I didn’t know much about Northern Ireland before I left home in 1972. There was one shopping trip to Belfast on the train. I bought a purple and black maxi coat that looked like a woolen dressing gown. I had it for years and I can’t think why I gave it away.
I don’t remember much about Belfast, or much else about the trip, except that on the return journey south the train was stopped and boarded by men with guns. I can’t remember whether they were British Army or border patrol, or custom officials. I just remember being afraid.
That trip happened around Christmas 1971, before Bloody Sunday became a turning point in the Troubles. On January 30, 1972, just months before I immigrated, the British Army fired on peaceful civil rights marchers in Derry killing 13 outright, and wounding 26 others including one man who later died. That incident dashed hopes of a peaceful way forward, led to an upsurge in IRA membership, and seeded an insurgency that went on until the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. By then 3,600 people had died.
It’s hard for outsiders to understand how one could grow up in Ireland, when I did, and not know much about what was happening in the North. Adults and teachers didn’t want to talk about it. There was a weariness and wariness of discussion on the Troubles. And you had media censorship, put in place by the Irish government, that kept Sinn Féin off the airways. The story of the North was one-sided, and often distorted, and anyone with even the slightest connection to Sinn Féin was seen to be siding with terrorists.
If the Irish in my part of the island didn’t seem to care about the discrimination that was waged against Catholics in the North, America was a whole different story.
Over my many years here, I have been witness the fruits of that caring by Irish Americans that ended in the peace agreement hammered out in 1998. But my first real understanding of what it was like to live in the North during the Troubles, came from girls that I met and became friends with during my first summer here.
It was 1972. While the Irish government was firing broadcasters who didn’t adhere strictly enough to the censorship rules, I was in Atlantic City mixing with young people from all over Ireland, and getting some first hand accounts from kids from Northern Ireland of what their life was like back home. One girl told me of being attacked on her way to school, and having her nose broken, just because she was a Catholic; another told me of her brother being lifted in the middle of the night, and interned without trial; and there was also a whispered story of an uncle who had been tortured to death.
Those terrifying stories came back to me when I read Anna Burns’ extraordinary book, Milkman. It’s a must-read if you really want to understand what it was like to grow up in Northern Ireland during this tumultuous time in our history.
The action takes place in an unnamed place that crackles with violence and distrust, neighbor is wary of neighbor, anything or anyone out of the ordinary is cause for alarm, and every move is monitored by the security forces, and the paramilitaries.
The eighteen year old narrator tries to navigate the world as best she can, but her innocent habit of “reading-while-walking” is cause for suspicion and rumor. She has also drawn the unwanted attention of one of her community’s leading paramilitaries, a man twice her age, and she is at a loss as to how to deal with the accusations from her mother, and others in the community, that she’s leading him on.
In that “hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you… then nothing was happening,” she wonders if she’s getting it wrong, that the situation is not as she imagined.
The story is intense, at times terrifying, as you become involved in the narrator’s every feeling as she tries to make normal out of the abnormal. It adds to the fear factor that none of the characters in the book have names. She’s “middle sister,” her stalker is called milkman (small “M”), though he’s not really a Milkman. Other players include “brother-in-law,” “elder sister,” “maybe-boyfriend” and “younger sisters,” who give the story just enough humor to make it bearable.
Burn’s characters are wonderfully drawn, but it’s her ability to place the reader inside the head of the narrator, in that internal monologue style of writing, that lifts this story above the norm and makes it an unforgettable reading experience. In fact, the scenes are so visceral that I could only read the book in short bursts, preferable on a bus surrounded by other people, so that I could look up and check my surrounding as a way to break the grip of the novel when the suspense became too intense.
The author, who grew up in Belfast, said in an interview posted by the Booker Prize Foundation that Milkman was inspired by her own experience: “I grew up in a place that was rife with violence, distrust, and paranoia, and peopled by individuals trying to navigate and survive in that world as best as they could.”
Burns has taken her experience of growing up during the Troubles and turned it into one hell of a book. Not only does it open a window onto Northern Ireland, it’s a story that could be applied to any person living in a war zone in any part in the world. It’s a book, one that will last down through the ages, that is a testament to what happened to a people when a cry to end discrimination was met with brute force. It’s a lesson for today.
