A Pagan Place
by Edna O'Brien
Edna O'Brien writes almost exclusively about her home country of Ireland. She grew up in a restrictive home, attending Catholic schools and fought against the boundaries that surrounded her, her childhood a metaphor for the lack of freedoms in Ireland. Each of her novels or short stories that take place in Ireland is worth reading. A Pagan Place is the consummate novel about Ireland: its villages, people and politics. She describes her homeland with great feeling and close attention. The voices she heard as a child reverberate through her fine prose.
"She changed the nature of Irish fiction; she brought the woman's experience and sex and internal lives of those people on to the page and she did it with style, and she made those concerns international." – Colum McCann
"The first eighty pages ... constitute a reconstruction of a childhood experience which, so far as I know, is unique in the English language. In this respect, though otherwise it is different, it invites comparison with Proust; this is a book whose genius is memory." – John Berger
"Manny Parker was a botanist, out in all weathers, lived with his sister that ran the sweetshop, they ate meat Fridays, they were Protestants. Your mother dealt there, found them honest. ...xThey put chocolate aside for her because it was rationed, six bars of plain and six bars of fruit and nut. These she stored in the sideboard along with jams and jellies. The sideboard was dark brown, the keys missing, but since the doors opened with a terrible creak it was nearly the same as having them locked. No one opened these doors without the whole house " – A Pagan Place, Graywolf, 1984 edition.
by Henrich Böll
One of Germany's best-known writers, Böll leaves the realm of fiction and writes a charming travel journal of Ireland. Although Böll's trip was in 1954, and thus somewhat dated, the countryside and people of Ireland are not. This very short book, easily read in a couple of hours, brings Ireland to our doorstep. Many of the "characters" are unforgettable.
"Heinrich Böll's stylish, affectionate account of his family holiday in Ireland in 1954. Elegantly whimsical, it brims with charming characters and evocative description and atmosphere." – Sunday Express
"While our boat was slowly entering the little harbor, we could make out the old man sitting on a stone bench in front of a ruin. He might have been sitting there in exactly the same way three hundred years ago, the fact that he was smoking a pipe made no difference; it required no effort to transpose the pipe, the lighter, and the Woolworth cap into the seventeenth century. ... Hundreds of years ago ballad singers, itinerant monks, had probably landed in this harbor just as we were doing; the old man raised his cap – his hair was white, fluffy, and thick – he made our boat fast, we jumped ashore and, smiling at each other, exchanged the 'lovely day' – 'nice day' – 'wonderful day,' the highly complicated simplicity of greeting in countries where the weather is always threatened by rain gods, and as soon as we set foot on the little island it seemed as if time closed over our heads like a vortex. The greenness of these trees and meadows defies descriptionx...x." – Irish Journal, Abacus, 1984 edition.
by James Joyce
Don't be afraid of reading Joyce. Dubliners, a collection of fifteen stories that take place in Dublin, is clearly written; the work of a writer who is fully in control of his language and content. The details of Dublin city, the inside of homes, a priest's house, the middle-class parties all add up to a very moving, rich and enjoyable view of what Dublin was like in the early 20th century. If you enjoy these stories, try Ulysses (certainly a more demanding book), in which the city of Dublin is a main character. If you read only one of the stories in Dubliners read The Dead, the last story of the collection and a novella unto itself.
"The grey warm evening of August had descended upon the city and a mild warm air, a memory of summer, circulated in the streets. The streets, shuttered for the repose of Sunday, swarmed with a gaily colored crowd. Like illumined pearls the lamps shone from the summits of their tall poles upon the living texture below which, changing shape and hue unceasingly sent up into the warm grey evening air an unchanging unceasing murmur." 'Two Gallants,' – Dubliners, Viking Press 1958 edition.
The Heather Blazing
by Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín is one of the most outstanding prose writers writing today. His exquisite use of language and intensity of feeling mark each novel. The Heather Blazing follows the life of a judge in the High Court in 20th century Ireland and during the journey one learns a great deal about Irish politics of the times. The explorations of personal relationships and the protagonist's love of the Irish landscape make this novel a fine read.
