T. R. Henn, Foreword to The Untilled Field (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1976), pp.v-xxv.

George Moore, The Untilled Field, with a foreword by T. R. Henn (Gerrards Cross : Colin Smythe 1976), xxv, 348pp.

In his own Preface George Moore tells us something of the provenance of the book: - “written in the beginning out of no desire for self-expression, but in the hope of furnishing the young Irish of the future with models”. The stories were translated into Irish by Taidgh O’Donohue, “and published in a very pretty book [1] of which nobody took any notice”. Moore then collected the manuscripts, and the English Edition was published in 1903 by Fisher Unwin. Twice the collection was revised by Moore himself, making in the final edition a total of fifteen stories as against the original twelve. To achieve this he conflated (not altogether happily) two stories, “In the Clay” and “The Way Back” into a single one called “Fugitives”; and added four new ones: “Patchwork”, “The Wedding Feast”, “A Playhouse in the Waste” and “The Window”. He also changed the order, presumably to stress some general connecting principles and certain recurrent characters. We need not take too seriously his claim that his sole interest was to provide models for Irish writers. Moore, in common with others, had jumped on the bandwagon of the language revival, and we may recall the projected fate of the lost play Diarmuid and Grania. Moore was to write the play in French; there are in fact a few specimen pages of his dialogue in Ave. [2] Lady Gregory was then to translate it into English: [v] O’Donohue was to translate it into Irish; Lady Gregory was to translate the Irish back into English. And finally Yeats was “to put style upon it”. The play would thus have been cured and flavoured through successive translations, emerging with a special but undefined quality. We may be grateful that the transmigrations never took place.

Nor is Moore just in claiming that the stories were written “out of no desire for self-expression”. They are - as all such work must be - drawn from his own experiences and reflections from childhood onwards; and they are polished and re-polished with the scrupulous attention that made him, in his day, the acknowledged master of English style. They reflect many of his personal preoccupations, even obsessions. We must examine some of these; keeping in mind the “pretty book” in Irish of which “nobody took any notice”.


The main subjects are the life of the countryside in North Mayo and in the neighbourhood of Dublin, in the 1880s. There is much autobiographical material; his boyhood at Moore Hall, and his early pride in his horsemanship; his detested English School [3] and army crammer. His model, he tells us, was Turgenev’s Tales of a Sportsman : but the background and method is wholly different. Turgenev went among the people of his own estates and those of his neighbours on innumerable shooting expeditions: out of which came a special relationship to his tenants and serfs, and, above all, to the Russian countryside. Moore has little nature description and, except for his early interest in his own and his brother’s horsemanship, does not use the wild [vi] sports of Ireland to attain any intimate bond with the countryside and its people. [4] His unit is, in the main, the country parish; dominated, for good or evil by its priest. The landlords are usually remote, and in the main Protestant; the sole Catholic who is depicted is not remarkable for his intelligence. The Big House, often in ruins, is in the remote background. It is the land that is desolate. Poverty is almost universal; ruins are everywhere, and they are more often the cottages of the peasant than the castles or the houses of the landlords:

And I noticed that though the land was good, there seemed to be few people on it, and what was more significant than the untilled fields were the ruins, for they were not the cold ruins of twenty or thirty, or forty years ago when the people were evicted and their tillage turned into pasture-the ruins I saw were the ruins of cabins that had been lately abandoned, and I said:

‘It wasn’t the Landlord who evicted those people.’
‘Ah, it’s the landlord who would be glad to have them back, but there’s no getting them back. Everyone here will have to go, and ‘tis said that the priest will say Mass in an empty chapel, sorra a one will be there but Bridget, and she’ll be the last he’ll give communion to. ... [5]

The people have no alternative but emigration to America - the fabulous land where a priest may go to collect money for his ruinous church [6] - or to England to seek work and freedom from the arranged marriages, or from an unhappy love affair. Of Moore’s anti-clericalism much has been written, and its most obsessional aspects are in Hail and Farewell. [vii]

But it is a mistake to consider Moore as the originator of the anti-clericalism which is so conspicuous in the Irish short stories of the last half century; nor need we find special sources in the cynical mood of the Eighties and Nineties in Paris. Satire of this kind goes back to Lindsay [7] and beyond. It is at its most explicit in Brian Merryman’s The Midnight Court. In “A Letter to Rome” the inversions of a modest proposal is carried beyond the bounds of satire:

“That if each priest was to take a wife about four thousand children would be born within the year, forty thousand would be added to the birthrate in ten years. Ireland can be saved by ‘her priesthood!’ … The priests live in the best houses, eat the best food, wear the best clothes; they are indeed the flower of the nation, and would produce magnificent sons and daughters. And who could bring up their children according to the teaching of our holy church as well as priests?”

