There’s some Irish in me and some on my bookshelves, too, but this March, with Reading Ireland hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and memories of reading Irish short stories with Mel at The Reading Life, I went for a library browse to add to the volumes I’d pulled from my shelves.
The first plucked were Kate O’Brien’s Not Without My Cloak, Anakana Schofield’s Malarky and Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies. Then, on a hunt for an old favourite, in the back rows on the shelves of children’s books, I discovered Patricia Lynch’s The Bookshop on the Quay.
This mix pleased me from the start – a classic, and two wildly different contemporary novels, along with a children’s story – together with a story anthology and some illustrated volumes from the library.
Kate O’Brien’s family saga spans from 1789 to 1877 in the Considine family, primarily set in the town of Mellick, on the banks of a river with the Bearnagh hills to the west. Although really Denis’ story, the women in the family are significant, too, often torn between personal desires and public expectations. (Were they more daring and spirited, Kate O’Brien’s heroines might have had small roles in novels like Elizabeth Taylor’s, but these women are more traditional, but with an air of sadness better suited to Edith Wharton’s heroines.)
With this event in mind, however, I was looking for Ireland on the page. In Mellick, we have “the crumbling Old Town that looked so gently beautiful at evening; grey, sad, and tender, huddled on humpy bridges about canals and twisting streams”.
Then, there is the surounding landscape: “His eyes were on the hills beyond the river, hills where he had trudged so often and whose colours and lines he had learned by heart in his three years in Mellick.”
There’s even a brief peek at Dublin: “‘It’ll all be the same in a hundred years,’ is Grafton Street’s motto, and if, say, twice in every hundred years she had to be emphatic about this, Irishmen being the noisy lunatics they are, she is never perturbed, for she keeps on finding that men and women remain the same, with life’s seduction just as sweet to them, however the years receded with their fashions and fanaticisms.”
Anakana Scholfield’s Malarky is preoccupied with the internal landscape, populated by a grieving woman. Mind you, the voice is unmistakably Irish, and there are references to Dublin but the ground trod upon is psychological.
“As a matter of fact I had had enough of this grief conselling.
As a matter of fact I’d had enough of Grief herself.
As a matter of fact there are a hundred people I would rather talk to.
As a matter of fact.”
Our Woman’s voice is inescapable, relentless and enticing. (I’m only halfway.)
Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies won the Women’s Prize for Fiction Award in 2016 (sponsored by Bailey’s that year).
Like Anakana Scholfield, Lisa McInerney pries out the humour in painful circumstances. The prose, here, is more dense, and the setting more deliberate and concrete (Cork). But, once more, the emphasis in on the internal setting.
“It had been a season of extremes. The sun, when it shined, crisped everything it caught, but it never appeared except in a bruise of cumulus clouds. Showers kept the children indoors. The air was thick with fuming wasps.”
The outdoors reflects the tenuous and vulnerable emotional terrain. (Again, I’m only halfway.)
Patricia Lynch’s The Bookshop on the Quay is a story which should be served with tea and soda bread slathered with farmers’ butter.
“‘Am I the kind of chap would stay in Waterford when the road to Dublin lies open before me? The road, a herd of the best bullocks from the Golden Vale, and a couple of lads who can sing a song, or tell a story with the best shanachie from West Cork!”
Even so, my favourite scenes are not in the Irish countryside, but in the bookshop, which has a copy of Gulliver’s Travels in the window (unless one of the children takes it to bed with them) and a devoted staff which reads more often than it dusts.
Just as I was reading from my own shelves, however, pointedly. I began to recognize some glimmers of Irishness which snuck in, including a biography of James Joyce in Javiar Mariás’ Written Lives.
He was no Joyce fan for, even as a young man, he was “already rather pompous and full of himself, concerned only with what he would write and with his early (and perennial) hatred of Ireland and the Irish”.
Nonetheless, it was fun to find his biography in these pages. (Just as I excused my binge-viewing of “The Fall” in conjunction with Reading Ireland!)
Even the remarks made in Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna stories, particularly about Adeline’s father, also fit with the theme: “Ah, what beautiful manners has my father! The courtesy, the amiability of an Irish gentleman! ’Tis my regret that he does not live nearby for a constant example to you.” (The young Whiteoaks are hardly examples of good behaviour, but it’s debatable whether Renny Court was really all that either!)
From the library, for atmosphere, there was Peter Harbison and Leslie Conron Carola’s Ireland: a Luminous Beauty. Originally I had hoped to find photographs which corresponded directly to the books I was reading, but I ended up enjoying the book on its own terms, reading through and especially enjoying the photos of early sacred sites and seascapes.
Also for atmosphere, Robert O’Byrne’s Romantic Irish Homes (Photography by Simon Brown). Mind you, there are a lot of pictures of books in here, too. But there is plenty of atmosphere here even without the bookishness. Here, I enjoyed the idea of choosing a particular nook in a photograph in which to imagine reading a particular Irish story. (Yes, there was even an imagined perch for reading Malarky, but that was harder to choose.)
For context, Ireland: The Autobiogaphy (edited by John Bowman) which begins with a conteporary account of the Easter Rebellion and ends with a centenary reflection upon the rebellion. Most of the pieces are only a couple of pages long and work to create a scene vividly and experientially. It’s a fine beginning for any Irish reading project.
And, for stories. But also because it has a lovely green ribbon for a bookmark: Celtic Tales: Fairy Tales and Stories of Enchantment from Ireland, Scotland, Brittany and Wales (Illustrated Kate Forrester). “The Clumsy Beauty and Her Aunts”, a trickster tale in which a girl is “beautiful as a spring day” but too clumsy to be a good weaver (which is just fine, as it turns out). “The Soul Cages” a sea story about a young fisherman who yearns to hang out with a merrow and discovers the unexpected beneath the waves.
Plus, three short stories in The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, edited by Anne Enright.
I selected three new-to-me writers beginning with Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s “Walking Away”. Perhaps it’s just me, but Anne Enright’s fiction seems sorrow-soaked to me, and this story fit right in as a portrait of grief. “He felt like holding something solid and imperfect, pulling himself back to earth from those sleepwalking days.” Although its clarity and starkness is almost overwhelming, in the end “he was feeling something strong, and his mind beginning to awaken”.
This awakening also shows itself in Hugo Hamilton’s “The Supremacy of Grief”. “Nobody knows when the real grief sets in. Nobody knows what a man alone in his grief might do. They had no children and it was considered better or safer for him to be in company for a while longer.” The “heavy sediment” of grief shifts and suddenly readers are asking a different question “Nobody knows the difference between a dead man and a man who wants to play dead.”
Gerard Donovan’s “Visit” considers a different kind of grief, when a man takes his mother out from the nursing home. “At a certain age and when the cities of the body no longer accept emissaries and require advance notice for anything, movement becomes a ritual like a king’s procession, it builds into ceremonies of delay, whether to the bathroom or to the window, both of which are thousands of miles away.” It sounds sombre, but it ends with a certain slant of light.
How about you? Were you Reading Ireland in March? Or March and April?! Which of these books do you think you might like to include if you were reading on this theme?