IFFbooks: Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch | Review

An author who has certainly got a lot to say about Ireland is Paul Lynch. Guest at the eleventh edition of Rome’s Irish Film Festa, March 2018, also as a cinema specialist (he has been the director of the Sunday Tribune‘s Film Critics column and has written for several important newspapers including the Sunday Times), Lynch presented his novel Red Sky in Morning to the festival audience. This novel has been a superbly brilliant debut for Paul Lynch. Published in 2013 in Ireland and Great Britain after a long contest between six publishing houses, it has earned him numerous literary awards in an amazingly short time.

The novel tells the story of a young Irish farmer, Coll Coyle, evicted for no apparent reason by the last descendant of the Hamiltons, landowners for whom the Coyles have worked for generations in conditions of utter exploitation. The setting is Donegal. The year 1832, a little over a decade before the Great Famine. Times are already extremely difficult for the Irish, especially for the landless peasantry.

As Call is not willing to tolerate this umpteenth injustice, destined to ruin his family, he asks to speak to Hamilton. In the course of the meeting between the two, however, a scuffle take place leading to the accidental death of the landlord, an event which obliges Coyle to flee, because Hamilton’s henchmen, led by the vicious John Faller, give him chase.

So, a man-hunt, which transforms the novel into a full-fledged western-like drama, begins. The style of the pursuit, its spectacularly antithetical protagonists, the tight pacing of the events, the incessant succession of ambushes and escapes, are all typical of the genre, as is the highly successful portrayal of John Faller, ‘the ruthless hunter’, always one step behind Coyle, always turning up when the protagonist feels he has just managed to escape.

The exciting chase, which begins in the north-west of Ireland, arrives in North America after an apocalyptic ocean crossing worthy of the best Joseph O’Connor.
Here, Coyle takes refuge, finding work in the construction of the new railway line near Philadelphia, in an Irish-only construction site, at Mile 159, destined to become infamous as the Duffy’s Cut affair. A true story, to which Paul Lynch gives voice.

On the Mile 159 construction site, worse than elsewhere, conditions are inhuman: fatigue unsustainable: hygiene and foodlacking, so, cholera breaks out decimating the workers.
As Coyle decides to escape from this hell too, Faller catches up with him. This time, however, no further chase is necessary because an unexpected event brings the story to an end – which we are free to reveal- is not a happy one.

Paul Lynch at IRISH FILM FESTA (March 2018, VIDEO)

Lynch does not yield to the temptation of the happy ending and, all the way, keeps his narrative credible and respectful of the deeply touching historical reality reflected in the story of the protagonist, woven into a plot set against a backdrop of majestic natural surroundings, indifferent to man, almost hostile to him… in Donegal cold and incessantly rainy; after crossing the frighteningly threatening ocean to America, unbearable summer heat in Pennsylvania.

Yet to this ‘stepmother’ nature, Paul Lynch never ceases to pay tribute, even when dealing with history’s most painful episodes. A choice, certainly functional to the author’s striking narrative style, to the strong dissonance that arises inevitably between the lyrical (highly sought after) style used to describe the landscapes and the raw, essential language chosen to narrate the events.

Life at the time of the events described in the novel was so difficult that any kind of solidarity between men was unthinkable, driven as they were by an ancestral struggle for survival armed with a sort of primordial ferocity, described so well by Lynch. This aspect of the book has been amply stressed by the critics, who have failed, however, to grasp the strong message of hope which characterised the novel too.

In Red Sky in Morning some glimpses of light can be caught in positive characters like Coll Coyle, his father Seamus, in the generosity of The Cutter and in the other ‘Righteous personae’ capable – despite the circumstances – of maintaining a lofty moral stature. All the others, the silent army of the dispossessed, among whom the multitudes of the Irish, even if besieged by poverty, exhausted and dirty, almost always manage to recover and find the vital energy they require to safeguard their existence.

This is the miracle of a people, the Irish, which has made resilience its banner and raised among its children many writers, actors, directors and poets capable of sublimating it to the point of making its tragedy epic.

«… Wild peasants driving swine
In a strange country. Through the swarthy faces the starry faces shine.»

(G. W. Russell, Exile)

— Simona Pellis