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What Major John MacBride learns when leading the Irish Brigade in the Second Anglo-Boer War against the British Empire isn't much help when fighting his estranged wife in the French courts. She is the beloved muse of Ireland's leading poet and so charismatic that militant Irish nationalists think she is worth a platoon of heavy dragoons in Ireland's fight for freedom. Back in Ireland, MacBride's involvement in that fight moves the same poet to say that he has transformed from a drunken, vainglorious lout to a major player in the 'terrible beauty' of the 1916 Easter Rising. This is a rollicking story of a life-long struggle against an implacable foe with a tragic love story thrown in.
It's Ireland in the 1950s and they're both running away, Curly from failure as a dancer in New York and Mary from the utter boredom of Ballymalloy in the West of Ireland. Mary is seduced by his flashy car, his collection of great swing music and his style on and off the dance floor. She succumbs and to atone for the inevitable shame he has caused her, he has to give her the only thing she wants - entry into the unforgiving world he thought he'd left forever. He trains her as a jazz dancer and enters her into a competition that offers her a ticket out of town. The book probes the lives of several inhabitants of Ballymalloy and reveals some funny desires, efforts and strivings. It also probes some horrifying goings on in the workhouses and the industrial schools to which were sent thousands of unwanted children by the church and the religious orders over the decades. Details of these tragic and often fatal stories are still emerging in modern Ireland. However, this story is set in a less complicated time, when America felt good about itself and was admired all over Western Europe. When American technology was supreme and when jazz and bop ruled the world.
Johnny has a passion for the movies and a dream of becoming a filmmaker. In Dublin in the 1950s, this seems impossible, especially when he is forced to leave school. However, he manages to attract several mentors with charm and defeat and win over his enemies with ingenuity. The world which Johnny lives in - that of movie plots - is so romantic and safe that it acts as a shield for the rest of the sorely stressed family. His telling of the movie plots to his family turns into therapy for them. The clear-cut morality of movieland seems to be the only sure thing in their world of poverty, deceit and betrayal. His relationship with the beautiful daughter of a rich Major is just one of the complications which conspire against him finishing his school and learning how to get involved in film-making.