Currently Reading: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, and The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog by Patricia Monaghan
Now that it's May, I'm getting even more homesick than normal for Ireland and nostalgic about our trip last year. So bear with me, because there will probably be a couple of Ireland-themed posts here for a while.
When thinking the other day about our trip, I started thinking about the books I had read to prepare for it. In an attempt to patch the cracks in the foundation of Irish history and imagery in my head, I voraciously delved into new reads and quick rereading in the weeks and months before we left. For so many years, reading was the only way I could travel there. A series of fantasy novels and one beautiful poem were the catalysts that began my fascination with Irish mythology, which led me first to Irish history books, from there to more novels and poetry, continuing on to a senior thesis where I waded knee-deep in the great Irish poets, which culminated on a May day as we boarded a plane to find the land for ourselves. It's been almost a year since we went, and with the warm weather and greenness blossoming around us, I find myself caught between the luxury of having such powerful memories to mentally relive, and the deep desire that Ireland was in my immediate future rather than my immediate past. I can only gaze on my pictures, remembering exactly what the air smells like near the sea or the exquisitely unexplainable feeling of waking up in a new place, ready to greet another Irish morning. For now, these books are my favorite ways to return.
The Sevenwaters Trilogy by Juliet Marillier
I don't read as much fantasy as I used to in high school, but I remember exactly how formative and world-shifting it can be. I've studied enough by now to know that much in Juliet Marillier's Sevenwaters Trilogy- comprised of The Daughter of the Forest, The Son of the Shadows, and The Child of the Prophecy- is historically inaccurate. But in these books, none of that matters. The series is magic floating from the page, a world that I love to escape to, as I sink back into familiar territory with faces that are real in all of their flaws and all of their goodness. I first came to Ireland in this series, encountering "Tir na nOg", the "Tuatha de Danaan", the Celtic festivals of Bealtine and Lughnasa. It was a new world I had stumbled into and I don't think I have ever really left.
I am a big fan of all of Frank Delaney's books set in Ireland, especially when I listen to him read the stories on an audiobook, a seanchai (storyteller) reborn for the 21st century. I wrote about one of Delaney's books last spring in this post, so I won't repeat myself here. My favorites of his are Shannon and Ireland; the latter I brought with me last year, rereading snatches of it in front of our peat fire (I have yet to find a cozier experience). Delaney opens a side of Ireland that is both refreshingly new yet so familiar. I remember driving past the Shannon River, my feet on the dashboard, grinning with glee as we drove through towns I'd only ever heard of in his books, the real and the literary worlds colliding.
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill and The Flowering of Ireland by Katharine Scherman
I've read many Irish history books since my passion for Ireland began. I am mostly interested in pre-Christian and early medieval Ireland, so most of my books reflect that taste. While there are many that I love to come back to, these two are my favorites. Cahill's work is the perfect introduction to this time period, a history book for the masses that reads like a novel and sucks the reader in. I reread The Flowering of Ireland right before our trip last year. In doing so, I was reintroduced to Inishmurray Island; little did we know that would be the best part of our entire trip. In dry terms, the book is an in-depth study of the coming of Christianity to Ireland, and the early medieval Irish culture. But none of it feels stale. It's fresh and true, captivating and downright interesting, as it brings to life not only the ancient historic record, but also the physical remnants that still remain.
Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly
Sometimes you stumble upon great books. Sometimes they're recommended by others. And sometimes great books seem to follow you around until finally, finally you pick them up. This book kept popping up in my life- on the bookstore shelves, on the shelving cart at work- until I realized this book really wanted me to read it. So I did. And I don't know why I waited. The novel is based on the author's great-grandmother's life- her family's struggles through the Great Famine in the 1840s, their subsequent immigration to America, and the new challenges they faced in Chicago as strangers in a new world. It is several things at once- the portrait of a family, a powerful image of the horrors of the Famine, and an in-depth look at the growth and development of the city of Chicago, particularly its link to the thousands of immigrants who ended up there. It's raw and it's gut-wrenching, but it's beautiful on many levels.
The Dublin Saga by Edward Rutherford
Actually a series of two, entitled The Princes of Ireland and The Rebels of Ireland, the Dublin Saga is a fantastic way to learn about Irish history, from pre-Christian times to Irish independence in the 1920s, while still reading a novel. A completely engrossing novel at that. Rutherford's writing and the individual characters make the history in the book accessible and real, a history of the people, rather than the rulers. Isn't that the way it was and has always been- history lived through the lives of average people? The book tracks several families through the generations, set against the backdrop of historical events like the Battle of the Boyne or Easter Sunday 1916. It also charts the founding and development of one of Ireland's most wonderful cities, Dublin, which helped shade in the details and color my view of Dublin as I walked its streets.
William Butler Yeats' poetry.
The Song of Wandering Aengus
will always be my first love. I first discovered Yeats' poetry in high
school, and continued studying him in college, writing a final thesis on
him and the other Literary Revival writers, thinking and breathing his
poetry and plays for an entire year. I have more favorites now, poems
that stop me in my tracks with their power and majesty. Yeats too became
part of our trip last year. In Sligo, we visited Yeats' grave,
looking out onto Ben Bulben, which really is as magnificent as they
say. We were lucky enough to look at many of his original manuscripts
and books at an exhibit in the National Library in Dublin; bending over the protected pages, tears streamed down my
face at the privilege I had been granted.
My experience in Ireland was
heightened because of his words, the way he introduced me to his
country. I was more ready to understand and to embrace it, because of
him. As we stood on the coast of Inishmurray, looking out on the sea, I
recited The Lake Isle of Innisfree to myself. And for the first and only time, there was no more longing.
I'm back in Ireland again, not in a physical sense, but between the covers of a book. I just started The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog by Patricia Monaghan, a memoir. I am less than a chapter into it, but it is already apparent that if I had written a book about our trip, and my relationship and passion for Ireland, Red-Haired Girl would be its twin sister. One of my favorite quotes so far is this: "I know Ireland not as a single place but as a mosaic of places, each one steeped in history and myth, song and poetry."
I have only been to Ireland once, but already I know it is one of those places that never quite leaves you, a lovely song that haunts you for the rest of your days.