The Great Irish Lit Wallow

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in March 2013.

What is it about the Irish? That they are a nation of storytellers seems to be borne out the minute you get in a cab in Dublin (though it probably helps that you have an American accent), but the fact is, whether it’s a pub culture that encourages the art of the story well told, a history of political strife retold and retold in oral histories, a well-established cultural mythology, or something else entirely, you know many Irish writers because you read them in school: William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett …*

But there are others you should know about.

I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Ireland, and I believe with all my heart that one way to understand a country or a culture** is to read its literature.*** So a couple years ago I wandered around Dublin from bookstore to bookstore with a list in my hand, bought a bunch of books, and proceeded to read many of them in 2013–14.

The Gathering / Anne Enright
Langrishe, Go Down / Aidan Higgins
Good Behaviour / Molly Keane
TransAtlantic / Colum McCann
The Land of Spices / Kate O’Brien
After the Rising / Orna Ross
The Spinning Heart / Donal Ryan
The Blackwater Lightship / Colm Tóibín

Here’s a brief look at them:

The Gathering
A grown woman, Veronica, attends the wake of her beloved brother Liam (who has committed suicide) and reflects on her family’s troubled history to make sense of the present. Enright reviews Dublin life in the 1920s through the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s as well as the current present, casting an acid eye on how Catholicism affected men, women (Veronica’s mother experienced nineteen pregnancies, and it broke her body and mind), and families in those decades.

Daddy grew up in the west—he always knew the right thing to do. He had beautiful manners. Which, if you ask me, was mostly a question of saying nothing, to anyone, ever. ‘Hello, are you well’, ‘Goodbye now, take care’, the whole human business had to be ritualized. ‘I’m sorry for your trouble’, ‘Put that money away now’, ‘That’s a lovely bit of ham’, ‘It is your noble call’. It bored me to tears, actually: all that control.

I’ve experienced enough of Dubliners to have recognized what I know in the rhythm of Enright’s dialogue. The last thirty pages are just stunning, and very satisfying. There’s a good reason this book won the 2007 Man Booker Prize. (I transcribed this bit from page 42 of a paperback published in 2008 by Vintage–Random House UK.)

Langrishe, Go Down
In the late 1930s, three reclusive middle-aged spinster sisters live on their run-down family estate in Ireland. I’ve been reading a lot of lit from this period between the two wars; the Celtic Tiger is not even a gleam in anyone’s eye, and life is just plain hard. Enter a pompous German graduate student who rents lodging from the women—and one of the sisters embarks on a passionate affair with him, until she realizes he cares nothing for her.

The first chapter was a lovely read but then it was so, so bleak, so sad, grim. In addition, the novel—which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1967 and was turned into a movie with screenplay by Harold Pinter. Harold Pinter, Nobel Prize–winner!—is just difficult: experimental literature that was probably over my head (or, perhaps, simply read at the wrong time). I wanted to love it but I just couldn’t.

Good Behaviour
By the time I got to Good Behaviour, I was in the middle of deadlines and not taking a lot of time to make notes, but I’ll tell you this: it’s set in the 1920s among the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy—which is to say the formerly wealthy Protestants of English heritage who had once been overlords. The New York Review of Books said:

After the treaty, some stormed out shouting at the receding Wicklow Hills. Those who stayed on resorted to irony; for centuries they had been a caste in decline on a poor island-within-an-island in Britain’s oldest colony. They stuck to their wild passions for huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, the turf, drink, and, above all, genealogy, as the damp rose in their fine but decaying houses. Debts and mortgages gathered around them, but they had long settled for not knowing history socially except when it presented itself in the form of family trees (sometimes done in tapestry) going back to the Normans, the Elizabethans, or even to Charlemagne. The snobbery approached, as Stendhal would have said, the Sublime.

This, then, is a book of manners, particularly about the concern for good ones, in the face of horrible, unspeakable events. It is hilarious. Also sad, and made me a little squeamish at times—which, as far as I’m concerned, is the mark of a great book. Published in 1981, Good Behaviour was shortlisted for the Man-Booker Prize.

TransAtlantic
I’ve written about Colum McCann’s fabulous book already, so I’ll direct you there.

The Land of Spices
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.

