Eileen Battersby’s Irish literary tips for St Patrick’s Day
The Irish Times literary correspondent offers her reading list to celebrate our national day
World -class literature: James Joyce’s Ulysses might well take more than a day to read, unless a reader wishes to turn a day’s reading into a vigil without meals. Yet there is a stupendous feast of shorter books, novels and short stories, awaiting and all to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace in one day. Photograph: Frank Miller
On this day of days, Irish people the world over celebrate and debate what would life be like if real snakes, of the reptilian rather than political variety, were to return and slither throughout this green isle. Toss back your newly green hair and contemplate this hypothesis, the return of the snake and wonder at the tax the Government would hasten to impose upon all snake owners, regardless of their income.
Ireland’s cricketers and rugby team may have fallen short at the weekend but Ireland’s horses can always be relied upon to lift the Irish nation as they did at Cheltenham. And in addition to the magnificent Irish equines are the Irish writers, rare thoroughbreds blessed with two literary traditions, a unique way of seeing, a mercurial feel for language, a grasp for the poetry of the ordinary and a tension between the rural and the urban.
It was James Joyce who transformed the commonplace into art. All hail the maestro whose majestic anti-epic spanned the course of one day. But as most of the population will already have read Ulysses at least five times, and there is still Bloomsday to look forward to, why not instead devote today, St Patrick’s Day, to the reading or re-reading of an Irish book by an Irish writer?
Ulysses might well take more than a day to read, unless a reader wishes to turn a day’s reading into a vigil without meals. Yet there is a stupendous feast of shorter books, novels and short stories, awaiting and all to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace in one day. Remember the actual act of reading remains as of yet, untaxed.
The Key/An Eochair (1953) by Maírtín Ó Cadhain
Possibly best known for his masterful Cré) na Cille (Graveyard Clay), Ó Cadhain was a genius. This new bi-lingual translation of The Key/An Eochair by Louis De Paor and Lochlainn Ó Tuairisg is forthcoming from Dalkey Press. It is brilliantly funny. A civil servant becomes trapped in his office when his key snaps in the lock. All efforts to free him must conform to civil service protocols. Anyone who has ever been pushed into a frenzy by the mindlessness of bureaucracy will exalt at this Kafkaesque delight.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) by Brian Moore
A lonely spinster sets about trying to survive. Moore’s first literary work and possibly his finest, this is a heartbreakingly astute study of an unwanted woman’s dreams, desires and alas all- too-real humiliations.
Foster (2010) by Claire Keegan
Rightly celebrated as a natural exponent of the art of the short story, Keegan followed two impressive collections, Antarctica (1999) and Walk the Blue Fields (2007), with this miracle of compressed storytelling, in which a young girl fostered out by her father to another family discovers love only to have it taken back from her.
The Informer (1925) by Liam O’Flaherty
Born into the native Irish-speaking tradition, O’Flaherty looked to the natural world of the Aran Islands in shaping some of the finest Irish short stories yet written. He also had a sharp psychological instinct and a dramatic sense. The tension undercutting this story about confused notions of idealism shows exactly why it has endured. O’Flaherty belongs to a unique group of Irish short story writers including Michael Mac Laverty, Frank O’Connor, Bernard Mac Laverty, Mary Lavin, John McGahern, William Trevor and Edna O’Brien – something of an embarrassment of riches.
Authenticity (2002) by Deirdre Madden
Always a thoughtful, cerebral writer, Madden explores the role of the artist in this accomplished work which is one of the finest Irish novels of the past 50 years.
The Last September (1929) by Elizabeth Bowen
Social comedy meets private tragedy in this highly intelligent, precise exploration of the thin line dividing two cultures during the war of attrition between the British army and the IRA which tore the country apart as the innocent could merely stand and watch. It was to leave a legacy of further unrest spilling over into civil war. Bowen was one of the great literary stylists of the 20th century.
The Past (1981) by Neil Jordan
Set in similar territory to that of The Last September, The Past consolidates the narrative artistry Jordan demonstrated in his remarkable debut book, Night in Tunisia (1976), a collection which is assured of its place among the finest published by any Irish writer. No doubt here, film’s gain was fiction’s loss.
The Countrywoman (1962) by Paul Smith
At any chance there is to mention a great Irish novel, one should include this moving novel by the Dublin writer who understood the life of the city and the hardships it places on lost individuals. Mrs Baines is one of the enduring heroines of Irish literary fiction.
Mefisto (1986) by John Banville
So often referred to as a literary stylist, it is easy to overlook that Banville can tell a colourful story. Mefisto is his most consistently overlooked achievement. In it Gabriel Swan – no prizes for spotting the Proustian reference – is caught between life and work, art and truth. It is also very funny, showcasing his laconic humour. Also a contender is his earlier Birchwood (1973), while few writers have caught the essence of sexual ambiguity as brilliantly as he does in The Newton Letter (1982).
