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Blackcock's Feather    by Maurice Walsh order for
Blackcock's Feather
by Maurice Walsh
Order:  USA  Can
W. & R. Chambers, 1934 (1932)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This is the 'plain cloak-and-sword story rendered from the Scots and Gaelic' of a man who became known as Blackcock's Feather for the distinctive decoration that adorned his 'fine Highland bonnet'. We first meet David Gordon, fresh from his father's burial and weary of the futility of years spent with that 'wandering man' in European exile. For Iain Gordon 'had two loves in all his life': David's mother Fionuala, daughter of an Irish chieftain; and Mary Queen of Scots. Iain hated Elizabeth, who ordered Mary's execution and his principles kept him from fighting on the side of the English or against the underdog. Unfortunately, given the political situation at that time, these scruples left him unable to sell his sword and he ended up teaching fencing and wrestling in small towns on the fringes of armies.

Hearing that the Irish chiefs were finally uniting to wage war against Elizabeth, Iain and his twenty-eight year old son travelled to Ireland by way of Bristol. There Iain fell ill and died, leaving his son at loose ends. The story opens as David shows his mettle wrestling with the Cornish shipowner who tries to deny him a refund of his father's fare. This is when he first encounters a gallant enemy, Sir Francis Vaughan, who is impressed by his demeanour and attempts to win him to the English side. Gordon has not yet decided when a brutal encounter in Dublin makes up his mind for him - Captain Cosby, 'a man you would say at first glance was handsome and merry - and be only a good judge of looks', viciously slaughters an unarmed Irish chieftain, whom David has befriended.

After a comical encounter with Vaughan's servant, Trooper Tom Pybus, and taking the 'wine of advice' from his friend Cathal, Gordon rides by back roads to Ulster and to Dungannon where he meets the O'Neill and learns that the cousin he had hoped to find is a truce hostage in Galway. Nevertheless he heads on to Dungiven; his cousin Donal is there after all and welcomes David as close kin. There is also the priest, Father Senan, who loves David for his dead mother's sake. David describes himself as 'a dangerous, sullen fellow to outward seeming, though, in truth, I was, even then, of mild and reasonable habit.' He finds a fellowship in Dungiven that he had never known ... 'On my first coming we talked for three days back-and-fore, and after that, as they say, we began talking.'

Blackcock's Feather is a wonderful tale of war, action and, of course, romance. While hostage, Donal met and fell for Amy Burc, whose father is about to send her out of reach to England. A raid is planned and succeeds, but the party is separated and David and Father Senan have their own adventure. They cross swords with Cosby and David meets his match in Eithne O'Flaherty in 'an experience that had shaken the roots of my life'. She hides them from the English, who are her mother's allies. There are many more encounters with old friends and enemies, brutality side by side with gallantry.

As in The Quiet Man, Walsh gives an idealized and sentimental perspective of the Gael, imbedded in a rousing tale of historical adventure. David Gordon is an excellent hero; dour and always ready to decry his own abilities, yet a true friend, a brave fighter, and a man of principles like his father. He does defeat the villain in a final confrontation and wins what he deserves, though, in true Irish fashion, his future mother-in-law has the last word. It is a shame that Walsh wrote so few historical novels, but they are all worth reading, especially this one.

Notes: This book is out of print but is still available from rare book stores. Thanks to Violet Books for giving permission to show the dustwrapper illustration above. Have a look at their Gallery of Rare Dustwrappers and vintage Illustrations.

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