For the priest is not only the censor of morals who tries to suppress courtship, dancing, drinking, but has the power of turning his parishioners into animals. He must depend on those parishioners for the support of his church and the repairs to it. And this is the theme of the story “Patchwork”, where the ruined fabric is intertwined with the failure of a couple to provide money for their marriage-dues. We have a sympathetic account of Father Maguire’s struggle with his conscience when he finds that the couple may have been united without the rites of the Church:

“Oh! my God, oh! my God”, he said, “Thou knowest that it was not for myself that I wanted the money, it was to build up Thine Own House.” [viii]

Yet the balances are not held unevenly; the few Protestants in the community are seen as the grim inheritors of the Puritan tradition:

“There isn’t one in the village that you’ve any respect for, except the grocer, that black Protestant, who sits behind his counter and makes money, and knows no enjoyment in life at all.” [8]

But the religious satire is not ill-natured, and is superficial compared with that of Joyce; though a faint tinge of acidity, even of cruelty, is nearly always there.

There are other matters for Moore’s satire: notably the Philistinism about him. The parish priest proposes to build an “imitation” of Cormac’s Chapel. In “Fugitives” the sculptor Rodney is commissioned to do an altar and a Madonna for Father McCabe’s new Church. At once there are difficulties. The reluctance of Lucy to sit in the nude is overcome without too much pressure, but the studio is wrecked, and the plaster cast broken by Lucy’s two young brothers who have misunderstood the words of the priest:

“I had sent him a sketch for the Virgin and Child, and he recognized the pose as the same” (Lucy has modelled for the head and bust) “and began to argue. I told him that sculptors always used models, that even a draped figure had to be done from the nude first and that the drapery went on afterwards. It was foolish to tell him these things.”

Lucy goes to London: Rodney’s friend Harding, with the [ix] best of intentions, befriends her, and attempts to find her a theatrical engagement. But detectives come to Harding’s club on the possible charge of abducting a seventeen-year-old girl. This part of the story ends happily though rather abruptly. Lucy marries a mathematical instrument-maker from Chicago - a pretty fancy of Moore’s in view of her aspirations to become a musician - and we end with two priests in Dublin considering this fine point of theology: if a man may ask a woman to sit naked to him, and then if it would be justifiable to employ a naked woman for a statue of the Virgin. Father Brennan said: “Nakedness may not be in itself a sin, but it leads to sin and is therefore unjustifiable.” At their third tumbler of punch they had reached Raphael, and at the fourth Father McCabe held that bad statues were more likely to excite devotional feelings than good ones, bad statues being further removed from perilous nature.

Visse, scrissi, amo: Henri Beyle’s epitaph on himself might well be applied to Moore. His concern with woman in all her aspects was constant throughout his life; the parade of his adventures, real or imagined, excited the ridicule of his friends and enemies, and he himself suggested that the resultant scandals had contributed to the neglect of the Irish language which he had championed. The portraits of the girls and women of The Untilled Field are drawn with delicacy and tact. There is the graceful story called “The Wedding Gown”: of the relationship of a very young girl, Margaret Kirwan, to a very old and decrepit woman, obsessed in her dotage with memories of bells that rang for her wedding (but there were [x] no bells) and treasuring her ancient wedding gown, which she lends to the girl for her first dance. The roots of the story are in Salve. [9] The red-haired girl of “The Wild Goose” appears there also: the cousin from America who came to Ireland for a rest [10] but who returns in the end to his Chicago bar. “He, too, seemed typical of Ireland, and. .. I had begun to see him strolling about Tara, dreaming of Ireland’s past, till he fell in love with the farmer’s pretty daughter, sensual love bridging over, for a while, intellectual differences.” The sequel in “The Wild Goose” is the husband’s desertion of his wife and children; since he has been (prophetically) “all through Cuba”, starts a revolutionary paper, comes into conflict with the hierarchy, and wrenches himself free from Ireland. The heroine of “Julia Cahill’s Curse” flies to America to escape an “arranged” marriage; Kate refuses to meet her drunken husband on the night of “The Wedding Feast”. She too goes to America, the common fate.