In the story, a girl of sixteen, a scholar from an impoverished family, has won a scholarship to enter college. Her grandmother, who has been supporting the family, doesn’t believe in the “education of women” and announces that the girl will decline the prize. The confrontation between this woman and the Mother Superior at the convent school is worth the price of the book. It’s not my normal fare, but I seriously loved it.

After the Rising (originally published by Penguin Ireland as Lover’s Hollow)
The Irish Civil War—which followed the war of independence from England that established the Irish Free State—is also called the War of the Brothers, because families were horribly and tragically divided, some supporting the Republicans (who wanted to be completely free from England) and some supporting the Free Staters. The Irishman tells me that—less than a hundred years later—feelings about this war are still very raw. (And in fact, I asked him so many questions he soon mailed me a history book.)

The story—set in a small village in County Wexford—bounces between present and past; the cover copy tells us …

When Jo Devereux returns to Ireland after an absence of twenty years, the last person she expects to meet at her mother’s funeral is Rory O’Donovan. The bitter conflict between her family and his, full of secrets and silences, was the one constant of Jo’s childhood. … [She] … embarks on a quest, uncovering astonishing truths about her mother and grandmother and women’s role in the conflict known as “The War of The Brothers”, the Irish Civil War of 1922. And also about a killing with consequences that have ricocheted through four generations.

I was completely caught up in both stories, and went on to read the second book of this series, Before the Fall. Once projected to be a trilogy—and my copy of Before the Fall reflects that plan—it now appears the author has moved on to other projects.

The Spinning Heart
Donal Ryan is the youngest author in this company, and has written only two novels to date. The Spinning Heart … was gorgeous, just gorgeous. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, it won the Irish Book Awards Book of the Year and the Guardian First Book Prize, and, yes, it definitely deserved to be in that company.

Set in an Irish village just after the economic crisis hit in late 2008, the book is twenty-one short narratives by different characters affected by the collapse of a local building contractor’s firm. Oh, it’s stunning, really different and special because of that. It seems as if they’re each just telling their own story but as you turn the pages you realize there is a complete story arc developing, and it packs a wallop. The setting is contemporary, so the dialogue is modern, and these were voices I recognized, voices I’ve heard.

The Blackwater Lightship
Helen, a school principal in suburban Dublin, has a husband, two sons, and a brother, Declan, with whom she is close. Now Declan is dying of AIDS, and he asks Helen to break the news to their mother and grandmother, from whom they are both estranged.

Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, this novel hits all the notes: family, friendship, forgiveness. It’s an interesting comparison to The Land of Spices in this scene of a grandmother and nuns:

“Oh, the nuns loved her,” her grandmother went on, “and when she was in her final year … they called us in, and they had never looked up or down at us before, oh they were very grand, the nuns, a French order. And Mother Emmanuelle, the grandest of them all, told me that she believed Lily had a vocation. I smiled at her and said that would be the happiest thing for us. It was all smiles until I got out to the car and I said to your grandfather that I was going to pray to God to stop Lily entering the convent.”

“And did you not want her to be a nun?” Paul asked.

“Lily? Our beautiful daughter? Have all her hair cut off? And a veil and draughty old convent and only doddery old nuns for company? I did not! And I lay awake every night thinking about how to stop her.”

Over the Christmas holidays Lily (Helen’s mother) is sent to the next town to visit with her worldly cousins who taught her about boys and the latest fashions. And that was that:

… “So she went back to [school], and … we were called in before we took her home for Easter, and we were told that she was becoming a bad example to the other girls, and she had changed completely. Oh, I said to Mother Emmanuelle, I said, we haven’t noticed any change. It must be something in the convent, I said. Oh, she gave me a look, and I looked back at her. And she knew she’d met her match. And that’s how we stopped Lily becoming a nun.”

This scene (transcribed by me from pages 150–51 of a 1999 Picador paperback) made me laugh out loud. Tóibín is very, very good with dialogue: I can hear the Irish cadence here without even trying. And though reviewers have tended to like others of Tóibín’s books better, I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

During the period of my Irish Lit Wallow, I also read Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and Nora Webster, both of which were fabulous.

***

Am I finished? Nah—I still have a few more to read: James Plunkett’s Strumpet City; Tóibín’s The Master; McCann’s Let the Great World Spin; Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer (a followup to The Woman Who Walked Into Doors); and Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (and also her memoir, Country Girl). And I’ll be trolling Dublin bookstores again this June, so no doubt I’ll add to the list.

