The Price of My Soul, by Bernadette Devlin*****

ThePriceofMySoulDevlin write this, her autobiography, when she was all of 23 years old. Had it been anyone else I would have considered it ridiculous, a juvenile pretention, but Bernadette Devlin was one of the primary fighters for Irish freedom during the tumultuous 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and given how events played out, it is likely that she wrote this while fully anticipating that she’d be killed in the struggle fairly early on. Goodness knows, the British cops tried. Here’s a bit of background information from Wikipedia:

 On 16 January 1981 she and her husband were shot by members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, who broke into their home near CoalislandCounty Tyrone. The gunmen shot Devlin fourteen times in front of her children. British soldiers were watching the McAliskey home at the time, but failed to prevent the assassination attempt, indeed it has been claimed that Devlin’s assassination was ordered by British authorities and that collusion was a factor. An army patrol of the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, entered the house and waited for half an hour. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey has claimed they were waiting for the couple to die. Another group of soldiers then arrived and transported her by helicopter to a nearby hospital. The paramilitaries had torn out the telephone and while the wounded couple were being given first aid by the newly arrived troops, a soldier ran to a neighbour’s house, commandeered a car, and drove to the home of a councillor to telephone for help. The couple were taken by helicopter to hospital in nearby Dungannon for emergency treatment and then to the Musgrave Park Hospital, Military Wing, in Belfast, under intensive care.

 Soon after her recovery, the author-activist went on a speaking tour, and this reviewer was able to hear her talk when she came to the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio.  Her intelligence, eloquence, and fierce, courageous nationalism left me spellbound. And yet, it was only recently that I learned she’d written a memoir over a decade earlier. I was even more amazed to find that it was available for sale, albeit used and fairly banged up; all praise to the internet. And so this time, instead of heaping praise upon the publishers, I will thank my youngest son for securing a copy for me at Christmas. It was worth the wait.

Devlin was orphaned, along with her sisters and brothers, when she was still a teenager. She and her siblings had a conversation and decided that they would raise themselves, rather than be parceled out to relatives and neighbors, broken up like pieces of a candy bar to be distributed willy-nilly by the church. But her parents left her a legacy, one that said not to let anyone shove a Devlin around. One of my favorite moments in her engaging narrative is early on, when her mother is being attended by a physician for a fallen arch in one foot. The doctor’s solution is to tightly bind it in hopes it will grow back to its proper configuration, but instead it becomes desperately deformed. One day when the doctor is rebandaging it, her mother complains of pain, and the doctor replies that there is no real pain; he says her mother is merely neurotic. In response, her mother raises her good foot and kicks the man across the room.

A woman after my own heart.

But the best passages, as the reader might expect, are those detailing the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland, and in particular the struggle based on social class regardless of religion. She tells of the horrific events of Bloody Sunday, when a peaceful parade including small children and babies in their strollers is gunned down by cops. Devlin speaks of the “evil delight” she sees on the faces of violent cops as they beat people down at an earlier demonstration.

There are lessons to be learned here, and now is the time to learn them.

Remarkably enough, there are still copies of this historical treasure for sale, used. Anyone that is interested in the Irish freedom struggle; cop violence; or Irish history should find a copy now, while you can still get them cheaply.

Holding, by Graham Norton*****

holdingIrish novelists are rocking the publishing world this year, and Norton’s debut novel is among the best of them. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books, who provided me a free and early read in exchange for this honest review. You should get it and read it. Atria will release it August 1, 2017.

Our protagonist is Sergeant PJ Collins; the setting is the tiny Irish town of Duneen. PJ is ecstatic when a corpse is uncovered at a local construction site. At last, something noteworthy has occurred in his sleepy village, and he can’t wait to tell everybody. He starts with his housekeeper, Mrs. Meany:

“I’m after finding a body.”
“You what?”
“A human body!”
He had waited his whole life to utter those words, and it felt as good as he had always imagined.
“God spare us!” Mrs. Meany gasped.

The villagers are convinced this is the body of Tommy Burke, a man loved ardently by two local women. Evelyn has never married; she and her two sisters still live in the family manse in which they were raised. Is Evelyn bat-shit crazy, as some people suggest, or is she merely frustrated and lonely?

