I (like many of you, I’m sure) was saddened by the news of Irish author Maeve Binchy’s death last week.
I read all of her books that my public library had after the movie based on her book Circle of Friends came out in 1995. The month I spent glomming on her books is probably one of the reasons that two years later I spent half a year living in Cork, Ireland and then returned to Ireland for my graduate degree in Dublin (I still love Cork more than Dublin, for the record). In grad school, much of my focus was on Irish women’s literature (though I was always in trouble for studying the “wrong” people and considering some male writers as as important in terms of the depiction women in the literature of modern Ireland… *sigh*) and Irish lit is an interest of mine.
So, instead of list of non-fiction sports books I was planning on recommending today, I thought I’d share some of my favorite books about Ireland—no worries, Angela’s Ashes is not among them.
Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy
Though I think some of her other books are “better,” this was the one that led to my reading all of her books, so it has a special place in my heart. If you’ve only seen the movie (why isn’t this streaming anywhere?), you’re missing a whole lot of this story, because the book starts well before the main characters start university in 1950s Dublin. I will say that looking back, one of the things that’s striking to me is that this novel is set in the 50s, and I first went to Dublin in the mid-90s and it wasn’t all that different from what’s described in this book. Now, it’s a very modern, very European city—it’s remarkable how quickly that city transformed.
The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien
Edna O’Brien’s first novel was banned immediately upon its publication in 1960. The Country Girls isn’t my favorite of hers (that would be The House of Splendid Isolation), but it is the really required reading if you’re interested in modern Irish writing. This novel will probably shock contemporary readers because it’s really not that shocking—but it has been a point of controversy for such a long time, it’s remarkable. Like Circle of Friends, this is a novel about two girls from the country who venture to the big city in search their futures. (First in a trilogy.) Update: Mary just told me on Twitter that Edna O’Brien is writing her memoir, which should be amazing.
The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle
I love these books. I love these movies. I love anything written by Roddy Doyle (which means I’ve committed a grievous sin by not having read A Greyhound of a Girl yet). I think that The Woman Who Walked into Doors is probably his best and most moving book, but it’s also not at all an “enjoyable” read. On the other hand, the Barrytown Trilogy—The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van—is absolutely an enjoyable, and often hilarious, read about working class Dublin. One of my favorite things about Roddy Doyle’s writing is his use of vernacular in his writing. You can hear the wonderful cadence of Irish speech patterns in his novels. Okay, I’m going to stop gushing now. But, seriously, Roddy Doyle is brilliant.
Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd
Bog Child is, I admit, a rather slow novel—but I feel like it’s slow in a purposeful way. (I hope that makes sense.) This coming-of-age novel is set at the beginning of The Troubles on the border between The Republic and Northern Ireland. The main character, Fergus, discovers an ancient body of a child while digging for peat with his uncle, and he becomes involved in studying the mystery behind the child’s death and at the same time his brother is starving on hunger strike in prison and he’s been coerced into carrying strange parcels back and forth across the border. It’s an interesting examination of this time in Irish history, but more than anything, it’s a compelling story about growing up.
Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman by Nuala O’Faolain
It’s funny, three of these titles focus on the 50s and 60s, including Nuala O’Faolain’s fascinating memoir, which extends to the 90s. She recounts her experience growing up in a family of nine children, the difficulty of the limited choices for women of her generation in Ireland and her path to eventually becoming a well-regarded journalist and television personality. I can also recommend her other memoir, Almost There. (Shout out to my undergrad academic advisor who gave me this book as a graduation gift a million years ago.)