– Patricia Harty
(948 pages / $35 / Workman)
America’s first Irish Catholic president John F. Kennedy famously said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
With the 50th anniversary of the moon landing of 1969 upon us, celebrated historian Douglas Brinkley makes clear just how central Kennedy’s vision and determination were in making the moon landing a reality more than five years after JFK’s assassination.
According to Brinkley, the Cold War was central to the so-called “space race” between the Americans and the Soviets. Not for nothing did Kennedy, in his famous moon speech, add that the “goal [of landing on the moon] will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
But Brinkley also spirals back in time to explore the great minds, scientific and artistic, that helped develop the technology needed to make the Apollo moon missions possible.
“History has taught us that artists are often decades ahead of engineers and scientists in imagining the future, and so it was with the idea of voyaging to the moon,” Brinkley’s book begins, focusing on the famous 1865 Jules Verne novel From the Earth to the Moon. Brinkley later adds: “Verne’s novels exemplified the optimistic spirit of their times, when the potential for industrial and technological progress seemed limitless […] It was into this cultural milieu that John Fitzgerald ‘Jack’ Kennedy was born [to] Rose and Joe Kennedy, both grandchildren of Irish immigrants.” Some readers may be surprised to learn the significant contributions one-time Nazi scientists made to the moon mission, and Brinkley understandably goes to great lengths to explore the dark pasts of figures such as Werner von Braun. Overall, American Moonshot does justice to this important moment in U.S. history.
– By Tom Deignan
(576 pages / $35 / Harper)
QUINN’S BAR & GRILL: INCLUDING THE ADVENTURES OF ALLISON WONDERLAND
What do you get when you set a loose take on Lewis Carroll in 1970s NYC? In this instance: some gritty, zany characters, star-crossed stoner lovers, and a messy timeline. The main storyline of Quinn’s Bar & Grill takes place in 1978, in a rundown Irish bar that is about to be closed down. Dizzy Ryan is a bartender with an eyepatch and a big heart who pines for his lost love, Allison Wonderland, who fled the U.S. five years before and has been country-hopping since, finding the world is its own Wonderland if you meet the right people with a can-do attitude.
Both Dizzy and Allison are artistic at heart, and the novel is full of interruptions showcasing poetry that boggles the mind and sets a new precedent for rhyme scheme. Dizzy’s vignettes describing episodes at and around the bar often pursue the grotesque joke and belly laugh over delicacy, so faint-hearted readers beware.
New Yorkers will appreciate the references to locales, and readers unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Manhattan in the ’70s will find the eloquent descriptions helpful and the vivid visuals memorable, as fun characters you usually find on the margins of more mainstream tales are brought to the fore and demand your attention with enthusiastic zeal.
Self-published by author Patrick Carlin, whose previous work includes Highway 23: The Unrepentant, the novel is available as an e-book via Kindle. Take a tumble through the shot glass with Dizzy, Allison, and more with this hilarious, if not-quite-safe-for-work, read.
– Mary Gallagher
(272 pages / $4.99 / Amazon Digital Services)
IN THE GALWAY SILENCE
The Galway Tourist Office must just brace itself every time there’s a new book out by Ken Bruen. For every delight that Galway is known for, Bruen has the down-at-heel, dark-side alternative version. Quirky shops? Dead swans. Lovely pubs? Out-and-out alcoholism. Friendly locals? Corrupt guards. Great party vibe? Vicious murder and brutality. But maybe they’re missing a trick. Maybe the time has come for Galway to celebrate Bruen and his Jack Taylor series, and do one of those city tours incorporating all of the Taylor hot spots – Garavan’s pub, Mill Street Garda station, Eyre Square, College Road, etc. Taylor, of course, would absolutely hate it, but it’s not hard to imagine the softly-spoken Bruen getting quite the kick out of it.
In Galway Silence, Bruen’s fourteenth in the Taylor series, Jack is somewhat settled into domestic contentment with his girlfriend and her young son. He’s still drinking too much, and doing a bit of other stuff too, but he’s largely keeping himself to himself. When he’s hired by a wealthy Frenchman whose twin sons have been brutally murdered, it opens the door to some of the most unsettling characters imaginable. And in a Jack Taylor novel, that’s something!
