The Right Coast

March 17, 2006
Read about Ireland
By Tom Smith

My mother is Irish American (Coughlin, from Cork), as was my mother-in-law, and over the years I've read a fair bit about that strange, sad, beautiful country and its people. Some leads:

The definitive history of modern Ireland is F.S.L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine. Lyons also wrote a magnificent biography of Charles Stuart Parnell, the great Irish stateman of independence. For an insightful and elegantly written treatment of the Irish question in the context of 20th century British politics, you must read George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England. (It's such a good book you should read it no matter what.)

Irish poetry: William Butler Yeats was one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest 20th century poet. This looks like a good edition of his poetry. His later poetry is generally accounted his best, but his early 'Celtic twilight' poetry is redolent of various Irish moods and evocative of the Irish landscape. Less known is that Yeats was a master of prose as well. His autobiography and collections of Irish folklore make wonderful reading for those interested in Irish traditions.

Irish fiction. James Joyce, of course. But for my money, Dubliners is the best thing to read. "The Dead" might be the most perfect short story ever written. Profoundly sad, of course. Ulysses is too much of a good thing, for my taste, but English majors will disagree. Finnegan's Wake is just a waste of time in a world of more good books than you will have time to read anyway.

Seamus Heaney is a very accomplished contemporary Irish poet, and this looks like a nice selection of his poems. His poetry is highly skilled and crafted, but also accessible.

Traditonal Irish music. The Chieftans, of course. Jeanne and I had the muscians play Ag Taisteal Na Blarnan at our wedding, and it still brings a tear to me oy.

There is a huge popular literature of things Irish, springing from the Irish diaspora. Angela's Ashes is good, with its almost unbearable depiction of the "miserable Irish Catholic childhood." It's anti-Catholic, of course. How the Irish Saved Civilization was a big seller. Here is a good popular history of the Great Rebellion of 1798 . And a very good popular novel about the same.

And in honor of St. Patrick's Day, I am reliably informed that the Bishop of San Diego has issued a general dispensation, allowing Catholics to consume such things as corned beef in honor of the feast, even though it is a Friday in Lent. I am much relieved.