We may not be able to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as usual this year with parades and parties but we can enjoy another form of escapism, reading Irish historical fiction. It also happens to be the middle of #ReadingIrelandMonth, the fifth annual social media festival organised by the indefatigable Cathy Brown of 746Books.com. No better time to talk about Irish books and share reading recommendations.
I’ve found that reading these books has been a wonderful way to immerse myself in Irish history, which is all the more interesting when seen through the eyes of marginalised or formerly forgotten characters.
In chronological order, the list includes Her Kind by Niamh Boyce, a fictionalised account of a real ‘witch trial’ that took place in Kilkenny in 1324. The next novel is The Rising of Bella Casey by Mary Morissy, set in Dublin at the beginning of the 20th century. It gives us the life story the sister of the famous playwright Seán O’Casey. This is the one that made the deepest impression on me.
And finally, The Branchman by Nessa O’Mahony, is entirely imagined, though based on real social and historical context. Set in the 1920s in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, it is a police detective story that unfolds in the unstable early days of the Free State.
Before we jump in, I have some good news to share about The Naked Irish: Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés, almost six months after publication. The book has been chosen by IrishCentral.com as their book of the month for March. The website has a big following in North America so I’m hoping this explainer of modern Ireland will catch the eye of some American readers. If you’ve already read the book, I’d really appreciate a comment or two at the end of the IrishCentral post to get the ball rolling.
Where were we? I’ll begin with my favourite, The Rising of Bella Casey. This beautifully-written book tells a grim story. Through Bella’s life we get a fascinating depiction of turn-of-the-century Dublin which captures the grinding poverty, the vulnerability of women before marriage and within marriage at that time, twisted family dynamics, and the Catholic-Protestant divide. The Casey’s were poor Protestants and Bella suffers most from the agony of losing respectability.
The novel is a really interesting study of how a person can be trapped by their perception of who they are meant to be. It is also fascinating to see Seán O’Casey’s less than rosy relationship with his family and his egotism, which must have contributed to his success.
I really enjoyed Nessa O’Mahony’s The Branchman, set in 1920s rural Ireland. It was a time of great upheaval as the Free State took its first shaky steps after independence. The action of the book takes place in the long shadow cast by the Civil War amid a wave of violent crime in Ballinasloe.
In The Branchman we have a solid and sympathetic hero, Michael Mackey of the newly-formed Garda Síochána (Irish police force), whose dogged detective work leads him where others fear to tread. Everyone in this story has something to hide and Mackey’s secret is that he served in the British Army in the First World War. The strain of having to deny his traumatic past is very well conveyed. The sarcasm-loaded dialogue rings true as does the amoral behaviour of many of the characters.
During the recent debate about whether the state should commemorate the members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (the issues are very well covered here by UCD historian Mary McAuliffe), I was not happy to see people claim ownership of what they see as the one, true version of Irishness.
I would say that the Republic of Ireland had a messy and divisive start. It’s fair to say no-one got to live in the country they wanted after independence and everyone had to make do with whatever side of the border or the argument they found themselves on.
There were plenty of Irish people pre and post 1916-1922 who had no aspirations of independence and thought it was a bad idea. Some felt unsafe and unwanted in the Free State because of their family history, military service or religion. They had to suck it up post 1922. O’Mahony’s novel may help to understand some of that context.
Moving to the far distant past, Niamh Boyce leads us through the alleyways and intrigues of 14th century Kilkenny in her second novel, Her Kind. The book is written from the point of view of a number of characters, mainly Petronelle and her daughter Basilia, in the lead up to Petronelle’s trial for witchcraft.
Petronelle is an Irish woman living under an assumed name as a servant in the household of Flemish moneylender Alice Kytler, one of the town’s richest and most prominent citizens. Boyce has taken the scant details known about Alice and Petronelle and other notable figures of the time (1324) and woven a gripping tale of misogyny and treachery.
The villain of the piece is the Bishop of Ossory, who was obsessed with heresy and witchcraft and madly jealous of Alice Kytler, a woman altogether too proud – and rich – for his liking.
The medieval city comes to life, full of atmosphere, industry and gritty detail. The phrase ‘richly imagined’ is overused but this novel earns it royally. It’s worth reading for the descriptions of daily life alone but there is also great tension and drama in the clash of powerful personalities, the twisted religious fanaticism and the complex ties between Alice, Petronelle and Basilia.
I’d like to squeeze in two more recommendations of novels I’ve read recently. Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor is another biographical story which mainly takes place in 1880s London and follows the fortunes of the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker. It’s a virtuoso work.
Finally, Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey, is a short heart-breaking book that I read in one sitting. Just on the borderline of historical fiction, it is set in Dublin in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Written in the first person, the story is told through the voice of Caroline (Tatty) from the age of three to 13, growing up in a troubled household with alcoholic parents. There are lovely moments of humour but its achingly sad too. I discovered Dwyer Hickey late, just last year, when I read The Narrow Land. She is a marvellous writer.
I hope you find something to enjoy from this list. With all the anxiety about Coronavirus, it may be hard to concentrate on reading but I think it is good for us to keep doing the normal things that are still within our reach. I’ve written an article about the situation in Switzerland and I will add the link here as soon as it’s online for those who are interested.
In these worrying times, I wish you all comfort and protection from harm. I hope our solidarity will get us through this and that we will have many more celebrations together in the future.