They’re classics now, but what did we think of books by Yeats, Behan and Binchy at the time?

Irish classics: Samuel Beckett, Edna O'Brien, WB Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Iris Murdoch
What did The Irish Times first say about some works of literature that turned into classics? We trawled the archive to find out

The Irish Times was founded in March 1859 and, more than 160 years later, is recognised for the quality and the quantity of the pages it devotes to Irish and international literature. Its deep engagement is reflected in the authors who have written columns for it over the years, among them Brian Friel, Kate O’Brien, John Montague, Maeve Binchy, Derek Mahon, Nuala O’Faolain, Stewart Parker and, most famously, Flann O’Brien.

Things got off to a rather sluggish start, however, as Terence Brown observed in his history of the newspaper: “Until the 1880s and 1890s there was little sense that Ireland possessed a literature of its own... This began to change, however, as what became known as the Irish Literary Revival began to make its impact on cultural life.”

Mr Yeats is more brilliantly imaginative, original and self-reliant than ever. Indeed, this is the main feature for which Mr Yeats deserves unstinted praise – he pre-eminently ‘trusts his own soul’ – The Irish Times, March 4th, 1889

In March 1889, almost 30 years to the day after its first edition, The Irish Times published a review of The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems by WB Yeats, which signalled a sea change in its engagement with Irish literature.

Terence Brown credits Alec Newman, a future editor, with establishing the weekly books page in the 1930s as “a thing of serious critical account”. He and future editors had to contend, however, with the heavy hand of the censor, whose list of banned works could have doubled as a guide to the great works of the 20th century and which accounts for some gaps in our coverage.

It is fascinating to read reviews in the context of what else was happening in the world at the time. For example, the first major review of Yeats’s poetry shares a page with a report confirming the death of Richard Pigott, who had sought with forged letters to destroy Parnell.

What follows is a selection of extracts from significant reviews, which span the decades from Yeats’s first collection in 1889 to Anne Enright’s first novel in 1995, along with links to the original reviews, which you can read in full in the archive section of the Irish Times website. Where the reviewer is identified, this information is included.

William Butler Yeats in 1903. Photograph: Alice Boughton
WB Yeats in 1903. Photograph: Alice Boughton

The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, by WB Yeats
March 4th, 1889
Mr Yeats is already well known to several of our readers by his contributions to the Dublin University Review, and in the volume before us we are glad to see several of these contributions, especially Mosada, appearing in a more permanent form. But the chief poems in the volume are quite new, and shows us that Mr Yeats is more brilliantly imaginative, original and self-reliant than ever. Indeed, this is the main feature for which Mr Yeats deserves unstinted praise – he pre-eminently “trusts his own soul”. He is not bound in allegiance to any master (to use a phrase of Horace), but always writes as his own imagination and thought direct him; and he is no more influenced by the many different poets of this century than we all are by works which have become part of the life of the nation.

The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth
February 28th, 1895
That literature has suffered a serious loss by the fact that Miss Edgeworth, with all of her exuberance of industry and enjoyment in usage of her pen, could never be induced to write her autobiography will be freely admitted by the modern reading world. After the lapse of a series of years, during which her labours have been well-nigh forgotten, and her novels neglected, and her personality suffered to become obscure – though so highly held in regard by her contemporaries that Macauley spoke of her as the second woman of her time – a turn in the fitful tide of taste has occurred and she and her works become once more a favourite and familiar subject of study. Perhaps, however, the remarkable volumes recently published by Mr Augustus Hare are as excellent a biography as the admirers of the genius of Maria Edgeworth could desire.
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Portrait of Oscar Wilde in 1883, by Napoleon Sarony
Oscar Wilde in 1883. Photograph: Napoleon Sarony

Selected Poems by Oscar Wilde
September 8th, 1911
It is an interesting question whether Wilde was ever a poet in the truest sense of the word. The difficulty of solving the problem is increased by the fact that Wilde’s position in literature generally seems rather indefinite. In France he is regarded seriously as a poet and a critic; in Germany he is most widely known as the author of Salome; while in England he is held by many to be the founder of the “modern” drama. His comedies present almost all the characteristics of the “Shavian” theatre, but on analysis the great difference is obvious. The ideas which permeate the plays of Bernard Shaw are lacking in his predecessor.
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James Joyce
James Joyce in 1917

