“A man can walk the lane with the feeling that all he had thought was around him does not exist and never has, that it was only him, and the choices he has made.”
The Beasts They Turned Away, by Ryan Dennis, is set in a rural community in the west of Ireland that is struggling to survive amidst the changes encroaching from a modernising world. The story focuses on ‘the old man’, an aging farmer named Íosac Mulgannon. His mother would have called him Isaac but there were those in the locale who would have regarded this as suspicious.
“It was a time in the country when you couldn’t give your children English names”
Íosac grew up on the family dairy farm alongside his brother. He was a recognised champion at hurling and had a girlfriend whose photograph he still keeps behind the felt roof of his tractor. Now he is alone except for a child – a mute boy abandoned to his care with no explanation. The villagers, encouraged by their hellfire and brimstone spouting priest, fear the child is cursed.
The story opens with the disposal of a cow, carried to the ‘dead pile’ where its carcass will be dealt with naturally by local wildlife. Íosac farms as he has always done. He sees no point in paying for a vet to visit when an animal will die anyway.
Íosac’s day revolves around the needs of his herd – raising the calves and heifers, processing the dairy cattle, growing food for the animals. Milking his cows bookends each day.
“All of his adult life and most of his childhood. Same time every morning, every night. His mind and body diverge. The body knows what it will do, probably knows the mind is not to be trusted anyhow. Often the old man has gathered the cows from the pasture and set the milkers to wash and dipped the first udders before he realizes he has done so.”
The short chapters offer snapshots of days as the seasons turn. Íosac milks, he feeds, he ploughs his fields. There are visits to the town for groceries – the same items bought each day. Íosac goes fishing with an acquaintance. He attends events that are a part of town tradition. He visits the pub where he meets old neighbours, many of whom were farmers persuaded to give up their land to those granted a bank loan to develop new ways of working. One such entrepreneur is Young John who farms fields adjacent to those owned by Íosac. The old man hopes to die before his land is taken.
The locals are suspicious of the silent boy and Íosac’s attachment to him. The priest in particular nurses a hatred of the child. The language employed when the men interact is littered with expletives that denigrate women – cunt, whore, slut. The females living in the town play little part in this tale.
What is portrayed is brutal and elemental. A way of life is changing and Íosac resists. Surrounded by rotting infrastructure, he ignores mounting debts and the demands of modern welfare enforcers. When neighbours offer a hand of friendship he bats them away.
Tension builds as thefts occur in the town, including from the church. These are seen as a sign – of societal breakdown or the child’s curse. The old man provokes Young John, encouraging escalation in hostilities. Íosac has made choices and must live with them, must keep on keeping on, but knows at some point there will be a reckoning. When this comes in the form of attempts to remove the child from his care, he puts his life on the line – wanting it to end before he is forced to accept change.
The short chapters and pithy sentences build an evocative account of a man whose life’s work – all he has valued – is under threat. The mute child has given him a reason to continue, but he knows he cannot fight forever. He has seen what losing their farms has turned others into.
Íosac now asks only to be left in peace. The modern world demands its right to regulate. It is interesting to consider how the child and Íosac’s animals would be treated under the auspices of welfare bodies. Good intentions do not always lead to favourable outcomes for those affected.
The author has captured the insularity of a small town where families have lived for generations – the resentments that fester towards those who leave and those willing to embrace new ways of thinking. The tale is in many ways tenebrous and sorrowful, reminiscent of eulogy. Remarkable and beguiling, it proved a rewarding read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, époque press.