Suffering in Silence
“You know that feeling of peace when you open a good book? Everything that bothered you disappears. You enter another world. Right now, when we don’t know if we’re coming or going into Stormont, or the police, or direct rule, and the head has gone into a total marlay, here is the book for you: The Donegal Woman.
The cover picture would put you off. It shows a thatched cottage, typically Irish. You recoil, because you don’t want another Mother Macree story. I only opened the book because I know the author, John Throne.
I stepped inside the cottage, on page one, and into a nightmare. Who knows what goes on behind closed doors, goes the cliché? With this book, now you know.
It is a true story, set in Donegal at the beginning of the last century, around 1910. It is the story of John’s grandmother. John’s sister, former mayor, Susan Hamilton, of the Ulster Unionists Party, says every word of it is true.
Their granny was a Donegal Protestant, of the small farming class around Lifford. She was sold off at a hiring fair, aged twelve, to a Protestant farmer. He roundly raped her for two years, and when she became pregnant, she was sold on in marriage to another Protestant, another farmer. The local Protestant Bishop, who wanted to keep matters within ‘the Protestant family,’ arranged the marriage.
The new husband got a cow from the rapist for taking on the little bride, and some hens from her father. The husband roundly raped her. She had four children, and was dead by the age of twenty.
The men in her life beat her physically and mentally into silence and obedience but they did not break her spirit—she recites their names, silently, to herself every night, as she falls asleep. Though she had not used her human voice from the age of twelve until fourteen, this girl learned to use it again in talking to her baby. She dared not speak in front of her husband, who thought it a dangerous sign of independence and disobedience.
She built herself an outside toilet, a little shed in which she kept the bucket. She got a rooster, acquired more hens, sold the eggs for money for cloth and wool, and knitted and made clothing for her children. Sometimes she used the money to buy them biscuits.
This is a ghastly, wrenching story, shot through with beauty and hope. Throne shows great understanding of all the characters involved—the Protestants who shut themselves off from Catholics, the absentee English landlord looking down on the agent who looked down on the small farmer, the men looking down on the women.
John Throne is astonishingly sensitive to women, and manages to show humanity in even the most brutish men. He has thought his imaginative way into their lives. You can smell the shite in the outside toilet, feel the toothache, relax when the sun comes out, sense relief when an animal is rescued from the bog, go tense when the men waken the girl from sleep to assert their sexual dominion.
Every time the question ‘why’ arises, the answer follows. Throne wrote the book because his own mother was ashamed the night she told him the story of her mother. Throne’s mother was near death, when she made the revelation. He responded that his granny was a hero and set about explaining why that was, in this book.
Throne was a committed member of the Derry Labour Party in 1969. I remember him as tall, too serious, and a Strabane Protestant in a leather jacket who was a very good poacher of salmon. (He learned that from his granny’s children, his mother and aunts and uncles.) My mother loved cooking his stolen fish, which he brought to her in the Bogside, every season. John later went to America and became a union organizer.
There is a tang of the American storyteller, Steinbeck, in the way this book moves along. I hope that word of mouth shall see it a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. It is one of the best books I have ever read. It makes me want to vote for his sister. If she is true to her granny, she will be true to all of us.
Read and weep, in despair for what was, in hope of what can be. Also, read and enjoy.”
Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph
“‘John, you know, when your grandmother was young, she was hired out at Allen’s over at Rushey. Well, what you don’t know is that she had a baby. Allen was the father. Then she was taken from Allen’s. Father married her. She had a baby every year after that. John, Father was not good to Mother.’
It was about 15 years ago that John Throne’s late mother at last found the words to speak of his grandmother’s life in Donegal. The words simmered in his mind until eventually generating his first novel.
The Donegal Woman was published in July . It has been the talk of the county ever since. It casts an excruciating light on a hidden corner of Ireland’s history.
I remember John Throne in Derry in the late ’60s, a Protestant from across the border preaching revolution in the Bogside. He has been involved in socialist politics ever since. His sister, Mary Hamilton, is an Ulster Unionist councillor in Derry. She was the only one of the family who stood at his side at the launch of his book.
‘Of course I did,’ she said when I bumped into her in the Guildhall a few weeks later. ‘He is telling the truth. You have to tell the truth.’ A journalist in a Donegal newspaper made much the same point a couple of weeks back, quoting a woman who had bought a copy in the local grocery store. ‘Sure, it was every woman’s story back then.’
Like so much else that has helped shape our Irish existence, North and South, everybody knew but nobody said. The Donegal Woman tells the story of Margaret Wallace, hired out at 12 by her father to a local farmer, abandoned to a life from which love and beauty had been banished, where she laboured all hours knee deep in pig droppings, slept on straw that the rats scurried through on the floor in a barn and was battered every day by insult and humiliation, isolated, beaten, abused, raped, impregnated, then discarded again, sold at 14 for the price of a cow (£8 at the time) with the blessing of the bishop as a slave into marriage to a Protestant land agent and informer—couldn’t have the child contaminated by Catholics—a brute who treated her as a beast of burden and ‘a place to put his thing.’
