A Wee Taste of Ulster

St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, and all things Irish have been on my mind lately because of Patrick Taylor, the author of a series of nine novels my sister recommended to me.  Taylor’s books are informative, entertaining, and well written, and they are wonderful to curl up with by the fire this chilly winter.

Bee on Honeysuckle Vine at Clyde Shepard Nature Center, Decatur, GA

Bee on Honeysuckle Vine at Clyde Shepard Nature Center, Decatur, GA
Original Photo by Janet Weeks (Click to enlarge.)

Taylor is a retired doctor born in Ireland in 1941 who practiced medicine in Belfast and rural Ulster before moving to Canada.  His series is about Irish country doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, a fifty-something, long widowed, portly man who likes his Irish whiskey.  In An Irish Country Doctor he hires Dr. Barry Laverty, fresh out of medical school, to be his assistant.  The third character who resides at Number 1 Main Street in the fictional town of Ballybucklebo is O’Reilly’s housekeeper Kinky Kinkaid, a woman who has looked after and cooked for O’Reilly for decades.

Some of the best conversations in the books are among the three principal characters at meal time.  O’Reilly tries to get Kinky to serve him more food, Kinky tries to get O’Reilly to lose weight, and Laverty tries to keep the peace between the two. Although many characters use colorful expressions and salty comparisons, O’Reilly’s and Kinky’s are often the most colorful.  O’Reilly comments about a village character, “…that one’d drain the lough if it was Guinness.”  At a party, O’Reilly complains about the amount of whiskey he has been served: “There’s not enough in that glass to give a gnat an eyewash.”

When another character rubs an astringent into O’Reilly’s back after he’s strained it, Laverty observes “the smell of it would have gagged a maggot.”  Later Kinky describes the face of Bishop, the consistently scheming, villainous councilor of Ballybucklebo, after O’Reilly once again foils his plans to get the better of some of the village men: “He’d a face on him like a bulldog that had licked piss off a nettle.”

The two doctors play a quotations game.  O’Reilly uses these quotes to help explain certain situations, and Laverty delights in telling O’Reilly the sources.  They can quote Shakespeare, the Bible, ancient Greeks, and modern poets. When two beautiful young women walk into a wedding reception,

O’Reilly bent closer and muttered to Barry, “Two girls in silk kimonos…” [and Laverty replies,] “ ‘Both beautiful, one a gazelle.’ William Butler Yeats, ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiwicz.’” Barry seemed to have been playing this dueling quotations game with O’Reilly since the day he’s arrived…

The young doctor quickly earns O’Reilly’s respect because he can keep up with the older one.

Two of the characters are O’Reilly’s white cat Lady Macbeth, always referred to as “Madame,” and his black Lab Arthur Guinness, referred to as “Sir.”  Taylor’s descriptions of the dining room at each meal are memorable as he sets the stage with a fire and Lady Macbeth’s location and antics.  When either doctor goes outside, Arthur Guinness comes out of his doghouse to greet them and often travel with them.

Gulf Fritillary Caterpillar on a Passion Vine, Original Photo by Janet Weeks (Click to enlarge.)

Gulf Fritillary Caterpillar on a Passion Vine,
Original Photo by Janet Weeks
(Click to enlarge.)

Near the end of each book, Kinky has the final word.   “Doctor “O’Reilly says the old ways are going, and now that fellah, Patrick Taylor…has started telling these stories about life here in Ulster, Doctor O’Reilly reckons it wouldn’t hurt for me to pass on some of my recipes before they get lost, too.” We can find Kinky’s Ulster recipes for barmbrack, soda farls, sherry trifle, mock turtle soup, and sticky toffee pudding and butterscotch sauce, among many others. 

Patrick Taylor also includes a glossary and pronunciation guide to Irish words, expressions, and names.  The one name giving me the most difficulty is Siobhan: “Irish name meaning Joan, pronounced ‘shivawn.’” The glossary alone is fun to read.

In an afterword to An Irish Country Christmas, Taylor comments about the relations between the Catholic characters and the Protestant ones in Ballybucklebo.  He writes that he has

taken liberties with Ulster politics.  Some say fiction is an outward expression of the author’s wishes.  In this work I have portrayed a tolerant place that the majority of people in the north of Ireland would have wanted.  Sadly, in that small country in the sixties it could not have existed. The ecumenical spirit exhibited by those on either side of the sectarian divide in Ballybucklebo had little chance to flourish in Northern Ireland–although it could have, but for the bigoted intransigence of a very few people.  Fortunately, as I write, it seems that those days are gone forever.

May it be so.

Question:  Kinky is fey, and Dr. Laverty believes she can see into the future.  Patrick Taylor’s next book is An Irish Country Girl about Kinky and how she developed her abilities.  It begins where An Irish Country Christmas ends, and Kinky gives the visiting children warm currant juice and mince pie while telling them about the Irish fairies.  Stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy seem to enrich the lives of children.  Why do you approve or disapprove?  

8 thoughts on “A Wee Taste of Ulster

  1. The banter back and forth sounds entertaining in itself, but I think reading the second book about Kinky may be where I go. I enjoy stories concerning the fairy realm and other fanciful notions. My all time favorite movie is:”The Wizard of Oz.” I can not understand children growing up without being able to read such imaginative stories! Didn’t harm me at all! “Hail Dorthy!”

  2. I remember being comsumed with reading fairytales–they allowed
    me to dream of other worlds filled with magic, fantastical creatures,
    and tickled my imagination. How could anyone object to that?
    Loved them, and it enhanced my delight in reading for all time!

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