Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! ☘️☘️☘️
In Ireland, all celebrations are cancelled because of covid-19. What to do then? Ah – what about reading a good book!
I know I’ll be reading at some stage, so thought I’d write a post about my favourite Irish literature in case anybody else felt like celebrating St Paddy’s Day with a book (about Ireland) in hand.
There is lots to choose from – but these are my favourites and cover a range of genres and periods of Irish history. Hopefully one or two will float your boat and you decide to read them. Or perhaps you’ve already read them – if so, feel free to let me know your thoughts!
Ireland by Frank Delaney
If you’ve ever wanted to know more about Irish history, but never known where to start, this is the book for you. It’s a novel, but is more like a series of short stories that moves through Irish history.
The novel starts with the appearance of a seanchai (the Irish word for a storyteller) at the home of a young boy. And so for three evenings the seanchai talks about Ireland and how things have changed over the years.
There are stories about the building of Newgrange and the creation of the Book of Kells. Folk tales, kings, and saints and scholars are thrown into the mix too. These include stories about ☘️ Saint Patrick ☘️ himself, Fionn McCool, and King Conor of Ulster.
As well as the myths and legends of ancient Ireland, this novel also delves into Irish history. The Battle of the Boyne and the Easter Rising are also included within the novel, which brings us up to the early twentieth century.
There are many novels which cover various different aspects of Irish history, but no novel (as far as I am aware) has ever attempted to link them all together. If you are curious about Irish mythology and history, this is a great place to start.
Milkman by Anna Burns
What a book.
Winner of both The Booker Prize and the International Dublin Literary award – I don’t actually know if any other book has won so much prize money. It is a classic and absolutely gripping and deserving of every accolade.
It’s literary – and the prose is done by using a stream of consciousness style. The sentences can be very long and the main character’s thoughts go off on tangents, but here lies the beauty. Speaking is dangerous at this time, and people live very much inside their own heads, afraid to say what they really think.
Set in 1970’s Belfast, this is a story about a young catholic woman. We don’t know her name. We don’t know anyone’s name, only their relationship to her. Mother, first sister, second sister, maybe boyfriend, and Somebody McSomebody. It’s odd, but you quickly get used to it.
She is “beyond the pale” because she reads when she walks. She stands out, doesn’t fit in, and doesn’t conform. Things go badly wrong when the “milkman” notices her. The milkman, however, is not really the milkman – this is a nickname. He is actually an older, married man who is in the IRA.
Soon her life is turned upside down because of his unwanted attention. British army start taking surveillance photos of her. First brother-in-law doesn’t like this “new relationship” and chastises her but also spreads gossip. No one believes her when she says they are not having an affair or that he is following her without her permission.
It’s a story about gaslighting, about hiding yourself away so you don’t think about the danger that is around you. It’s about a society that is gripped with fear.
It’s very funny at times, but also very sad.
I do wonder how people take this book who are not from Ireland. Coming from Northern Ireland myself, I know what certain descriptive words/phrases mean, however non-Irish friends who have read it had no idea. Here are the main ones that might be useful to know.
Renouncers-of-the-state = IRA members
State forces = British army
Over the water = English
Over the border = Republic of Ireland
The community on the “other side of the road” = those in the unionist/Protestant community in Northern Ireland (as in this case the protagonist is from the nationalist/catholic community).
These phrases will help ground you, however I think perhaps you don’t need to know any of them. Perhaps that’s the point. This could be a young girl growing up in any society that is divided along religious lines. Conflict of this nature is almost everywhere in the world – and by removing the names of people and places it gives it a sense of universality.
Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor
This novel is another masterpiece.
The story is set during the Irish famine and revolves around a famine ship, called Star of the Sea, that has left Ireland for America.
On board there is a bankrupt English landlord and his wife, their servant Mary, an American newspaperman, several hundred Irish men and women who are on the cusp of dying with the hunger and suffering they have endured, and the crew of the ship. Everyone is desperate to reach America.
Books about the famine are almost impossible to read – they are just so sad. In the Great Famine over a million people died and over a million emigrated to other countries, most notably, England, America, and Canada. It’s a time of great significance in Irish history but to talk of it is difficult. The fact it was not an actual famine (enough food was produced in Ireland to feed everyone) makes it even worse.
So how do you make a story about this readable? Well, you put a group of characters on a ship who cannot escape. You also put a murderer into the mix; a murderer who we discover was evicted from a certain landlords holdings – and who knows Mary, the Lady’s maid, very well.
A story of revenge and redemption, full of twists and turns, comes to life. It is beautifully written and a must-read.
There are many other books about Ireland by Irish writers. These are some of my favourites
- Something modern: Normal People by Sally Rooney
- Something funny: Watermelon by Marian Keyes
- Something for the kids: Under the Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon-McKenna
- Something chick-lit: Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy
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