Landfall

Written by Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

The Elizabethans who colonised Ireland described their work as a pacification, but in reality, they came to lay waste. Ryan writes with the confidence of his impeccably thorough research, centering his story on Edmund Spenser’s time in Ireland as the Queen’s loyal servant, with an ‘icy plan for starving the rebellious Irish into subjection.’ His arcadian poetry is contrasted with the desperation of the lives of those he, Walter Raleigh, and Lord Grey have come to subdue by whatever means necessary. Those who wear the Irish mantle do so as it is a ‘shelter and habitation…the place of concealment for weapons and plunder.’

Though the outrage of the massacre of hundreds of surrendered Spaniards and Italians at Dún an Óir in 1580 is told off-stage, Ryan does not hold back in describing the colonisers’ methods: ‘nothing so cowed a man as the sight of the heads of his kinsmen, his neighbours, his wife and even his infants, laid out in two neat rows, as a gardener might set out a path of decorative stones.’ Spenser neglects his first wife, whose death is told movingly, and rapturously woos his second in verse, whilst preparing a manual for the total subjection of the Irish population. Back in London, the Queen consults the alchemist John Dee to raise a Protestant storm to foil the Spanish fleet, and Inuits brought back forcibly from the North West Passage are exhibited as ‘calibans.’

The few figures to emerge from this story with any integrity are Martin Frobisher, for whom a crew is never merely expendable, Spenser’s would-be nemesis Mad Maurice Fermoy and the enigmatic poet who is Spenser’s cow-herd and saviour, Uaithne. The author is also an artist, and this accomplished novel is further enriched by his chapter-heading vignettes.