Brid also loved Tommy. They were to be married, but he upped and disappeared just before the wedding. She is currently locked in a joyless union; she and her husband remain together for the sake of the children and the farm. It isn’t easy.

And then there’s our protagonist, PJ, who is graying at the temples, never having known love. He hasn’t even had a girlfriend. He went on a date, once, and the girl guffawed when he wasn’t able to situate his large self into a theater seat to view the movie. That was enough for him. He’s married to his work, and she’s a lonely mistress. At the end of the day there’s only Mrs. Meany, his aging housekeeper, and she will have to retire, sooner or later.

But things are about to change.

UK readers may have been drawn to this novel by its author, who is also a celebrity and has a television show, but I had never heard of him. I won’t forget him now.

One cautionary note: there’s some sharp, dark humor involving religion that will make this a poor fit for some readers. I loved it, but the devout may not. There’s also a fair bit of bawdy language.

For those that enjoy dark humor, this one is hard to beat. As an added bonus, it is ultimately uplifting, and reminds us that one is never too old to find love in this world.

Michael Collins, by Tim Pat Coogan****

MichaelCollinsTo date, this is the single best volume that’s been written about Collins, and it’s a meal. I purchased this title on an annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon when I was there to visit family a few years ago. Although the length of the book is listed as 480 pages in paperback, the reader needs to come prepared. The type is tiny and dense, and it took me a long time to wade through it. If it were formatted using more standard guidelines, it would be a great deal longer.

As I write this review I am halfway through Coogan’s epic history of the IRA (Irish Republican Army), and the style in which he writes is consistent in both books. Coogan tells us everything that is historically important, and he also tells us everything else he finds out, with no apparent filtering. His writing is half Irish history, half family Bible in the sense that if someone was briefly or peripherally involved with Collins, their proud relatives can probably find that person and his or her historical role somewhere in these pages. His shoe size is here, and the names of every girl he flirted with. For a man that lived so briefly, he left a large shadow, and the author was plainly unwilling to let even the tiniest bit of research go to waste, relevant or no.

I am somewhat surprised that Collins doesn’t rate more favorably with the author, given that his name is the one most associated with the creation of an independent Ireland. But Coogan does due diligence in establishing the brutality of the British occupiers, who killed indiscriminately with the use of terror. At one point, soldiers opened fire on a school yard where little children were at play; these royal ambassadors were the original school shooters, killing six little ones for being Catholic. In the protests that followed, women and girls knelt before British tanks and said their rosaries for those that had been killed for their Fenian identities.

The Irish freedom struggle took place at a time when the whole world was on fire. The Russian Revolution was unfurling with breathtaking speed; at the same time, there was no established Marxist revolution to look to for guidance, and Irish freedom fighters had no single idea of what political ideology should shape the struggle. Most of the revolutionaries were barely old enough to shave, and a lot of errors were made because of this lack of clear vision. The results were often tragic.

There’s an interesting discussion of whether Irishmen should become German allies during World War I. There is a strong resistance to becoming shills for the British, and so the question, then, is whether to remain neutral, or take the side of Britain’s enemy in the hope of receiving reciprocal assistance. In the end, nobody was organized enough, in this era of little technology, to come up with a cohesive plan, so the point was a moot one.

Should you read this biography? I think it depends upon how much time you have, and how strong your interest level is. One consideration might be to purchase it as a reference volume and flip through it to tease out the most relevant information, but be forewarned: sifting through the minutiae is not an easy enterprise. For researchers, the photos alone might be of interest, since they constitute primary documents.

Recommended for those with strong basic knowledge of Irish history that want to flesh out the details, and for those building a reference library.

Silence, by Anthony Quinn*****

silenceSilence is the third in the Inspector Celcius Daly series, but I read it alone and didn’t realize I had missed anything until I got online and looked. I received my copy free from Net Galley and Open Road Media in exchange for this honest review. It’s been for sale for almost a year and I apologize for my tardiness; the book had been out for several months before I received my DRC, and so I kept setting this review aside in order to write about stories that were about to be published immediately.  None of this should keep you from rushing out to order a copy; as you can see I rated it five stars, and I am picky these days.

I am immediately drawn to this book because of the setting; it takes place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 1970s. Although I am impatient with the trite expression used by the journalist in the story—“sectarian violence”—I find the setting resonant and the characters credible. The entire thing is wholly original, but it’s complex, so it’s not something you can read while you’re trying to do something else.