As murder continues to stalk the streets of Galway, the reader can’t help but wonder about this seedy underbelly in the City of the Tribes. Not one for the faint-hearted, but rather for those who like their crime novels gritty, grimy and pure, pure Galway. There’s never much redemption in a Jack Taylor novel – but there seems be even less of it this time around, as the tale ends on a decidedly down note.
– Darina Molloy
(Mysterious Press / 288 Pages / $26)
MAEVE IN AMERICA
Maeve Higgins was reasonably well-known in Ireland as a comedian and television show host when she decided, at the age of 31, to head for pastures new. She is now making a go of it in New York City, hence the subtitle of her new book: Essays by a Girl from Somewhere Else. Higgins’ trademark wit is very much to the fore throughout the book, as she explores her feelings about (among other topics) dolphins, small talk, and other people’s children. She laments her poor track record in dealing with her personal finances: “Money feels like a tide that comes in and out, controlled by a moon I can’t reach.”
Her Irish name, as you’d expect, causes problem in her new home: “In this country of millions of people and this city of a thousand cultures, not many people know my name, or how to say it.” (Top tip: it rhymes with ‘brave.’) There’s also a lovely essay referencing Annie Moore, the first immigrant through the new Ellis Island processing center, and Higgins’ own journey from Cork to the U.S., when she was invited to the Kansas City Irish Fest. She subsequently wrote about the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Queens for the Irish Times newspaper.
Particularly in these turbulent times, Higgins acknowledges her good fortune in being able to live and work in the U.S. “I’m very lucky to get that chance to feel at home here, and even luckier to go back and forth freely between the two countries. For most people around the world, America is a fortress. Forget about moving here; for huge swaths of the global population it is impossible even to visit.” As is evidenced by these charming essays, she is a welcome addition to the country.
– Darina Molloy
(Penguin Books / 256 Pages / $16)
IRISH ABOVE ALL
Mary Pat Kelly
The third in Mary Pat Kelly’s historical fiction series based on her great-aunt, Nora Kelly, begins with Nora, as always, in the thick of things – in this case, back at home in Chicago from a years-long stay in Paris. She comes home to attend to a family crisis, but quickly gets wrapped up in the politics and culture of an increasingly diverse Chicago in the 1930s. Her cousin, Ed Kelly, has big plans for the city’s landscape that she is only too happy to support him in, through the inevitable series of obstacles set by pushers of greed, intimidation, and anti-Irish sentiment that litter the community. Among them is Republican mayor Bill Thompson, historically notorious for his disinterested attitude toward the needier of Chicago’s citizens, and spouting worrisome, nativist rhetoric that is disquietingly familiar to contemporary readers. Nora remains by Ed’s side as he takes a turn as the white knight of Chicago by filling in as mayor, opening a whole new can of worms for the Kellys to face with their characteristically Irish determination and ingenuity.
Nora’s feisty temperament and progressive sensibilities lead her into trouble, as well as incredible opportunity: meetings with President Franklin Roosevelt, Joe Kennedy and his young son John, and a trip to Derry with First Lady Eleanor are just two of the ways she keeps her finger steadily on the ever-thudding pulse of a national and global narrative, leading through the Depression and World War II, all the way to a lovely surprise in the home of her ancestors.
Author Mary Pat Kelly’s easy weave of personal and historical conflict make this yet another informative and heartstring-tugging read, providing a tutorial on Irish and Irish-American influence that is both entertaining and absolutely necessary.
– Mary Gallagher
(Forge Books / 508 pages / $28)
As a friend commented recently, is there anything Graham Norton can’t do? He’s already got the perfect chat show, the reasonably decent wine varieties, and even added best-selling novelist to his array of talents two years ago with Holding. And now, the so-called difficult second novel has landed and it’s every bit as readable as the first was. A man of many talents, indeed. There are one or two moments in A Keeper that don’t quite stand up to close scrutiny, and at times you may have to work a little on your suspension of disbelief as a reader, but on the whole it’s quite engaging and enjoyable.
Elizabeth Keane has returned to Ireland from New York after the death of her mother, and Norton really captures the sense of disconnect she feels so keenly. An only child, she suffers the attentions of her aunt and uncle, and her cousin’s excruciatingly nosy wife. Her own son has not travelled with her, having decided to spend time with his father on the West Coast instead.