In Night’s City (1982) by Dorothy Nelson
This mysterious book heralded the arrival of an original. Dorothy Nelson followed her intense debut with another remarkable work, Tar and Feather (1987). She deserves to be re-discovered and why not today on St Patrick’s Day?
Grace Notes (1997) by Bernard Mac Laverty
Shades of Brian Moore along with the wealth of a tradition shapes this gentle Booker-shortlisted novel from MacLaverty about a woman composer, estranged from her mother, lover and life itself as she struggles with a baby on a remote Scottish island.
The Blue Tango (2001) by Eoin McNamee
A dark, lyric meditation based on a real-life murder and a miscarriage of justice, this is high art indeed. McNamee is an artist and among the finest writers at work anywhere. The most helpful things to say here is simply read all of his work and wonder at the menace and the chilling beauty.
Love and Summer (2009) by William Trevor
The temptation here is to say the exact same thing: read all of Trevor, including the short stories. His calm work also shares that sense of menace, yet Trevor’s menace is unlike any other. Love and Summer is a late work yet it ranks among Trevor’s finest. In it a young girl, newly married to a bereaved older man who has lost both wife and child, falls in love with a feckless outsider. A tentative romance develops over the course of a summer into a powerful human tragedy. The obvious question remains, why hasn’t William Trevor been awarded the Nobel Prize?
A Goat’s Song (1994) by Dermot Healy
Set in the west of Ireland, this is the story of Jack Ferris, a playwright whose life is in crisis. His lover Catherine has had enough. Healy’s lament about love lost and a changing Ireland remains his finest work. This is the bold, unyielding and daunting book by which Dermot Healy will, and should, be remembered. At just over 400 pages, it may leave little time for even a snack this St Patrick’s Day – yet this book will both test a reader and leave him or her curiously satisfied.
The Charwoman’s Daughter (1912) by James Stephens
One of the defining works of Irish literary social realism. James Stephens brought empathy and intuition to this dramatic story of a mother and daughter: a mother heartbroken by the realisation her little girl is growing up and that daughter is about to experience the harsh realities of sexual awakening with the additional cruelty of social class at its most unrelenting.
The Hill Road (2005) by Patrick O’Keefe
This volume of novellas, each of which reads like a novel, is devastating. O’Keefe is as an heir to John McGahern; this is a book to leave one shaking. His prose is nuanced and exact yet also dream-like and uninhibited; the voice is true and as expected, his characters emerge as real and as haunted as the landscape out of which they came. His novel, The Visitors (2014), in an age of hype is probably one of the most impressive novels any of us might read. Here is a discovery for St Patrick’s Day.
The Christmas Tree (1981) by Jennifer Johnston
Constance Keating has returned to Ireland to die. Practical and as direct as only a Johnston narrator can be, this is one of the finest books from a writer whose intelligence succeeds in making a reader think once, twice and then a third time. Reading one novel by Johnston means reading more. Her candour is irresistible.
The Parts (2003) by Keith Ridgway
Before the Celtic Tiger and before its bizarre death came this hilarious cartoon about a cast of crazy characters on the loose in a bewildering Dublin. It has never quite been as fully celebrated as it deserves. Now is your chance: find a sofa and laugh your way through St Patrick’s Day. Just over 450 pages? Hey, what’s one day without eating?
The Rye Man (1994) by David Park
John Cameron returns to his past, his old school, in order to take up the headmastership. But coming back brings with it memories and with them, a severe test of character. This second novel from Park should be required reading for anyone with an interest in Northern Ireland.
December Bride (1951) by Sam Hanna Bell
The same could be said of this great book, one of the most profound works of fiction to be found anywhere. It is an elemental, European classic in which a determined young woman, intent on avoiding her father’s fate, moves into a family farm and divides two brothers. Set in Northern Ireland in the early 20th century, anyone seeking an Irish Thomas Hardy which defies melodrama and instead achieves true tragedy, need look no further. This is a worthy contender for the Great Irish Novel.
The Big Chapel (1971) by Thomas Kilroy
Shortlisted for the 1971 Booker Prize, playwright Kilroy’s only novel is based on real life events in which a small community is torn asunder by an initially simple disagreement over the local schools. The characterisation brings this novel alive. It is short and every word counts. This is singular indeed and testifies to the intense genius of Thomas Kilroy. It is fascinating to read it and then consider John McGahern’s equally inspired Amongst Women (1990). These two novels honour a distinguished tradition of rural-based fictions and also chronicle vital chapters in Irish social history.
The Dalkey Archive (1964) by Flann O’Brien
Okay, so it is St Patrick’s Day and you really want to be able to eat and laugh yourself sick without worrying about the outcome of international rugby matches. Then welcome to one of the funniest books of all time, the fifth and final novel from the master. Behave Selby, you have been warned. And you could also have time on this day of days to have several meals and to also read one of the all-time extravaganzas of myth, legend and literary cross-references, At-Swim-Two-Birds (1939). And yes, we know he wrote for The Irish Times; we never claimed not to be biased!