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Review of Hungry Hill - Anthony Lane

The land takes its revenge. Hungry Hill in West Cork is mined for copper and tin by the Brodrick family, starting in 1820 with 'Copper' John. Five generations of Brodricks suffer the curse - two men meeting early and violent deaths, two enduring long seniorities, alienated from their families, and the fifth generation, John-Henry Brodrick, surrendering Clonmere, the family seat that is now a blackened shell, at the height of the Civil War, in 1920. Never once is 'Ireland' named in this saga that spans a turbulent century. But an historical novel, by a leading English authoress, embraces the colonial experience in a completely absorbing narrative.

The peace and solitude of Hungry Hill, in sight of the mighty Atlantic rollers in rural south-west Ireland, are shattered by the mining. Stacks, washing sheds, and ramshackle shanties for the miners and their families, many originating from Cornwall and its own mines, disfigure the landscape. Damage and pilfering are ascribed by locals to the fairies taking some small revenge on behalf of the mountain. The murder of 'Copper' John's grandfather, also John, in 1754, by Morty Donovan, descendant of local chieftains, is attributed to his interference in the smuggling that helped sustain the communities of Doonhaven and round about. But the hostility to the Brodricks in the early Nineteenth Century belies a more recent historical landmark. For this is the century that followed the deadly suppression of Irish aspirations for independence in the wake the French Revolution of 1789 and the Irish uprising four years later.

Familiar Du Maurier themes unfold in the course of a long narrative. Protestant and Catholic frictions spark twists in a humdinger plot, with sub-plots turning on Protestant and non-conformist differences. Leading men (and, as per usual with Du Maurier, the central characters are mainly men) meet sticky ends. The women appear in good number, as befits a family saga. They are mainly good in the sense that they behave themselves according to the mores and expectations of the times. Fanny-Rosa, the principal woman who defies those norms, ends her days in a sanatorium in the South of France, addicted to the wheel of fortune.

There is an interesting sidelight on Irish bastards and how they were readily acknowledged as family members in the first part of the Nineteenth Century, with Ned, Copper John's half brother, serving as land agent for Clonmere. He, in turn, sired a string of children by different mothers around the district. By the time 'Wild Johnnie' becomes master of Clonmere, in 1837, there is a change. He fathers a child by a Donovan woman, who has to be got out of the way to America. The fear on the past of the Anglican Brodricks is that the Catholic Donovans are had in glove with the local catholic priest in an attempt to recover their historic lands.

And that, ultimately, is what happens, some eighty years later.

This is historical fiction on the grand scale, written with all Du Maurier's skill and verve. It is intriguing that HUNGRY HILL is comparatively little known amongst her works. Indeed, Nottinghamshire Library Service has only one yellowing copy of a midget-sized text published by Victor Gollancz in 1957. Why has it been so neglected?

- Anthony Lane 2007

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