If you haven’t read outside  your usual haunts, give Irish lit a try. And if you have, please tell me about your favorite title!

* Four Irish writers have won Nobel Prizes for Literature: Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and Seamus Heaney.
** Does this mean I will never commit a cultural faux pas on my visits to Ireland? No. You can take the girl out of the States but you can’t take the States out of the girl. Though one does try.
*** For a more complete list of the Irish lit I’ve read in the last few years, go here.

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Reading Around and About Ireland

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in March 2013.

Good reads. 🙂 Notice that foreword … by Dermot Healy!

I took a vacation in Ireland last year, accompanied by my sister, her daughter, and my good friend Margaret. Margaret and I are both book lovers, so as you might guess, more than a few volumes were purchased (and more than a few nerves were atwitter as we considered the weight limit for our luggage). We even had the experience of purchasing the same obscure book (High Shelves & Long Counters: Stories of Irish Shops by Heike Thiele and Winifred McNulty*) independently of one another, which just goes to show why we are friends.

Now, of course, we’re working our way through our purchases; we’ve both recently finished at least one each.

I searched specifically for Dermot Healy’s novel Long Time, No See on the trip. Roddy Doyle calls Healy “Ireland’s finest living novelist” (he’s also published five volumes of poetry), and that’s no small compliment. I thoroughly enjoyed the book—about a boy at loose ends after graduating from high school—although it’s not what you would call an easy read. It’s unconventional and very much in the spirit of other unconventional Irish writers like Flann O’Brien and, yes, James Joyce. It has a very tight POV, which has stream of consciousness written all over it. There’s lots of dialogue, lots of Irish humor too—and I could hear and see every moment of it.

Here are two reviews—the Guardian’s is by Annie Proulx and the other is from the Miami Herald—for American readers. The cover you’ll see on the American edition is interesting and lovely, like something published in the 1950s, but it seems misleading: the story is set in 2006, smack-dab in the Celtic Tiger years. The cover on my Irish edition has a photo of a skinny Irish boy next to the quintessential stone fence, facing into those strong seaside winds—it’s a perfect representation of the events in the novel. Don’t let that vintage American cover throw you off.

On the opposite end of that literary spectrum are the memoirs of the Blasket Islanders, one of which Margaret purchased when we were at the Blasket Centre on the Dingle Peninsula. Here’s what she had to say about it a few days ago:

I finished reading Twenty Years A-Growing this afternoon, the memoir of Muiris O Súileabháin’s (Maurice O’Sullivan, 1904–1950) youth on the Great Blasket Island, off the Dingle Peninsula and the southwestern coast of Ireland. I sometimes judge a book by whether I am truly sorry to finish it, and if I felt inclined to read portions of it aloud to whoever would listen. It was all that, and though translated from Gaelic, it could nearly be sung, the language is so fine. No doubt life on the island was not all humming bees, dancing to the fiddle, and hauling in fish to fill the curraghs to the gunwales, but we can forgive the author for focusing on what he loved most. Sadly, the island is no longer inhabited. Highly recommended.

That pretty much says everything that needs to be said, no? And remember, these Blasket memoirs have been in print since their publication (Twenty Years A-Growing in 1933); that’s a long time and quite a recommendation.

I like to travel, and I believe reading the literature of a country enhances one’s travel experience. Or you can simply do a little armchair traveling. I’ve done a lot of that too (thank you, Frances Mayes). Have you read a book that really gave you a taste of another country? I’d love to hear about it.

* And with a foreword by Dermot Healy!

“Nuala O’Faolain, 68, Irish Memoirist, Is Dead” *

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in March 2012.

Some years ago when I still worked in the corporate world, I was driving home from my job listening to NPR. It was late (yes: I worked late too frequently, even then) and they were running an interview with Nuala O’Faolain. She had just turned sixty, and the interview had to do with the paperback reissue of her first novel, My Dream of You.

Nuala O’Faolain. I lifted this photo from the Irish Independent. 🙂

Her protagonist, Kathleen de Burca, is an older woman who unexpectedly falls in love after having given up on that ever happening. There is much, much more that goes on in this layered and nuanced novel (I loved it), but the radio interviewer headed down that older-love path, as many of Kathleen’s details seemed to echo O’Faolain’s personal life.

