Your enjoyment of Death and Nightingales (BBC Two) will stand or fall according to your tolerance of three things: a 19th-century Ireland populated by strikingly beautiful people in unfeasibly well-laundered chemises; DIY cow-bloat remedies; and lines such as: “The heartbreak of this place. Love it, hate it, there’s no place like it on earth. Tomorrow, I leave it for ever.”
While my Irish ancestry has been diluted over the past few generations, I can take as much of this stuff as you can throw at me and still wave my shillelagh in the air for more. But I understand the impulse of many to turn and run back across the sea – and time – to a less lyrical place of greater safety. However, if you fight that instinct and try leaning in – hard, deliberately, determinedly – this adaptation of Eugene McCabe’s critically acclaimed 1993 novel shall reward you.
It is 1885 in County Fermanagh and young Beth Winters (Ann Skelly) is dreaming of poisoning her stepfather, William Winters (Matthew Rhys). She wakes with a start and begins throwing her possessions into a suitcase until she is interrupted by a maid, Mercy, who comes to give Beth a present, for ’tis her birthday. Through various flashbacks, we learn why the daughter of the house is planning to flee. There is her unhappy relationship with William, a Protestant who married Beth’s late mother, a Catholic called Catherine Maguire, knowing she was pregnant with another (Catholic) man’s child. He never got over that pre-betrayal any more than she could be said to have got over the fact that the Anglo-Irish Winters family now owned most of the land the Maguires had held since time immemorial. Beth grew up as a pawn between them. Now, William is behaving increasingly “unfatherly” towards her.
Then there is the fact that she has been in love with Liam Ward (Jamie Dornan), another Catholic, since they pulled a dead bull out of a ditch together (this is approved Church of Rome foreplay). He tells her that William is suspected of being a traitor (“All gentry are readymade spies – for the union, for the crown, or Ulster”) and has persuaded her that the next time William gets drunk they can make off with the gold from his safe and start a new life together across the water.
Elsewhere, the local bishop is advising William to refuse Liam work at his quarry – especially if William wants to get more orders from his cathedral – for reasons as yet unspecified, but which are surely to do with the coming revolt against his loathed landowning ilk. Meanwhile, Beth has tucked a knife into her tightening chemise and set off across the fields to meet Liam. (Death and Nightingales is a much higher-quality affair than your average Bridget O’Bridget saga, but there is still no way for an unmarried virgin to have sex with her lover by a lough and not end up pregnant – they are so endlessly fertile that Beth may have become pregnant when she first looked down at Liam through the window of the big house.) She pauses only to relieve a cow of its bloat by plunging the knife through its hide to release the stinking cloud of intestinal gases therein. (I am not quite sure where the church stands on this particular manoeuvre. It seems to me to constitute endangering the life of an unborn child, but I will consult my priest and get back to you.)
The politics and sectarianism have so far only been sketched lightly – although you can sense the palette being readied for the coming episodes – but Beth’s function as Ireland’s religious conflict made flesh, and her bid to escape her stepfather’s control and increasingly malign intent as an analogy for this period of Irish history, is clear without being heavy-handed. That said, if the bloated cow is meant to be a metaphor for Protestant greed, I may have to reconsider.
Either way, it is solid entertainment for the darkening winter evenings – and the story of a country in the process of painfully dividing itself has a timeliness of its own. Oh God: the cow is Brexit. But no one is willing to stab us hard enough to let the poison out. Everywhere is metaphor.
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