Ulysses, by James Joyce
May 5th, 1923
It is extremely difficult to say exactly what place in literature will be occupied by Mr James Joyce. That his position is unique there can be very little doubt; but that statement helps us virtually no more than the pronouncement of many, on the appearance of Ulysses, that the book was “European”, and that in writing it Mr Joyce had made an entry into European literature. Anything may be unique – in fact, most things are – but the mere giving it that label does thereby make it of any particular worth. That Mr Joyce’s work is of particular worth is the firm opinion of many; but, probably for the next generation or so, people will differ very strongly on that question.
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1962, Novelist Elizabeth Bowen (1899 - 1973) at Bowen's Court, her ancestral home, County Cork, Ireland. (Photo by Slim Aarons/Getty Images)
Elizabeth Bowen in 1962. Photograph: Slim Aarons/Getty

Encounters: Stories by Elizabeth Bowen
May 18th, 1923
Elizabeth Bowen hitherto has been known only to magazine readers, and her work has a beginner’s excessive concern about technique. All these studies – there are fourteen of them – begin, according to the latest modern formula, in the middle of what they are going to relate, and they end with similar abruptness. Nevertheless, in most of them the impression is clearly given: she has told what she wanted to tell, and left to the reader’s imagination only what it should be grateful for having left – since it is better to be told a little too little than even a little too much ... Miss Bowen shows herself abnormally sensitive to the atmosphere of houses and rooms, which in her stories are almost personages in the little drama, rather than merely its scene.
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Flann O’Brien

At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien
March 25th, 1939
Irish author’s experiment: Erudite humour in novel form

This is a jeu d’esprit, a fusion of the real, the fantastic and the legendary, by a writer of amazing technical virtuosity. The book exists simultaneously on several planes of thought and action, yet it maintains an essential organic unity. The amazing verve of Mr O’Brien’s writing balances it brilliantly on a plurality of metaphysical stools. It is quite impossible to give an accurate idea of the contents of the work. Mr Graham Greene rather simplifies matters when he says that “you have (a) the narrator writing a book about a man called Trellis, who is (b) writing a book about certain characters, who are (c) turning the tables on Trellis by writing a book about him”. For there are more things in Mr O’Brien’s philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven or on earth.
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Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce
June 3rd, 1939
The writing of Finnegans Wake took 16 years, short enough, perhaps, beside the stretch of time that could be spent in trying to understand it. For it must be said at once that, this way at least, Mr Joyce gives full measure to the reader. Nothing moves, or appears, or is said as ever before in any book. It is endlessly exciting in its impenetrability. Beside it even his own Ulysses is simplicity itself. Around that work a vast and still uncompleted literature of explanation has grown up, which has made its author a legend that even Finnegans Wake may not diminish. He will continue to enjoy his sheltered existence in the region of the unknown; for the attempts to explain Finnegan, which are sure to come, are likely to do nothing more than add to the mystery of Mr Joyce.
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Irish novelist and playwright Kate O’Brien, July 13th, 1926. Photograph: Sasha/Getty Images
Kate O’Brien in 1926. Photograph: Sasha/Getty

The Land of Spices, by Kate O’Brien
March 8th, 1941
There is always the temptation to overpraise a book because it has made a personal appeal. But it appears to us that Miss O’Brien has now given the public her best work since Without My Cloak, and that certain elements of this present story take her far beyond anything she attempted in the first book. The social unit is a convent school, not a family: the interest that the Murphy family captures is really subsidiary. So much has been written about schools, sometimes convent schools, that the devotion and conviction Miss O’Brien brings to her task is refreshing.
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The Real Charlotte, by Somerville and Ross
April 17th, 1948
Review by Temple Lane