In this interview O’Faolain said (I’m paraphrasing) that as she had begun aging, she’d been essentially written off by younger people. They think I’ve given up “all that,” she said (meaning wild, passionate emotional and physical love), but I haven’t. I still long for “the Other.”

At the time, her words struck me right through the heart (I’d been divorced and alone for some time) and there I was, driving down the highway, sobbing like a baby. But this was her gift: as a writer and speaker she is unsentimental, painfully honest, eloquent in that way the Irish are—and sees right to the heart of the matter.

I’d never heard of her before that night (in Ireland she was a household name) but I went to the bookstore the very next day and bought My Dream of You. After that I read Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman and later her second memoir, Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman. I was moved, always, by what this woman had to say.

When I stumbled on the headline above, then, you can imagine my sorrow. I’d felt like I knew her! Less than a month before she died she did a sad but unblinking radio interview about her impending death. It was a sensation in Ireland. (You can read it here or listen to it here. It’s really good for seeing / hearing the rhythm of her Irish way of speaking, if you are interested in that sort of thing, as I am.) “It must look as if I’m an awful divil for publicity altogether,” she said.

Perhaps. But even now, her writing deserves your attention. Have a look. Let me know what you think.

*This headline is nearly a decade old; it’s from a story in the New York Times dated 11 May 2008.

I’m the Person I Always Was—Only Now I Say What I Think Out Loud

Yes. You’ve probably noticed. I’ve been speaking my mind. 🙂

When I got divorced in 1990, I became a very busy single mom working two and three jobs. Life continued apace, and the country had lots of interesting things going on, but I kept my thoughts to myself because I didn’t feel qualified to speak up. I’m a facts gal. I always have been. And if I’m not in possession of the facts, I’d rather be silent than be stupid.

Back in those days some male members of my family had a lot to say about politics—even knowing that I didn’t agree with them*—but I let it roll off because I didn’t feel like I was up on all the facts, so I couldn’t have an intelligent conversation about it. During that time, I prided myself on keeping the peace, and I’ve since prided myself on keeping things light. On the blog I talk about travel and my fortunate life. On Facebook I talked about my kid, my pets, my now-husband, the yard, my work … all the things I love and care about.

And as long as I did that, I was OK.

Oh, I watched all the ugly, partisan memes that twisted the truth (or often lied). I saw lots of them on my brother’s Facebook feed. I watched that angry, mean stuff from Alex Jones, Mark Levin, and Fox News (and so, so many others) posted by people I thought I knew. I heard the disgust in certain voices when the word liberal was spoken or written. It hurt when people I know used the word libtard in my presence. I didn’t like it, but I said nothing. I was “a good girl,” it seems.

But on 25 November 2015 in South Carolina, Donald Trump publicly mocked a disabled man, and I’ve not been able to move past that.

There’s a lot more than that, of course. Trump lies. He’s selfish and greedy. He’s a racist, a xenophobe, and a hater of the worst sort. He’s a science denier. He is a serial sexual assaulter. He’s also not particularly bright, which is something that really bothers me.

I kept silent a little longer. But now I just can’t. Staying silent destroyed my personal serenity and played havoc with my mental and physical health. “I cannot and I will not retract anything,” Martin Luther said at the Diet of Worms in 1521, “since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” That’s where I’m at, y’all. There is no pillow so soft as a clear conscience.

Interestingly, because I’ve spoken up now, because I’ve stepped out of my good-girl role, because I have dared to criticize the man they voted for, some people I know have called me a hater.

To those people I say: clearly you don’t know me at all. I have always had these opinions you don’t like. I’m just talking back now because I have my facts in hand. Oh, I’m a smartass, all right. Sure, I’m angry. And yes, I have a very low tolerance for bullshit (and always have). But I’m no hater. There’s a difference.

*Because I’ve had the same fundamental beliefs about life, and the goodness of it, and the notion that in the end we as humans and as a nation will be judged by how we treat the least among us since I was about ten years old, arguing politics at the dinner table with my daddy, who encouraged me in all things, even my renegade allegiance to the Democratic party.

“Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence. We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.”
Robert F. Kennedy, speech, “On the Mindless Menace of Violence,” in Cleveland, Ohio, 5 April 1968

Poetry Geek

This post is republished from my professional blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in April 2013.

When I was a kid I loved studying poetry in school. For the same reason I love a jigsaw puzzle, for the same reason I loved diagramming sentences (yes! and I’m not ashamed to admit it), for the same reasons I enjoy editing now, I loved the discussions about symbolism and simile and structure.

