So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 1): Getting the Backstory

I can think of no better way to get acquainted with a country than to read its literature, both fiction and nonfiction. (I wrote about this a while back in my other blog.) Everybody knows there was a famine (but … why?). We know Americans discriminated against the Irish in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and again … why?). But there are even larger questions. My generation grew up knowing about “the Troubles,” but I didn’t understand what had caused them. I simply could not wrap my mind around the whole Catholic/Protestant tension, or why there was a little bit of Ireland that still belonged to the United Kingdom, and, wait, the country’s only been independent since 1922? Yes.

In my work as an editor, I caution novelists not to reveal the backstory too soon, but when you’re traveling to a country you know little about—leprechauns don’t count—it’s good to have a handle on the basic historical facts. (Misunderstandings abound. I was in a Dublin tour group with a know-it-all American who was shocked—and said so—when the guide used the words Irish civil war.) William Shakespeare wrote, “What’s past is prologue” (The Tempest, act 2, scene 1), and nowhere is that more true than Ireland. (Ol’ Will’s intention was slightly different than our modern interpretation. But it still works.)

I have a long list that I’ll post below; you can investigate individual titles at your leisure. But if you came to me and asked for a few recommendations to familiarize yourself with the history and the culture, I’d probably start with these ten:

Ireland: An Illustrated History, by Henry Weisser (Hippocrene Books 1999)
Nonfiction—particularly history—is important if you’re trying to “get” Ireland. You can read all about it online, of course. But Gerry bought me this little (read it in an afternoon) book at the United Nations in 2003. It’s succinct and perfect. It’s available new if you can’t find it at the library, but I bet you can also buy it used.

How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, by Thomas Cahill  (Anchor 1996)
When the barbarian hordes descended upon Europe from the north, burning the libraries in Greece and Rome and plunging Western civilization into the Dark Ages, Ireland was just too far for them to go. So there were all those monks, patiently transcribing books in their remote monasteries and beehive huts. And when the time was right, they got in their little boats and sailed back to England and beyond. This is seriously one of my favorite books of all time.

Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman, by Nuala O’Faolain (Henry Holt & Co. 1996)
O’Faolain—an Irish journalist, TV producer, and writer of both memoir and fiction—was born in Dublin in 1940, a time when Ireland lagged behind most first world countries in every way, much of it due to the stranglehold the Catholic Church had on every aspect of Irish life. She grew up poor, one of nine children, but was ultimately educated at University College Dublin, the University of Hull, and Oxford University. And she had a very interesting life.

Ireland, by Max Caulfield, photos by Joe Cornish (Gill & Macmillan 1993)
I bought this coffee-table book in Ireland on my first trip in 2003. Primarily a book of beautiful photographs, it is also a record of six tours around Ireland, each beginning in a major town (Dublin, Wexford, Cork, Galway, Westport, and Belfast). Caulfield is a historian and journalist, and this book is absolutely the best overview I can think of if you’re planning a trip. It’s out of print but you can pick it up at any online used book source for just a few bucks … which is what I did for my sis and my friend Margaret when we were planning our 2012 trip together. It’s that good.

Ireland: A Novel, by Frank Delaney (Harper 2005)
The Irish have a rich tradition of folklore, and these stories are as alive in their twenty-first century culture as they were when they were first told by the seanchaithe (pronounce it SHAWN-a-kee), or bards. This novel was given to me by a publishing friend when it first came out. When I finished it, I realized that I’d learned every important Irish folktale, as well as the important points of Irish history, all wrapped up in the modern-day story. Again, it’s a great overview.

The Gathering, by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape 2007)
The gathering here is for a funeral; Liam Hegarty, one of nine children, has committed suicide. The sibling who was closest to him—his sister Veronica—is first shocked, then angry, and begins to remember incidents from her childhood (and Liam’s). The novel ranges from the 1920s to present day, and is a really good look at a large Irish-Catholic family in Dublin. The prose is beautiful, the story is stunning, and it won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2007.

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann (Random House, 2013)
I wrote about TransAtlantic in my professional blog—it was my favorite book of 2013—so I’ll just link you and let you go. It’s a New York Times best seller, was long listed for the Man Booker, and it made me cry (in a good way). Fabulous book.