How is it that, when members of the Ascendancy appear in fiction, they emerge as preponderantly unpleasant? I am sure Ethel Mannin has read that observant, bitter masterpiece, The Real Charlotte. First published in 1894, the work of two young women in the most exclusive circle of the Anglo-Irish, its courageous realism and raciness may lose something at this distance of time. Manners may “date”, as in Pride and Prejudice, but not the rich skill of portrayal, the ruthless minuteness of observation, the piteous sense of feminine emotional vulnerability. If Francie the co-heroine derives from any character in fiction, it is from Jane Austen’s Lydia, and not Becky Sharp – whom the publishers suggest. The book deserves to be ranked a “world classic”. I do not regard An Irish RM as being in so high a category.
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Samuel Beckett in the mid-1950s. Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty
Samuel Beckett in the mid-1950s. Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty

Molloy, by Samuel Beckett
December 24th, 1953
Review by AJ Leventhal

Mr Beckett’s first French novel, Molloy, appeared in 1951. Murphy, written in English, had already given us a foretaste of his individual powers of observation. “Any fool,” he says in this novel, “can turn the blind eye, but who knows what the ostrich sees in the sand.” In Molloy, and in the succeeding two novels completing a trilogy, Mr Beckett peers bravely through the opaque windows of existence, guessing at the unknowable and, in a tentative language at once nervous and nice, strives to give utterance to the inexpressible.
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The Feast of Lupercal, by Brian Moore
February 8th, 1958
Let me give you a proposition which runs counter to all accepted critical theory: first novels are nearly always good. The average man has enough experience, emotion and imagination to write one book and have it knocked into readable shape. Also, he possesses an outlook on life which he believes to be unique, and this belief will give his work a certain freshness and individuality. Of course, once he has managed to externalise this philosophy of life, he will probably find it a reach-me-down affair, inadequate to cope with anything more than the single set of experiences from which it has been initially derived. Faced with the hitherto unsuspected problems of a second novel, of dealing with purely invented material, the wise average man shuts up, the unwise flounders, but the born writer consolidates. Belfast-born Brian Moore, who made an instant reputation with Judith Hearne, now tackles the big jump.
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Borstal Boy, by Brendan Behan
October 25th, 1958
Review by Martin Sheridan

Irish prison literature is a many-mansioned edifice – history has seen to that… In this book Mr Behan has essayed, and I feel has succeeded in, a task in which a less exuberant, uninhibited and original talent might have failed. Borstal Boy is formless and uneven, and its characters are but lightly sketched. Scores, many of them grotesques, flash across its pages; few leave a lasting impression. What makes it succeed (for me) is the writing, which at its worst is fluent – with a capital F – and at its best is rich, ebullient, humorous and Rabelaisian.
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Irish novelist, playwright and poet Edna O'Brien, UK, 24th June 1968. (Photo by Len Trievnor/Daily Express/Getty Images)
Edna O'Brien in 1968. Photograph: Len Trievnor/Daily Express/Getty

The Country Girls, by Edna O’Brien
April 30th, 1960
Review by Maurice Kennedy

Not since I read The Wapshot Chronicle have I been so captivated by a novel. John Cheever and Edna O’Brien seem to me to have the same approach: a compound of passionate involvement in their characters’ tragicomic destinies and, at the same time, an ironic awareness of their fundamental, touching absurdity. The human condition, in their view, is wildly funny and basically sad. These books shock, and refresh, and stick in the memory, making one read them again and again, while a shelf of acknowledged masterpieces sits shiny and unthumbed. Unlike Mr Cheever’s decadent New Englanders, Miss O’Brien’s heroine is so dewy-fresh from village and convent-school life that she can be dazzled by the juke-box civilisation of our little city.
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British author and philosopher Iris Murdoch in London in 1966. Photograph: Horst Tappe/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Iris Murdoch in 1966. Photograph: Horst Tappe/Hulton/Getty

