Back in the mid-1990s, it seemed like everything Irish was cool. Bono was a global rock star, Riverdance was an international sensation, and Frank McCourt sold millions of books. Then, there was Seamus Heaney. The notion of a popular poet seemed almost quaint in the digital age. Yet when Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, he became yet another Irish star.
Heaney was never the subject of a conventional biography, but Dennis O’Driscoll – himself a poet – has done the next best thing. He has gathered years of wide ranging interviews with Heaney in Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney. This may sound like a biography which has cut some corners, and maybe it is. But the revelations are nevertheless illuminating. O’Driscoll gets Heaney to open up about the artistic process as well as topics as far-reaching as marriage, memory, Polish poetry and the brother he tragically lost at a young age (an event which inspired one of Heaney’s most gut-wrenching poems, “Mid-Term Break”).
Stepping Stones does weigh in at over 500 pages, but the interview form allows readers to pick and choose topics.
What is amazing about Stepping Stones is that Heaney comes across as a down-to-earth guy who happens to be brilliant with words. Particularly interesting is the way Heaney has tried to express what you might call his moderate nationalism when it comes to Northern Ireland and the Troubles. This topic is of particular interest to Heaney who was born and raised in Derry. His comments about everyday interactions between Protestants and Catholics during his youth are like most of the material in this book – complex and fascinating.
($32 / 560 pages / FSG)
Frank Delaney’s novel Shannon is about a man and a river who share the same name and roots in Ireland. Frank Shannon is a Boston priest who served in World War I and remains so traumatized by the experience that he goes to Ireland in search of peace. On the surface, he is there to find out where his Irish ancestors came from. But it soon emerges that a powerful Boston church official also sent him because Shannon may know a little bit too much about a scandal. Since this is post-World War I Ireland, the Irish Civil War has broken out, so Shannon has essentially traded one conflict for another. In what can be called a rather large coincidence, in this otherwise impressive novel, Shannon meets up with an Irish nurse he knew during the war. A complex form of love grows between the duo, at the same time as Shannon’s life is threatened by the Boston scandal he may or may not remember.
Delaney (a Tipperary native whose previous best-sellers include Ireland: A Novel) has ultimately written an engaging story which explores not just interesting characters but the ties that bind Ireland and America.
($26 / 560 pages / Random House)
Martin Malone’s The Silence of the Glasshouse is also set during the Irish Civil War. This novel revolves around an IRA soldier named Chalkey who has been sentenced to die, and his mother’s efforts to come to terms with his actions. Malone commendably explores the decisions Chalkey has made, and reveals that he may not be motivated merely by love of country.
($24.95 / 255 pages /
New Island Books-Dufour)
Christian Moerk’s Darling Jim is about two Dublin sisters who are found dead, along with an aunt. The investigation into the killings is at a standstill until the local mailman discovers a secret diary which not only reveals a forbidden love story, but may or may not help solve the killings.
This is a lush, exotic story told by a fascinating young writer. Moerk was born and raised in Copenhagen before moving to the U.S. in his 20s. After graduating from Columbia University, he worked in the film industry before writing Darling Jim, his first American novel.
Moerk has captured Dublin in an intriguing way. This story not only involves the dead sisters but also a mysterious postal worker and the wandering storyteller who gives the novel its title. Some of the mythic elements of Darling Jim might strike some readers as “excessively Irish,” but overall this is a good effort.
($25 / 304 pages / Henry Holt & Company)
Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, three new books feature Americans in search of how the old and the new are clashing in 21st century Ireland. In A Pint of Plain: Tradition, Change and the Fate of the Irish Pub, Bill Barich wonders how the Celtic Tiger has changed Irish pub life.
Barich admits he is going to Ireland with an outlook shaped as much by The Quiet Man as any other form of research. Not surprisingly, he is initially disappointed by the high-priced Dublin pubs which rely heavily on the dollars of tourists and yuppies. In the end, however, Barich has some interesting insights when it comes to modern Ireland, as well as how companies have taken generic Irish pub concepts and sent them out into far-flung places on numerous continents. Barich could have explored new immigration in more depth, but he more than makes up for it by profiling some of the colorful characters who populate the great pubs that remain in Ireland, and have made Barich’s trip more than worthwhile.
($25 / 256 pages / Walker)
If you think heading to Ireland to research pubs is a plum assignment, listen to what Tom Coyne did. In A Course Called Ireland: A Long Walk in Search of a Country, a Pint and the Next Tee, Coyne walked the entire island of Ireland, playing waterfront golf.
True, he does cover some of the same ground as A Pint of Plain. But A Course Called Ireland’s descriptions of playing some of Ireland’s famous courses make the book a treat for golf enthusiasts. There are also some great moments about Coyne’s father, as well as a hilarious meeting between a group of people Coyne believes to be distant cousins. Coyne brings a pair of American eyes to his view of Ireland, so some observations might strike Irish readers as familiar. Still, there are plenty of passages about golf – and Ireland – to make this a worthwhile read.
($26 / 320 pages / Gotham Books)
The final book of the season about Americans in search of something in Ireland is At the Edge of Ireland: Seasons on the Beara Peninsula by David Yeadon. Whereas Barich and Coyne are exploring how beloved Irish institutions have been affected by recent changes, Yeadon is looking for a place that has not changed so much. This volume includes beautiful descriptions of the area, as well as striking pencil drawings by the author.
($16.99 / 402 pages / HarperCollins)
Speaking of beloved institutions, the Brits can claim the Beatles themselves, but the Irish can call most of the Beatles’ grandparents their own. There is no need to fall into that famous trap some bitter Irish folks do, when they claim Shakespeare must have really been Irish. In The Beatles and Ireland, Michael Lynch and Damian Smyth outline how very Irish the Beatles really are. From their ancestral roots (all the Beatles except Ringo have clear Irish ancestry, and this book prints the family trees to prove it) to the way John and Paul expressed nationalist sentiments in songs such as “Give Ireland Back to the Irish,” this book valuably puts all of the Beatles’ Irish information in one volume.
($30.95 / 230 pages /
The Collins Press-Dufour Editions)
The Beatles may have changed pop culture forever, but they are just one group of Irish folks who have done so. This is clear from Stephanie Rains’ The Irish American in Popular Culture 1945-2000. The author explores gems from The Quiet Man to The Brothers McMullen, and how stereotypes were first reinforced by pop culture, then how Irish-American artists themselves began playing with stereotypes.
($30 / 252 pages /
Irish Academic Press)
Alice McDermott and Joyce Carol Oates are just two of the best known authors whose writing appears in Too Smart to Be Sentimental: Contemporary Irish American Women Writers. Edited by Sally Barr Ebest and Kathleen McInerney, this is a valuable study of Irish America as seen by some of the best writers working today.
($29 / 254 pages /
University of Notre Dame)
Michael Garland’s King Puck is a slim, colorful volume about Seamus, a lonely boy who loves to read to his pet goat. When this eccentric
duo are granted a very special wish, they head off the famous festival that gives this book its title. Garland illustrated
as well as wrote King Puck, and it is a joyous effort that should enchant children between the ages of 4 and 8, as well as their parents.
($6.99 / 32 pages / HarperCollins)