An Irish Sleeping Beauty (West Coast of Ireland, present-day): This is a novel with a fairy-tale soul. Sweet and dreamy. Ancient and 19th century Irish and Celtic poetry grace its pages, as well as the hearts and minds of its three key characters, giving it a sense of timelessness, soulfulness.
The poetry memorializes Ireland’s mystical, magical beauty. Seamus Heaney exalted “lough waters.” William Butler Yeats wrote of “waters wild.” A. E. (George W. Russell) glorified “delicate dews” and a “breath of Beauty.” Yeats also wrote of a “faery” and a “beautiful mild woman”; A. E., a “long sleeping.”
Not all the poems are from the Old World. That beautiful fairy shows up as the girl in the title. Siobhan Doyle secretly composes her own poems immortalizing Ireland’s surreal beauty. She possesses a “fairy charm.” Even her watchful childhood friend, Maura (her only real friend when the tale begins), felt she “invented” Siobhan, that one day she’d disappear into her “fairy-mound.”
That’s because of her striking appearance – long dark hair reaching down to her knees – and her mysterious and unworldliness around people. Instead, Siobhan, a “poetic soul,” finds enchantment in ancient Irish poetry and the misty beauty of her pristine surroundings on the western coast of Ireland, the Connemara region. Someplace between Clifden and Galway, two miles down a coastal road outside the fictional village of Carnloe, you might find Siobhan lulled by her hallowed Lake Carnoe – or in Irish – Lough Carnloe.
The thing is Siobhan is not a girl. Though she’s quite small, she’s twenty-seven and still doesn’t know “how to stop being shy of people.” Her hulking, well-over six foot tall Uncle Kee, turning fifty, went to such lengths to protect her he “created a soul too gentle for this world.” He gave up alcohol when he suddenly became the parent of a frightened two-year old after his dear sister Maureen, Siobhan’s mother, was killed in an IRA bombing in Northern Ireland; presumably so was Siobhan’s father, a British soldier – a nod to Ireland’s anti-British history. He’d already forsaken his university dreams of studying Irish Gaelic poetry due to familial responsibilities but not his passion and knowledge, which he instilled in Siobhan.
For all he’s gone through, Kee keeps his feelings to himself whereas Siobhan doesn’t even understand hers. They both share a special bond for Irish poetry, Ireland, and the three-hundred-year old stone pub passed down six generations that Kee owns and the two run together – the Leeside.
Leeside, though isolated, is the cultural hub for this small, remote community. So it is remarkable how emotionally detached Siobhan has been despite friends and neighbors who gather here. Among them are Maura and her husband Brendon, their four-year-old daughter Triona Siobhan adores, a troublesome brother Nialle, and Maura’s father Seamus. Katie is another one of the regulars. She’s a brassy woman who raises Connemara ponies (Siobhan cherishes hers), who has had her eyes on Kee for a long time.
A third devotee of Irish literature brings us to Siobhan’s sweet awakening. Jim, a professor of Irish studies from Minnesota, is on his way to visit Kee when the novel opens. Siobhan is apprehensively preparing for Jim’s visit, for her uncle has decided to re-open the pub to overnighters. That practice ceased years ago when an incident there threatened his precious girl. Jim has never been to Ireland, but Siobhan immediately picks up on his deep appreciation for Ireland’s “poetry, mythology, folklore, and history,” which stirs her delicate heart, unfamiliarly.
Jim also sees something of himself in Siobhan yet he intuits with tenderness she’s very different than any woman he’s ever known. While he tries to separate his feelings from his scholarship, the truth is he has fallen hopelessly, achingly, in love with her uniqueness instantly. Hence, the set-up in this old-fangled love story.
Jim’s romantic dilemma is how to penetrate Siobhan’s inner world without scaring her off and how to do that from afar. Could she ever leave a place she’s never traveled from, away from the waters that soothe her and the uncle she reveres?
For Siobhan’s part, she’s never been involved with a man. She has no idea if the emotions she feels around Jim and the “emptiness” that bears down on her once he’s gone have anything to do with love. Perhaps the “intense passions” in her poetry are guiding her, she muses, for she had a visceral instinct she couldn’t just say goodbye as he’s about to leave. So she guiltily concocts a lie that assures he’ll have a reason to stay in touch. Their twice daily email correspondences draw them closer, yet the lie shames her, stands between them, and she isn’t sure of his feelings since they’re not face-to-face, illuminating a condition of contemporary life, though so much else in the novel feels as though time has stood still.
A few more examples to make the case for the aura of yesteryear. A Prologue set in the 20th century conveys a “mystical bond between women.” The importance of female friendships being a “wellspring for each other” is a poignant theme of sharing and caring that plays through.
There’s also a nomadic caravan family that stops by the pub every September to sell their wares, including the warmest and loveliest sweaters that pay tribute to Ireland’s sheep farming history. Siobhan looks forward to seeing the merry band of travelers, especially Gwen; also her son Turf (great name given the love of the land), his wife JoJo and their children. They’re gypsies: “members of an ancient clan, ragged nobles of the road, the last strands of a vanishing way of life.”
The concept and spirit of traveling is also expressed in the backstory of Siobhan’s mother, a restless soul; by Siobhan who is calmed by sheltering in place; and through all the armchair travelers who see the world via literature, including poetry.
It’s summertime, so we too are dreaming of traveling. Whether you’re making plans to travel from home or stay put and let fiction transport, Girl on the Leeside offers peacefulness. Peaceful like our world is not. Your trip will take you to an unhurried place of sheer natural beauty. A kinder, quieter world where life is more basic. That’s not to say these people aren’t hardworking, but they have time to count their blessings. Girl on the Leeside gently reminds us of that.
So while you’re reading, imagine yourself as Siobhan gazing into the “pearl gray” waters of her lough. Imagine glimpsing the dramatic Aran Islands a short distance away, and knowing you’re among friends who extend a “perpetual welcome.” Imagine an “untamed valley of rough beauty,” with its verdant “folds of hills and cozy knolls,” a landscape so beckoning it seems a fantasy. Then wonder like Siobhan: “How does a person really know where they are meant to be?”