I know, I’m a day late in posting, but I started writing this post last week. March is, of course, Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Raging Fluff. This year, they’ve come up with some weekly prompts and the first is My Top Five Irish… anything to do with Irish culture. I’m sticking with the easy (actually not so easy) option of authors. I thought it would be straight forward, but I’ve read quite a lot of super Irish novels over the years, however by choosing authors rather than books I can include lots of titles by a single author – I’m always on the look out for a cheat! Here are my top five Irish author (well today’s) …
The Matriarch – Edna O’Brien
August is a Wicked Month was the first O’Brien novel I read. Published in 1965, it is the story of Ellen, who has a young son but is separated from her husband. She has a married lover, but it’s on holiday when freed from mothering, she has a holiday fling and rather enjoys herself – almost too much. Racy and earthy, and full of light and shade, this was a super introduction to O’Brien.
I followed it up with her 1960 debut, The Country Girls, which was famously banned in Ireland when first published. It’s the first part of a trilogy, narrated by Caithleen who is fourteen as the book opens. This coming of age story follows her and her friend Baba from village school to the convent boarding school and being expelled, arriving in Dublin earlier than planned and becoming a shopgirl, and the girls do enjoy themselves! I can see why the book offended the Irish censor in 1960. The writing may be lyrical, but it is also frank – and the constant sexually-charged teasing that goes on between girls and boys, men and women, and all combinations thereof would elicit many a tut.
Then most recently I read her 23rd novel The Little Red Chairs, published in 2015, when O’Brien was 85. Her capacity to shock is still there in this political novel told principally through its women, in the story of a charismatic stranger from the Balkans who arrives in a west-coast Irish village. Everyone falls under his spell a little, but especially the women and all are shocked when the Garda come for him. I can say no more. I really must continue to read more of her work.
The Craic Master – Roddy Doyle
Nowhere is this more in evidence than in his very first novel published in 1987, the first part of The Barrytown Trilogy, The Commitments which follows Jimmy Rabbitte and his short-lived Dublin soul band. There is very little description in the text – it’s almost completely driven by the dialogue with no time for quotation marks either, marking new speeches with a dash for speed. It is side-splittingly funny, and full of swearing, but just drips authenticity off the page, every one of which is quotable! My favourite of his is The Van (1991), the third part of the trilogy which I need to re-read.
In 1993, Doyle won the Booker prize for Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha which follows roughly a year in the life of mischievous schoolboy Paddy. Doyle completely nails Paddy’s PoV, but this novel was less funny for me.
However, I have several of Doyle’s most recent books in the TBR including Two Pints, Charlie Savage and Love, and will surely love them too.
The Next Generation – Donal Ryan
I’ve now read the three latest novels by this fine Irish author who has definitely hit his stride, creating stories with heart and soul.
His newest, Strange Flowers (2019), explores an interracial relationship in which Molly runs away to London, marries a Black man and has a son, only to abandon them and return home. When Alex follows her back to Ireland, he does his best to fit in. In From a Low and Quiet Sea (2018), Ryan tells three men’s stories, a refugee doctor, a young lad without much of a future, and an older man who is full of regret. How he combines the three in the surprising coda is so skillful. Then my favourite so far from 2016, All We Shall Know, with its killer first line:
Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He’s seventeen, I’m thirty-three. I was his teacher. I’d have killed myself by now if I was brave enough.
Small town communities, not fitting in, brilliant dialogue, sublety, light and dark, and no wasted words, Ryan has earned his place as one of Ireland’s foremost newer (he’s 18 years younger than Doyle) novelists.
The NF Thought-Provoker – Mark O’Connell
In his 2018 Wellcome Prize-winning book, To Be A Machine, journalist O’Connell sets out to understand ‘transhumanism’. It’s a complicated subject and he talks to those who want to be cyborgs incorporating AI into their bodies, he talks to those in the cryonics industry, those who’d have their brains uploaded, and the anti-agers amongst others. He writes with empathy and a good deal of humour which makes the text always readable and entertaining, while provoking his readers to think deeply about their own beliefs. He treats everyone with respect, asking the questions, but not judging them, trying to get to the heart of why they believe in their particular brands of transhumanism. For a subject, based in technology, To Be a Machine is a profoundly human story.
He followed it up with a more personal exploration in 2020’s Notes From an Apocalypse in which he talked to the preppers and the silo salesmen, explored billionaire retreats, Elon Musk’s ambition to go to Mars, and disaster tourism including a visit to Chernobyl. It’s a little more uneven than his previous book, but no less thought-provoking.
The New Wit – Naoise Dolan
There are so many wonderful young women writers from Ireland at the moment, It’s more than just Sally Rooney, there’s a whole group of them. But I think my favourite new Irish wit is Naoise Dolan, whose first novel, Exciting Times, was long/shortlisted for many prizes.
Exciting Times is different to most of this author group’s work in that it is funny. It’s the story of a young Irishwoman who takes a position as a TEFL teacher in Hong Kong, where she meets Julian, a rich young banker, who takes her in as lodger and sometime lover. When Julian is temporarily relocated, Ava meets Edith and they start a relationship. When Julian returns, Ava will have to choose. Dolan tells this story so wittily, painting scathing and hilarious pictures of Julian’s friends, and blending light and dark comedy effortlessly. Ava is such an interesting character, not always easy to like, but easy to laugh with.
I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next.
A hard task to narrow things down to my Top Five. O’Brien and Doyle were obvious choices, the rest less so, but I enjoyed scanning my Irish Lit posts for inspiration.