"It is impossible to read Tóibín without being moved, touched and finally changed." – Linda Grant, The Independent
"The Heather Blazing is as contemporary as today's Irish Times, and its author writes with the vision of an enlightened Republic of Ireland still being struggled toward in the world outside fiction." – The New York Times Book Review
"Eamon Redmond stood at the window looking down at the river which was deep brown after days of rain. He watched the colour, the mixture of mud and water, and the small currents and pockets of movement within the flow. It was a Friday morning at the end of July; the traffic was heavy on the quays. Later, when the court had finished its sitting he would come back and look out once more at the watery grey light over the houses across the river and wait for the stillness, when the cars and lorries had disappeared and Dublin was quiet." – The Heather Blazing, Penguin, 1994 edition.
The Last September
by Elizabeth Bowen
Considered one of Elizabeth Bowen's best novels, The Last September takes place in 1920 in County Cork. The Anglo-Irish, a privileged class in Ireland, know that the end of British rule in the south of Ireland is on its way. Tradition and the breaking away from the past are major themes. The reader gains an understanding of what was at stake for the British and the Irish, and how terrifying it must have been.
"Brilliant. .... successful combination of social comedy and private tragedy." – The Times Literary Supplement (London)
"The high windows were curtainless; tasseled fringes frayed the light at the top. The white sills – the shutters folded back in their frames – were blistered, as though the house had spent a day in the tropics. Exhausted by sunshine the backs of the crimson chairs were a thin, light orange; a smell of camphor and animals drawn from skins on the floor in the glare of morning still hung like dust on the evening chill. Going through to her room at nights Lois often tripped with her toe in the jaws of a tiger; a false step at any time sent some great claw skidding over the polish. Pale regimental groups, reunions a generation ago of the family or neighborhood, gave out from the walls a vague depression. There were two locked bookcases of which the keys had been lost and a troop of ebony elephants brought back from India by someone she did not remember paraded along the tops of the bookcases." – The Last September, Anchor Books, 2000 edition.
Paddy's Lament, Ireland 1846-1847: Prelude to Hatred
by Thomas Gallagher
So many of us who live in North America have Irish ancestors, many who left Ireland during the potato famine. I read a book about the famine many years ago, one that must be out of print now, and I have never forgotten the sad and tragic stories. Paddy's Lament is a fine and in depth study of this time in Ireland. The animosity between the British and the Irish can be better understood after reading Gallagher's history. There is no doubt this is a sad book, but one that is important for any visitor to Ireland to read.
"Anyone wondering about the violence and depth of emotion in Ireland today need only read this book. It goes a long way toward explaining what's at its root." – Milwaukee Journal
"An excellent exploration of two fateful years in Irish history that have had unending ramifications." – Publishers Weekly
"No one living in Ireland at the time who saw the rotting fields and caught their stench, who saw and heard the people wailing, had to be told that for the majority of its population all the great and simple purposes of existence were soon to be forgotten in the oncoming struggle with death. A famine unprecedented in the history of the Western world, a chapter in human misery to harrow the human heart, was about to start." – Paddy's Lament, Mariner Books, 1987 edition.
The Graves are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People
by John Kelly
The Great Irish Potato Famine was one of the major disasters of the nineteenth century. The author has done extensive research and has captured the sense of horror of the times with a novelist's eye. This is a compelling history that opens up the question of responsibility as well as the great sadness of Ireland's past. It is easy to visit Ireland today and forget about this tragic period of her history. The Graves are Walking will not allow us to forget.
“The Graves are Walking is a history of the famine vividly narrated by a master story teller.” – Dublin Review of Books
“Magisterial … Kelly brings the horror vividly and importantly back to life with his meticulous research and muscular writing. The result is terrifying, edifying and empathetic." – USA Today
“Late on a September afternoon in 1845, when the sky was low and the wind close, a horseman with a rooster’s plume of red hair and an indefinable air of Englishness about him stood on a road in Donegal, surveying the empty landscape. Near Lough Derg, the rider had passed two dirty peasant children selling ‘rudely carved wooden crucifixes’ and a peeling window poster proclaiming ‘the Sacred beauty of Jesus,’ and near Ballyshannon, a knot of half clad, shoeless peasant women lifting panniers of turf onto the back of an ancient ass. Then, the wind died, the ubiquitous castle ruins--palimpsests of conquest and loss—vanished from the landscape and the rider passed from human to geological time.” – The Graves are Walking, Henry Holt and Company, 2012 edition.