After a few half-hearted attempts at putting some order on her mother’s house, Elizabeth finds a stash of old letters. To her surprise, she realizes they are from the father she never knew, and about whom her mother never spoke. Piecing together their relationship, she then learns of a surprise bequest in her mother’s will.
Norton flashes between “then” and “now” in order to flesh out the gaps between the lines in the letters from this unknown father of Elizabeth’s. And what gaps there turn out to be, as it all goes a little Gothic horror in parts.
There is a strange interlude section featuring Elizabeth’s son, which may have better belonged in another book entirely, but that aside, there are some wry observations on small-town life from Norton, and the family interactions are very warmly described.
– Darina Molloy
($26 / 326 pages / Hodder & Stoughton)
FUTURE POPES OF IRELAND
Ireland, 1979. While the country rhapsodizes over Pope John Paul II in the Phoenix Park, Bridget Doyle has her heart set on her family issuing forth the first-ever Irish pope. When her daughter-in-law is delivered of triplets nine months later, including the obligatory John Paul, she reckons it’s a good start. But Catherine Doyle’s death in childbirth means that Granny Doyle will be left to bring up the triplets and their older sister Peg.
Thirty years on, it’s a safe enough bet that none of the Doyle children will be the reason for white smoke issuing from the Sistine Chapel. Definitely not the two girls, at any rate, but even the boys seem as far from papal material as is humanly possible. Damien is trying to work up the courage to tell his Granny he’s gay; and the indisputably charming John Paul is a legend in his own lunchtime, but also one of the biggest chancers going. In his defense, he is the apple of his Granny’s eye, which causes ructions with his siblings. The third triplet, Rosie, wants to save the planet, but hasn’t otherwise figured out what to do with her life.
None of them have much contact with their older sister Peg, who lives in New York City. They’re used to not talking about her, ever since she ran away from home in her teenage years. With life bursting from every page, and a social commentary on Ireland (both modern-day and 1980s) woven through the narrative, this is a buoyant, joyous, irrepressible book – a bit like the character of John Paul himself.
There’s plenty of food for thought throughout – from keen observations on the gas pipeline in North Mayo, to homophobic bullying in schools, to the financial crash that had life-changing effects for so many Irish people. On the whole, it’s very a much a book of its time, and a very enjoyable read.
– Darina Molloy
($21 / 448 pages / Harper Collins)
THE WRITING IRISH OF NEW YORK
The Irish have been writing about New York for nearly as long as they’ve been in New York, from the plays, poems and fiction of Charles James Cannon (born in New York to Irish immigrants in 1800), to immigrant sagas such as Annie Reilly by John McElgun.
Add this new collection, edited with style and wit by Colin Broderick, to the long list of impressive New York Irish literary efforts. With work by superstars such as Colum McCann, Billy Collins, Dan Barry and Malachy McCourt, and hidden gems by Kathleen Donohoe, as well as Irish Americacontributors Mike Farragher and Mary Pat Kelly, The Writing Irish of New York has no trouble earning its spot on the bookshelves of any respectable Irish reader, from New York, or otherwise.
“When I first arrived in America, I was living in the Bronx,” writes Broderick, the author of two memoirs, That’s That and Orangutan, as well as the screenplay for the film Emerald City.“I was an angry, drunk young carpenter, and I hated the term ‘Irish American.’ How dare anyone who did not have an Irish accent say they were Irish! It’s ridiculous, right?”
Indeed, this eclectic collection – not to mention Broderick’s own brief, insightful biographical sketches of (among others) Maeve Brennan, Eugene O’Hara, Frank O’Hara and John F. Kennedy Jr. – stands as a testament not only to Broderick’s passion for reading and writing, but his own education on the depth and breadth of Irish American storytelling.
As Broderick puts it: “It took me a long time to shed my ignorance, to embrace the Irish diaspora, not just here in America but in Australia and England and everywhere else we drifted after hunger sent us fluttering like sycamore seeds in the fall.”
The Writing Irish of New York is the latest proof that those seeds produced beautiful things.
– Tom Deignan
($19.95 / 271 pages / Lavender Ink)