Archive for March, 2014

Reading Year in Review, Part II

March 17, 2014



Books, Plays, Films:

Country Girl, Edna O’Brien

August Is A Wicked Month, Edna O’Brien

The Collected Stories, William Trevor

Charming Billy, Alice McDermott

Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha, Roddy Doyle

A Star Called Henry, Roddy Doyle

Watching the Door, Kevin Myers

Ghosts of Belfast, Stuart Neville

The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine And The Saga of The Irish People, John Kelly

The Famine Plot: England’s Role In Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy, Tim Pat Coogan

My Left Foot

The Crying Game

What Richard Did

DruidMurphy plays by Tom Murphy (Conversations On A Homecoming, A Whistle In The Dark, Famine) (The NYRB essay by Fintan O’Toole)

The Talk of The Town, Emma Donoghue 


Teasing out romance from reality seems the most undesirable exercise when it comes to Ireland.   A long memory for loss, tyranny, and tragedy, laced together over time with whiskey and poetry — why unravel that? But the romance lingers over the less savory parts of Irish culture as well, such as often unflinching support of the IRA by Irish America, long past when it was beneficial to the future of Ireland; the grip of the Church; and the idolatry of too much booze. Not to mention problems with objectifying any one culture – on the other side of the coin where the flattering impressions lie are the more insidious ones, both bereft of nuance.  I’ve often tried to reconcile my love for so many things Irish with how I feel when a Gentile loves a Jew (not as in one individual gentile or Jew, a general love and admiration for the People), imbuing the object of desire with a mythical historical aura extending far beyond the one individual. So is it ok if I treat the Irish with a similar embrace?  A self-conscious one, but still, I am not of them. I am very aware of how I caught the bug, and for that I blame Irish-Americans. It’s hard growing up in Rockaway and not internalizing the romance of the Irish Diaspora, and as a recent arrival from a totally foreign culture, in 3rd grade, trying to fit in, and ultimately assimilating in unpredictable ways.

I’ve taken my Irish homework pretty seriously, and after years of reading, listening, watching, I finally made the pilgrimage. My two weeks there took me to Dublin, Belfast, Ballina, Galway and Inishmore and not long after I wrote an article about two new books about the Famine. My cocktail party conversation at this time was a bit monomaniacal. But thankfully diving deeply, very deeply, into the Irish past, and traveling through its present, has helped add missing layers of history and perspective.

Mssrs Maguire

Along with achieving a more nuanced understanding of Ireland, I’ve finally reflected on my blinkered romanticization of the Roman Catholic Church, it hasn’t helped me in life that some of my favorite writers converted, similarly possessed with the mystical aesthetic of the church, though as an atheist the aesthetic part is foremost for me, for them, an already heightened sense of sin, guilt, fear and sanctity led. I have less than a socially acceptable intolerance of religious Judaism, and yet, with the Church, I’ve dismissed the “bad” parts as  antiquated vestiges that hardly matter. But they truly still do, and with abortion, homosexuality, the non-ordination of women, and celibacy of priests, not to mention the abuse, there is much I should not ignore as having already passed. Seeing the movie Philomena recently with remembering the very real and very common negative aspects of the church’s past, and also Ireland’s (Magdalene Sisters certainly helped with that as well). Edna O’Brien’s memoir spends most of its first third in less than morally liberated Irish territory. There was a reason O’Brien and others fled to freedom when they could, at that time. Though O’Brien’s recollections of her time in a convent school were also quite lovely, especially her descriptions of one nun she and most of the other girls were quietly in love with. There is so much to hold on to in O’Brien’s book, and her writing epitomizes that rare natural talent for economy of words, and which stories to leave in, which to leave out.  I was tempted to put down the book at the point when she finally arrives as a full fledged success and enters all the right circles in London and New York, but her story-telling defies any semblance of gossip or highlighted glamor (or at least savors them in just the right way); her descriptions of Norman Mailer, Phillip Roth, and so many others, are sharp and often sweet.  I might recommend staying away from her novels if you are a single woman though. Mostly because she nails it. Especially how girls, and the more guileless among us, fumble our way towards womanhood, after much wisdom is gained. Too much wisdom.


And, an antidote to Ben Affleck, and the rest of Hollywood’s, love for Southie and other similar Irish American caricatures, is Alice McDermott. Charming Billy especially. But all of her work takes up Irish America, and it is a long thoughtful look each time, without diminishing the charm and pride that Ben Affleck also loves.