Original: 28-July 2013
Update: 17-August 2013
Over the years I have been asked about books to read before visiting a country, and I have been particularly asked this question about Ireland over the last 18 months.
From my conversations, it appears there are 2 or 3 categories of people who ask this question. Those who want to:
understand and pick the sights to see for their trip
get clues about the culture so they can explore more during their visit
“study up” on the local history before visiting the sights
I’m sure you can identify yourself as one or more of these or maybe another (let me know if I’ve missed one).
For this blog I’ll attempt to give you a list of books and some movies to help you prepare (or reminisce).
For the book list, I’ve consulted goodreads.com, the Rick Steve's website and my own reading experiences. I’ve read most (OK, some) of the books and noted when I have not. I’ve got five lists of books:
Historical Fiction (my favorite)
Non-Fiction - History
Non-Fiction - Travel
Irish Literary Books
Trinity - Leon Uris, Time Period - Late 19th Century to early 20th Century (pre-WWI). Very readable and a very good story teller, gives one man's sense of the undercurrents behind the history of Ireland during this period. Not available as an e-book but easily available in 2nd hand book stores.
Redemption - Leon Uris, Time Period: Events leading to the Easter Uprising (1916) through WWI. Also very readable, but strays a little from telling the history of Ireland and it feels a lot more like a romance novel.
Ireland: Foundation (The Princes of Ireland:The Dublin Saga, in N.A.) - Edward Rutherfurd, Time Period: 430-1530 AD. This is very good historical fiction in the Michener style, but takes stamina since it is 804 pages. Despite the weight, this is one of my favorites.
Ireland: Awakening (The Rebels of Ireland: The Dublin Saga, in N.A.) - Edward Rutherfurd, Time Period: Cromwell through the Famine. Again, this is very good historical fiction in the Michener style. This one is even larger, 896 pages. This is also one of my favorites.
Ireland - Frank Delaney, Time Period: Unknown. Have not read this but it is "next"(#1) on my list.
The Wild Irish: Elizabeth I and the Pirate O’Malley - Robin Maxwell, Time Period: about the 16th century. I have not read this, but it is close to being "next" on my list (#2). Pirate O'Malley is Gráinne O'Malley, a woman pirate and Irish Chieftain in the 16th Century. She lived in Westport (the house near the town) that is a little over an hour drive from Galway.
The Irish Princess - Karen Harper, Time Period: 16th Century (think Henry VIII)
I haven’t read this one either. It looks like an interesting female view of the time period.
To Ride a Púca - Heather McCorkle. I haven’t read this, not sure about it, but it is highly rated on goodreads.com. Heather McCorkle is generally described as “an author of young adult fantasy”. This is about a Druid girl in Ireland … not sure of the time period or anything after that. Doesn’t appear to be my style. Let me know if you read it and I’ll add your comments. Heather McCorkle has several other YA fantasy novels that appear to be based in Ireland.
NON-FICTION - HISTORY
How the Irish Saved Civilization – Thomas Cahill, Time Period: Fall of the Roman Empire. A tough but interesting read. Tells the role of Ireland in the evolution of Europe from the Roman age to the medieval era.
A Short History of Ireland - Richard Killeen. This is the book for the "casual historians" … those who become interested in history during their holiday or vacation. This is a 2 or 3 hour read … about the length of a transatlantic flight. The book is small enough to easily fit in a purse or backpack and have easily accessible while seeing the sights in Ireland.
Concise History of Ireland – Maire and Conor Cruise O’Brien. I have not read this. It is written by a well liked Irish politician. The main complaint on-line is that it has not been updated with any history since the 70’s. This one is out of print. I'm looking for a used copy as it has received very good reviews.
Ireland: A Short History – Joseph Coohill. This is for the "real historians", but it is not too voluminous. It is about 200 pages and at the end of each chapter/historical period gives an overview of the "schools of thought". I haven't finished reading it, but I'm looking forward to seeing how it deals with the time after the Easter Up Rising (early 1900's).
NON-FICTION TRAVEL BOOKS
Travel books are a little obsolete with the internet and cell phones, but some people (like me) occasionally want to randomly search through a guide well populated with pictures and information. My favorite group of travel books are the DK Eye Witness Travel Guides. There are several on Ireland:
Another book that we have used is Lonely Planet Guide to Ireland. I’m partial to this one since the cover has a picture of Eyeries Village. This is the village where my ancestors set out on their immigration to Butte, Montana.
I like the Lonely Planet and the Rick Steves website for Irish travel information and ideas (that can’t be found here :-) ).
I am definitely not an expert in this area. For those who would like a more in depth analysis, I would point you to Wikipedia. For my research I've looked at the Nobel Prize winners and the more modern authors that have been brought to my attention.
NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS
Samuel Beckett (1969) - I have not read any of Beckett’s works, but he did write “Waiting for Godot” that has a cult following in the US and throughout the world.
Here is an example of some of his prose:
Spend the years of learning squandering
Courage for the years of wandering
Through a world politely turning
From the loutishness of learning
George Bernard Shaw (1925) - Shaw is mostly known for his plays but he was a journalist, short story writer, and novelist. Pygmalion (My Fair Lady) was one of his more popular plays, and the screen adaptation also earned Shaw an Oscar. A couple of famous quotes that you may have heard more than once and not necessarily attributed to Shaw:
Some look at things that are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not? (used by Robert Kennedy with an attribution that is mostly dropped)
I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.