Our protagonist is the Inspector Daly, a lonely man with kind intentions and deteriorating mental health. We have a dead man in the priest’s hotel room, but then we learn the dead man isn’t Father Walsh. If that’s not Father Walsh, where has he gotten to, and who is our victim? Last is our villain, Daniel Hegarty, an IRA man captured and turned by the Special Branch.

I particularly appreciate the moment with the sheep.

The field of mysteries, thrillers, and others of this ilk are thick with mechanisms that make me want to throw things. I think everyone that’s read many books in this genre has a private list. I am simply ecstatic to find that no one here is trying to solve the mystery either because they themselves are framed for something they didn’t do, or because a loved one has been threatened; no one in our tale is kidnapped, blindfolded, gagged, and tossed into the trunk—er, boot—of a car.  It’s refreshing.

Of course, to get a five star rating takes more than just a lack of irritating features. The setting, in the dark, in the muck, and sweating past police checkpoints, is both visceral and at times, scary. It’s the sort of story that makes a reader snuggle under the covers and be grateful for a safe, warm place to lie down. The characters are not always lovable, but they are entirely believable. That’s what counts with me. And the ending is a complete surprise, yet also makes sense.

For those that like literate, complex mysteries, it’s hard to beat. Highly recommended.

Himself, by Jess Kidd*****

himselfbyjesskiddAh, feck me blind now, Jess Kidd’s written herself a novel, and it’s good enough for any ten others. It comes out March 14, 2017, and although I read it free via Net Galley and Atria, there’s surely a chance I will buy one or more copies to give to those I love anyway. You should, too. It’s too clever to miss, and if you don’t mind a bit of irreverence, if you have a heart at all for Ireland and for ordinary working folk just trying to get along as best they’re able, this book is your book. Sly as hell and fall-down-laughing funny, it will put a spring in your step for a goodly while thereafter. That it will!

Mahony has come to the tiny Irish town of Mulderrig, looking to find out what happened to his mammy, who left him orphaned when he was small. The townsfolk aren’t happy to see anyone related to Orla Sweeney, but Mahony is undeniable in his charm, with:

“A face that women can love on sight and men will smile upon. Mahony has the right tone in his voice and the right words to go with it. Mahony has a hand that people want to shake and a back they want to pat.”

But beneath the charm, the voice, and the handsome face, “He’s a Dublin orphan, which means that he could survive on an iceberg in just his socks.”

You see, like Orla before him, Mahony sees the dead, and they’re thick as flies here. They’re sitting on the rafters knitting; they’re smoking a pipe in the roll-top bath; they’re sitting on the cistern, just watching. Because “The dead are drawn to those with shattered hearts.”

But his mother isn’t among them; how can that be so?

As we follow Mahony on his quest, we get to know a number of the townspeople. Shauna runs the only decent boarding house in town, and since Mahony is staying there, we get to know her and her father, Desmond. We get to know Mrs. Cauley, the wealthy senior citizen that keeps the town afloat, ancient, wheelchair bound, and surrounded in her quarters by a “literary labyrinth” that’s positively magical. In her, Mahony finds an unexpected confederate. Though elderly enough to be fragile, when the chips are down Mrs. Cauley is at the ready, declaring that “I’m Miss Marple, with balls.”

We also get to know one of my favorite characters, Bridget Doosey, as well as the “crocodilian” parish priest, Father Quinn.

The lyricism of the text is owed to no small skill on the part of the author, partly with the use of figurative language—and here I tell my readers that are teachers, you’ll find no better passages for teaching the effective use of repetition anywhere, but select carefully, because the text is very spicy—but a certain amount of it is due to the intangible talent that some of us have, and that some of us don’t. I note that every chapter is ended brilliantly and the next also begun as much so.
I could reach into my notes all day long and find more passages that are lyrical, moving, or funny enough to make you wish you’d been to the bathroom first. But in the end I’d be doing you a disservice, because what you really need is the book itself. With a little planning, you can have a copy in your hands before St. Patrick’s Day. And you should do so.

Shannon, by Frank Delaney *****

 shannon

Frank Delaney has done it again.

