'Beheading the Virgin Mary' Ambles Through Irish-to-Scot Emigration

From the legacy of The Troubles and Irish-Catholic assimilation, McLaughlin follows the way his early life has transpired, and plots his own direction.

Beheading the Virgin Mary and Other Stories

Publisher: Dalkey Archive
Price: $13.95
Author: Donal McLaughlin
Length: 201 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-06
Author website

Above: Smoking Match image from

Seventeen stories alternate between an Irish boy raised in Derry whose family moves to Glasgow, and other tales, many about Irish people living among Scots, uneasy about their situation, and growing distant within themselves and amidst their neighbors. Donal McLaughlin's upbringing, born in 1961 in Derry, to a family who left for Scotland around 1970, reflects that of his fictional O'Donnell clan, and the fortunes of Liam, the young protagonist. Preferring a blend of dry detachment and steady immersion in a different type of Scots-Irish experience than that which dominates in Ulster, McLaughlin explores The Troubles and the gradual drift from religious allegiance and political loyalty which has characterized many of his generation, in Ireland and its diaspora.

"Big Trouble" set in late 1968 presages the burst of violence the following summer in the North of Ireland. It juxtaposes the O'Donnell children acting out a Civil Rights march for Catholic equality which is mixed, in their confused understanding, with the traditional Orange Order parades reminding the province's minority of the claims to domination by the Unionist majority. The little ones lack the awareness of their parents as to who is representing what; McLaughlin adapts a clever perspective for his play-act.

By the time of "Enough to Make You Hurt" four years later, the indifferent or dull reactions of those in Scotland who hear of the Bloody Sunday protests in Derry again represent the clash of one people with another, as the Irish Catholics in Glasgow tend to lose their accents and their identity the more they remain overseas, even if their sectarian faith in the Celtic football club persists as their true icon. Liam's father resents the lack of compassion shown by the assimilated Irish-Scots, who cheer the team but offer at best only lip service to pain felt by those who learn the names of dead Derrymen.

"A Day Out" in 1974 finds Liam beginning to blend in among his classmates in Glasgow. Hearing of I.R.A. threats to the Queen on the radio during a bus excursion, he fears retaliation from his mates. "Would they turn on him? Then, he minded his Scottish accent now but. That he'd lost his brogue. Only the boys he went to primary wi knew he was from Ireland originally. Others wouldn't know unless they told them." He relies on the trust of his new comrades to protect himself from old hates.

The old ways tug on another character who, in "Somewhere Down the Line", lies to his wife about going to the "[Cel]'Tic" match so he can wrangle quiet time to visit the People's Palace in Glasgow. There, he sees exhibits about the work his father and grandfather had done there, and he relishes the intimate contact with a past that few care about, choosing "fitba" and crowds as a boisterous alternative.

McLaughlin handles such figures well. In the stand-out story "The Way to a Man's Heart" Sean, a Derry emigrant, drives over half of Scotland, up to Inverness. His assignation with a woman, herself longer over from Ireland, turns poignant. He came for sex with her, but he stays for her hearty stew.

Another wanderer, the enigmatic "Kenny Ryan", claims darkly to have left Derry, but the O'Donnell's diligent inquiries among those back home cannot account for the reasons Kenny now insists on puttering around their home so persistently. This mysterious miser hovers, and lingers in the memory of the reader, too. At his best, McLaughlin conjures up such lonely Irish men, still adrift.

The dour tones of Irish Catholicism echo throughout, but few in Liam's generation pay homage to the likes of the elderly man whose favorite prayers included "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, assist me in my last agony", or the sustained sexual abuse by a cruel father and at the hands of a cunning priest, this is a difficult subject limned sparely and effectively in "We Now Know". In a vignette "The Secret of How to Love", a son who admits his father told his mother to her face that he did not love her finds in his father's posthumous file of "Useful Quotes" tucked between saints' pious aphorisms this: "Love is not a feeling/ It is an act of will." The narrator adds: "Anonymous, I take it."

Liam's maturation follows, and while later stories dissipate the force of the earlier ones as music, school, and the Continent beckon, in his 18th year, 1979, his studies in Germany reminds him of sinister echoes from his past. "Dachau-Derry-Knock" attempts to, through Liam's associations, link the tin drum Oscar beats at Nazi rallies in the 1978 film adaptation of Gunter Grass' novel with the rallies for Mass held by the new pope, John Paul II. He appealed in his Irish visit to the I.R.A. to follow the path of peace, and this controversial message, within the tangled context of hunger strikes by I.R.A. prisoners for political status, and the clash of the Catholic with the Irish Republican ideologies, made for a delicate situation, or a hopelessly conflicted one, within the Irish public. As with James Joyce's portrayals of bickering within extended families over past political debates, pitting men of violence against men of peace, the O'Donnells fail to reach concord between the two factions.

Weary of this, Liam agrees with his Gran's advice: "You're better off leaving it, sure. Not saying nothing." Again, rather typical Irish advice. In a manner reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus' choice to leave Ireland for the Continent, Liam leaving for university resolves to emigrate from Scotland.

The title story rushes headlong through its desecrating incident in compressed prose. Taking place on Boxing Day around the current time, it shows the O'Donnells leaving many traditions behind, unsurprisingly. A "bonus" story recounts a seaside ghost, again delving into the O'Donnell family McLaughlin can't yet leave behind, even if Liam has promised to do so. For, like Dedalus, he's back among the clan again.

As a translator of Swiss-German fiction (see my 5 June 2014 review of The Alp by Arno Camenisch), McLaughlin appears to have achieved Liam's ambition. These stories work best when tracking loners, those who cannot fit into the ethnic identities of their counterparts or cultural descendants abroad. Anticipating how this rarely explored dimension of recent Irish-to-Scot emigration plays off the legacy of The Troubles and of Irish-Catholic assimilation as religious ties unravel, McLaughlin follows the way his early life has transpired, if as in Joycean fashion, ambling into its preoccupied, idiosyncratic fictions. Out of familiar concerns of youth and adolescence, he plots his own direction.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.