My Year of Irish Lit – 2021 Highlights

This is the week 2 prompt for Cathy at 746books #ReadingIrelandMonth22 and although much of what I read of Irish Literature in 2021 appears in my previous post Top 5 Irish Fiction and Nonfiction Book, it was a significant year for reading Irish Literature, the second most popular country of the 28 from which I read, so there are more highlights to mention.

week 2 My Year

Cross Genre Belfast Writer in Exile, Brian Moore

Early in the year, when Cathy announced the Brian Moore ReadAlong, in collaboration with the BrianMoore100 project, I decided to join in (for reasons I discuss in the post above).

The project coincided with the centenary of his birth, aiming to critically appraise and revive scholarly and public interest in the work of this neglected and important Belfast-born writer Brian Moore (1921-1999).

There were 12 books scheduled to read throughout the year, and I managed to read the four above, covering a variety of genres, from political thriller to character driven fiction, literary romance to historical fiction. I plan to continue reading more Brian Moore in 2022 – watch this space.

Lies of Silence (1990) is the only novel set in Ireland that directly concerns political events. When simmering unrest in his personal life is upstaged as he and his wife are taken hostage, Michael Dillon is confronted with a terrible dilemma. The story highlights the pressures, the moral decisions, the yearnings to both leave and return, a country and each other. A thought provoking page turner I enjoyed very much.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) was an earlier novel, possibly one of his most well known and a popular read, one that frustrated me enormously. I felt indignant on behalf of this character (he writes from the woman’s perspective), whom the author, overbearingly caricaturises, lessening my ability to believe in either the character or the story, let alone take anything much from it. Most unpopular opinion.

I am sure back in the late 50’s, early 60’s, women friends took him to task over it, because by the time Moore penned the next book I read, also written from a female character viewpoint, the nuance he employed was like day from night, compared to poor old Judith Hearne.

The Doctor’s Wife (1976) takes place in Paris and the south of France, and is a taut, psychological portrait of a woman in her middle years, who, while alone in Paris, reflects on her life, observing others around her and wondering how things might have been different. A hedonistic young man crosses her path at precisely the moment her guard is down and this otherwise conservative wife, crosses the line of convention and upends everything.

What makes it all the more intriguing, is the less predictable nature of Moore’s path for his character, a sign of having learned something from the catastrophe of Judith Hearne.

The Magician’s Wife (1997) was the last novel Moore wrote and is indicative of the varying interests he pursued, being a story set in both France and Algeria, a work of historical fiction around certain actual events concerning Napoleon II and France’s most famous magician, called in to perform an act that might aid the imperialistic ruler in his colonial ambitions. Very interesting, both the story and the actual history.

Memoir Like Essays

I read three memoir like works of Irish nonfiction in 2021, Constellations by Sinead Gleeson, I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’Farrell and Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty, which I won’t say much about, as they all featured in my Top 5 Irish Nonfiction post linked above, except to say that after reading two exceptional works of Irish nonfiction in 2020, Sara Baume’s Handiwork and Doireanne Ni Ghriofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, I was definitely on the hunt in 2021 for more of the same. Though none of these titles eclipsed those two stellar reads, they were all equally excellent.

Top Irish Fiction

Again, you can read more about these two excellent works of feature in my Top Irish Fiction Post, but in 2021 I both started the reading year and ended it with two novels by Sara Baume. 

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a novel of a man who adopts a stray dog and ends up on a reluctant road trip, while harbouring a dangerous secret – a slow moving, brilliant character portrayal and A Line Made by Walking is the story of a young woman returning to her family home to deal with a decline in her mental health, exploring how making and revising art and being in nature and around the familiar help her move on from her lapse.

In 2021, in order to read more contemporary Northern Irish fiction, I also read two books by Jan Carson, The Fire Starters and volume 1 of her Postcard Stories. I enjoyed them, but admit I was expecting something else given what I understood of the work the author was involved in facilitating the development of empathy with people, through creative writing. That work I imagined she might write, was published in late 2021 The Last Resort, set in a caravan park in Ballycastle and it’s brilliant.