I loved parsing the words, teasing out the message that just wasn’t clear to a thirteen-year-old of limited frame of reference. “I met a traveler from an antique land,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in 1817,* “Who said, ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone …’” and these lines never fail to thrill me. I’m right there in that desert. It’s a fairly transparent sonnet, actually, but I was quite impressed with it when I was thirteen and I am still, these many years later.

I also love being exposed to new poetry. So I was delighted to read a post from poet Isabel Rogers, in which she mentioned this gorgeous piece—“The Lammas Hireling” by Ian Duhig. The poem won the (UK) Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition in 2000. I immediately sought it out—and it’s lovely—but knew I needed to do a little research.

Isn’t it always an adventure to read and then think and imagine what’s going on in a poem? You can start with the title. Lammas, as it turns out, is a pre-Christian tradition: a harvest festival on August first. The hireling is simply a man, a stranger, engaged at a rural hiring fair. Duhig himself tells us this is how farm “labour was engaged well into the last century.”

Americans unfamiliar with the folk traditions of the British Isles will be stumped by a couple references. Duhig says,

It’s based on a story I heard when I was in Northern Ireland, out for a very late night walk, a local person pointed out a house he told me was where the local witches used to live, and in their tradition witches would change into hares, and when the father was dying, his family was very embarrassed because the father’s body was turning into a hare’s and this bloke [who] told me the story said he attended the funeral and the last thing you could hear was the hare’s paws beating the lid of the coffin as they lowered it into the ground.

Now there’s a story for ’round the campfire, eh? The poet goes on to say, “‘A cow with leather horns’ is another name for a hare—if you think about it you’ll see why.” That last line, of course, is the best part of reading poetry, as we’ve discussed. If you think about it, you’ll see why.

Read the poem again.

Now, just for fun, watch this short film from filmmaker (and poet!) Paul Casey, founder of the Ó Bhéal reading series in Cork.

What do you think? Now that you’ve watched the film, do you think there could there be a less magical interpretation? Casey gets us started when he says the poem “explores superstition in 20th century rural Ireland.” What do you think of his choice of a woman to play the hireling, when the poem calls the hireling “he”? Is the old widower a reliable narrator? You tell me.

UPDATE: This post became known to the poet within minutes of the time it published, and in short order I was having a Twitter conversation with him. He said, “If obscurities remain—allowing for its unreliable/unhinged narrator—do ask.” Don’t hesitate, friends: @IanDuhig.

* “Ozymandius” was published in the 11 January 1818 issue of the (London) Examiner.
Thank you, Isabel, for exposing me to “The Lammas Hireling.”
There’s some more interesting discussion about the poem here.

 

Ireland on the Page

This post is republished from my professional blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in September 2012.

Before I visited Ireland the first time, I did an enormous amount of reading—about history, culture, and so on. The history, in particular, is a lot to grasp for an American. That whole Troubles thing? We. Just. Don’t. Get it.

I’d long been fascinated by Ireland. This allure probably had some genesis in—don’t laugh—the 1966 Disney movie The Fighting Prince of Donegal. (I said don’t laugh. I still have a VHS copy. It’s based on a 1957 novel by Robert T. Reilly, Red Hugh: Prince of Donegal, and is Good Clean Fun.)

I’d read Joyce in high school, of course (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners; I’m not any braver than that). Ten years later I read Leon Uris’s Trinity (subtitle: A Novel of Ireland) and finally thought I understood the Irish Troubles. As we’ve discussed (here, say, and here), there is a power to convey history even through fiction. (Sadly, the book didn’t stand up well in a recent reread. Which isn’t to say you mightn’t enjoy it, just that it is no longer my cuppa.)

In the years that followed I read quite a bit of Roddy Doyle’s wonderful fiction; I’d found Nuala O’Faolain and Fergal Keane. I read The Great Shame: And the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World by Thomas Keneally (he of Schindler’s List fame) and another piece of Irish history fell into place. I found a little book called A Literary Guide to Ireland by Thomas and Susan Cahill (touring Ireland by way of its writers? you can imagine my delight). This led me to Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, which was pure nonfiction pleasure. Highly recommended.

