For the 4th title of my Reading Ireland Month challenge, I chose a book that has been on my Kindle for a couple of years. It is a debut novel steeped in Irish history and peopled with unforgettable characters.
“Indeed, it would become known far and wide as the Yellow House. When the sun shone it dazzled like a golden beacon, and even on the grayest of days it glowed through the mist like magic.”
The book begins with the O’Neill family who live in an old yellow house in the shadow of Slieve Gullion in County Armagh. A Catholic family, one of the few Catholic families who own land. Due to increasing financial pressures, the land is being sold off – piece by piece. The father, the mother Mary, the oldest son Frankie, the oldest daughter, Eileen, and wee Lizzy and Paddy.
“My Da was born a dreamer, not a farmer.”
Da O’Neill has passed his love of music to his daughter, Eileen. She is an accomplished fiddle player when just a child. Some of her happiest early memories are of when her father’s minstrel friends would come to the yellow house and play for hours on a Saturday night.
“She doesn’t know what she’s saying, love. She’s astray in the head with grief.”
Tragedy besets the O’Neill family when the baby daughter becomes sickly and is sent off to the ‘fever hospital’. The mother, pregnant, never gets over her loss and does not have anything to do with baby Paddy when he is born on Christmas Day 1908. She shuts herself in her room and leaves daughter Eileen to raise the boy. Shortly thereafter, the mother and oldest son Frankie go to live with Eileen’s paternal grandfather in the big manor house. At the age of just thirteen Eileen leaves school to keep house for her father and young brother. Da, Eileen, and young Paddy are left alone in the yellow house – and they scrape by – until one night men come and shoot Da and burn them out of the yellow house.
Eileen and Paddy are taken in by the Mullens, a village family, and Eileen goes to work in the linen mill in 1913. With dreadful working conditions and dismal remuneration, Eileen works for years saving her money in the hopes that somehow she will be able to fix up the yellow house and return there with what remains of her family.
“I sometimes wonder if it’s better for the bad things to happen all at once rather than little by little, like blood seeping out of a wound. When they happen all at once, if the shock of it doesn’t kill you, you might at least stand a chance of rearing up and fighting back.”
Eileen grows into a beauty. Like her mother before her she is very tall. She grows to six feet and has thick red hair down to her waist which she wears in a plait. She catches the eye of the mill owner’s son, Owen Sheridan.
“War is an abyss which sucks in souls both brave and desperate and spits them out again dead or disillusioned.”
With Owen off fighting in WWI, in 1919 Eileen marries the brother of one of her friends at the mill. Taller than she, and handsome, James Conlon will change Eileen’s life forever. James is a rebel and a staunch supporter of Michael Collins. Along with her husband, Eileen joins the Irish Volunteers. Eileen accompanies him on raids and turns into quite a warrior in her own right… until she falls pregnant. James betrays Eileen in many ways, and leaves her on her own with their young daughter Aoife. To put food on the table Eileen returns to music and fiddles at the Ceili House pub.
“Secrets are the cancer of families. Like tumors, they grow ever larger, and if they are not removed, they suffocate the mind and spirit and spawn madness.”
Told from Eileen O’Neill’s point of view, the story encompasses much heartache, sadness, loss, political turmoil, and harsh living and working conditions. Eileen herself is a courageous and prideful woman, a loving daughter, a passionate lover, a hard worker, and a dreamer.
“Your heart holds on to dreams long after your head tells you they’re foolish.”
Altogether a wonderful account of Irish history making the years of Irish conflict a little easier for me to understand. Quite an achievement, as I’ve never understood why a people would fight over differing religions. Neighbor against neighbor, sometimes family member against family member… “The yellow house” covers the years 1905-1922 encompassing the creation of the IRA and the signing of the partition treaty that separated Northern and Southern Ireland.
Highly recommended to everyone who has a keen interest in Irish history and who prefers – like I do – to learn their history through well researched and well rendered fiction. Although I anticipated the ending, the book was well constructed enough that I cannot rate it less than
Oh, and I have a new favorite expression: “Is it astray in the head you are?”
Listen to the traditional Irish music that Eileen played in the Ceili House pub.Patricia Falvey was born in Newry, County Down, Northern Ireland. She was raised in Northern Ireland and England and immigrated alone to the United States at the age of twenty. She still has close family in Ireland and visits there frequently.
THE YELLOW HOUSE is set in the author’s native Northern Ireland. The story was inspired by tales told by her grandmother of political unrest in Ulster in the early 20th century.
The author of three novels thus far – ‘The Yellow House,’ ‘The Linen Queen,’ and her latest ‘The Girls of Ennismore.’ Ms. Falvey uses true historical events and locations to give authority to her characters and the life experiences presented to them.