Surprisinly enough (or perhaps not), relations between Belgium and Ireland go back a lot further than Ireland’s entry into the EEC in 1973 or than the founding of the Irish College in Leuven in 1607 when Leuven was part of the Spanish Lowlands. Indeed, it seems relations between the two countries go back to the seventh century no less, when a young Irish lass by the name of Dympna made her way from the Emerald Isle to Flanders, and more precisely the province of Antwerp.
She was in fact fleeing the incestuous advances of her father who, now that his daughter was grown up, fell in love with her just as he had lusted after her late mother who had died when little Dympna was a child and whom Dympna so strongly resembled. So Dympna fled to Antwerp with her confessor, ending her journey in Geel, in the province of Antwerp. But she and her confessor were tracked down and killed by her father and his men. Their bodies were translated in the 13th century, an event marked by numerous cures of epileptics and lunatics. This is why she became patroness of the insane. From then on, the town of Geel ‘has had a splendid record in the care of the mentally ill.’
Of course, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, the legend of Dympna ‘seems almost pure folklore.’ But folklore or not, her magic nevertheless seems to work for some, and much the same could be said of the Northern Irish poet, translator and writer Ciaran Carson’s magic in his 2001 fiction Shamrock Tea. This book reads like a lesson in storytelling, in how every story begets another story and how every image begets another image, endlessly. Indeed, if there’s one thing Shamrock Tea makes clear, it’s that everything is connected – and if not in real life, at least in this book: from Dympna to Saint Augustine, from Conan Doyle to Oscar Wilde, from Wittgenstein to the Belgian laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature Maurice Maeterlinck, from Belfast and Tydavnet in Ireland to Ghent and Geel in Flanders, from Jan van Eyck to Ignatius of Loyola, from Kaspar Hauser to Gerard Manley Hopkins, and from the Arnolfini Portrait to Carson himself.
The actual plot underlying the novel – if there is a plot and if it is a novel – matters less than the serendipitous accumulation of stories and facts and coincidences that keep piling up until Carson’s whole edifice threatens to come tumbling down. Told by characters and backed by sources that are as reliable as they are not, this story ends where it begins and begins where it ends, and in it past, present and future ultimately are one. And yet, though I’m not really that much of a storytelling person, it doesn’t collapse. It holds up, and perhaps it does so because if it’s about storytelling it’s no less about art and about painting, ‘the art of making things real because you’ve looked at how things are,’ as Carson says. And perhaps that’s why the story is bookended in this Granta edition by the double reproduction of Van Eyck’s Double Portrait. It plays a key role in the book and is discussed in some detail, so it’s useful for readers to be able to look at it – although the details Carson mentions are so minute it’s impossible to visualize them at all. And that’s the point, of course: the only way to see them is to use one’s imagination.