The Third Miss Keane by Tom Cleary

Reviewed by Fiona Sinclair 

The Third Miss Keane

The Third Miss Keane presents the Ireland of another era, seen through the eyes of an observant child with a rich imagination, brimming with characters whose eccentricities make them seem both human and mystical.

Each poem forms a detailed narrative character study. Many of the titles bear the character’s names: Mattie, Angela, Old Billy. The poet focus on various events – a child’s death, a woman yearning for the freedom of birth control, violin lessons – and within that incident, amplifies the character’s traits and life. Such poems are complete in themselves but in the context of the collection, form a rich picture of the persona’s childhood landscape.

Part of the poet’s skill lies in the character of the child narrator developed throughout the collection. On one level he is a normal little boy who, at a priest’s funeral ‘brushed his face with my fingers, and froze.’ Yet he is also an extraordinarily observant child, who at church notes that the eponymous ‘Third Miss Keane’ is clenched between her two sisters ‘like a miscreant’. Moreover, some poems move into realms of magical realism: ‘Good Fairies’ , ‘Hobgoblin’ and ‘Goose’ shift easily between this world and ‘the unknown’.

This is a community ordered by a patriarchal catholic faith. In one sense, religion adds to the atmosphere of mystery and magic, but there’s also a sense of community segregated by faith. A world within a world, full of rules and regulations. The persona in ‘Buttermilk’ ‘didn’t even know what a protestant was’, and Catholicism is clearly a patriarchal world. There are several poems that indirectly criticise the behaviour of men, excellent examples of inferred criticism, with fine deployment of ‘show’, rather than ‘telling’ the reader the poet’s attitudes.

‘Birth Control’ portrays a woman whose life is defined by the first line: ‘She had her eighth baby, little Jude’: a woman who has lived her life by the strictures of her faith. The final lines, in response to the husband’s declaration ‘Abstention be blowed,’ reveals, in her actions (‘we could hear her / throwing cutlery in the drawer’), her reluctance to bear yet more children. This criticism, of a religion that indulges men and allows them to become selfish, is reiterated in the poem ‘Winnings’. In this skilful short poem, we see carefree men in a community where betting and drinking is endemic. The repetition of ‘They ‘at the beginning of the line infers not just the number of men who live thus, but a sense of their wives and children outnumbered by them. Women and children tellingly enter the poem only the last line: ’they went in home to their bitter wives and peeping children.’

A seam of violence runs through this poem, ‘shouting, punching‘. This violence is felt throughout the collection, hinting not just at the rigours of Catholic patriarchy, but also suggesting links to the IRA that a child would not be fully cognisant of.

The poems do not only focus on ‘mystery’; there is a great deal of the everyday and human in the collection. The persona speaks of small boys forced to go to church, ’Fidgeting in our places we kicked and punched each other under the table’. ‘Gobstoppers’ recollects ’On our way home from school we bought boiled sweets in paper bags’, yet even here there are intimations of extraordinary people. The two sisters running the sweetshop seem to yearn for another life, and the eponymous Third Miss Keane is ‘less a person than the ghost of a person’, whose hair the child notices ‘was alive with bugs easing themselves crabwise in and out’, an image both disgusting and bizarre.

The poet’s talent for language helps to translate these memorable and extraordinary people in a tight-knit community. It is not simply the minute and often quirky details incorporated in their descriptions, but the poet’s skillful, original similes, that create an air of otherworldliness: an uncle’s singing voice ‘pure as a robin’s flute’, a pig with ‘a gleam of tooth under his snout like a smirk’. This collection takes us back to a place that I suspect is long gone, even in Ireland. From the anodyne society we inhabit, it gives us a chance to visit a world rich in character, a landscape that feels at once real and imagined.