Catholics and Colonies
Two novels about islands off the coast of Ireland
In The Colony, by Audrey Magee, an English artist goes to an island off the coast of Ireland to paint. He is there, he says, to paint the cliffs, but really he wants to paint the people, the last few living so remotely. In doing so, he emerges as a colonialist, like Gaugin in French Polynesia. A French linguist is also staying on the island, recording the dying Gaelic language: a colonialist of parasitic preservation. Both take something that isn’t quite a loss—the paintings and recordings are copies and impressions, not thefts. Both open up the inherent tensions of the islanders, those who want the modern, and those who don’t. Set during the Troubles, Magee uses these dynamics to show that everyone can act badly under colonialism. The way we behave as individuals is what adds up to a polity. Magee’s line breaks, often resulting in lines of one or two words, help her control the pace and the silences of speech, to show the tension without having to explain it.
Catholics, by Brian Moore, is about a priest in a speculative world almost entirely like our own but where the Catholic church has reformed itself so much a merger with Buddhism is underway. The priest is sent to an abbey on an island off the coast of Ireland to admonish the last practitioners of the old order: those who are still holding Latin mass, who refuse to give-up their old traditions. He, too, is a sort of coloniser, arriving to replace one set of religious beliefs and rituals with another. Like The Colony, this novel presents the conflict of the personal and the political. It has a similarly implicit ending and a condensed narrative style.
ThoughThe Colony (2022) and Catholics (1972) are set only a few years apart, they can be profitably compared to each other, as well as to books like Conversations with Friends, The Howling Miller, The Power and the Glory, The Moon and Sixpence, and the Christmas scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Both books are about the difficultly of reforming the individual when you want to reform a society or an institution; both use an island off the coast of Ireland as a metaphor for the distinctness of Ireland and the distinctness of the individual. We are so often trapped by our identity, whether that’s the identity we want or the identity we inherit from our surroundings. As J.S. Mill said,
…in history, as in travelling, men usually see only what they already had in their own minds; and few learn much from history, who do not bring much with them to its study.
If we wish to change our societies, we must begin by changing ourselves.
Magee, by the way, is something of a late bloomer. The Colony won a prize and Catholics was recommended to me by someone knowledgeable and reliable. I found both compelling.