We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
Youth is wasted on the young.
England and America are two countries separated by the same language.
And here are a couple of quotes that I like and had not heard before:
A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place
If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.
William Butler Yeats (1923) - Yeats was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival and was a founder of the Abbey Theatre. He was born in Dublin but had ties to and spent a lot of time in the West of Ireland. For a period of time, he had a home near Galway (Thoor Ballylee), and a lot of his time was spent with Lady Gregory at the Coole Estate (now Coole Park).
Swans of Coole (top), Woods of Coole Park
I’ve read some of his poems. You’ve seen some in my previous blogs. Here is a poem entitled “A Drinking Song”:
Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
I like most of his poems, but they can be a little dark. Most of the poems I like, I don’t “get” … or at least not the complete poem.
Yeats life was quite colorful and reads like a romance novel. He also had a brother who was an accomplished painter.
Tree at Coole Park with Literary Autographs Key to the Tree Autographs
Seamus Heaney (1995) I have to admit that I had never heard of Seamus Heaney until doing research for this blog. He is a very accomplished poet that has been called “the most important Irish poet since Yeats”.
Since writing the first version of this blog, Seamus Heaney has died. This was a BIG DEAL in Ireland. His funeral mass was nationally televised and RTE broadcast a show of Seamus reading his own works for a whole day on the internet channel. Our parish priest put aside his planned homily, and related a story about Seamus Heaney and the local National Boy's School. He read the poem that caused them to seek his input on their differing interpretation of the poem. The more I read Seamus Heaney poetry, the more I'm planning to get a book of his poetry and read it.
Here is one that I like, Digging:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
James Joyce - Joyce has a cult following all over the world. Joyce's book, Ulysses, chronicles one day in the life of Leopold Bloom. Blooms day, the same calendar day as the book, is celebrated each year with special events all over the world, but particularly in Dublin. Some of the Bloom’s day festivities including the eating of “organ meat” for breakfast. I guess I will have to read Ulysses to understand.
Other works include Dubliners and Finnegan’s Wake.
Roddy Doyle - Doyle has written books for adults and children. I find his work a little hard to read since the works I’ve read are in Irish-English. Irish literature can be quite dark and from what I’ve read of Doyle’s work he doesn’t stray from this trait. Some of the works include:
The Barrytown Trilogy
The Last Roundup
A Star Called Henry
Oh, Play That Thing!
The Dead Republic
Jonathan Swift - Swift was a prolific writer of many styles and was the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. He is best known (at least by me) as the author of Gulliver’s Travels.
Oscar Wilde - Wilde was a flamboyant author who was active in the 1880’s and 1890’s. He wrote one well known novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray and several plays including Salome and A Woman of No Importance. Wilde died in his late 40’s after some time in prison in the UK.
Jack with Oscar Wilde and Eduard Wilde on Shop Street in Galway
As far as films, I started with a list of Irish Movies from the website Irish Central. I've added a few recommendations from my Irish Co-workers and reordered the list. The top spots are now filled with movies that I have seen. I've noted when they are not available on iTunes in the US.
Waking Ned Devine – This is a great take on Irish humor. Definitely worth watching before a visit to Ireland. The scenery is great … but from the Isles of Mann and not Ireland, but everything else appears to be spot-on.
My Left Foot - This is the by far the best movie, but gives less insight into Irish culture than Waking Ned Divine. This is a movie about a gentleman named Christy Brown who was born with Cerebral Palsy. During his life he became an accomplished writer and artist using only his left foot, the only appendage on his body that he could control.
The Quiet Man – Very popular here in Ireland, Only appears to be available in DVD in the US but is available on iTunes in Ireland. After watching the The Quiet Man. It is quite entertaining and gives a good feel for the culture of Ireland albeit from an American point of view. The Irish must not disagree too much with the portrayal, as areas that were filmed in the movie are featured with signs, etc. all over Ireland. I'm sure this movie was considered quite risqué in its day. John Wayne was definitely cast as "the hunk" in this movie, contrary to many of his later roles. I found the sexist and non-politically correct aspects of the movie to be very amusing. Well worth the watch before or during a trip to Ireland
The Field – This was highly recommended throughout the web and by my Irish friends, and Richard Harris is the lead actor, but I was disappointed. This is a very dramatic and well done film … if you like watching Greek tragedies, then this is your movie. I don't, so I probably won't watch again unless we have visitors who insist :-). The scenes of Ireland are very nice and it does give a good insight into Irish culture.
The Crying Game - This movie was OK. It did not give much insight into Irish culture and some of the kinky sex scenes might make some viewers a little squeamish. It does have plot twists that are quite surprising.
The Guard - High on my list because of insistence from my Irish work friends. This is the movie with the all time largest box office receipts in Ireland. It's an action comedy based in Galway and Connemara.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley - The movie with the second largest box office receipts in Ireland. This is a movie about the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War that followed.
Once - Features Glen Hansard, a very popular musician here in Ireland. This movie has won an Academy award for the best original score and a Grammy award.
The Commitments – Adaptation of a Roddy Doyle Novel. (not in the iTunes store)
In the Name of the Father
The Snapper - Also an adaption of a Roddy Doyle book.
When Brendan Met Trudy
I hope you find my recommendations useful. If you have recommendations or additional comments, please let me know.
See You In the Pub!
Jet Lag Jack