St. Patrick’s Day is coming, and whether you think it’s a fun celebration of all things Irish or a “holiday” that exploits questionable stereotypes, it means a host of new books by Irish and Irish-American writers about this fascinating, complicated country. This week’s book club features three books about returning to Ireland and reflecting on the sentimental connections we have to the country that never go away.
1. Nine Irish Lives: The Thinkers, Fighters & Artists Who Helped Build America, edited by Mark Bailey ($17): The nine essays in this book feature stories of Irish immigrants, some well-known and some not, who helped shape American history. Each of the diverse range of subjects was chosen by the individual writer, celebrated Americans of Irish descent who share some connection with their profiled hero. Writers include Michael Moore, Rosie O’Donnell, Mark K. Shriver, Jill McDonough, and Pierce Brosnan.
The nine people profiled in the book range from organizer Mary “Mother” Jones to film director Rex Ingram, from “muckraker” Samuel S. McClure to “caretaker” Margaret Haughery. Their lives span from that of “revolutionary” Thomas Addis Emmet, born in 1764, to current “peacemaker” Niall O’Dowd. “This truth we can probably all agree on,” writes editor Bailey: “a large number of men, women and children left Ireland, the country of their birth, and went out into the world to do great things. Whether it was political violence that drove them, whether it was hunger, oppression, or just the dream of a better life, off they went — first in ships, later in planes — into the unknown. This was the Irish Diaspora.”
“Certainly, no country in modern history has benefited from this [immigrant] drive more than the United States,” Bailey concludes. Even if you’re not one of the more than 10 percent of Americans who claim Irish heritage, the stories of immigrants working to get the job done — following the dreams, heartbreak, successes, and their inextricable link to American history — are timely ones.
2. The Liar’s Girl by Catherine Ryan Howard ($25): Cork-born writer Howard’s debut novel, Distress Signals, was praised by the Irish Times as “highly confident and accomplished, impeccably sustained, with not a false note.” The only false notes in her follow-up thriller are the lies surrounding Dublin’s infamous Canal Killer. Young Alison Smith excitedly left her small town of Cork for St. Johns College in Dublin; she loved her fun new life, filled with parties, studies, and friends (including best friend Liz). It also included what she thought was love with boyfriend Will Hurley.
But then Will was accused of murdering five women, each one bludgeoned and drowned in the Grand Canal while alone. Alison is sure he’s innocent, but when she tells what she believes to be the truth, Will confesses to being the Canal Killer. He’s sentenced to a psychiatric hospital, and Alison, unable to deal with the situation, drops out of college and flees to the Netherlands. Ten years later, Alison has a decent, happy, and resolutely single life, which is summarily interrupted when two Irish police show up with a proposition: Come back to Ireland and talk to Will for the first time in a decade, as he says he has information for her ears only.
Why does this matter? Because two more bodies have been found in the canal with a suspiciously familiar MO, and Will’s still locked away. Some think it’s the work of a copycat, but one of the detectives happens to agree with Alison that Will might not be a murderer. Howard fills the book with details about student life and the streets of Dublin of the recent past and present (“As any student looking for an affordable place to rent in Dublin quickly discovers, fridges free-standing in the middle of living rooms adjacent to tiny kitchens are, apparently, all the rage”), while maintaining a furious pace of twisting intrigue.
3. Straying by Molly McCloskey ($24): “My mother is dead now, she died eight weeks ago, and I cannot decide how I feel about the fact that some part of her has remained in that house without me.” Another woman returns to the Ireland of her youth in Irish writer McCloskey’s novel. Growing up in Oregon, Alice’s main connection in life was her mother, who raised her alone. When Alice turns 24 in the late 1980s, she decided to move to Western Ireland, leaving her mother behind. She meets Eddie, a local furniture importer and marries him, seemingly content to stay as a traditional wife in a country where she’s a marked foreigner to local custom. However, her uninspiring work as a journalist and lack of a life of her own chafe at her sensibilities. Chafing often results in changing, and when Alice spends a summer having an affair, her marriage is over. So is her tie to Ireland, and she leaves the country soon after the divorce.
Alice spends years working for NGOs in war-torn countries. She’s in Kenya with an Irish NGO when she receives word that her mother has died. Reflecting on the direction she’s taken in life, Alice comes back to Ireland to write a report on the work she’s done. The report takes a back seat to an accounting of her relationships and past. She finds Eddie remarried and a father, and thinks about what could have been.
“I found our old house, Eddie’s and mine, on the Internet not long ago. It’s for sale. I track him, on occasion, through the vast electronic undergrowth, imagining who we’d be now if things had gone another way. The first time, I’d meant only to look around the neighborhood, to get a glimpse of the façade. I wanted to see the mountain and the view of the Atlantic, the fuchsia that grew at the corner of the drive. But what came up when I searched were the property websites, and there was the house, listed by its name. I’d forgotten it even had a name.” Combining Alice’s memories of her free-spirited youth in the Irish countryside with her present reflections on a life shaped by her own choices, Straying is a story about the roots we’re born with and the roots we choose to grow.
What books bring you back to Eire? Tag us in your next Irish read @BritandCo.
Brit + Co may at times use affiliate links to promote products sold by others, but always offers genuine editorial recommendations.