A Good Man is Hard to Find
In this slim novel, the sweetly naïve Ellie Dillahan falls in love with Florian Kilderry, an aimless young man who is pleased to reciprocate physically but doesn’t return Ellie’s feelings. Naturally, life is complicated: it’s the ‘50s in the Irish hamlet of Rathmoye, a place where “Nothing happened… it was the young who left… A lot came back. That nothing happened was an exaggeration too.” Nonetheless, Rathmoye is small enough for the villagers to know one another. Ellie is known to all as the young woman who bicycles into town on Tuesdays, selling eggs from the farm she shares with her husband just outside Rathmoye.
Ellie’s husband, known only as Dillahan, is older than his wife. His prior marriage ended in an accident that also killed his infant child. His married sisters, unable to help on the farm, found Ellie in an orphanage, where she was raised by nuns. For two years Ellie worked as Dillahan’s servant. Both the nuns and the Dillahan sisters reassure Ellie of Dillahan’s inherent goodness. He never misses Mass. He does not drink. Nor does he lay a hand on the young woman, instead teaching her the workings of the farm, how to keep the dairy and work the Rayburn stove.
Pleased by her housekeeping and gentle manner, he asks if they might marry. Ellie, who knows herself lucky to be with a good man in a pleasant farmhouse, agrees. Her sole grief is her childlessness.
Ellie is deeply religious; she adores the nuns who raised her, writing them regularly. Her weekly egg deliveries are punctuated by visits to confession. Her life is quiet, hardworking, and shadowed by her husband’s tragedy. He is a quiet man and indeed good, a diligent farmer who appreciates his young wife’s efforts.
The situation is perfect for upheaval in the form of Florian Kilderry, himself now an orphan in the process of selling a large, crumbling property seven miles from Rathmoye. His parents, more in love with each other and painting watercolors than basics like home maintenance or money management, have left their only child with a pile of bills and a crumbling manse filled with detritus. Amid the mess is a Leica, which, in an effort to locate some sort of talent or direction, Florian slings round his neck and bicycles into Rathmoye.
There he encounters a funeral in process: Mrs. Eileen Connulty, a town pillar, has died. Florian dismounts to photograph the proceedings, asking a young woman who the deceased might be. Thus the couple meet.
The Connulty family owns much property in Rathmoye, including a movie theatre ruined by fire, the coal works, and a boarding house known for cleanliness and good food. The running of the house has passed from Mrs. Connulty to her spinster daughter, known to all as Miss Connulty, now 50, and her twin, Joseph, who sees to the coal works.
The siblings do not get along, the result of Miss Connulty’s long-ago affair with a boarder, which led to the necessity of abortion. The sanctimonious Mrs. Connulty never forgave her daughter or her husband, who took the girl to the chemist’s for the procedure, then for tea and a film afterward, never uttering an unkind word. He later died after drunkenly setting the movie house afire with a lit cigarette.
Now the middle-aged twins are pathetic, Joseph a righteous bachelor oblivious to the affections of his secretary, Brenda, Miss Connulty (we never learn her first name) nursing her ancient rage at her mother. She all but gloats when the old woman dies, immediately going through her mother’s jewelry, which she adorns herself with heavily.
It is Miss Connulty, keen-eyed from her own past, who notices Florian and Ellie walking their bicycles through town. Her own relationship to Ellie is limited to their weekly egg exchange. Yet she is incensed on the younger woman’s behalf, begging Joseph to intercede. Joseph, for his part, thinks his sister a bit mad, and literally ignores her pleas even as he consumes the breakfast she prepared him.
Trevor, winner of countless awards and citations, is a master of compression, the austerity of his writing helping evoke the sadness of this remote village where little overt action masks much happening beneath a seemingly tranquil surface. His writing is uniquely Irish, with its intense underpinnings of religion, the exact locations of the Catholic and Protestant churches insistent as the humans who attend them.
Alcoholism is its own character, defining those who will or won’t “take a drop”. The characters are unhappy, lonely souls, silently bearing their burdens. Joseph misses his mother. His sister misses her lost opportunities at love and a child. Dillahan has never forgiven himself for the accidental killing of his wife and child, meanwhile worrying that farm life displeases the increasingly silent Ellie. Ellie suffers from the realization that she does not love her husband, that good man, falling instead for a flighty young fellow who is planning to leave Ireland even as he listens for the rattle of her bicycle on his gravel drive.
The book end inconclusively: it is possible Dillahan has learned of his wife’s infidelity, but his source is unreliable, easily dismissed by Ellie, who is left in the farmhouse with the man she does not love and the memory of the man she does. Miss Connulty continues to talk at Joseph, who continues to ignore her, instead mulling over his mother’s memorial garden. Brenda is happiest at night, after a drink, with the next day—provided it is a workday—before her. She dreads the emptiness of weekends and holidays.
Nothing much happens in Rathmoye, but then again, quite a few things do.