[published originally by SB Deborah McDermott in her blog wanderofwanders.com]
Greetings from Corofin, and my apologies for the long hiatus. Blame it on summer, a rather unplanned move to new digs in town, and a quick trip back to the states to meet my daughter and work on her wedding in Maine next summer. Whew! Life has a way of deciding its own route.
As late summer eases into fall and the great outdoors call us less and less for the warmth of a cozy house, the written word inevitably begins to cast its magical spell. A book come autumn is often pure delight, a companion, friend and educator, a way to assuage spirits that will soon grapple with long nights and maddeningly short days. For quite some time, I have wanted to craft a blog about some of the books by Irish authors I have had the pleasure to read – some old, comfortable companions and some, new friends. And so, as the goldenrod comes into its own, as here in County Clare the blackberries turn from hard, green nut into sweet, luscious fruit and the temperatures moderate, this seems the perfect time to share my literary thoughts with you.
Some Irish authors, I have observed, write quirky, lyric, imaginative, complicated prose, a style very different from many American writers, for instance. Although I am so new to this country, I suspect these works are a reflection of the Irish people themselves – on the surface so quirky and underneath so complicated, shaped over 8 or 9 millennia. The books by these authors stretch me in unexpected ways, urging me to set aside more simplistic concepts of prose for something more inventive. And they will challenge you, too, but face the challenge head on and come out the other side enriched. Here are a few for you to consider:
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan. This is a 21st century heartbreak of a book, in a county that has known its share of heartbreak. It captures the effect of an economic downturn on a small Irish village, as seen through the eyes of 21 people who live there. Imagine crafting the personality and depth of all those disparate voices, chapter by chapter. It’s really a small miracle of a book, Ryan’s first, and ends up consistently on lists of best 21st century Irish novels.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghriofa. This is a most unusual and wonderful book. Some readers found it difficult to follow, as did I until I got into its ebb and flow. And when I finished it, I considered it one of the most substantial, beautifully written and fulfilling works I’ve read in my lifetime. Ni Ghriofa tells us right from the beginning, “This is a female text, composed while folding someone else’s clothes.” And so it is. Part autobiographical, part autofiction, part history, it chronicles the 21st century life of an Irish poet and mother of three on a quest to learn, ala researcher or journalist, all she can about the 18th century noblewoman Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill. Eibhlin Duhb wrote the consequential poem Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire, her lament about her murdered husband, Art O’Leary. Irish friends say the poem was must reading in school, and it is considered one of the finest poems in the Irish language. A woman poet writes about a woman poet, with a most richly compelling result.
Milkman, by Anna Burns. I will state right up front that this novel, the winner of the Dublin Literary Award in 2020 and the Man Booker Prize in 2018, is not for the faint of heart. I am very, very glad I read it, even though I needed to put it down and walk away from time to time. The protagonist lives in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and smack dab in The Troubles. She is not named nor are any of the characters, nor is the city in which they live, known to be Belfast. She is 18, caught up in a claustrophobic, constrained, violent time that seeps into her soul in ways unbidden and not. She is targeted by a 41-year-old married man in a position of paramilitary power, Milkman (creepy name!), and he wants her for his own, unconditionally. She yearns for more, for a life not bound by sectarian sections, but it seems out of reach. The writing is inventive and compelling, and there’s a reason it won these two prestigious prizes.
Beatlebone by Kevin Barry is a fictionalized account of John Lennon’s visit to an island he actually owned in Clew Bay, County Mayo. He is 37 in this account, just a few years before his death. Lennon was Irish on his father’s side, his grandparents both born in Dublin. He is visiting his island, in this novel, to spend time by himself and figure out what life at this stage is all about. The writing is highly inventive, the setting mystical, the Mayo characters complex.
Some other Irish authors who have made their way onto my Goodreads list but whose work I have not yet read include Ann Enright, John Banville and John McGahern.
So now I want to talk about some of those longtime companions, authors I have read for a number of years and who have long had a place in my particular bookish universe. I am sure you are familiar with them, have probably read one of their books somewhere along the way, so my suggestion to you is that you find a book by them you haven’t read and open the pages some long winter’s night. I certainly intend to revisit some of them this coming winter.
I’ll start with Roddy Doyle. I have loved Roddy Doyle’s books since his first novel came out in 1987, The Commitments. Some of you may have seen the film by the same name, a rollicking tale set in working class Dublin about bored teenagers who start a band. The film is great, the book is better and one of several set in the fictional part of Dublin he calls Barrytown. Doyle is purely Irish, very funny, a great storyteller, a master of dialogue and writes with depth. I can’t claim to have read all of his works, but he’s definitely one I will return to this winter. Those I have read include Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha (about a 10-year-old Barrytown boy, winner of the Man Booker Prize), The Woman Who Walked into Doors (about a battered woman), Paula Spencer (about the same woman later in life) and his most recent work, Love. This last is about a couple of men in their early 60s, once teenaged friends, who meet after many years at a pub in Dublin. I crawled inside the minds of two men on the precipice of old age and came out alive! And I have so many more novels yet to explore.
