Worth a Squint

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Delvin, County Westmeath is one of those small Irish towns through which it is easy to pass without paying attention to the place. In other words, except for residents it is never a point of destination. This is regrettable, because Delvin does have interest, although – again like so many small Irish towns – first impressions would not indicate that to be the case. Essentially a single straggling, untidy street Delvin lacks coherence and order, lacks the kind of communality of vision and presentation that make its equivalents in other countries so satisfying. The town has some fine buildings – there are a number of pretty early 19th century houses – but just as many, if not more, that destroy whatever chance Delvin might have of detaining visitors.
Those prospective visitors would be interested to know that among the reasons they should linger is the town’s appearance in a novel which caused a sensation almost a century ago. Published in 1918, The Valley of the Squinting Windows was written by Brinsley MacNamara (1890-1963), the pseudonym of a local man, John Weldon whose father James was principal of a national school elsewhere in the county. The book is a rather overwrought tale of a young teacher seduced by a wealthy, dissipated man and how a trainee priest who has fallen in love with her avenges this outrage. It owes more to 19th century melodrama than 20th century realism, and is closer in spirit to Peyton Place than to Madame Bovary, the latter presumably being what MacNamara had hoped to emulate.

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The Valley of the Squinting Windows would likely be forgotten now but for the stir it caused on publication in Delvin. MacNamara always claimed that Garradrimna, the village in his novel, was representative of any small community in Ireland: ‘I used certain descriptions of characters and events because they were typical, were easily identified with local people and happenings. But people in Clare and Limerick have been able to do exactly the same in the case of their own villages. So could people in any county in Ireland.’ However, Garradrimna’s topographical details fix it so precisely as Delvin that locals understandably took umbrage, especially as there are really no attractive characters in the book, everyone being small-minded and greedy, obsessed with discovering and relishing the misfortunes of their neighbours. Seemingly when the novel was published there was great excitement in the region but this quickly changed to indignation once its contents were known: obviously no one thought to notice the title provided a fair warning of what lay inside. Instead of sensibly allowing the work slip into oblivion, the people of Delvin publicly burnt a copy in the centre of the village. Worse, they organised a boycott of children attending James Weldon’s school, as though he were responsible for his son’s novel. In response, Weldon brought a law suit for £4,000 against Delvin’s parish priest and seven parishioners for arranging the prohibition. He lost the case and was forced to emigrate. The Valley of the Squinting Windows has ever since been synonymous with small town pettiness.

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Among the features of Garradrimna that made it easily identifiable as Delvin are several references to a de Lacy castle at one end of the village. Just such a structure remains in place to this day, popularly believed to have been built by the Norman soldier Hugh de Lacy who came to Ireland with Henry II in 1171 and over the next 15 years erected many such structures in this part of the country. Delvin Castle is supposed to date from a decade later, after which it was given to de Lacy’s son-in-law, Gilbert de Nugent whose descendants, later Earls of Westmeath, remained in the area until 1922. Originally a massive keep with four circular corner turrets, the castle is now only half its former size, the north wall having long since gone. The owner of the abutting corner house told me his grandmother who used to live there, on being informed she was responsible for the castle and its upkeep, handed the property over to the Office of Public Works, which seems to have done little since.
Nearby, and even more dejected in appearance, is St Mary’s, the former Church of Ireland church which incorporates a mid-16th century belfry into an otherwise predominantly early 19th century building. Deconsecrated and unroofed in 1963, the building and graveyard have recently undergone refurbishment at the hands of industrious residents, which was necessary for its well-being but has had the unintentional effect of removing much of the site’s romantic charm.

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Goodness knows, otherwise romantic charm is hard to discover in Delvin; opposite the stretch occupied by castle and church, for example, a large site is occupied by a private house presumably dating from the 1970s, never attractive and now an derelict eyesore.
At the other end of the town stands the Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption, unlike its Anglican counterpart still very much in use, designed by George Ashlin in 1873 and described by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan as ‘an accomplished small-scale essay in French Gothic’, although one imagines the French original would not be surrounded by quite so much tarmac. In fictional guise it also appears in The Valley of the Squinting Windows.
MacNamara had little good to say about Garradrimna/Delvin, damning not just the local populace but also the physical appearance of the village itself, describing it as mean and fly-blown, with ugly houses. No doubt the resident population today is quite different to that he castigated: there is even an annual Delvin Garradrimna Book Fair. But it remains the case that the novel was as much a condemnation of place as people. MacNamara’s observations on how Delvin looked – and still looks – have yet to be addressed. If that happened, even visitors unfamiliar with The Valley of the Squinting Windows would be encouraged to linger for longer than is now the case.

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3 comments on “Worth a Squint

  1. what a great post. I’d vaguely heard of The Valley of the Squinting Windows, synonymous as you say with petty small town gossip and spite, but knew nothing of the location or background, so I was delighted to learn more detail. The boycott is a sorry story, and the author’s poor father being forced to emigrate is truly sobering and grim. Delighted to find your blog, (via Visions of the Past) and looking forward to reading more posts in future. Seasonal regards – Arran.

    • Thanks for your enthusiastic response; most encouraging. It sent me straight to your own, which I will now visit regularly too (we enthusiastics need to stick together).
      The Valley of the Squinting Windows is more relevant as an historical document than as a work of fiction, altho’ it does offer certain insights into the Irish character, both then and now, which aren’t necessarily found elsewhere.
      Season’s greetings mutually returned,
      RO’B

  2. […] Irish Aesthete: Robert O’Byrne’s new blog is a great addition. His profile of Devlin, Co. Westmeath is a good example of highlighting historically significant buildings in a village that might […]

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