The Land of Spices, by Kate O’Brien (Virago Modern Classics 2006)
Published in 1941 but set in 1905–1914 Limerick, this novel by one of Ireland’s most famous writers is considered a classic. The action happens almost completely within the walls of a girls’ convent school, with two protagonists—the Mother Superior and a young student. This may not sound like much, but the characters draw you in quickly and then in the last quarter of the book—bam! bam!—it punches you right in the gut, twice. It’s an allegory, really, of the “new” Ireland—the Republic—rising up and leaving the old attitudes (particularly about women) behind. It knocked me out.

After the Rising, by Orna Ross (Font Publications 2011)
This novel has a present-day story that is set up by events that happened in Co. Cork after the Rising (that is, the Easter Rising of 1916), in what became known as the War of the Brothers—Ireland’s painful, tragic civil war. It is so detailed and so compelling, I was calling Gerry every day, asking him specific points of history. (This led to the arrival in my mailbox of Green Against Green, when my questions got too detailed; like me, he’s been out of school a long time.)

Trinity, by Leon Uris (Doubleday 1976)
This novel came out during the height of the Troubles, when the much, much younger me was having trouble understanding the root cause of a situation that seemed to be about religion. I’d loved Exodus, Mila 18, and other historical fiction by Uris, and this was no exception—particularly since it gave me the insight I needed to understand what was really happening in Ireland. My reading tastes have changed; I recently began to reread Trinity and liked it much less. But I recommend it because I believe this epic saga of four families will be absolutely perfect for some readers.

So that’s the short list! Here’s a longer list—still not complete—of Ireland-related books on my shelf (including those mentioned above). There may be something here of interest to you. Some of these were purchased in Ireland and may not be available in the States, in which case check an online used book source like Enjoy!

• A Short History of Dublin, by Pat Boran (Mercier Press 2000)
• How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, by Thomas Cahill  (Anchor 1996)
• The Shankill Butchers: A Case Sturdy of Mass Murder, by Martin Dillon (Arrow Books 1990)
• The Celts: Conquerors of Ancient Europe, by Christine Eluère (Harry N. Abrams 1992)
• They Never Came Home: The Stardust Story, by Neil Fetherstonnhaugh and Tony McCullagh (Merlin Publishing 2002)
• Northern Ireland: The Origins of the Troubles, by Thomas Hennessey (Gill & Macmillan 2005)
• Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War, by Michael Hopkinson (Gill & Macmillan 2004)
• The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding, by Robert Hughes (Vintage 1988)
• The Great Shame: and the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World, by Thomas Keneally (Random House 1998)
• Last Words: Letters and Statements of the Leaders Executed After the Rising at Easter 1916, ed. Piaras F. MacLochlainn (Government of Ireland, 1990)
• The Heart of Dublin: Resurgence of an Historic City, by Peter Pearson (O’Brien Press 2000)
• The Celtic Cross, by Nigel Pennick (Blandford 1997)
• The Atlantean Irish: Ireland’s Oriental and Maritime Heritage, by Bob Quinn (Lilliput Press 2005)
• The Quiet Revolution: The Electrification of Rural Ireland, by Michael Shiel (O’Brien Press 2003)
• Daughters of Ireland: The Rebellious Kingsborough Sisters and the Making of a Modern Nation, by Janet Todd (Ballantine Books 2003)
• Ireland: An Illustrated History, by Henry Weisser (Hippocrene Books 1999)

Irish Interest
• Irish Place Names, by Deidre Flanagan & Laurence Flanagan (Gill & Macmillian 1994)
• The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, by Jonathan Harr (Random House 2005)
• Glasnevin: Ireland’s Necropolis, by Shane MacThomáis (Glasnevin Trust 2010)
High Shelves & Long Counters: Stories of Irish Shops, by Winifred McNulty & Heike Thiele (The History Press 2012)
• Ireland Unhinged: Encounters with a Wildly Changing Country, by David Monagan (Council Oak Books 2011)
• Ingenious Ireland: A County-by-County Exploration of Irish Mysteries and Marvels, by Mary Mulvihill (Townhouse Press 2002)
• Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World, by John O’Donohue (Bantam Books 1997)
• Everything Irish, ed. Lelia Ruckenstein and James O’Malley (Ballantine Books 2005)
• Irish Cottages, by Walter Pfeiffer & Maura Shaffrey (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1990)
• Slanguage: A Dictionary of Irish Slang, by Bernard Stone (Gill & Macmillian Ltd. 1997)