Colum McCann is, in my humble opinion, one of the finest novelists, Irish or otherwise, writing today. His novels are not only inventive, they defy pigeonholing. And so he writes about the Middle East, early 20th century NYC subway tunnel workers, a tightrope walker, Rudolf Nureyev, and on. Often in his novels, he weaves a fictional narrative with historical facts. I personally think he does this most convincingly in TransAtlantic, which happens to be a purely Irish work and would easily be ranked among my favorite novels. He tells the story of 100+ years of Irish history, beginning with Frederick Douglass’ famed tours of the country during An Gorta Mor, The Great Hunger, following a woman who is part of the Hunger diaspora as she charts her future in the United States, and including the peace talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. This part of the book particularly resonates for me, as the talks are seen through the fictional lens of Maine Sen. George Mitchell, the US envoy to the talks and a personal hero of mine, who McCann actually interviewed over many hours. But really, any of his novels are worth your time. I’ve read almost all of them, including National Book Award winner Let the Great World Spin, a polished gem of a book that should be on your reading list if you haven’t had the pleasure to yet picingk it up.
I am not much for murder mysteries as a rule. But because she is Irish and because she sets her fictional world in Dublin, I picked up the first book by Tana French, In the Woods, and I declared myself smitten. I’ve since read every book she’s written, and with the notable exception of one, find them just a wonderful mystery romp. Until the most recent, The Searcher, a standalone, she cleverly took a minor character from one book – most often a lowly detective in the gritty Dublin precinct station – and made him or her the star of the next book. Really, for pure, unabashed escapism, you can’t beat her. (BTW, the one dud is Broken Harbor and best left to one side. But truly, do yourself a favor and read the others.)
Reading Niall Williams is not unlike listening to the banter and tales in a small town pub. Neither are to be rushed, and both are rewarding. Some of you may have read his most recent novel, This is Happiness, which I found so satisfying. If you are someone who wants plenty of action in your fiction, Williams is likely not for you. He slowly, quietly, patiently and with great storytelling verve unravels his not-to-be-rushed narrative. This is Happiness is one of two novels set in the fictional County Clare town of Faha (and so in my neck of the Irish woods). It chronicles just a handful of days in the summer of 1958 when the Rural Electrification Scheme finally wended its way to the small hamlets on the west coast – the last to receive electricity. Corofin, where I live, was not electrified until 1953! History of the Rain, the other Faha book, follows a 19-year-old woman confined to bed due to illness. Mature beyond her years, she takes the time to write a history of her father and mother. In this way it’s almost a book within a book. It’s very quiet, wonderfully inventive and was a joy to read. Really, any of his works are worth your time.
I know this is dragging on, but finally I just want to list a few works on or of Irish lore, language and history that I have enjoyed reading. I begin with Thirty-two Words for Field, by Manchan Magan. A dual Irish/English linguist, Magan wrote this book in hopes of saving Irish words that are virtually disappearing by the dozens from lack of use. He’s a talented writer with a compelling life story that he weaves throughout the book. I found it fascinating and I have returned to it over and over again, just to read passages or a particular chapter. Not to be outdone by The Iliad, Táin Bó Cúailnge (tawn bough coonya), or The Cattle Raid of Cooley in English, is Ireland’s own epic poem. Widely available in English translation, it is arguably THE most pivotal work of Irish lore. Key points (for me): it is part of a larger 12th century text but harkens to 1st century, pre-Christian times; one of the key characters is Queen Maeve, a kickass woman who owned property and had a panoply of rights; it introduced one of Ireland’s most beloved figures, Cu Chulainn (Coo Cullen), a warrior of mythic proportions; it clearly depicts the frequently violent times of BCE Ireland when kings were kings and minor kings were minor kings yearning and fighting to become kings. Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Augusta Gregory (see earlier blog) depicts in kind of biblical style the origins of the first mythical beings who came to Ireland. The Other Crowd is a purely delightful book by Eddie Lenihan, a Clare storyteller who has written any number of works. For this one, he interviewed present-day Clare men and women who talk about encounters with the sidhe (pronounced she, the Irish word for fairies). See my blog on syncretism for more, but basically magic is alive and well here, as Lenihan makes manifestly clear. Not for the nonhistorian, but if you want a solidly academic work on the origins of Ireland’s prehistoric past, Ireland’s Immortals by Mark Williams is a great choice (although I can only take the dense writing in dollops!).
I thought I would leave you a poem by Seamus Heaney. Heaney, you may recall, is President Biden’s favorite poet, and he’s well beloved here. I keep taking out books of his poetry from the library, as poetry is not generally among my favorite forms of writing, and I’m slowly learning to appreciate him. So much so that I think I’m ready to purchase a book and take time over this long winter to read and contemplate. Anyway, I started this blog talking about the fall blackberries that are everywhere in profusion here, and found Heaney describes this time of year far better than I can.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.