Teresa Mee reflects on Sean O’Conaill’s novel for young adults, The Chain that Binds the Earth.
Among the major issues that preoccupy us today is the incidence of the drive to possess, to the point of violent attack and destruction. Through our local experiences and vastly improved channels of daily and even hourly information we are becoming increasingly aware of the multifarious forms of local, national and global violence and provocation, but with little or no analysis available of the root causes. Over the years various theories have been propounded but with, so far, limited impact.
Sean O’Conaill’s ‘The Chain that Binds the Earth’ enters the arena from the perspective of young second level students, and through its characters and events offers a powerfully convincing analysis of much of what is at the root of violence and the lust for power and possession that binds both perpetrator and victim. Running throughout the whole drama of conversation and events is the theme of inner self reflection, of listening, in honest dialogue with one’s deepest self, identifying one’s personal gifts and identifying also the chains that bind and inhibit self realisation and potential. In the novel this way of being stands out in sharp contrast with the opposite where one’s focus is on the other, what the other has that one is determined to have – if necessary by denigrating the other in order to command respect and status.
Set in the context of present day Derry in Northern Ireland the scene, or should we say the drama, opens with the principal character Johnny Mullan on his way to second level Iona College for the first time. As he enters the bus that will take him across the Bridge over the Foyle River that divides the Catholic West of Derry from the Eastern Waterside, one can sense his mother’s anxiety as she waves him off, assuring him that all will be well.
What makes the reading so easy is that much of what is relevant to our time surfaces through the conversations and experiences of the principal characters, Johnny Mullan and his newly acquired male and female student friends as they begin to familiarise themselves with all the aspects of their new environment and work through the major challenges.
Quite quickly the plot leads us into the development of two first year student camps in conflict within the class. On the one hand there’s the group of male and female students led by Gavin Maguire who right from the start, with the support of his brother from a senior class has been, for some reason as yet unknown, aggressively targeting Johnny Mullan. On the other hand there’s Johnny’s supportive group which includes Chinese student Eddie Li (drawing for appropriate supportive action on seeds of wisdom from his Taoist background), and Margaret Phillips receiving and making available to the group the wisdom, informal counselling and support of her mother, a University Professor. Then there’s timid Mary McNevin whose hidden musical and literary talents are gradually being released to her own benefit and that of the other members of the group, as they begin to identify themselves as bridge builders across the divide.
The bridge-building is given a further reinforcement when Mrs Walsh their Form Mistress brings the whole class together for the first of their regular debating sessions. Under her gentle but firm chairmanship the students are learning to prepare their points and presentation and the necessity of listening attentively in order to respond to the opposing side. She herself in her relationship with both class and individual students comes across as a model of attentive listening. The students have the benefit of a further model of listening in dialogue when Mrs Walsh invites some members of staff to come as observers, or commentators on the debate. This model of listening is highlighted by contrast with that of non-listening Dr. McGinnis, Head of the Religion Department on the day of his visit as commentator on a motion that he has put forward, ‘That Materialism is Earth’s biggest Problem’.
After the vote taking, condemning what he heard as the results of the students’ research and analysis of what is at the root of the drive in society for unnecessary possessions, Dr McGinnis delivers a fiery lecture to assembled students and College staff. He exhorts them to accept the ‘deposit or treasure that we are all required to receive intact’, which he defines as ‘fixed truth’, and follows this up with a series of warnings. The sequel to this outburst, the resolution of the conflict, and the model of staff communication with the students afterwards reveals something of the Iona College professional approach to education by Principal and staff.
Overall, the novel occupies a broad canvas within and beyond the confines of College life. Through the course of events and conversations when students visit each others’ homes we get an insight on aspects of family life which we see reflected in the wellbeing and balance, or otherwise, of the student members of the respective ‘camps’. We meet the family of Johnny and discover the enormous forbearance of his mother in her suffering relationship with his traumatised father, and the healing power of her compassion, and indeed of that of Johnnie guided by her example. We also get to know something of the violence of Gavin’s family background and its effects on Gavin and ultimately on his classmates; possibly an interesting hunting ground for psychologists, for parents and for teachers alike.
After reading it to the end, it’s difficult to leave this book aside. It calls for book club discussion, and above all, dialogue – and what then?
The Chain That Binds the Earth is to receive a formal launch in Derry on December 4th, 2015. The keynote address is to be delivered by Most Rev Donal McKeown, Bishop of Derry. For further details click here.