Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Stroll Through Irish Literature

I want to blog again, but I can’t seem to find the hook, or the time. Nevertheless, here is a post.

Starting in the Spring, while we were still in Ireland, I read some Irish literature. I started with Strumpet City because it was Dublin’s One City One Book selection for 2013. Then I proceeded to read some Yeats (a couple of collections of poetry) and to reread some Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest, which I totally loved when I encountered in high school, and something else which now escapes me). And then I read Dubliners, by James Joyce, which is quite accessible and quite enjoyable, before being cajoled into reading Ulysses.1 And I may have read some other things that I have now forgotten.

But the last thing that I read in this recent stroll through Irish literature was TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. It was long listed (but not short listed) for the Booker Prize this year, and it was wonderful. I’ve already added Let the Great World Spin to my short list.2

In any case, I have said remarkably little, to almost anyone, about the situation with Northern Ireland.3 Which is probably appropriate, given how little I really know about this centuries-old struggle. Nevertheless, I thought this passage from TransAtlantic was full of insight. I’m quoting Colum McCann here, but these are thoughts that he puts in the head of former US Senator George J. Mitchell (a character in the novel, parts of which are historical), around the time of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. McCann interviewed Mitchell extensively in writing the novel, I understand, but obviously we can’t hold Mitchell responsible for McCann’s depictions of his thoughts.

[The British] are a tough, intransigent lot, though they have softened a good deal in the past year or so. Embarrassed by what they have done for centuries in Ireland. Ready to leave. To hightail it out of there. They would wipe their hands clean in an instant, if only they didn’t have to do it in front of the world. They seem stunned that Northern Ireland somehow exists. How did they possibly ever believe that the country could have been good for them? What it all came down to was pride. Pride in the rise, and pride in the fall. They want to be able to leave with a measure of dignity. Tally-ho. Ta-ra. Voyeurs to their own experience. Living at an angle to the moment. And the Irish, down south, with almost the exact opposite dilemma. Embarrassed by the fact that it was taken away. Centuries of desire. Like the longing for a married woman. And now suddenly she is there, within your grasp, and you’re not quite sure whether you want her at all. Second thoughts. Other dowries. The mildew in the room where the past is stored. The Unionists, the Nationalists, the Loyalists, the Republicans, the Planters, the Gaels. Their endless gallery of themselves. Room after room. Painting after painting. Men on tall horses. Flags into battle. Sieges and riverbanks. The alphabet soup of the terrorists.


  1. Yes. I read Ulysses. I’m glad that I did, but it was hard, and I wouldn’t exactly recommend it. It contains moments of absolute brilliance. But it requires either the patience for careful study, which I do not possess, or the willingness to plow on even when one feels completely adrift having completely lost sight of the plot, which I, apparently, do possess. 

  2. I have two lists. A long list of things that I would like to read but may never get around to. And a short list, resembling a plan, of things that I reasonably expect to read in the next few months. 

  3. I can’t believe that I’m about to explain this, but a bafflingly large proportion of otherwise educated Americans seem unaware of even these basic facts. The island of Ireland, to the West of the island of Great Britain, has been divided into 32 counties for some centuries (apparently since shortly after the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1100s). Of those 32 counties, 26 form the Republic of Ireland, an independent nation which has existed since 1922. (The Republic of Ireland was preceded by the Irish Republic, a revolutionary state that declared its independence from the United Kingdom in 1919.) Northern Ireland consists of 6 counties (in the North, naturally) that remain part of the United Kingdom and was created when Ireland was partitioned by an act of the British parliament in 1921. This partitioning of Ireland remains contentious to this day, but disputes have largely remained peaceful since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, granting Northern Ireland some measure of self-governance and self-determination.