After publishing another historical novel, The Bad Times, in 1908, Birmingham published a humorous novel, Spanish Gold, the same year. The tone of the novel is totally different from those of his previous serious novels. As it became the best-selling novel, it gave Birmingham fame as a novelist.
The protagonist is J.J. Meldon, a cheerful, optimistic and energetic Church of Ireland clergyman serving as a curate of a coastal town in the West of Ireland. In the same town lives Major Kent, a rigid, serious man of English descent. He is a landlord and lives on a big estate called Portsmouth Lodge. Although their dispositions present a striking contrast, they are close friends and call each other “J.J.” and “Major”.
Portsmouth Lodge originally belonged to an English lord, Sir Giles Buckley. At the time of the 1798 Rebellion, the French, who were an ally of the Irish, attacked the English colony in the West of Ireland. Major Kent’s grandfather, an English naval captain, defeated the French and saved Sir Buckley from the peril. In return for his services, the Major’s grandfather was given Portsmouth Lodge and three generations of the Kents have lived there. But Sir Buckley’s descendant, who is penniless, claims the ownership of the estate and tries to sell it. As the Major does not want to part with Portsmouth Lodge, he desperately looks for a legal document certifying the transfer of the ownership of the estate.
When Meldon comes to help him look for it, he discovers the diary of the Major’s grandfather. In it the Major’s grandfather recorded a treasure-hunting trip he made with Sir Buckley on a small island off the west coast of Ireland. They tried to find out the gold which they assumed the Spanish Armada had left somewhere on the island after being defeated in their battle with the English navy in the late 16th century. But their treasure hunting ended fruitlessly.
Accordingly Meldon urges the Major to go with him to the island to discover the hidden gold. Although the Major regards his idea as stupid, he is persuaded to make the trip at last.
On the island they come across rival treasure hunters from England; penniless Buckley and a prodigal called Langton. It is Meldon that discovers the gold. An old man, Thomas O’Flaherty Pat, reveals to Meldon that he keeps the gold secretly in his house. On hearing that, Meldon gives up the gold. But Buckley and Langton seize both the old man and Meldon, tie them up with ropes and try to steal the gold.
While Langton is packing a bag with the gold in the dark, Meldon trips him, making him stumble and fall down. The gold scatters around. Buckly, getting angry, throws Meldon out of the house. When the two vagabonds come out with the bag full of gold, Meldon flings himself at them and again the gold scatters about the field. As Buckley gets angrier, he kicks Meldon into a ditch.
After collecting the scattered gold, Buckley and Langton try to escape from the island in their yacht. Meldon, without shrinking from their violence, rolls down the slope, reaches the house of Mary Kate who is a granddaughter of Thomas O’Flaherty Pat, asks her to untie his rope, and keeps chasing them. Father Mulcrone, a Catholic priest, comes to help him. At last, with the help of the islanders, they seize Buckley and Langton and take back the gold. Then the gold is fairly divided by the islanders.
The Chief Secretary of Ireland, who happens to visit the island at that time, is moved so greatly by Meldon’s performance that he recommends Meldon to his friend as the rector of a coal-mining town in Lancashire. The novel ends happily with Meldon marrying his fiancée and starting to work in the Lancashire town.
In Spanish Gold there is no such harsh criticism of Catholic priests or the Catholic Church as is seen in The Seething Pot and Hyacinth. All the characters including the two vagabonds who try to steal the gold are depicted with humor and affection.
Why did Birmingham turn to a humorous novelist? The reason seems to lie in his involvement with Nationalism and his faith in Christianity. He was criticized by Protestant Unionists because he sympathized with Nationalism and supported the Gaelic League. However the publication of The Seething Pot and Hyacinth caused misunderstanding among Catholic Nationalists and Birmingham was denounced by the executive of the League and withdrew from the executive. Then he underwent a conflict regarding Nationalism and Unionism, wondering which cause was right. It is conceivable that he realized the situation would never get better if he gave a truthful, serious description of the antagonism between Nationalists and Unionists.
Birmingham was originally a man of humor. He had shown his sense of humor before he started writing novels. His autobiography, Pleasant Places, recounts an episode which reveals his sense of humor. In the late 19th century, the Old Age Pension Act came into effect in Ireland, so that the people could receive pensions when they came to a certain age. However, as there had been no obligation to register births for a long time in Ireland, many people’s ages were uncertain. Committees were formed throughout the country to find the ages of those who applied for their pensions. Birmingham was appointed a member of the Westport committee. A number of people coming to apply for their pensions made up fictional stories to lie about their ages and tried to receive their pensions before coming to the required age. There were also troubles between the committee and the people in determining their incomes. Instead of getting angry, Birmingham found a lot of amusement in those troubles. He says, “It does not seem to me now that the English are getting half as much fun out of their Means Test as we got out of ours. They appear to get angry about it, a very stupid thing to do. Public business ought never to be taken seriously. It is always comic and should be treated as a joke.” (p.149)
It is likely that Birmingham realized the same thing about the troubles between Nationalists and Unionists, that they ought never to be taken seriously and should be treated as a joke. In other words, he came to learn that the spirit of humor is indispensable in finding solutions to every human trouble.
Another factor which raises the value of his humorous novels is his deep, pious faith in Christianity. He spent most of his life as a clergyman after he was appointed a curate of Delgany in 1888. He was the Canon of Holy Trinity Church in London when he died in 1950 at the age of 84. He also published a number of books on Christian theology.
In The Spirit and Origin of Christian Monasticism (1903), his first book on Christian theology, Birmingham remarks that, “in making the most that he can honestly, out of life’s opportunities for gain and joy, a Protestant best shows his thankfulness to God……The ideal Christian of Protestantism is brave and strong. He is one who fears God and no one except God.” (p.6)
In Isaiah (1937), biography of a prophet in The Old Testament, Birmingham describes Isaiah who conveys God’s words to the public with fixed beliefs. When Jerusalem is under the threat of the attack from Assyria, Isaiah says to them, “Be quiet. Fear not. Your strength is to sit still……Let Him be your fear and you need fear no other. Let Him be your dread and you need have no other dread.” (p.97) Birmingham admires Isaiah for his strong faith in God which neither the king nor people have.
In Spanish Gold, J.J. Meldon behaves fearlessly to take back the gold from the two vagabonds. He and the other protagonists of Birmingham’s humorous novels behave bravely without fearing anything except God and make the most of life’s opportunities for gain and joy.
Birmingham admires Isaiah for his gentleness as well as his strong faith, saying, “Stern Puritanism is there, uncompromising. Statesmanship is there, wise, far-seeing, well informed. Faith is there, unfaltering even in times of utter hopelessness. But behind all these are love and gentleness – love of Jerusalem and its people; gentleness, not to sin, but to sinners.” (p.57)
Like Isaiah, even in times of utter hopelessness, the protagonists of Birmingham’s humorous novels behave with unfaltering faith, and try to achieve reconciliation between Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists. They are endowed with love and gentleness. They are gentle even to sinners, as shown in J.J. Meldon’s attitude to the two vagabonds in Spanish Gold.
General John Regan (1913) is a play which also represents Birmingham’s love of people, but it was misunderstood by Irish people again and caused the worst riot in the history of Irish theater.
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