Moore claimed that The Untilled Field was modelled on Turgenev; and, rather outrageously, that he himself had helped Synge to forge his peculiar dramatic style. (This is linked with an attack on Lady Gregory’s “Kiltartanese”.) His own style has a peculiar quality, not very easy to define. It is lean and muscular, the product of a fairly extensive knowledge of French, but far more of slow and scrupulous revision; erasing, as it were, all that does not tell. To this effect his characteristic technique of dialogue seems to contribute. One aspect is the peculiar level quality of the prose: few polysyllabic words are used, and the biblical in fluence - perhaps at its best in The Brook Kerith - contributes to the impression of evenness of tone. The punctuation is light. There is little care for the periods that so many of [xi] Moore’s contemporaries took from Pater, and there is no attempt at the high style, still less at what he calls “the undulating cadences of Yeats”. Later, in The Story-Teller’s Holiday, he used a more erudite and heavier style.

The unusual sensibility is shown in minute touches, which are often ironical.

“And everywhere Kate went her gown was being talked about-the gown she was to be married in, a grey silk that had been bought at a rummage sale” [11].

“An obscure, clandestine, taciturn little man occupying in life only the space necessary to bend over a desk, and whose conical head leaned to one side as if in token of his humility” [12]

“A soft south wind was blowing, and an instinct as soft and as gentle filled my heart, and went towards some trees. The new leaves were beginning in the high branches. I was sitting where sparrows were building their nests, and very soon I seemed to see farther into life than I had ever seen before. [13]

We may suggest some comparison with the technique of James Stephens in (for example) “Etched in Moonlight”; rather than with such modern writers as Corkery, O’Connor, O’Faolain.

It is a strange world that underlies these stories: of Mayo parishes where the priest is all-powerful; where marriages are arranged, usually in the face of great poverty; where [xii] America is a promised land for the young, a relief from poverty and the grinding cycle of the small farm. Useless roads and quays are built solely to provide labour. With poverty goes drink and its evils. The stories of its people are told in level, almost dispassionate tones, but Moore has pity and understanding when his obsessions, and their barbed references, are allowed to drop into the background. There is understanding of a boy’s mind in “So On He Fares”, and this contains some of the best descriptions of scenery in the book. There is the haunting story of the bank clerk who falls in love with a woman whom he never sees, whose scent of heliotrope is on the cheque he has to, clear [14] and is driven to ruin by that elusive love. Biddy’s vision in the church when her window is completed, the notes of music that she hears from the harps, her final views of Christ, is told with understanding and pity. [15] A young man ‘extremely interested in ecclesiastical art’ comes to visit the church:

“Look at her”, said the young man. “Can you doubt that she sees heaven quite plainly, and that the saints visited her just as she told us?”
“No doubt, no doubt. But she’s a great trial to us at Mass. .. The Mass mustn’t be interrupted.”
“I suppose even miracles are inconvenient at times, Father Maguire. Be patient with her: let her enjoy her happiness.”
And the two men stood looking at her, trying vainly to imagine what her happiness might be.

1. It is interesting to note that he refers to Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight in the same words.
2. Ebury Edition, Chap. XV.
3. The Wild Goose.
4. Contrast, in this respect, Lord Dunsany’s The Curse of the Wise Woman; and an earlier classic, Maxwell’s Wild Sports of the West.
5. “Julia Cahill’s Curse”.
6. “Patchwork, The Window”.
7. “Ane Satire of the Three Estatés”.
8. “The Wedding Feast”.
9. p.121. (Ebury Edition).
10. Ibid. p. 125.
11. “The Wedding Feast”.
12. “The Clerk’s Quest”.
13. “Almsgiving”.
14. “The Clerk’s Quest”.
15. “The Window”.

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