Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Harriet Chessman's Guest Post: I Love All Things Irish

I love all things Irish. This ardor doesn’t come from a trip to Ireland, although I hope I will go one day. My love could be inherited from Hannah Horn, my great-grandmother from County Cork – although all I know about her is her musical name. It could be that Irish American families and friends I’ve loved all my life (including the very wise and well-read M. Lucia Kuppens, O.S.B., at The Abbey of Regina Laudis) have captured my heart and transformed it forever – yes, this is true. In addition to all this, Irish literature has become a cherished world I’m still discovering.

I came first, around the age of twenty, to the poetry of W.B. Yeats, which captivated me with its incantatory lyrics, and the thoughtfulness of later poems like “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” Cutting against such graceful, contemplative poetry came the mordant, moving plays of Samuel Beckett, which I first read in college, and first saw in my twenties.

(Happy Days, one of my favorite Beckett plays, in which a woman occupies herself with toothbrush, lipstick, daily items, as the sand in which she’s stuck rises, will be at CalShakes soon!)

James Joyce’s Dubliners opened up for me the yearning and sorrow of children and others in lives that could be pierced by epiphany. Joyce’s voluble Molly Bloom, in the last chapter of Ulysses, will be my companion for life, as will Portia in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart.

When my children were young, I often chose children’s books based on myths Yeats and other Irish writers loved and used. Tomie dePaola’s sturdy, colorful version of the Cuchulain myth, Finn M’Coul: The Giant of Knockmany Hill, is one of the many that tickled my children and me equally.

Fiction I’ve come to love recently includes Brian Moore’s 1955 novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, with its concoction of compassion, realism, and bitter humor. In Moore’s honest vision, the world and heaven itself have come down to a bare boarding house room and the hopes and anguish of a middle-aged woman, longing for an epiphany out of her reach. I came to this novel soon after reading Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes, a book that offers a different portrait, just as fierce and beautiful in its own way (pace to that great-hearted, brilliant son of Angela McCourt).

I hope you may have come across John Banville’s lyrical The Sea and Sebastian Barry’s Annie Dunne, both of which unfold – each in its own gorgeous, slow way – buried secrets. And, finally, I encourage you to read Anne Enright’s novel The Gathering, which offers a similar unfolding, yet in a lusciously fragmented style. To read this novel is to listen closely to a compelling, harshly funny, honest, contradictory, and ultimately redemptive narrative voice – the voice of a woman who has lost her brother to suicide, and who is bent on reconstructing and understanding the childhood she shared with him.

I’d love to hear your own recommendations of books by Irish authors. Anecdotes and travel stories welcome too!


  1. This sure makes me want to run to my nearest book store and pick up some Irish literature (and I'm only 1/4 Irish)! The musical language, and yes, even the sadness, is captivating.
    Thank you for this post!

  2. Harriet, it's great to see you here! I, too, am a lover of Yeats and Joyce, have read The Sea and The Gathering but now am noticing a rumbling in my brain, telling me I'm hungry for the others you mention and should probably, in addition, give Angela's Ashes another try. I started it at a bleak time in my life and couldn't tolerate the deeper bleakness of McCourt's memoir. I might still have it, somewhere.

  3. Harriet, I just read an amazing interview with John Banville in The Paris Review. Banville said that many readers of The Sea cite to him this line, "The past beats inside me like a second heart." A beautiful, haunting sentence indeed. I wonder, what would be some of your favorite lines from the books you love?

  4. Thank you, all. Kate, oh, Angela's Ashes is truly gorgeous; I'm so moved by it. I guess it can be bleak in parts, but I think it's the beautiful, real voice McCourt creates that holds me so close, plus the perfectly realized scenes. If you try it again, let me know how it goes!!

    And Aggie, thanks for the Paris Review interview suggestion. Banville's THE SEA actually opens with a line that knocks me out: "They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide." When I first read this, I said, "Keep this up, John Banville, and I am yours forever!" He does keep it up, although he weaves in this mystical strangeness with a more ordinary account of a summer by the sea . . . until the extraordinary starts to emerge again, and the reader sees how it's lasted right into the novel's present, years later.

    The opening of THE GATHERING is equally compelling, and gives a good taste of Enright's narrator's honest, worried, questioning voice:

    "I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother's house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me -- this thing that may not have taken place. I don't even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones."

  5. Another great post, Harriet, though I'm not Irish at all! You make me want to read all these books (some, again). Dubliners is one of my favorite short-story collections; I admired The Sea a great deal, although it left me a bit cold in the end. Nevertheless, I thing he's a marvelous writer--as are you!


  6. Scott, I know just what you mean about THE SEA --- there IS a certain odd coldness to the work. I feel in the hands of a master storyteller, and I feel also as if I've been caught up into a cruel, rich world.

  7. Have you read At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill? It is startlingly beautiful, marrying the fight for Ireland's freedom with the fight for Irish people to live freely. Great-hearted, as you said.

    I keep picking up The Sea but not buying it. I'll have to pick it up.

  8. Oh, thank you, KO! No, I've never read this book. I'm writing it down.

    The Sea is a strange book, a bit like a dream, and uncomfortable; maybe you have to be in the right mood for it. I found it absorbing and enchanting, especially once I was really well into it.

  9. I especially like Diedre Madden, who is from Northern Ireland and Jennifer Johnston. Harriet, I was just at Regina Laudis and I purchased Someone not Really her Mother. I loved the Cassatt book. Most of my favorite writers are women. Try Frank O'Connor, another great Irish writer.