Light of the Diddicoy

I have already mentioned Eamon Loingsigh several times here. Loingsigh wrote a blog post praising the work of Cassidy. This blog post is still there misleading the public about Cassidy and making obviously incorrect and easily disprovable claims. As far as I am concerned, Cassidy and his supporters are enemies of the Irish language, even if they think they are the language’s greatest champions, so, I am not well disposed towards Loingsigh and I would like to make that clear right from the start. My intention here is to provide a review of his recent book Light of the Diddicoy and I am certainly not an impartial reviewer, though I will try to be as fair as I can.

This book has garnered good reviews from a lot of people on Amazon, many of them suspiciously posted by people who have not posted anything else. The one objective review I found online, on the site of the Historical Novel Society, was mixed and after praising some aspects of the book, singled out certain issues as problematic:

“Unfortunately, I felt the story was undermined by inconsistencies in the author’s tone and somewhat shallow characterizations.

An original and poetic coming-of-age story, Light of the Diddicoy touches on some fascinating material, but might prove difficult for those looking for truly captivating, character-driven fiction.”

I was able to pick up a copy of the book very easily on Amazon. It was a second-hand copy and only cost me a couple of pounds. I was surprised to find that it was signed by the author. I set about reading it. Like the author of the review above, I didn’t particularly like it but I didn’t hate it. There were good things about it. As a story, as a succession of images telling what happened to the central character, it was gripping enough. He seems to know a lot about the docks in NY in the early 20th century and the interplay between criminals, employers and labour organisations. So far, so good.

For me, there were two main problems with this book. Firstly, the language more often stood between the reader and the image rather than evoking the image clearly. Some of the lines are very odd indeed. Some sentences appear not to make any sense at all. For example:

Only luck can make it across the sea lanes with the sea wolves dug in for war, where the Lusitania was sent to the dregs just north of Queenstown in Kinsale, just south of five months early upon.
 

Even leaving aside the fact that Kinsale is south-west of Queenstown (Cóbh), what does this mean? Answers on a postcard please …

His grasp of Irish dialect is shaky. The dialogue is more Far and Away than Ulysses. At times, I found it hard to work out what dialect the characters were supposed to be using. To give just one example, he frequently drops the h in words like he (‘e), which to me looks like some kind of English dialect. To the best of my knowledge, no dialect of Irish English drops the h. And expressions like ‘you look about twelve years long’ don’t ring true to me. Perhaps there is some obscure dialect in Munster where people use long for old but I’ve certainly never heard it. All too often, dialect is used to create two-dimensional characters.

Another problem is the purple passages. Manuals for aspiring writers always tell people to avoid these like the plague. It is still good advice to go through your writing with a red pen cutting out anything that sounds preachy or self-conscious or overwritten.

“Unpainted, sooted wood-framed tenements creak in the breeze like an old coffin ship carrying dead famine families in its [sic] hulls. Sunken in time along with so many of their untold stories. Memories forgotten, remembered only in the blood like a feeling is remembered, but not articulated, memories known only in the blood-feeling of so many Americans in the coming generations. Whisperings of great struggles, terrible sacrifices pitting family versus [sic] survival. Struggles and sacrifices that make life worth living for the happier children of much later days. Of all those Americans what proudly claim Irish blood.” 

There are parts of the book (particularly in the middle) where the writing is going well and he forgets to posture and lets the story tell itself, and these are the most successful and enjoyable parts.

Apart from language, the other problem is research. I will assume that he does have a good understanding of the American scene in the early 20th century. But some of his comments relating to Ireland seem anachronistic or inaccurate.  Somebody is described as being led away like an informer led away by two trench-coated rebels. OK, this is being described by someone years afterwards, but it relates to events before the Easter Rising. Trench-coated rebels killing informers was not a common image until the War of Independence in 1919-21.  The word psychopath did exist back then, but did it exist in ordinary Irish or Irish-American speech? I doubt it. And when Garrity describes his education, he talks about avoiding the schools dominated by the Catholic Church where they taught a rhyme about being ‘an English child’. This wasn’t the Catholic schools, it was the National school system. There was a Catholic system alongside it.  And there weren’t any hedge schools in the 1900s. And at a crucial moment in the story, it is revealed that his father and mother and aunts were all killed in the Easter Rising. All of them? Were many families completely wiped out in the Easter Rising? Not that I know of, especially not families from Co. Clare.

There is an embarrassingly Oirish bit about shanachies and pookas on page 37 which any self-respecting editor would have cut. One of the strangest things, to me, is the title. Diddicoy is Romany, and there are few Romanies in Ireland. Most travellers in Ireland are what are called Pavees or Tinkers (not a politically correct expression these days) who use a jargon based on Irish called Shelta. I have never heard diddicoy used in Ireland, and it has an odd sound here because of the obscene meanings of diddy in Irish dialect.

However, the worst piece of nonsense in the book is where a matriarch cuts the vein of a dead person, fills a cup, drinks some of the blood and passes it round to the rest of the family. There are sporadic references to blood-drinking in ancient Irish texts, usually in the context of madness. In addition, there is a claim in a work by Spenser (no friend to the Irish) that he witnessed a grieving relative drinking the blood of the deceased in the 16th century. The jury is still out on whether this was ever a real funerary custom which was widely followed. After all, Spenser had a vested interest in depicting the Irish as savages. Even if it once existed, the idea of a person drinking the blood of a corpse in the early 20th century is ridiculously fanciful. It is part of Loingsigh’s tendency to romanticise the Irish out of all recognition. They are gypsies obsessed with honour out of a Lorca poem, firebrand rebels, gangsters and rogues, half-pagan cannibals. None of them is a real, three-dimensional, believable individual.

In short, I would give this book 3 out of 5 (I said I was trying to be fair) but there are major problems with it. He is not without talent but If I were Eamon Loingsigh, I would sit down and write another book without any reference to Ireland at all in it, featuring people who speak the American dialects that he hears every day around him, and ask a friend at the end to make it fifty pages shorter by cutting out anything which sounds too literary or preachy with a red pen. If he follows that advice, we might just hear more of him. If not, I’m fairly certain we won’t.

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