Another Saint Patrick’s day is upon us, and while for some us that might mean an occasion to hoist a Guinness at The Burren, I’m using the occasion to tell you about some of the many wonderful books by Irish authors that are waiting for you in the Minuteman Network.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Guinness.
I’m sure you’ve all heard of the classic Irish writers, such as Yeats, Swift, and Bernard Shaw, so I’m going to focus on contemporary authors, but there is one book out of the Irish canon I have to mention: James Joyce’s Dubliners, one of the finest short story collections ever. If you don’t read anything else in it, flip to the end and read “The Dead.” It’s perfection: not a word or phrase out of place.
For contemporary Irish authors, consider reading Anne Enright or John Banville. Anne Enright won the 2007 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Gathering, about a family converging on Dublin for the wake of a sibling who committed suicide. The narrator, Veronica, in an attempt to understand her brother’s death, explores her family’s troubled past. The New York Times called The Gathering a brave engagement “with the carnival horrors of everyday life.”
The works of John Banville, another Man Booker winner (for The Sea) and a frequent candidate for the Nobel Prize, deserve to be on your radar as well. His prose has the elegance and depth of poetry. In spite of his claim that he values language and rhythm more than character and plot, his prose beautifully conveys the emotional and psychological realities of his characters. I haven’t read his most highly regarded novels, such as The Sea or The Book of Evidence, but I love The Untouchable, a novel inspired by the life of Anthony Blunt, and I thoroughly enjoyed his Revolutions Trilogy: Doctor Copernicus, Kepler, and The Newton Letter. The first two titles are historical novels about the scientists who helped demolish the mental universe of the Middle Ages and usher in modernity. The third is a contemporary novel about a historian who retires to the Irish countryside for the summer to finish a book on Isaac Newton, but who becomes distracted from his work as he is drawn into the emotional entanglements of his host family.
On to nonfiction. One of my favorite contemporary commentators on Irish life is the journalist and historian Fintan O’Toole, who always works to transcend the dichotomous framework that often shapes discussions of Irish politics and history. I enjoy his essays in The London Review of Books and Granta. His most recent book (on Ireland and the world financial crisis) is Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger. My favorite of O’Toole’s works is A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1751-1816, a biography of an eighteenth-century Irish playwright and politician that explores the political, artistic and social complexities an Irishman had to negotiate in London society.
For another writer who offers fresh takes on Irish history, try Roy Foster. Born in Ireland and educated at Trinity College, Dublin, he’s now the Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford. His best-known works are probably his biography of Yeats, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and Modern Ireland 1600-1972, which is considered one of the best and most accessible histories of Ireland. If you already know a fair bit about Irish history and literature, you’ll enjoy his essay collection The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland. He explores how the realities of events such as the 1798 Rising, the Celtic Revival and the Easter Rebellion have been re-worked into political narratives. He examines the role Ireland played in the development of the English novelist Anthony Trollope, skewers the Frank McCourt ouevre, and lambastes Gerry Adams’ autobiography.
Many of the most important works of Irish writer Conor Cruise O’Brien (1917-2008) weren’t about Ireland at all. He was a journalist, UN diplomat, and politician who tackled some of the most intractable issues of his day, writing about the Congo and the Middle East conflict as well as the Troubles. In his later years he became a formidable historian of the eighteenth century. One work from this period definitely speaks to contemporary American readers: The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800, in which O’Brien explores Jefferson’s place in American history through the lens of his infatuation with the French Revolution. It’s a provocative look at an American icon, questioning our traditional reverence for a man who lived off slave labor, and reassessing the legacy of his radical individualism.
For those of you rightly annoyed at the paucity of female authors on this blog post, I note that a colleague highly recommends the memoirs of the Irish journalist Nuala O’Faolain: Are you Somebody? and Almost There. The former tells of her loveless, impoverished childhood in Ireland in the fifties and sixties, a world of which she wrote , “We came out of a culture where women were utterly powerless and children had no value. If you were hit at school you were hit at home for being hit at school. It goes without saying there was no sex education. The only education a lot of us got was in neglect and being unloved.” The New York Times called her writing “blisteringly candid,” and characterized by a “tangy storytelling style, nurtured in a mordant Irish sense of irony and an Oxford-trained sleekness of thought.”