The man almost spoke with her when her mother died but he didn’t. ‘To speak to her other than to give her orders, or to criticise her for not carrying out his orders correctly, was threatening to him.’
His dourness and cruelty came from the fact that his spirit too had been twisted and crushed. There is a brief moment where he dares tenderness. Stroking her pregnant stomach as he has sex on her, he finds himself thinking of ‘the hard time she had. She was a person, she was a good person. But then he became terrified and he panicked and he leapt back out of her, and he roared at her: “To hell with you, to hell with you.” Her and her belly and her round softness and her… To hell with her.’
Throne depicts him recalling the roars of his father: ‘It’s the Lord Taverstocks, the Browns, the Bishop Wilsons and the police and the army that run this country. Keep right with them and you’ll never go too far wrong. Don’t be thinking like them Fenians. They want to fight the powers that be. Look where it gets them. We may have little, but they have less.’
The bully, too, only a pawn in the game. The Donegal Woman wears its politics on the sleeve of its tattered, stained blouse. This is the novel as socialist tract and polemic for women’s liberation. Commentary and context are spelt out in the text. There are no flowery touches, few poetical allusions, no concessions to the niceties of literary style. The structure is straight-line. The sex scenes are as unemotional as anything since Last Exit To Brooklyn. The characters, for the most part, are coarsely drawn. There isn’t a scene in 400-plus pages set in Donegal that you could imagine on a postcard.
The landscape glowers throughout on the pitiless action. And yet, somehow, in the end, it’s an uplifting, life-enhancing story of a child who grows into brief, strong adulthood through the unvanquishable spirit of motherhood and an instinctive sense of other brighter possibility. We have had stories before on the harshness of life for the unwealthy of Donegal in past times, the aching eloquence of Patrick MacGill, the forensic anger of Peadar O’Donnell, but nothing like this, nothing as steady-eyed in its gaze or as relentless in its detail, as unflinching in its depiction of the class and gender contradictions that distorted humanity and stunted sexual and spiritual growth from generation to generation, like a dark curse passed down, a dumb inevitable condition never to be mentioned.
Maybe it took the deep shifts in society since the ’60s and the revelations of more recent years to unleash the language for telling the story of Margaret Wallace that John’s mother knew to the end of her days must be made known.
You’ll look differently, probably more darkly, on Donegal for reading this book. And not just on Donegal. This is the most powerful piece of new writing I’ve encountered in 2006.
If you still have a Christmas present to buy for someone of serious mind, here it is.”
More Praise for The Donegal Woman
“The author has succeeded in writing the story of his grandmother in a way that I hope will bring him many readers. The story is relentless in its savagery and the misery of the child tears at your heart, but he also has a wonderful lyrical quality to his writing which shows that there is a good writer at work here.”
—Jennifer Johnston, one of Ireland’s most important writers
“An unadorned, searing tale that reclaims from the often brutal and brutalizing conditions in remote rural Ireland the buried history of one woman’s struggle to survive and rear her children. The Donegal Woman pulls no punches. It is a just memorial to courage and perseverance, shot through with sunbursts of innocence, love, and natural beauty. A disturbing, unforgettable portrait.”
—Gerald Dawe, one of Ireland’s foremost poets
“This is the story of a child who loses her childhood to a brutal, dehumanizing system. It is also the story of the man to whom she was “sold” for her labor and for the money to buy a cow. Readers will readily sympathize with her as she battles to regain her humanity, but his story too, is told with extraordinary insight. We see how his spirit is fettered by the need to serve the landlord class as their agent and informer and how this links with his compulsion to control everyone in his world, especially Margaret, his wife. We are drawn in with sympathy and despair as he fights the terrifying desires which threaten that control. The accuracy of John Throne’s analysis gives authority to an unorthodox tale. We look at the landscape of Donegal, its bogs, fields, cottages, with a new understanding.”
—Bridget O’Toole, Irish poet and writer
“This story of Irish peasant life is reminiscent of Patrick McGill, Peadar O’Donnell, and Liam O’Flaherty, in its tone, emotional power, and historical validity. But John Throne also has as insight into how women think and feel that is very rare among male writers of any nationality, let alone the Irish. This is his first novel and is based on the life of his grandmother. But to describe it as a family memoir is to grossly understate Throne’s artistic achievement in recreating the brutal world of the Donegal hiring system through the eyes and complex emotions of a young girl. It is all the more remarkable given that he never knew his grandmother and had to glean the facts of her brief life from his mother.”
—Padraig Yeates, The Independent
“…A compelling book, thanks to its powerful subject matter and Throne’s gift for storytelling. A social history, but much more, it is a powerful story of a victim who gradually overcomes misfortune and finds happiness and independence. Indeed, this book forces one to reassess what good literature is… I am not sure which category of English literature in Ireland will accommodate it—but whatever its genre, it deserves a place on everyone’s shelves.”
