Spanish Gold
by George A. Birmingham
(James Owen Hannay)

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Reverend J. J. Meldon novel

Methuen: London, 1908
309 pages

George H. Doran: New York, 1908
309 pages

April 2014

The gift of gab

Spanish Gold, as we may guess from its title, is a treasure-hunt novel. Even more entertainingly, it's a humorous novel of talk, clever cascades of speech by its hero, Church of Ireland clergyman J. J. Meldon: a good fellow, albeit of roguish humor and runaway enthusiasms. In his own name, author George A. Birmingham (James Owen Hannay, 1865-1950) himself was an Anglican minister in Ireland, and I suspect Meldon is something of a wish-fulfillment figure not entirely exceeding the author's own nature. Birmingham knows his West of Ireland territory and people intimately. The coastline, bays, and small islands of Connacht (or Connaught), the rural residents and small-boat sailors and officious outsiders, all come vividly to life. And talk. Birmingham lets us listen to flavors of speech of the residents and outsiders, but it is Reverend Meldon's ability and compulsion (I'll invent a fanciful example) to talk the ears off a rock on the beach (if it had ears) which is the joy of Spanish Gold.

We are introduced to Meldon as he is bicycling rapidly down the road to visit his friend Major Kent, hoping for a cool lemon squash to drink upon arrival.

Another man, while dwelling with pleasure on the expectation of a drink, would have also wished for a wash and the use of a clothes brush. The ideal curate, the "dilettante, delicate-handed priest" of Tennyson's poems, the beloved of ladies in English country towns, would have wished first to be clean and then desired some mild refreshment — tea, perhaps, served in an old china cup. But Mr. Meldon was no such curate. Indeed, those who knew him well wondered at his being a curate at all. He was more at his ease in a smoking-room than a drawing-room, and preferred a gun to a Sunday-school roll-book. He cared very little about his personal appearance, and considered that he paid sufficient respect to the virtue of cleanliness if he washed every morning. He was physically strong, played most games well, had been distinguished as an athlete in college, smoked black tobacco, and was engaged to be married. Also, though no one ever gave him credit for being studious, he read a great many books.

Meldon, perusing some old family papers of Major Kent's, stumbles on the idea of cached treasure. The old records suggest that a galleon of the Spanish Armada was wrecked on the seaward coast of Inishgowlan, one of the many islands in the bay. Kent is contemplating a pleasure sail of his boat across the bay to Inishgowlan, and Meldon decides to come along and turn the outing into a treasure hunt.

"I suppose you think you're going to find all this wonderful treasure yourself."

"Of course I am. It only wants a little intelligence."

"You said just now that old Sir Giles and my grandfather were intelligent men, and they didn't find it."

"They hadn't the advantages we have now," said Meldon. "I don't deny their intelligence, but they didn't know, they couldn't know, how to go about the business. The discovery of buried treasure hadn't become an exact science in their time. Edgar Allen Poe hadn't written his stories. The art of the detective hadn't been developed. They hadn't so much as heard of Sherlock Holmes. They had about as much chance of finding that treasure as Galileo with his old-fashioned telescope had of discovering a disease germ. Now we are in quite a different position. We start with all the methods of highly-trained intellects ready to our hand, so to speak. There's only one thing I'm sorry for, and that is that there isn't a cryptogram. I'm particularly good at cryptograms."

Once at the island, Meldon must dissemble their motives with the locals and with an agent from the Congested Districts Board sent to impose order on the islanders' lives, while applying his logic to the landscape to deduce where the Spanish galleon went aground and where its captain must have hidden his sea chest of doubloons and jewels. The stolid Kent is a dubious and somewhat unwilling accomplice in all this.

The adventure rollicks along, its sails as it were largely filled by Meldon's cajoling, urging, friendliness, dissembling, logic, and wit. But there are other forces at work here, a growing number of people involved one way or another in the treasure hunt — whether they're aware of the possible treasure trove, or not. Meldon has to deal with them all.

Spanish Gold is a fine and funny novel, suffused with the love of language, and full of good-natured wit in the adventure for lost treasure.

A couple of points more. The Congested Districts Board, operated by the British government out of Dublin, is a do-good and top-down bureaucracy. No doubt its aim and officials are well-intentioned, but often not appreciated by the rural Irish it fastens upon to improve. Birmingham gives us both an educated Irishman's (Meldon) and the targeted locals' (the islanders) impressions of the Board's activities. All interesting, and fitted natively and entertainingly into the plot.

I also want to take a moment about sailing and sailboats. They are essential to the action in Spanish Gold, with the scenes and action related to them beautifully fitted into the plot. In contrast, Birmingham's novel Priscilla's Spies (1912) with a similar setting but juvenile main characters, is so overweighted with interesting and enjoyable sailing details, that the plot virtually sinks under them. That novel is readable, but relatively all foam and no tide.

If my exemplar rock on the beach didn't have ears to fall off, J. J. Meldon would with a handful of deft if dubious logic convince the rock that it had ears; and then talk them off. Meldon and rock would part amicably, although then surely the de-eared rock would wonder what had hit it.


© 2014 Robert Wilfred Franson

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