The Letter in Vain, the Letter Supreme: Liam Mac Cóil’s trilogy

Mícheál Mac Craith


Liam Mac Cóil’s trilogy, An Litir (2011), I dTír Strainséartha (2014) and Bealach na Spáinneach (2019), is awash with the distinguishing features of a historical thriller: adventure, danger, suspense, excitement. The story begins in the city of Galway in early February 1612 when young Luke O’Brien is commissioned to bring a secret letter to Hugh O’Neill, in exile in Rome since 1608. Harried and hassled by English agents at every step of the way, Luke finds himself in mortal danger in Galway itself, Bristol, the Spanish Netherlands and Italy. He barely succeeds in arriving in Rome safe and sound and delivering the letter into O’Neill’s hands. Despite the dangers and travails he survived during his travels, they are nothing compared with his shock at hearing the contents of the missive. In spite of all his efforts, Luke is left with no option in the end but to burn it, as if it had never existed.

This essay focuses on three significant features of the trilogy, the description of Galway in the early modern period, the emphasis on the craft and art of fencing, and the narrative style. While the evocation of early-modern Galway pertains solely to the first volume, the other two elements are central to all three. The reader is only gradually made aware of the fact that the trilogy has not one, but three narrators, Luke himself, the famous genealogist, An Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhsigh, and another notable seventeenth-century historian, Father John Lynch, in exile in Saint-Malo since the Cromwellian invasion. It must be stressed that these two are no mere passive recipients of the material supplied by Luke more than fifty years after the event, but have conducted their own investigations into his exploits. This essay makes use of the theories of Hayden White, Paul Ricoeur and Jacques Derrida to assess the contribution of the three narrators to the development of Mac Cóil’s trilogy.

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ISSN: 2009-8626