—Eilis Ni Dhuibne, The Irish Times
“The novel follows two different opposing movements. At first, when Margaret is a child, we read of her simple hopes and how they are disappointed. The process is one whereby the world gradually imprisons and almost destroys her…. The movement of the book changes after the birth of Margaret’s first child. She experiences a joy she had never known before and with it the determination to struggle for her child. Now the circumstances of her life are as hard as before, but we see her confronting each problem and fighting to overcome it. It is compelling reading. With patience and sensitivity, the writer draws us into every physical detail and process of Margaret’s world…. The details are absorbing. At the same time we follow Margaret’s inner life, her feelings and reflections, and, most of all, her questions.”
—NW Christmas Anthology, Derry
“The book gives us a new understanding of the Donegal of the time that I would argue comes from two ‘modern’ insights – an understanding brought by feminism into the historical invisibility of women’s real experiences and perspectives, and one brought by the exposure in recent times of the iceberg of child abuse and rape…How could Patrick MacGill have written this? To be fair he struggled in The Rat Pit to tell the story of Norah Ryan and her journey from West Donegal to prostitution in Scotland. But never conveyed the full horror. Never entered her head in the way John has Margaret’s. John’s empathy with Margaret shines through the writing and is the real literary achievement of the book, to give this silent woman at last her authentic voice. It is a book that also works on other levels. It’s about class and sectarian division, the hidden history of the small Protestant farmers and farm labourers who shared the misery of their Catholic neighbours…. And it’s about place—the real, beautiful, but brutal, Donegal.”
—Pat Smyth, Foreign Editor, The Irish Times
“Less than 100 years ago a form of slavery still existed in parts of rural Ireland—the hiring fair system. Children as young as seven or eight were sold for fixed periods by their impoverished parents to farmers who worked them to the bone, treating them as little more than cattle. Often worse. The Donegal Woman is based on the true story of the author’s own grandmother. Born to the poorest of Protestant farmers in the hills of Donegal, hired out as a child, raped by her new master, and then pregnant, forced to marry another man many times her age. But Margaret survived in a silent world of her own, driven by her passionate determination to do right by her children. Reviving the tradition of three of Ulster’s great radical writers, Peadar O’Donnell, Patrick MacGill, and Sam Hanna Bell, this author in his first novel, has captured the authentic voice of a woman of extraordinary spirit.”
—Irish journalist and writer
“John Throne, in this important and moving book, brilliantly conveys the real Donegal of a century ago.”
—Irish political and literary commentator
“Hiring fairs have inspired acres of print space, some telling it like it was, some hopelessly romantic, but none as harrowing as John Throne’s The Donegal Woman. …it does not make for easy reading but it must be read.”
—Frank Galligan, The Donegal Democrat
“A Donegal writer whose debut novel has been lauded by literary critics today said he never expected the book, based on the story of his grandmother, to receive such praise. Critics have compared the writer to Peadar O’Donnell and Patrick McGill. Mr Throne said that central to his story was the desire to give his grandmother a voice. “I was very motivated by the desire to let my grandmother be heard, to give her a voice. I tell the story of someone who is the victim of a system, but it is not the story of a victim. We see her grow stronger and become inspired through her role as a mother.”
“I’ve just read a remarkable book by John Throne, whom many people in Strabane and Derry will remember from the early days of the civil rights movement. It’s called The Donegal Woman. John does not use the real names of the men involved nor does he pretend that every episode and detail is factually accurate, but the facts about his grandmother are too real and make for disturbing reading.”
—The Tyrone Herald
“A former Lifford man has written a book based on the true story of the extraordinary hardships faced by his grandmother as she struggled to raise a family in Donegal less than a century ago. The Donegal Woman, by John Throne, has already received considerable acclaim for its poignant representation of his grandmother, Margaret’s story. Throne’s book, based on what he knows of his grandmother’s life, is an attempt at last to give her a voice and to open an important, moving, window on life in Donegal less than 100 years ago. It is the voice of a woman who refuses to be crushed and who goes on inspired and motivated by her own children’s needs to gain strength and desire for a better life as every year goes by.”
—The Strabane Weekly News
“John Throne, a native of Lifford, is the author of The Donegal Woman. He has spent most of his 62 years involved in the labour movement as a radical organizer, He first became active in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and went on to take part in the Derry uprising of 1969. The Donegal Woman is his first novel. It is the story of his grandmother who was hired out, raped and suffered the most brutal treatment. Yet whose passionate commitment to do right by her children strengthened her spirit and makes her life, as told here, an inspiring, deeply moving, and powerful story.”
—Finn Valley Voice
“Ex-pat author John Throne has written a first novel on a subject close to his heart: his Donegal grandmother Margaret. John explains in the introduction to the book that it is based on what his own mother told him about his grandmother one night when he went to visit her. The Donegal Woman…has been seen by some as a platform for women’s rights issues.”
“He leaves nothing out.”
—Mary Hamilton, former Deputy Mayor of Derry and the author’s sister
These are some, but by no means all, of the words of praise The Donegal Woman has received since its publication. The book is part of the story, part of the literature, of the north west of Ireland. — John Throne