Ode to Egan: Irish Authors, Irish Themes
Most of the books by Irish writers I have read have two threads running through them. There’s a love/hate relationship with their homeland, and there’s emigration – for so many Irish citizens, the eventual solution for their problems is to leave Ireland, by choice or not – of course in The Immortal Irishman, Thomas Meagher didn’t have a choice.. Here are works by great Irish writers that have told those stories:
James Joyce’s The Dead is set in January 1904, at a dinner party during the Feast of the Epiphany. Among the attendees are Gabriel Conroy, a university professor, and his wife Gretta . As the evening unfolds, a number of themes emerge, including the love of Ireland versus the need to be elsewhere – Joyce spent much of his life in exile from his home country, in flight from the paralyzing influence of the Catholic Church. Eventually the story moves into a meditation on how the dead – all the dead that ever lived – still influence the living.
This is one of those stories where there is not a lot of melodrama and action, but in the hands of a writer like Joyce, it becomes timeless. Several critics, including T.S. Eliot, said “The Dead” is one of the finest short stories ever written. It was made into a gorgeous movie starring Angelica Huston as Gretta Conroy, directed by her famous father John Huston.
A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle revolves around an era of political upheaval for Ireland – between the 1916 Easter Rising and the eventual truce signed with the United Kingdom in 1921. The story is told from the perspective of young Henry Smart, from his childhood of terrible poverty to his early twenties. Henry, who becomes an ardent supporter of independence for Ireland, mixes things up with real life revolutionaries and politicians such as Patrick Pearse, James Connolly and Michael Collins.
Roddy Doyle is one of the most astute and funniest writers I have ever read, and even in this story, with a lot of suffering in it, that shines through. Doyle’s way with dialogue is amazing; he has a particular ear for the dialogue of the Irish working class A Star Called Henry is the first novel in a trilogy that will follow Henry to America and then back to Ireland.
Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn has become famous because of the lovely movie adaptation that came out within the last year. It’s the story of Ellis Lacey, a young Irish woman who leaves Ireland in the early 1950s after an Irish priest, who recognizes her intelligence and aptitude, tells her of opportunities in America that will never come her way in Ireland.
Ellis makes the leap, and after an initial stage of frustration and homesickness, begins to bloom in her new American home. She falls in love with Tony, an Italian plumber. Then her sister dies of a pre-existing heart condition, and Ellis returns to be with her mother. Eventually she has to choose between her old life and the new.
I love many things about Tóibín – mostly his humanity. He loves his characters, even when they are on a crooked path. Another thing he shares with almost all the Irish writers I know is an ear for dialogue and all its nuances and shades of feeling. The Irish are such great talkers, maybe that comes with the territory.
A wonderful novel that jumps back and forth between the Irish past and present is Colum McCann’s Transatlantic. Transatlantic tells several stories. There’s that of two aviators who make a transatlantic flight in 1919 from Newfoundland to Ireland. There’s the visit of abolitionist Frederick Douglas to Ireland in 1845-1846, something Timothy Egan writes about in his new book. And there’s the story of U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s efforts to negotiate peace between warring factions in Northern Ireland in 1998. Woven throughout are stories of lesser known women, telling their stories over the span of two centuries. So many stories, contained within the cover of one fascinating book.
Finally, I can’t leave without mentioning one of the greatest Irish memoirs of all time – Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. This, of course, is the story of McCourt’s impoverished upbringing in Limerick. McCourt had the ability, unique among writers and humans, to see things with crystal clarity without becoming bitter. By 11, McCourt had become the breadwinner for his family. As a teenager he lost his girlfriend to tuberculosis and by 19 he had saved enough money to immigrate to the United States, where so many enormously talented Irishmen and women have wound up. McCourt became a writing teacher in the New York public school system and wrote this memoir late in life. How lucky we are that he prevailed.