The best Irish language fiction and non-fiction books of 2016
From real life miscarriages of justice to fictional whodunnits, this year has some gems
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, taken from Portráidí na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge. Photograph: Máire Uí Mhaicín / Foras na Gaeilge
For anyone interested in contemporary writing in Irish, Portráidí na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge/Portraits of Irish Language Writers, edited by Liam Mac Amhlaigh, Ronan Doherty and Ursula Ní Choill (Comhar & Foras na Gaeilge, €40), is a splendidly produced hardback featuring colour photographs by Máire Uí Mhaicín of 106 Irish-language writers, with biographical notes. The editors have assembled the portraits, which Uí Mhaicín took in the few years before her death, and made them available in this attractive bilingual volume. They have also developed an online site where the project will be updated with new portraits, biographical notes and audio files, giving readers worldwide immediate access to succinct, accurate information about who is writing what in Irish at present.
Some publications marking the centenary of the 1916 Rising are worth mentioning. RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta broadcast a lecture series as part of its commemoration; the eminent historian Prof Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh was editor of both the series and the book An Piarsach agus 1916: Briathra, Beart agus Oidhreacht (Cló Iar-Chonnacht/RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachata, €15). It contains a dozen essays by historians, including JJ Lee, Máire Harris and Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, with further essays by literary scholars, including Alan Titley and Gearóid Denvir, who re-examine Patrick Pearse and his work as a journalist, creative writer, language activist, educationalist and revolutionary.
Coiscéim has been making an ongoing contribution to our knowledge of 1916 in the series Macallaí na Cásca 1916-2016. It runs to 16 booklets (€5 to €7.50), with studies of events in Wexford, Galway, Cork, Waterford, Laois and Kerry, as well as essays examining the historiography and political legacy of 1916.
A full-length study of those revolutionary years in Galway comes from Cormac Ó Comhraí in Sa Bhearna Bhaoil, Gaillimh 1913-1923 (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, €20), which draws on a wide range of published and unpublished sources to re-create and re-examine the revolutionary years.
Going further back into our troubled history, the former language commissioner and Raidió na Gaealtachta journalist Seán Ó Curraoin examines the brutal Maamtrasna murders of 1882 in Éagóir (Cois Life, €15). He describes the subsequent travesty of justice that saw innocent men sentenced to years in prison or death by hanging for a crime they did not commit. He revisits the controversial case and unearths the scandalous and deliberate framing of the men, followed by the authorities’ persistent refusal to consider that the justice system and its agents were corrupt. The story is told in clear, measured language that displays the author’s journalistic background and highlights the injustice perpetrated on this small Gaeltacht community.
In fiction the work of Micheál Ó Conghaile is always worth a read – and often breaks new ground. Diabhlaíocht Dé (Cló-Iar-Chonnacht, €10) is a collection of surreal short stories featuring an uncaring deity who has largely abandoned the people and animals he has created. Worse, the deity and the devil often enjoy humankind’s predicament.
Ó Conghaile springboards into this weird and wonderful world from images and origins that owe much to the Bible and a mixture of mythologies, native and foreign. His stories are entertaining, unsettling, thought-provoking and fresh, but more conservative readers may be offended occasionally by what they might consider to be blasphemous and distasteful details.
Scáil an Phríosúin (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, €12) is Anna Heussaff’s third crime novel featuring the accidental investigator Aoife Nic Dhiarmada, whom we previously met on the Beara Peninsula in Bás Tobann and Buille Marfach. In her latest adventure she is in Kilmainham in Dublin, where her daughter is now living. Once again she has reason to get to the bottom of a murder, with or without the help of the Garda. The author invests the story with the physical presence of Kilmainham Gaol and the colour of contemporary Dublin but reaches back into history to find the key that allows Aoife to unlock the mystery.
Two debut collections of short stories by women writers were refreshing and very different. Máire Dinny Wren is from Gaoth Dobhair, in the Co Donegal Gaeltacht, and that rugged area provides the setting for many of her stories of women attempting to survive domestic violence, love gone wrong or the difficulties of old age. Go mBeinnse Choíche Saor (Éabhlóid, €10) is beautifully written and sometimes poetic, with a variety of credible and sympathetic characters struggling with life around the stormy Donegal coast.
Another strong feminine voice comes in the short stories of Realtán Ní Leannáin in Dílis (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, €10), with urban settings in Belfast and Dublin. She captures tightly-knit working-class Belfast communities as her characters struggle to cope with illness, old age, petty crime and crimes of passion. Their stories are often sad, sometimes tragic but occasionally very funny.
The doyen of prose writers in Irish is Seán Mac Mathúna. His latest novella, Doras, Fuinneog, Scuab (Leabhar Breac, €9), relates the adventures of two recently homeless teenagers who stumble across each other in the backstreets of Dublin and form an alliance. Joined by a stray dog, they leave the city to elude the authorities, desperate to find somewhere they can feel safe. Mac Mathúna writes a captivating story in a style that readers of all ages will find both exciting and accessible.
This year the Dutch writer Alex Hijmans wrote his fifth book in Irish. An Tearmann (Cois Life, €10) tells the story of a young Irishman who turns his back on his problems in Ireland by volunteering to help an endangered indigenous community in Brazil. The author has lived there for several years, and his descriptions of the environment are atmospheric and credible. Occasionally the pacing felt a bit off to me, but the melodramatic cliffhanger ending may hint at a sequel.
We are on the more familiar ground in Connemara with An Mianadóir, by Jackie Mac Donncha (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, €10). This short novel examines the trauma caused by a boy’s disappearance and the suspicions that fall on a recently returned emigrant who had befriended him. It is often a thought-provoking read, but the details of the search for the boy which, while necessary, were a bit predictable.
No room here for poetry, but the 500-page bilingual Leabhar na hAthghabhála – Poems of Repossession, edited by Louis de Paor (Cló Iar-Chonnacht/Bloodaxe Books €15), is the bargain of the year for anyone interested in the development of poetry in Irish in the 20th century.
Cathal Póirtéir is a writer and broadcaster. He is the producer in charge of Irish-language programmes on RTÉ Radio 1