceasefire agreement, even the League of Nations is inept. We have corrupt Governments, gated estates housing millionaires, hardly an altruistic inhabitant. The world of the Cuanduine trilogy is dark, very dark.

Laugh out loud bleak, this is an outstanding novel of its time, there are hints that O’Duffy had read James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (the chapter that is a play?), however its scathing and quite extraordinary crystal ball gazing is a pleasure to read. Pity not a lot has changed in 95 years.

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