by John Liddy
Someone's Always Watching You, by Séamus Mac Aogáin (Independently Published, 2021)
It must be said from the outset that Mac Aogáin’s writing is beyond classification. His work does not fit neatly into any one genre, but rather seems a compilation of many, which he manages to make uniquely his own. He is a writer compelled to tell a story by divine right as though there are bewitching forces ordaining him to do so.
“Some stories need to be told, some should be kept on hold, but all stories should be told sooner or later,” Tess once told him. He had wrestled with his for a long time but knew now the time had come to let her rip.
This compulsion saw the light with the first of the trilogy The Road to Abbeyshrule, followed by Tell Me Another and now we have the full run of his gift with Someone’s Always Watching You. All three works have the writer’s homeplace, Abbyshrule, in common; its people and topography, its baser attributes and endearing idiosyncrasies, together with the profound influences of Tess, Annabel and Spain, the country he has rooted himself in over the years. That latter influence is treated to in-depth commentary throughout the pages of this work, contrasting with the author’s incisive observations of his native place.
From the opening sentence, we are invited to accompany the young Seamie on his first holiday in the Banger-and-Mash capital of Andalucía, a love affair with Spain begun during "Franco’s long and murderous dictatorship" and continued to the present day. We meet Paula coming to Seamie’s rescue in a Mary Magdalene scene and we are once again introduced to Tess, his guardian angel, as the voice of wisdom and salvation in perilous times. Fairy lore and the supernatural are never far from the pen of this writer so it is no surprise to learn of an engraved stone but its significance serves to keep us on our toes as it becomes one of the keys to unlocking the overall premise of the work.
There is so much interaction between chapters or stories, details within details, that the reader needs to be alert to nuance. Careful attention to those details reveals the writers’ reasons for writing, his deep sense of spirituality, his love for the natural and supernatural world, his sense of devilment and intrigue apropos the mystery of the hidden cargo in his car, the wily ways of characters from a previous life in rural Ireland. Mac Aogáin has many talents apart from story-telling. His description of the countryside, both in Ireland and in Spain, his ability to create atmosphere and tension in scenes depicting an apparition, a fight, an exploration of a cave, are all expertly handled.
The past is never far from the present and the world we think we know is never far from the unknown order of things. There is a weaving in and out of time and place in this bio-novel cum compilation of stories, some of which can stand on their own but all are interrelated in one way or another. The world we live in and the place where we all go to eventually, Abbeyopia, are so closely intertwined that we sometimes forget which world we actually inhabit. Mac Aogáin achieves this effect on us through his handling of dream sequence and flashback so we need to be aware of the sudden flight and return, the escape and the confinement, the dream and the reality.
The Celtic past and its customs and traditions, Halloween and ancient ring forts, druidic and fairy mounds, the schoolboy pranks of lifting gates off their hinges, are poignant examples of childhood presences now lost to Seamie but serve to remind him of that land of innocence, realisation and maturity. The Moorish dominance of Spain and what is left behind after the Reconquista is the counterpoint backdrop for the unfolding of Someone’s Always Watching You. But there is also a committed social conscience operating between the lines, a risqué, if at times, politically incorrect overture, that speaks for a certain rebelliousness, a kick against the norm, a breaking with convention. Tragic events often call for unconventional solutions and nowhere is this exemplified as in the survival methods of the Irish Tinker or the Spanish Gypsy. Those two entities receive special treatment in this work.
It is clear from certain passages that the author also has a very keen ear for dialogue and nowhere is this more pronounced than in his hilarious depiction of the local vernacular of midland Ireland, spliced with colloquialisms and phrases in the Irish language, which the writer holds in high regard. A similar approach and admiration can be found in his treatment of regional Spanish. Anybody who knows Séamus Mac Aogáin will vouch for his love of golf and the scene depicted on the golf courses will delight the golfing reader. Walkers of the Camino and the wilder hillsides are also catered for as is the reader of poetry and the singer of ballad and song.
The significance of uncovering a mystery in Seamie’s homeland, the mysterious cargo in his car, the discovery of engravings on a stone connected to the motif on a piece of leather, the link between caves and tunnels and the disappearance of Annabel in a previous work, are all painstakingly resolved through the background of love-loss, decay, supernatural intervention, survival and that human need for happiness. How this book concludes is best left to the reader, suffice to say that the author leaves the door ajar for a fourth sequel to this intricate patchwork of story-telling and the lost art of the seanachaí, biographical and fictional characterization, Corkery’s hidden Ireland and Gerald Brennan’s labyrinth of Spain.
One final comment deserves to be directed at Jaime García Cabello’s pastoral watercolours. Both the cover and the illustrations are perfect complements to the overall story. They are in themselves unobtrusive but beguiling, to say the least, and remind me, along with the tenor of the overall work, of that line by William Shakespeare, when Hamlet suggests that human knowledge is limited: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." It is something the reader could bear in mind when reading Someone’s Always Watching You.
THE THING IS
There will come a time for the clean-out
of accumulations amassed; clutter, heirloom,
property, objet d’art, all that a house can assume,
the things of our lives stripped and emptied,
passed on. Street, village, town, city, country,
continent, the world we know, all for naught
unless we return to a natural state, cohabit
the grove, field, river, sea, root, elementary
woodland shrouded in mist, the very earth
that sustains us, nourishes our need,
gives warmth, protection, the air to breathe,
teaches us the science of survival, the worth
in the unexplained, a universal love,
the thing we cannot get rid of.
John Liddy writes in and translates from Irish, English and Spanish. He has published many collections, including Madrid and Other Poems (2018/19). His most recent work is Arias of Consolation, soon to be released. All his Spanish-related poems have been collected in a forthcoming book called Spanish Points. He is on the advisory board of The Hong Kong Review.
Copy editors: Nancy He, Nina Zhang