In Print : Ireland, between the covers
We are an odd race, the Irish. Fascinating, but odd. My intermittent, but ongoing study of the Irish psyche was sparked 30 years ago when an Irish man told me: "All our wars are happy and all our songs are sad."
While it rang true, I remember thinking: "How did it come to be that way?" Where did that odd blend of dual penchants for fist fighting and creative expression come from? Why do we make life so hard for ourselves?
The short answer is: We had a lot of help. One factor is pain. In the last two millennia, perhaps only Jews and Irish have lived with unremitting repression, genocide, and continuing diaspora. It is interesting to me that only in the past 60 years have both secured a homeland, although neither has achieved lasting peace.
Dispossession was a clue. Drawn to Roth and Potok, Bellow, Singer, Malamud and Heller, I found their voices the same as their Irish contemporaries. Heller's "Catch-22" captures the insanity of organization, rules, and procedures in the same way that J.P. Donleavy's "Onion Eaters" does. Eugene O'Neill could have lived in Franz Kafka's house. Irishmen everywhere owe Leon Uris, a Baltimore Jew, great thanks for his 1976 novel, "Trinity," a watershed book of Irish struggle.
And history and myth are on the side of Irish writers whose monk scrivener antecedents produced the most comprehensive written library of the first millennium in the West.
Whether we're genetically an undisciplined lot or learned, whatever the reasons, Irish sensibility has produced satirists like Jonathan Swift and George Bernard Shaw, the novels of James Joyce and the work of Synge, Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and more recently, the poetry of Seamus Heaney.
Here are seven books (the list could be 10 times longer) that tell the Irish story and provide a chronological look at Irish history. They might not be the scholar's choice, but all weave a true Irish tapestry.
"Finn MacCool" by Morgan Llywelyn (Tom Doherty Associates, 1994): The mythic Irish warrior (Fionn mac Cumhaill) comes to life in this novel, painstakingly researched by Ms. Llewelyn. Also take a look at "Brian Boru: Emperor of the Irish," and "Lion of Ireland," from the same author and publisher.
"The Great Hunger," by Cecil Woodham-Smith (Penguin Books, 1962): An unflinching look at Irish genocide at the hands of British overlords in the mid-19th century.
"The Dubliners," by James Joyce (Grant Richards Ltd.,1914): 15 short stories of middle class life in Dublin.
"Trinity," by Leon Uris (Harper Collins, 1976): Ireland in the late 19th century with troubles on the horizon. If you read only one, this is it.
"Paradise Alley," by Kevin Baker (Harper Collins, 2002): A slice of Irish immigrant life in New York during the Civil War in 1860s, when $300 bought an exemption from military draft for the privileged.
"The Given Day," by Dennis Lehane (Harper Collins 2008): A look at second-generation Irish life in Boston during the early decades of the 20th century.
"The Haw Lantern" by Seamus Heaney (Faber and Faber, 1987): It's all good. This is my favorite because it explains why "...all our songs are sad."
Jack Shea is a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.