The Unicorn, by Iris Murdoch
January 4th, 1964
Review by Terence de Vere White

“Miss Iris Murdoch comes of Anglo-Irish parentage and was born in Dublin.” So the dust wrapper on her last novel proclaims, and for that reason alone she would merit our attention. As one of the most earnestly discussed novelists since the last war, she is worth consideration were she Anglo-Welsh. Unfortunately, the review copies of her work – or so it seems – “go astray in the post”. Hence a late notice on a bought copy. I can pay Miss Murdoch no greater tribute. But I wish I could say I liked the book, thought it a good novel, or had any other feeling than puzzlement at the way in which Miss Murdoch now exercises her talent. Not everyone enjoys her; but the critics – with very few exceptions – compete in eulogy. Some acclaim her wit, others her profundity. Of her seven novels, I thought The Bell the most successful, and after that The Sandcastle, but the author herself prefers The Flight from the Enchanter, and this may explain why I like her development so little.
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The Old Boys, by William Trevor
March 7th, 1964
Review by Val Mulkerns

With his first shiny novel, The Old Boys, William Trevor has made a magnificent splash in the muddy pond. For various reasons I consider Mr Trevor a real writer, and the most obvious one is that, at 35, he has chosen old age for his subject and written convincingly and luminously about it. Generally speaking, young female novelists starting out write of girls in their summer dresses on the look-out for lovers, and young male writers seldom have a much wider range – they only appear to have. But here is a first novel that might have been written by a very old hand indeed, in every sense of the word. There is no feeling of experiment, no hesitation. Mellow, assured, orderly, subtle, full of macabre humour, it drops like a ripe plum into one’s hand.
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Brian Friel in 1962
Brian Friel in 1962

Philadelphia, Here I Come! by Brian Friel
September 29th, 1964
Walter Mitty, Billy Liar and a few other schizo-fantasists are the dramatic begetters of Ger O’Donnell, the anti-hero central figure of Brian Friel’s Philadephia, Here I Come!, which had its premiere under the direction of Hilton Edwards at the Gaiety Theatre last night. Come to think of it, maybe old H Ibsen’s Peer Gynt had a part in the foster-parentage too. It’s the sadly comic story of a young man, born and reared in a small Irish town, given a whiff of sophistication by a year at UCD (the Yale of Dubbelin!) and returned to the old man’s gombeen store in Ballybey to suffer the frustrations that such young men either endure or rebel against and escape from.
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Tarry Flynn, by Patrick Kavanagh
March 20th, 1965
Review by Terence de Vere White

Any man who wrote Tarry Flynn is entitled to throw down his hat and offer a challenge to the wide world. He has done enough and, in a sense, has done everything he can do. In this short novel Kavanagh tells us all that writers tell us in their long autobiographies, and tells it to us more amusingly and more movingly. All the dispensable and ephemeral matter is eliminated: the temptation to discuss matters for leading articles is sealed off; there is only room for art. Tarry Flynn is a work of art, and only one of a half-dozen books produced in the Ireland of my lifetime which I predict is destined to outlive its author.
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Cyclist and writer Dervla Murphy in Tibet in 1965, as described in her book Tibetan Foothold. Photograph: Dervla Murphy/Eland Books
Dervla Murphy in Tibet in 1965. Photograph: Dervla Murphy/Eland Books

Full Tilt, by Dervla Murphy
June 19th, 1965
Review by Moira Verschoyle

A book was published recently, recounting the exploits of astonishing Victorian lady travellers. Now comes Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy, giving an account of what seems to me to be the most astonishing exploit of all, that of a present-day young woman making the journey from Ireland to India on a bicycle. She called her bicycle “Roz” (short for Rosinante), and while I am not keen on nicknames for inanimate objects, it seems excusable in this case because before the journey was completed “Roz” developed a live personality for her owner and, I admit, for this reader. Miss Murphy took with her only those things which could be stuffed into bags hanging on each side of “Roz” as well as a .25 automatic pistol which she had occasion to use against wolves, both animal and human.
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1971 - 10/11/1971 - Seamus Heaney Photographer: Jack McManus / THE IRISH TIMES . . . neg no ?
Seamus Heaney in 1971. Photograph: Jack McManus

Death of a Naturalist, by Seamus Heaney
May 24th, 1966
Review by Michael Longley

This is the first volume of poems by an impressive young Ulster poet. Seamus Heaney’s subject matter derives mainly from his memories of his childhood on a farm in County Derry. A first reading reveals great density and richness which embody precise observations of the people and the landscape of that early experience. But, if one of his main qualities is descriptive power, Heaney’s poems are much more than merely descriptive. The considerable imaginative efforts he has put into the meaningful arrangement of facts and observations which seem often so uncompromising, makes his local description the focus and illumination of a much broader human context.
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The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne (1759)
June 8th, 1968
Review by Eavan Boland