Memoir / Biography
• Michael Collins, by Tim Pat Coogan (Arrow Books 1990)
• It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples, by Bill Cullen (Mercier Press 1998)
• Rory and Ita, by Roddy Doyle (Jonathan Cape 2002)
• Round Ireland with a Fridge, by Tony Hawks (Tomas Dunne Books 1998)
• In Search of the Craic: One Man’s Pub Crawl Through Irish Music, by Colin Irwin (André Deutsch 2004)
• All of These People, by Fergal Keane (Harper Perennial 2005)
• McCarthy’s Bar, by Pete McCarthy (Thomas Dunne Books 2000)
• The Poor Mouth, by Flann O’Brien (published in Gaelic as An Beål Bocht by Myles na Gopaleen, 1941; first English translation 1973)
• Seán Keating: Art, Politics, and Building the Irish Nation, by Éimear O’Connor (Irish Academic Press 2013)
• Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman, by Nuala O’Faolain (Henry Holt & Co. 1996)
• Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman, by Nuala O’Faolain (Michael Joseph Books, 2003)
Twenty Years A-Growing, by Maurice O’Sullivan (1933)

• A Literary Guide to Ireland, by Susan and Thomas Cahill (Charles Scribner’s & Sons 1973)
• Ireland, by Max Caulfield, photos by Joe Cornish (Gill & Macmillan 1993)
• The Irish Way, by Robert Emmett Ginna (Random House 2003)
• Ireland: Eyewitness Travel Guide (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.)
• Dublin Top 10 (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.)

• The Sea, by John Banville
A Long, Long Way, by Sebastian Barry
• Herself Surprised, by Joyce Cary
Ireland: A Novel, by Frank Delaney (and many others by Delaney)
• The Ginger Man, by J.P. Donleavy
• Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle
• The Woman Who Walked into Doors, by Roddy Doyle
• The Gathering, by Anne Enright
• The All of It, by Jeannette Haien
Long Time, No See, by Dermot Healy
• Langrishe, Go Down, by Aidan Higgins
• Shade, by Neil Jordan
• Dubliners, by James Joyce
• Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
• Good Behaviour, by Molly Keane
• The Butcher Boy, by Patrick McCabe
TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann
• At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien
• The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien
• The Land of Spices, by Kate O’Brien
• The Mammy, The Chiselers, The Granny, by Brendan O’Carroll
• My Dream of You, by Nuala O’Faolain
• Knick Knack Paddy Whack, by Ardal O’Hanlon
• After the Rising, by Orna Ross
• Before the Fall, by Orna Ross
• The Portable Irish Reader, edited by Diarmuid Russell
• The Princes of Ireland (The Dublin Saga), by Edward Rutherfurd
• The Rebels of Ireland (The Dublin Saga), by Edward Rutherfurd
• The Blackwater Lightship, by Colm Tóibín
• The Story of Lucy Gault, by William Trevor

You can find the introduction to this series here: Travel Daydreams.


13 thoughts on “So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 1): Getting the Backstory

  1. Pingback: So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 2): More Backstory. With Accents. | Wanderlustful

  2. Pingback: So You Want to Go to Ireland (Part 3): DIY Vacation | Wanderlustful

  3. Pingback: So You Want to Go to Ireland (Part 4): Narrowing It Down | Wanderlustful

  4. Pingback: So You Want to Go to Ireland (Part 5): Some Sightseeing Ideas | Wanderlustful

  5. Pingback: So You Want to Go to Ireland (Part 6): “Official” Tourism | Wanderlustful

  6. Pingback: So You Want to Go to Ireland (Part 7): Eating, Drinking … and Music | Wanderlustful

  7. Pingback: So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 7): Let’s Go Shopping! | Wanderlustful

  8. Pingback: So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 8): Finding the Magic | Wanderlustful

  9. Pingback: So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 9): Last Thoughts | Wanderlustful

  10. Pingback: The Great Irish Lit Wallow

  11. Pingback: Short Saturday: Making a List, Checking It Twice

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