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Thomas McCarthy reviews Seán McCarthy's foray into historical fiction




Thomas McCarthy reviews Citizen Dwyer

Originally from Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, Thomas McCarthy now lives in Cork. He studied at UCC under the influence of Sean Lucy and John Montague; Sean Dunne and Theo Dorgan were fellow students. He received the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 1997 for his first book and the American-Irish Foundation's Literary Award in 1984. His work includes Mr Dineen's Careful Parade (Anvil, 1999) and Merchant Prince (Anvil, 2005). In 2009, Anvil Press published McCarthy's The Last Geraldine Officer. His historical work on the burning of Cork's Carnegie Library and the rebuilding of its collections, Rising from the Ashes, appeared in 2010.








Citizen Dwyer by Seán McCarthy

Citizen Dwyer

Seán McCarthy

(New Island Press, 2011)

ISBN: 9781848401228

€14.50 paperback

Buy from New Island





Those privileged enough to have seen Seán McCarthy’s play based on the life of Fr. Matthew will come to any new work of his with complete confidence. This new book is published while his When Jolie Met Christie is still touring Ireland but it is the residual power of a great work of theatre, The Fr. Matthew play, that stays with me always. McCarthy is an honoured and highly experienced writer, with an astonishing back catalogue, as impressive as Frank McGuinness or Alan Bennett. It is always intriguing when a brilliant writer turns away from the comfort zone and attempts another form. It is hardly surprising that McCarthy would choose a subject from history, but to choose the form of the novel with its orchestrations and temporal lacunae, I wondered if this was wise. But be assured, this is a very fine piece of historic fiction.

            McCarthy speaks in the voice of Michael Dwyer, the Wicklow Chief, to tell a long and tragic story of rebellion, negotiation, exile and alcohol. First person narrative is the most challenging of decisions in historic fiction, limiting as it does the viewpoint of the narrator (because it is history the contemporary reader knows more than the character described), but containing dramatic possibilities and emotional nuances absent in third person narrative. Through Dwyer’s eyes McCarthy tells the story of a five year rebellion in the Wicklow hills, the sectarian undertones and the Government pursuits and crackdowns – the descriptions of Beresford’s character and counter-insurgency methods are brilliantly done – as well as Dwyer’s growing realization that he can’t continue. Here are his own words:

“on the evening of the 14th of December we met with Hume at the Three Bridges, on the road immediately outside the Talbotstown gate of Humewood. Hume brought just one yeoman with him for security and I handed over my sabre and my blunderbuss as a symbolic gesture. Hume asked me if I understood that the terms of the surrender were that I throw myself unconditionally on the mercy of the Government. I looked at him in silence and then he added: ‘I need you to confirm that you accept that before I say anything else.’

‘I do accept,’ I told him.

‘Very well. You have my personal guarantee that your life will be safe, and I will secure free passage for yourself and your dependents to America....’”

The failure of that guarantee, the refusal or reluctance to allow Dwyer to sail to America like Robert Emmet’s surviving brother, turns the novel into a highly personal drama. Dwyer and his wife are held in jail, tormented by Dr. Trevor and the jailor Dunne ‘I knew that Trevor was going to provoke me and I also knew that I would be able to dispatch Dunne as long as I got the first strike in’, says Dwyer to the reader. The insidious and prurient Dr Trevor soon finds Dwyer’s great weakness, his need for drink. It is a constant, harrowing need that will eventually lead to Dwyer’s death in the Penal Colony; a decline that McCarthy, yet again, describes sharply. Personally, Dwyer is trapped not so much by British interests as by alcohol, a horrendous chemical entrapment. But not only is Dwyer sent to penal Australia instead of the free United States, he and his wife are separated from their children. This separation creates a second wilderness within, a psychic wilderness that is populated yet again only by alcohol. In New South Wales, Dwyer is a beaten man, in more ways than one. Yet he clears land and becomes the biggest land-owner in his district, eventually taking on the position of Chief Constable; a poacher turned game-keeper, one of whose tasks is to hunt for an old rebel, Arthur Devereux. The character of Devereux is so real, and his presence is so cleanly delineated, that I was surprised to find in the end-notes that he is an invented character. McCarthy describes these characters and political transitions wonderfully, all of the narrative bound together by the painful spine of the novel, which is Dwyer’s long wait for the arrival of his children. Another surprise within the early section is the historic presence of Standish O’Grady at Dwyer’s first interrogation.

            There are small errors in the novel, the trip wires that exist for every first-person narrator, mainly in the use of expressions like ‘no better than Kilmainham really’, or ‘timing the cooking’ (p177), or the use of the word ‘teenage’ (p5) or ‘It is the bloody sun, okay!’ (p249): that expression being U.S. army slang. ‘Rights of Man’ when associated with Tom Paine would not have had a definite article pre-fixed, I think (p12). But these are small quibbles for a mighty narrative that stretches across 350 pages. In an aesthetic sense this book is three novels, or three quite integrated moments; the Wicklow campaign years of Citizen Dwyer, the jail journal of negotiation and humiliation, and the Australian sojourn and decline. One could create three plays from this book, or three films. The jail negotiations contain the highest personal drama, certainly, with an eerie sense of sexual danger to Mary or the children and the possibility of hope still barely visible like a weak light through the window. By the time we come to Dwyer’s dreadful end, written with the intense disgust and robustness of anything in Flann O’Brien, we are primed for yet more national unhappiness. Delusions, spiders, phantom women, all crowd into Dwyer’s dying space like a hanging jury; the demon rum is a greater enemy than England ever was: ‘Take another drink, sir, and you may die’ his doctor warned him, but it was all too late. Citizen Dwyer died in August, 1825, having never been reunited with his children. When they did arrive it was only to visit their father’s grave. Seán McCarthy has written a splendid narrative, a work of history that reads like a beautiful fiction.    


©2012 Thomas McCarthy



Author Links


McCarthy's Rising From the Ashes

'The Poetry of Thomas McCarthy' by August Kleinzahler

Bio and poems at Poetry International Web






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