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Fictional Saga (adult content)
Ireland / Vienna
This work of fiction deals with one of the less frequently mentioned aspects of Irish history. Throughout most of the eighteenth century the lives of Irish Catholics were constrained by so called 'Penal Laws' which prevented them from participating in certain professions; they were forbidden to practice their religion or own property, and education was denied them. Despite this, a handful of wealthy Catholic families managed to hold on to their wealth and continue to trade out of small ports in the South West of the island with the Catholic nations of Europe – France, Spain and Portugal in particular. Not permitted to serve in the British king's army, their men signed up instead to the armies of Britain's enemies – the previously mentioned three nations and the Austro-Hungary empire.
One such family was the O'Connells of Derrynane in County Kerry. The most famous member of this clan, memorialised in the name of Dublin's principle thoroughfare, was Daniel O'Connell. He, however, came to prominence in the first half of the nineteenth century, after the Penal Laws were removed, along with Ireland's independent government, by the Act of Union.
The principle protagonist in this novel is Daniel's aunt, Eileen. Married and widowed before her 17th birthday, the real Eileen later married a man from Cork but was widowed for the second time when he was killed for his opposition to the Penal Laws. This second husband had served as an officer in the Hungarian Hussars, attached to the court of Empress Marie Theresa in Vienna.
This version of Eileen's early life covers that first marriage and the six years between it and the second. Following the tragic end of her first marriage, she and her older sister, Aby, are sent to serve in the Court of Marie Theresa, where their uncle is already well established as a General in the army with the honorary title of Baron. Aby becomes Lady-in-Waiting to the Empress and Eileen governess and riding tutor to the Empress's two youngest daughters.
The novel falls naturally into two sections, the first dealing with the first marriage, and the second with life in Vienna. I found the use of language a little disconcerting at first, with its convoluted sentence structures laced with numerous qualifying clauses. The author tells us this is a deliberate attempt to replicate the writing of the period. I have to say that I soon became used to it. The subject matter very quickly held my interest despite the distraction of the sentence construction.
My interest flagged a little during some of the passages dealing with life at court. I suspect, however, that there will be many readers who will enjoy this; those who are fans of the television series Versailles, for example.
A warning: Eileen is portrayed as someone who enjoys sex in all its many forms. Indeed, her first experience, on her wedding night, provides the excuse for a brutal assault by her elderly husband. Subsequently, both are shown enjoying a very active sex life before the old man's untimely death by a heart attack. In Vienna Eileen forms a relationship with a Swedish officer and, again, embarks on a series of sexual adventures. Not that this plays more than a subsidiary role in her life, but it does make it impossible to recommend the book for younger readers, or those who dislike sexual content.
Eileen's second marriage offers plenty of opportunity for further adventures (sexual and otherwise!) and there is, in this volume, a brief introduction of one of her brothers (also called Daniel) to life as a cadet in Louis XV's École Militaire in Paris, which promises to offer another fascinating thread in the history of this remarkable Irish clan.
© Frank Parker
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