When a man puts pen to paper for the first time in middle age, his motives must be different from those of the apprentice. It is hardly likely that he will have similar preoccupations to the novice; he will not care whether his experience can be suitably imposed by old and proved conventions; he will not look forward anxiously to a lifetime in which impression and expression must be arduously and persistently related to each other. Instead, presumably, he will have an overriding conviction of the beauty of what he has known and some determination that it will not go into obscurity without praise; and to accomplish this he will find his own forms. So it must have been with Laurence Sterne, who started to write Tristram Shandy in 1760 when he was already forty-seven years of age... It is a huge, obstinately eccentric work, rightly beloved by those who can perceive in its blustering, straying style a sensibility sufficiently in love with human infirmity to dwell upon it with humour and deceptive economy. On the other hand it has, perhaps justifiably, exasperated critics who value technique above vision. “Nothing odd will do long,” fumed Samuel Johnson. “Tristram Shandy did not last!”
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Strumpet City, by James Plunkett
April 26th, 1969
Review by Terence de Vere White

In the palmy days of Italian opera the principal arias had be kept a secret lest they be sung on the streets before the opening night. The praises of Mr James Plunkett’s long-awaited novel have been sung for several weeks before publication day. It is to be published on Monday. The high hopes that have been held out for it have been fulfilled. That is the first thing to be said, and it is to be said unequivocally. This is a good book by a good man; and if that sounds stuffy, I can’t help it. I am probably not alone in the feeling that we are being bombarded by books written by people with whom we would find ordinary converse a grief. Writers had in the past a sense of public responsibility; that has gone. It will be interesting to see whether this book, which describes the searing poverty of Dublin at the time of the Larkin strike in 1913, will suffer at all for its concern for the decencies.
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Irish writer Mary Lavin in her study, Dublin, 1966. Photograph: Evelyn Hofer/Getty Images
Mary Lavin in 1966. Photograph: Evelyn Hofer/Getty

Happiness and Other Stories, by Mary Lavin
November 8th, 1969
Review by Bernard Share

“I do not think that one finds Mary Lavin ever wasting a word,” wrote Lord Dunsany in a preface to Tales from Bective Bridge. Now, half a dozen books and a quarter of a century later, the same assessment would be entirely valid. A tale such as Love Is for Lovers from the first book could take its place comfortably in the five included in Happiness. There is no striking variation in style, in technique or in subject matter. Externals have changed – the glittering tram-tracks have vanished, the characters travel with rather less precision in taxis – but Miss Lavin’s insight into the human heart, the delicate certainty about uncertainty that made her analysis of unconscious motives so penetrating, has altered only slightly, and that simply under the pressure of maturing experience. Does this betoken an admirable consistency, or a failure to progress and break new ground?
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Jennifer Johnston. Photograph: Tom Lawlor
Jennifer Johnston. Photograph: Tom Lawlor

The Captains and the Kings, by Jennifer Johnston
January 29th, 1972
Review by Bruce Williamson

Mr Prendergast is an old and derelict Anglo-Irishman living alone in a family mansion much like himself, somewhere, I think, in the more solitary and sinister thickets of the County Wicklow. Time is catching up with him. He remembers his dead wife with fastidious distaste: she crackled and nagged. He can’t be bothered to write to his only child, a daughter who notched up a double-first at Cambridge and lives, presumably to some profit, in London.
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Birchwood, by John Banville
March 13th, 1973
Review by Roy Foster

On one level, John Banville’s Birchwood is a delight; let this be said at once, because reservations have a way of crowding in to obscure the initial judgment. The writing, design and vision of the novel, as well as what I can only call its architecture, are superb; words are spent with a beautifully controlled extravagance, the story itself is of the exact proportion required and the three sections of the narrative build up to three great climaxes: Mr Banville is a kind of classicist and, better still, a classicist with a vision.
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Maeve Binchy in 1991. Photograph: Ian Cook/Time Life/Getty
Maeve Binchy in 1991. Photograph: Ian Cook/Time Life/Getty

