Any reviewer will find his benevolence to an author increased when he finds a distant relative playing even a minor role in the narrative. In the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley’s latest novel, Irish Linen, I found Tom Linehan serving as the Irish chargé d’affaires in Switzerland in 1944. The entire book already seemed like a family reunion, but this obscure reference heartened me immensely in my already favorable judgment. Father Greeley has said that he doesn’t so much invent his characters as discover them. I am tempted to ask him what more he knows about cousin Tom, whose appearance is peripheral to the major story lines. I am tempted too to ask him about family reunions, where tensions are a major part of the story, no matter whose family.
In this novel we again find four of Father Greeley’s favorite Chicago characters. Nuala Anne McGrail and her husband, Dermot Michael Coyne, have four children: Nelliecoyne, Michael, SocraMarie and baby Patrick Joseph. In turn the children have two Irish bloodhounds, Maeve and Fiona. As it happens, and it would happen this way in a better world, both Nuala Anne and Dermot are close friends of the two other favorites: Cardinal Sean Cronin and Archbishop John Blackwood Ryan. All of the above figure prominently and delightfully in the story—even baby PatJo.
The conflicts begin when Nuala Anne is asked by the distracted parents of a young doctoral student to look into his disappearance. As they begin the task, Dermot and his wife stumble upon a manuscript in the archives of Dermot’s priest brother, written by an Irish consul who served in Chicago in the 1930’s. I say stumble upon, but what I really mean is that it was a coincidence. No, I don’t, since I do not believe in coincidence, only in divine providence. And Dermot and Nuala Anne find provident clues in the Irishman’s tale, which eventually provide them with leads to the central mystery: Why would an enthusiastic and socially conscious young Arabist disappear into the wilds of a Middle East at war, with no funding, no resources and apparently no plan or goal? The plot thickens when it becomes clear that the U.S. government is somehow involved in the disappearance, despite denials.
It is the Irishman, Lord Timothy Patrick Ridgewood, whose wartime diary as ambassador to Germany suggests to the Coynes a way to proceed. Lord Timothy, per the Free State treaty, which was hated by some, even by many, is both Irish and English. When he falls in love and marries, his wife will also be both, though not entitled to vote in England as he is. And indeed fall in love he does, with a family friend of Count Claus von Stauffenberg, the hero of the July 20th plot against Hitler.
Wartime Berlin and wartime Chicago today seem eerily similar. The C.I.A., Gestapo, Department of Defense, SS—all are made to seem so similar. And that gives Father Greeley the opportunity to speak of human freedom in the face of tyranny, incompetent authority and bungling bureaucrats. In Father Greeley’s usual plotting, all get their comeuppance, though not without much suffering by innocents on the way.
He has the chance, in this book, to revisit another of his family reunion themes: the malevolent mother. The dark side of our humanity is contrasted with the good. Nuala Anne is almost the übermutter; others pale in comparison to her goodness. A case in point: Young Nelliecoyne has an artist’s eye. She is provided with all she needs to develop, but Dermot and Nuala worry lest she be spoiled. Their sensitivity to her talent and her independence win, as is the case when real family values prevail. This is Greeley the pastor and Greeley the theologian speaking through his characters. Would that all parents were so aware, so loving and so generous.
The one criticism I have of Irish Linen is the dialogue between Nuala Anne and Dermot. They talk like stage Irish. Even though I am a fourth-generation Irish American, I still have close relatives in County Kerry and County Cork, and I have clear memories of my own County Cork grandmother, her sisters and her brother. None of them talk or talked like the Coynes. Not even today, not even in Ireland. The false brogue is distracting, and I didn’t like it, even a little bit. My family, who have gone to Trinity, University College Cork and University College Dublin and more recently to Mary I at Limerick, would find this pattern of speech quaint, inauthentic and possibly even offensive. But that lapse is to be forgiven a master of the English language and Roman Catholic theology, not to say the sociology of the American Catholic.
I have written recently on our Web site, and before that in these pages, that Father Greeley is the most prolific American Catholic theologian, but his success derives from flying under the radar. He is able to speak truths in his novels that would attract too much negative attention were he to do this in some other medium. This novel speaks the truths of family love, care for spouses, deep concern for children, fidelity, heroism, martyrdom, the triumph signalled by the Resurrection. May the characters he has discovered have long lives and new adventures.