The Lonely Voice: 'Irish Revel' by Edna O'Brien
In Edna O’Brien’s “Irish Revel,” Mary is a 17-year-old girl who’s been invited to a party in town. She dons a black dress that belonged to no one in particular in her family but came to her small farm home in Ireland all the way from America. It’s a dress she considers special — for a special occasion.
She undoes her braids to reveal the crimped hair she may have deemed fancier than her normal straight locks or the braids themselves — a style to keep the hair out of her face while she tended to her baby twin siblings or the many chores on the farm. Her efforts to look special or fancy go unnoticed and she can’t shake the image of the “mountainy” girl assigned to her by the other girls at the party.
Mary’s bicycle is only as reliable as its front flat tire, but off she goes to the party at the Commercial Hotel. She thinks she will see again John Roland, a man for whom she’s carried a torch for two years. But instead she is put to work to prepare the festivities alongside a group of mean girls, for a boisterous, bedraggled cast of invited guests — all men — and no John Roland among them.
As we’ll see, things go from bad to worse from there for poor Mary. In a final scene, Mary has left the hotel in the dark of night. She must be home by early morning to milk the cow. While she’d hoped to see John Roland again, she sits on a bank a half a mile from home and says “If only I had a sweetheart, something to hold on to…” Had she given up on the illusion of her first love?
In the essay “Virgie Walking Away,” from the memoir in essays Am I Alone Here? Peter Orner writes about Virgie Rainey, from Eudora Welty’s story “The Wanderers.” Even though the folks in her fictional town don’t think much of her, there are many things to admire about her. She’s a singular sort of character. A prodigy. A lonely — We learn about this character as another 17-year-old, like Mary in “Irish Revel,” but we also see her at an older age, too, perhaps still carrying the vestiges of illusion in the form of a funeral flower. Peter Orner writes, “And now she is leaving again. The last time she left Morgana she was seventeen. She swore she wouldn’t come back, but she did.”
At age 40, Virgie finds herself back home. Peter Orner writes, “This time, she tells herself, this time she’ll be gone from here for good. As long as I’m conscious and able to think, I — whoever I am — will love Virgie Rainey as she walks away, in high heels, through the tall, bearded grass.”
Mary in “Irish Revel” sits on that bank a half-mile from home and “cracked some ice” with her own high heel. She “watched the crazy splintered pattern it made.” The thin fractures and fissures were like lines on a map, pointing in all directions, a promise to venture out again — hopeful — in search of whatever we think is missing from our own simple lives. But the lines lead the other way, too, back to “her own house, like a little white box at the end of the world, waiting to receive her.”
Mary wonders if all parties are as bad as this one at the Commercial Hotel. We know that the answer is yes. Parties and unrequited first loves and a night we make out in our minds as the stuff of Cinderella fairy tales will always break our hearts, will never live up to our fantasies or illusions. Thank goodness you can walk the bike back home or that frost on a dark night can “magically” make the “dunged street clean and white.”
We see that with Mary as with Virgie, "even her failing fails. She’s never fallen so low, she can’t get up again.” “Endless the roads that bring us back home,” writes Peter Orner, “endless the roads that carry us away again.”
Edna O’Brien is the author of “Irish Revel” it appears in the collection The Love Object.
Thomas O'Malley is the author of This Magnificent Desolation, a New York Times Editor’s Choice and shortlisted for the 2013 Irish Novel of the Year Award, In the Province of Saints, voted one of the ten best first novels by Booklist and chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the top twenty-five books of the year in their Books to Remember, and, with Douglas Graham Purdy, the noirs, Serpents in the Cold and We Were Kings, hailed by Reed Farrel Coleman as “a startling work of art — a beautifully rendered, atmospheric tale of crime and punishment set in mid-twentieth century Boston.” Thomas O’Malley is associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.
The essay “Virgie Walking Away” is from the collection Am I Alone Here? by Peter Orner.
Peter Orner is the author of five other books, including Maggie Brown & Others. He holds the professorship in English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.
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