Echoes, by Maeve Binchy
April 13th, 1985
Review by Clare Boylan

Most blockbusters these days seem to be about small-town girls who, with little or no effort, rise to become international stars. Maeve Binchy’s second novel has a more attractive theme of the enormous effort that goes into putting a little sparkle into the life of a girl from nowhere. Clare O’Brien is a bright girl born amid witless siblings in the back room of a huckster shop. This bravely twinkling little star is spotted by the local schoolteacher, herself a scholarship girl, whose promising future was sacrificed to a crippled mother and the priestly training of her brother. She determines to compensate her own restricted career with the fulfilment of Clare’s potential.
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The Journey and Other Poems, by Eavan Boland
December 6th, 1986
Review by Brendan Kennelly

It seems to me to be the best single book of poems to come out of Ireland since Kavanagh’s Come Dance with Kitty Stobling. It is a passionately felt, beautifully crafted collection, full of poems that startle you with their musical clarity and elegance, their calm, deep insights into many facets of human experience, their sweetly articulated respect for human dignity at a time when a person might be forgiven for thinking that such respect is a thing of the past. By exploring her experience as a woman in her various roles as wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, observer, thinker, she reveals, with an attractive blend of reticence and force, her rich, complex humanity. The title poem is one of the most intense and visionary works I’ve read in years. It’s one of those rare poems impossible to quote from because only one form of quotation will do it justice – the entire thing.
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Loving and Giving, by Molly Keane
September 10th, 1988
Review by Clare Boylan

The error of selflessness is the endearing theme of Molly Keane’s most sympathetic novel to date. The big house is seen as a house of horrors when a solitary child, left too long to steep in virtue, prowls the estate in search of kindness and finds only hostile mystery. She finds a cat in labour in the kitchen, passion in the pantry, slaughter in the yard and the disappointing miracle of a double butterfly, which so repels the adults that they burst into French and eject both insect and offspring. What can a good little girl do but skip away to torment the dull-minded boy in the gate lodge?
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Maeve Brennan. Photograph: Nina Leen/Life/Getty
Maeve Brennan. Photograph: Nina Leen/Life/Getty

The Springs of Affection, by Maeve Brennan
May 1st, 1999
Review by Fintan O’Toole

You can look for her in the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, or the Dictionary of Irish Literature or the Biographical Dictionary of Irish Writers. But she’s not there. Nor, to my knowledge, has she featured in any of the tremendous feminist efforts to restore the memories and reputations of forgotten Irish women writers. Yet Maeve Brennan was, in her time, one of the most glamorous and widely-read Irish writers of short prose. And her time was not the far-distant past. She died in 1993. One of the stories in this superb collection, Christmas Eve, was written in New York about 50 years ago, but it is a memory of Dublin perhaps 25 years before that.
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The Heather Blazing, by Colm Tóibín
September 12th, 1992
Review by Dermot Bolger

If The South was, in part, a study of Protestant Wexford, then The Heather Blazing is an examination of what the Proctors would call “the RCs”. RCs being generally a more interesting bunch, The Heather Blazing is a far superior novel which works on a convincing political level in showing how a boy can be filtered through “the family” of Fianna Fáil, from being spotted by Lemass making his first rally speech to being groomed for the High Court.
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Anne Enright in St Malo, France, May 26th, 1996. Photograph: Frédéric Reglain/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Anne Enright in 1996. Photograph: Frédéric Reglain/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

The Wig My Father Wore, by Anne Enright
March 18th, 1995
Review by Katie Donovan

“I am the daughter of a man who used to wear a wig. After that, television is easy.” These are the words of Grace, TV producer of the Love Quiz show, who falls in love with an angel called Stephen. Grace is the wittily disillusioned protagonist of Anne Enright’s first novel. Here is the brittle, surreal humour so evident in her brilliant, award-winning first collection of short stories, The Portable Virgin; the droll, sneering and surprisingly tender insights about the strange way ordinary people live. Grace speaks of “the astonishing web of the ordinary that keeps the wheels on cars, nails out of tyres and the sun swinging in the sky”.
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