Mythology

The final highlight of my Irish Lit reading year last year was Deidre Sullivan’s disruptive feminist retellings of classic fairy tales, Tangleweed and Brine, seven tangled tales of earth and six salty tales of water beautifully illustrated by Karen Vaughan.

The author takes these time worn tales and their long suffering heros and heroines and rewrites the previous unrealistic narrative, giving us alternative versions, demanding the reader to reconsider that which we so casually perpetuate and condition generations with, those fairly tale stories that have a lot to answer for.

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This week I have been reading Irish nonfiction and reviewed Easkey Britton’s Saltwater in the Blood and I’m now reading Kerri ni Dochartaigh’s Thin Places, though I temporarily put that aside when Kalani Pickhart’s excellent I Will Die in a Foreign Land set in Ukraine (2014) landed on my doorstep.

What are you reading this week?

Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan

Savage Her Reply Deirdre SullivanI was drawn to read this having never heard of the Irish myth, fairytale The Children of Lir and I was intrigued by the Gaelic names and words. I’m planning to read Tangleweed and Brine, a collection of shorter retold stories by the same author as well.

I loved the structure of the book, the italicised pages preceding some chapters that narrate a classic version of the tale, followed by the author’s chapter which provides greater depth and is told from the point of view of Aife, the middle sister, married off to Lir after her sister died in childbirth, who casts a spell on these children that disgraces her forever, and is punished in turn.

In an interview the author speaks of having an affection for the story since first encountering an illustrated version, as a child in the Galway City Library.

I was pulled to her, so much of the narrative unfolds because of the force of her, her need for love, her anger and her strength, but she disappears once she has been shamed and punished, transformed into a demon of the air. I didn’t know what a demon of the air was, but I wanted to know.

Fostered, Remarried & Step-Mothered

I can imagine she is usually depicted as sinister, she is a stepmother after all and they seemed destined to not be capable of any act of kindness or heroism in storytelling across all cultures, so I suppose we ought to be grateful that at least she will encounter forgiveness. I did hold out hope that perhaps the author might have dug deeper or stretched the imagination to somehow redeem this woman’s callous actions even more. I wish there could have been room for more engagement with the source of her pain and regret.

It is a strange tale as her actions seem to be on account of her character – or perhaps due to a deep unacknowledged resentment at having been severed and separated, along with her two sisters, from their parents at a young age – rather than any apparent bad treatment by the husband or father as one might expect. Something in her motive remains a mystery despite the little soul searching she does.

“Perhaps I am a dark, unpleasant creature. But I am my own creature. I am mine, my feet on the earth and the water in my soul and fire in my heart. And when all is taken from me I will still have my anger and my pain and they will feed me.”

Calligrams, Poems and the Artful Language Of Ogham

The artwork and use of feathers is brilliant, I enjoyed that each chapter had a mysterious, almost cryptic illustration of calligrams and poems laid out in particular shapes, their titles words from a language I’d never heard of. The shapes mimic the characters (and many letters are said to be linked to trees), using letters of the earliest Irish medieval alphabet Ogham.

I couldn’t help but add my own little autumn tree representation to some of the pages below, the photos can be seen and read more clearly in this thread I created here. It is a day for rituals after all.

Reaffirming once again (having just read A Ghost in the Throat) the importance of poetry, storytelling and creativity to Irish myth and culture, in its many forms.

The Author, Deirdre Sullivan

is an award winning author from Galway, Ireland and this is her tenth book, which has been shortlisted for an Irish Book Award 2020. Her collection of dark and witchy fairytale retellings, Tangleweed and Brine won Book of the Year at the 2018 Children’s Books Ireland awards and Young Adult Book of the Year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards. Her play Wake was performed at No Ropes theatre company in February 2019.

Further Reading

Interview: A Deeply Felt Book: Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan