Fictional drama/ Nautical
In September 1884, the Royal Navy ship HMS Wasp set out for Inishtrahull, Ireland’s most northerly inhabited island, carrying men whose work it was to evict the inhabitants of this tiny island who had not paid their rent to their distant absentee landlord. The Wasp didn’t make it, nor did most of its crew and passengers, foundering in the narrow strait between Toraigh Island and the mainland.
Around this historical event, author Tom Sigafoos has written a plausible and entertaining novel beautifully set in its time, culture, and landscape. But The Cursing Stone is also a political story. At its heart is the conflict between tradition and modernity, between definitions of ownership, between an agrarian society and an industrial one.
The inhabitants of Toraigh still practise a form of Celtic Christianity, liberally laced with pre-Christian practices, defending the beliefs to their assigned priest what was bequeathed to them by St. Colmcille (Columba) himself in the 6th century. The traditional stories and beliefs about Toraigh described in the Lebor Gabála Érenn (a collection of legends about the founding and invasions of Ireland, dating in written form from the 11th C) are part of the heartbeat of life on the island, in direct conflict with the Church’s teaching and that of the priest. Eithne, the healer of Toraigh, is predominant in keeping these beliefs alive.
Eithne’s nephew Ruairí is an island boy in whom both the local priest and the local schoolteacher see great promise. He is also the heir to the role of ‘King of Toraigh’, the leader of the island’s people. When an accident robs him of the sight in one eye, he must forfeit that role, and with the help of the schoolteacher is granted a place in the Admiralty’s cartography school on the mainland.
Life aboard HMS Wasp is in stark counterpoint to the traditional life on Toraigh, although parallels are drawn. Sub-lieutenant Gubby is a young man unsure of his place in navy life; overweight, hesitant and unskilled in leadership, he is further hampered by an irascible, ill captain. The Wasp is a steamship, powered by coal, a machine lacking any of the romance of a sailing ship, a symbol of the modern, industrial world that will come into direct conflict with the traditions of Toraigh and Inishtrahull.
In between these two stands the lighthouse, a bridge between tradition and modernity, the past and the future: the island light is the last light seen by Irishmen and women sailing to North America. It too is threatened by changes driven by efficiency and cold bureaucracy.
The beginning chapters of The Cursing Stone, setting up the characters and conflicts in the three major settings, easily drew me in. Personalities are painted with a light hand, and the reader’s sympathies are drawn towards Ruairí and Gubby. When Ruairí’s brother Eoghan becomes a labourer at the lighthouse, we have a triumvirate of young men with whom we share the story.
The last third of the novel, as it moves towards its historical and narrative climax, kept me reading until late, written with skill and evocative action. It is the middle chapters that are, to some extent, less convincing, especially regarding Gubby. He remained a character without real definition, moving between evoking sympathy and irritation, never quite coalescing. Ruairí too is unsure of himself in this section, vacillating over his decisions, but his choices and his subsequent responses come into focus.
Overall, though, The Cursing Stone is a well written story of a small event, both geographically and historically, but one piece of Ireland’s 19th-century history in which so much of the whole is reflected.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Marian L Thorpe