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Leaves for the Burning opens with Lucian Burke trapped in a nightmare. In this nightmare, he recalls a traumatic memory from his childhood that hasn’t troubled him in years but returns to him now on the eve of his 43rd birthday.
The present day that he awakes into is a more mundane nightmare; middle-age malaise, stuck in a county council sub-office in a tiny town in the Irish midlands in 1939. It isn’t a stretch to imagine that author Mervyn Wall is drawing from his many years working in the civil service, though he would later make a career for himself as a novelist, critic, and broadcaster.
The novel was originally published in 1952, with this new edition published by Swan River Press. Surveying his surroundings and himself, Lucian is disgusted with his own physicality, his ugly room, and the small grey town that has been his home for a decade.
A priest will later ask him, “Why don’t you shake off this habit you have of dreaming of the past, and come into the present-day world and live?” But there is no real sense of life in his present-day circumstances.
The priest isn’t referring to Lucian’s visions of his own past. Lucian has gained notoriety within the locality for efforts to save the remnants of a more distant past. A letter to the paper objecting to plans to demolish a Norman castle brings him to the attention of his superiors within the county council. It also piques the interest of the local members of the Revolutionary Army who have their own plans to blow up this reminder of British rule, only being thwarted by a cow grazing nearby that they don’t want to kill in the process.
For Lucian though, it is the “only object giving dignity to the town, and not only is it a piece of our country’s history, but it is associated with one of the greatest of our love stories”. It seems likely that he may also be lamenting the lack of dignity and romance he feels in his own life.
This is brought into stark relief by the return to his life of close friends from college, reminders of the hope and promise of youth. They too are disenchanted with their lives. Bob McMunn laments not taking the opportunity to emigrate to New Zealand, while Frank Peebles is disappointed with himself for choosing the life of a comfortable bank manager over that of a starving artist. The latter takes exception to Lucian’s claim that “it’s bad to be young”, saying, “At least we had our hopes, our hopes, and our enthusiasms. The world was fresh and opening out before us. Success seemed certain: we never doubted it. Middle-age and the knowledge that you’ve failed is something that’s without cure and that’s not to be forgiven.”
But the Ireland that was promised to these young men is not the one that they have found themselves in. This book tells the tale of aging men in a youthful nation state. The certainties their class offered have been upended by independence, but their sense of superiority remains. This snobbery is expressed most strongly by Lucian’s mother, who writes to him, “When I think of the class that has been in power since the country got its independence in 1922, I am sometimes glad that God will soon be calling me.”
Lucian too often bemoans the power of the “clodhoppers”, men he considers below his class and intellect.
It is clear how these class distinctions complicate ideas of identity. At one point Lucian is accused of not belonging in this setting. When asking what setting that is, he is told “This setting – this pub, this town, this country. Why don’t you go back to England where you belong?” Lucian responds by telling them “I’ve never lived in England. My family, the Burkes, are Norman; they’ve been in this country nearly eight hundred years.”
When this fails to satisfy, he lists off his family’s involvement in various independence movements throughout the centuries. His own patriotism, while less active than his ancestors, comes through at times with the encouragement of alcohol. Speeding down country roads not long after the above exchange we’re told “he felt his heart throb, half in pain and half in pride. ‘This is my country,’ he said in his mind, ‘my country, Ireland’.”
It is not just the class of men they are answerable to, but the pettiness of bureaucracy that drains these Lucian and his friends. Lucian spends his days in a grubby office attached to a bicycle repair shop, with a workload not fitting to the intellect of a man who planned to be a Greek scholar.
His friend Bob McMunn races against an arbitrary deadline to get the road he is working on completed as far as the county border, or government funding will be forfeited. What these men don’t appear to be aware of is the power they have over other men’s lives. It is a truly shocking moment that brings this home, and it is a testament to Wall that he can maintain a comic tone, even a dark, one, with this incident at the heart of the story.
While there never seems any danger of those involved being held accountable, this sets our group off on their journey. While nominally the destination is W.B. Yeats’ funeral in Sligo, they take a circuitous route. Yeats is lamented as the last great man of Ireland, his passing marking the end of an era for these men. Romantic Ireland is truly dead and gone.
There is much humour from this trip, but it is also seeped with guilt and regret, and thoroughly soaked in alcohol, as is the whole novel. Each of the main characters moves back and forth between drunkenness and a hangover throughout. It is presented at one time as the only rational response to life in a small Irish town.“It’s the town has you out of sorts. It gets me down too. That’s why I have to have a drink occasionally – to preserve my sanity.”
Yet we see the result is only more lunacy. Reflecting at the end of their spree Lucian remarks that, “The grotesque thing…is that this is the ordinary pattern of life in this country. None of us Irish sees it in any way strange. Why, most of our public figures are straight out of comic opera.”
The impression of Ireland we are left with is one tedious, and at times tragic, but overwhelmingly absurd. It is fitting that when Lucian himself is presented with the opportunity to show that he has inherited the bravery of his forbearers, it is in a ridiculous situation, and for a ludicrous cause.