Irish history has been discussed in a variety of fiction and nonfiction, all immanently readable. (It’s been covered in movies, too, but that’s another post.) It’s an ongoing thing, this personal study of Irish history, but by the time I finally visited Ireland, I at least had the basics in hand. Not everyone is as interested in drilling down the way I am, I guess, but if you travel to a country not your own, how can you experience it as anything more than a Disneyland (Oh, look, honey! Sheep! So cute!) if you don’t know at least a little something?

This was borne home to me in an incident I experienced in Dublin at Kilmainham Gaol. Now a museum, the gaol played an important role in recent Irish history, having been the site of the executions of fourteen men who participated in the Easter Rising, including all seven of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. It is a solemn and sorrowful place.

On this particular day our tour group was being led by a soft-spoken young man who looked to be in his mid-twenties; he was probably a graduate student at one of the local universities. Also in our group was a large American man who seemed desperate to show the rest of us—and the very Irish docent—how much he knew about Ireland, about the Rising (he called it the Uprising … sigh), really, about everything. He kept peppering our young guide with questions and comments, which were answered fully and patiently.

And then the guide said something about the Irish Civil War.

The big guy sputtered. “Civil war? What civil war?” Hahahaha. Yes, dude. Didn’t you watch the movie? Michael Collins didn’t die at British hands.

Without doubt, Irish history is complicated. And, as Fergal Keane notes, “ruthless … nasty, [and] tribal.” But if you want to understand it, you can. I can recommend a book. 🙂 The Irishman and I found it in the United Nations bookshop, of all places: Ireland: An Illustrated History, by Henry Weisser. It’s short—you can read it in an afternoon—and has everything you need to know.

Not Your Average Journalist

This post is republished from my professional blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in September 2012.

A friend of mine “introduced” me to Irish writer and broadcaster Fergal Keane in the late ’90s; his BBC Radio 4 broadcast of his emotional essay “Letter to Daniel” had recently caused an enormous stir the British Isles. (Forget the stiff upper lip; when a man waxes profound about his newborn, folks get a little worked up.)

Fergal Keane. Snagged from the BBC.

Keane was born to Irish parents in London, but grew up in Ireland. His father was the locally famous radio and stage actor Éamonn Keane; more importantly to our story (his father’s career and alcoholism having made him nearly a stranger to the family), his uncle (and surrogate father) was the playwright and author John B. Keane. (His play The Field is one you might be familiar with; it was made into a 1990 movie starring Richard Harris, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance. You should have a look.)

A way with words apparently ran in the family. Young Fergal started his career as a newspaper journalist, then moved to broadcast journalism, first with Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) and then the BBC, which sent him to South Africa, where he covered the end of apartheid. He made his name reporting the “hot” wars on the BBC and writing about them in the Independent, where he was a weekly columnist for years. If there was a war zone, Fergal Keane was there: Sierra Leone, Burma, Congo, Angola, Bosnia, Afghanistan, the genocide in Rwanda.

He also had a rep for getting too involved with his stories. “Keane has been scorched by criticism of his heart-on-sleeve broadcasting style and accused of believing he has a monopoly on the moral high ground,” the Telegraph’s Elizabeth Grice writes. “Some of his reports … have exposed his own feelings, it’s said, at the expense of professional detachment and a proper account of what is going on.”

Personally, I like that depth of involvement. I like that he cares. His writing is evocative, engaging, humane, and just gorgeous. He makes me cry. (But who wouldn’t cry about what happened in Rwanda in 1994?) Keane himself says, “The best correspondents for me are those who haven’t been afraid to be human.” Yes.

I’ve read two collections of his columns, Letter to Daniel and Letters Home, and his memoir, All of These People. I would recommend these, certainly. I don’t know if I can bear a whole book about Rwanda (Season of Blood) but I intend to try; Keane has said, “Rwanda was the defining experience of my adult life. … Nothing prepared me for what I saw in Rwanda.” He wrote some truly memorable columns in the aftermath of 9/11, including his first reaction on 13 September, “There is only one way to defeat such hatred.” That was eleven years ago today. And here is one about the IRA’s announcement, in late October 2001, that it would decommission its weapons. The line “A vast pasture of sacred cows has been dispatched to the abattoir” is classic Keane (read it a couple times to appreciate the craftsmanship).

Fergal Keane has given up chasing wars now—he’s won awards and accolades enough—and is doing more writing. Lucky us! Whether you’re a writer or a reader, I urge you to seek out his books.