Four Irishmen and an Englishman walk into a pub. It could be the start of a corny gag, but it is also a fair approximation to the start of the novel Bogmail by Patrick McGinley. The novel is set in a small coastal village in County Donegal in the 1970s, and much of the action centres around the local pub and its landlord Tim Roarty.
Bogmail was originally published in 1978 by Martin Brian & O’Keeffe Limited, and has most recently been reissued by Head of Zeus in 2017. The new book cites on the cover some of the reviews by the Donegal Democrat when the book was first published: “A horrific concoction of filth. A picture of life in Donegal that is revolting in the extreme. A shocking libel.” I can scarcely think of a better recommendation for reading a book! More sympathetic modern reviews describe it as a “rediscovered classic of Irish literature”. Not quite such a turn-on.
Although the book has elements both of a crime novel and a novel of suspense, involving both murder and blackmail, above all else it is a novel of character and place. The wild Donegal landscape of boggy land and craggy shore is very lovingly described, and the language and characters of the pub habitués are vividly and amusingly drawn. Dark comedy overshadows every aspect of village life, both the mundane and the extreme.
Bogmail was televised as a three-part BBC series in 1991 called Murder in Eden, which is now available on Youtube. The TV adaptation is surprisingly faithful to the book, and starred Tony Doyle as Tim Roarty; Peter Firth as English outsider Kenneth Potter; Alun Armstrong as the hapless local policeman, Sergeant McGing; and Edmund ‘Birdy’ Sweeney as barfly Old Crubog.
The moral landscape has shifted greatly since when the book was first published in the late 1970s and, what might have been received as a ‘horrific concoction of filth’ then, would barely raise an eyebrow now. One aspect of the book, which I did find surprising, though, and which might partly explain why the novel ended up being ‘lost’ for a period of time was its rather negative portrayal of the Irish characters in the book opposed to its fairly positive depiction of the sole English one. This juxtaposition is particularly acute in the episode involving Canon Loftus and the dissolution of the Anti-Limestone Society, which sees Roarty and fellow compatriots Rory Rua and Gimp Gillespie capitulate their principles in the face of personal gain: “‘I’m with you, Canon,’ said Roarty, not daring to look at Potter.” (p. 202).
There is a timeless quality to Bogmail, and it is the same timelessness with which, being an outsider in the same position as Potter in the novel, I view the Irish landscape. In ignorance, I naturally veer towards romanticising, whereas McGinley is able to present a more honest depiction, filth and all.
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow looks at life from the edge.