Ireland & Irish Authors

by Patricia Miller, CPL Librarian
Originally published by the Columbia Daily Tribune.

For a small country, Ireland has a rich tradition of language, poetry, and storytelling. Today more Americans claim to be of Irish heritage than historians can account for, and Irish music, movies and novels permeate popular culture. Although Ireland has changed rapidly from a rural insular country to a suburbanized consumer culture, many Irish authors still explore controversial themes of the past.

Frank McCourt’s memoir “Angela’s Ashes” (Scribner, 1996) is the archetypal story of the “miserable Irish childhood” in Limerick and Depression-era Brooklyn. Lightened with humor and story telling skill, it is one of many works in which Irish and Irish American authors come to terms with childhood memories. Seamus Deane’s novel “Reading in the Dark” (Knopf, 1997) is set against the background of the northern “troubles” where adult secrets, betrayals and ghost stories stir a young boy’s imagination. In “The Dark” (Penguin, 1965) John McGahern depicts the vulnerability of a child growing up in the harsh adult world of small town rural Ireland in the 1950s. In “The Speckled People” (Fourth Estate, 2003) and its sequel “The Harbor Boys” (Harper Collins, 2005), Hugo Hamilton’s world is even more complicated as the child of a domineering Irish nationalist father and a German mother who escaped Nazi Germany. Reviled as a “Kraut” and regularly beaten up by the “fist people,” Hamilton veers between patriotism and self-hatred.

Northern Irish writer Christina McKenna’s “The Misremembered Man” (Toby Press, 2008) explores the fictional “quicksand of … childhood” drawn from the real scandal of the orphanages run by the so called Magdalene Sisters and other religious orders. Anne Enright’s “The Gathering” (Black Cat, 2007) focuses on the corrosive memories of a suburban middle-class Dublin housewife as she deals with the suicide of her favorite sibling in a eviscerating depiction of a large Irish family. She is a dramatic contrast to the irrepressible Paula Spencer in Roddy Doyle’s “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors (Viking, 1996), which explores domestic abuse. Colm Toibin probes another type of family estrangement in “The Blackwater Lightship” (Scribner, 1999) as Helen, her mother and grandmother deal with imminent loss of Helen’s brother who is dying of AIDS. Another beautifully rendered novel is John Banville’s “The Sea” (Knopf, 2005) in which the narrator explores the “raw immediacy” of his childhood memories while recovering from the death of his wife. On a broader scale, Patrick McCabe’s “Breakfast on Pluto” (Harper Flamingo, 1998) and “TheButcher Boy” (Fromm, 1993) dramatize small town and personal disintegration through vivid characterizations that virtually leap off the page.

Other Irish novels deal with family secrets that involve political allegiances and betrayals. William Trevor writes with empathy and understanding of the Anglo-Irish Protestants in his novels and celebrated short stories. “The Story of Lucy Gault” (Viking, 2002) is the haunting story of a young girl who runs away as her parents prepare to flee Ireland in the wake of Irish independence. The Irish playwright, Sebastian Barry deals with the Irishmen who took the king’s shilling and fought for England in World War 1 only to return to Ireland as perceived traitors to become another kind of emigrant. Barry’s novels, “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” (Viking, 1998) and “A Long Long Way” (Viking, 2005), are also powerful works about preserving one’s humanity during war as a young soldier asks “could the soul hold good, could the heart?”

Roddy Doyle’s historical novels “A Star Called Henry” (Viking, 1999) and “Oh, Play That Thing” (Viking, 2004), takes his ebullient Irish hero, Henry Smart, from the Irish Rising in 1916 to 1920s New York, the center of the world. Doyle’s swaggering dialogue drives the story through a great swath of Irish history and Roaring Twenties America.

Recently, Irish writers have begun to deal with the paradoxes of modern “Celtic Tiger” Ireland. Roddy Doyle’s “The Deportees and Other Stories” (Viking, 2008) is a hilarious look at the new multi-ethnic Ireland. He confesses in the preface: “I went to bed in one country and woke up in a different one.” Likewise, in William Trevor’s latest “Cheating at Canasta” (Viking, 2007) another “great house” of the old landed gentry is being converted into a golf course for tourists. Finally, as a corrective to romanticized images of contemporary Ireland, read “The Guards” (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2001), the first of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor crime novel series. By all accounts, Bruen himself has led an eventful life.

As old Ireland recedes into memory, except in a writer’s imagination, the ever changing face of Ireland today provides future generations of writers with much to write about.

Related Links

Irish Authors
Irish American Authors
Ireland in Movies and Film
    Search for Irish films by category, title, year and director.
    A comprehensive list prepared by Prof. David Campion. Search by category and title for a summary of each film
    For more about the Irish film industry see The Irish Film and Television network. Many films are shot in Ireland.
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