There are some writers that have such a gift for spinning a compelling tale while seamlessly weaving in subplots that the rest of us can but applaud. He’s clearly one of them. I was spellbound by his Ireland, but there are a lot of people with one remarkable book in them. I was surprised again, then, at how good Tipperary was. Now this.

Everything I’ve read by Delaney thus far (including Shannon) is set in some part of Ireland for most of the novel. He favors the period when the whole world is changing–World War I is either imminent, taking place, or we’re in the aftermath; Ireland struggles for her own freedom, and he doesn’t gloss over the errors and tragedies that go with this struggle–and I mentally note that it’s also the period of the Russian Revolution. He’s done a whole lot of research so that he can provide his novels with a rich, accurate background. His target audience is one with an interest in Irish history, but he is never dry, never lapses into the lecture-like style that I’ve seen in some writers who are specialists in a given academic area use when the narrative aims at their area of expertise. It’s riveting clean through. The people, whatever their station in life (we have several members of the Catholic clergy and a nurse foremost) are individuals first.

If you have a strong anti-Catholic bias, you may not like this story. There are some Catholic bad guys, for sure, though they aren’t two-dimensional ones, but you won’t see the pedophiles that have been the sole focus of the mainstream US press where Catholics are concerned. Rather, there are those who are corrupt ladder-climbers; there’s (oh my god) an assassin; and the protagonist, Robert Shannon, who is recovering from PTSD, then known as “shell shock”.

Altogether, I found it nearly magical. I will read anything that Delaney writes at this point; he’s that good!

Darling Jim, by Christian Moerk****

The writer makes his English novel writing debut with this book, which I snatched off a sidewalk cart for two bucks. Wow! It is, as he explains in the back pages of the book, like a Russian doll: a story, within a story, within a story, within a story, 4 plots nested inside of one another.

Some writers just start writing and see what comes out, then edit just a little. (Stephen King, a personal favorite of mine, comes to mind). But this writer begins with a 75 page outline with snippets of dialogue, all planned out carefully, before he commences writing. Truly remarkable. On top of it all, it was originally written in English, although the writer is Danish, and the story set in Ireland. (The Danish publication came out first, but the English draft was submitted first; the writer did the Danish translation himself).

If you like memoirs; ghost/werewolf/vampire stories (or at least an implication);or if you have a soft spot for the outlying regions of Ireland, where a latte is available but legends and superstitions sometimes still hold sway, find a copy of this book in whatever language you like (just about) and snuggle before the fire. Eat first, and have something to drink with you; you’ll be awhile.

Tipperary, by Frank Delaney *****

Aside

review “The most eloquent man in the world”? It’s entirely possible.

This hyper-literate narrative inside a narrative inside a narrative unfolds as a simple tale at first, then becomes more complex as this deft tale-spinner pulls the scope out one notch at a time.

In addition, we are provided with a passionate re-telling of the atrocities visited on the Irish by the Anglo and Irish-Anglo ruling class. Delaney puts such genuine feeling into the narrative of the republican movement as it progressed in the early 20th century that I am surprised the writer doesn’t find himself on the do-not-fly list. His honesty and appreciation of the struggle is refreshing, at times surprisingly witty, and disarming.

At the story’s beginning, I really do not care much for Charles O’Brien and his stalker-like behavior toward April Burke. No means no. What’s WITH this guy?

But then later, the narrator (who is a character within the story) says more or less the same thing, and in due time, I find myself warming toward this awkward but well-meaning fellow. And as the narrator’s camera zooms out and encompasses so much more, I read more closely.

Occasionally I made the error of trying to read it AFTER I took the sleeping pills, and found I had to go back the next time and reread. It is not a story for the short attention span or one who wishes to multitask; it is absorbing, and requires one’s entire focus. But I found it rewarding enough to devote the necessary time and attention, and even found myself doing web-crawls to see how much of one or another historical detail was true, and how much was fictional or unknown.

In the end, my book was jammed full of sticky notes, and I felt as if I had traveled over oceans and centuries. An eloquent story, indeed!

Rebel Streets, by Tom Malloy *****

This is the first novel I have read about what are referred to in Belfast as “The Troubles”. The protagonist, Jimmy Fitzgerald,is a Catholic youth and a member of the IRA. Virtually all the young men in the Catholic (i.e., working class)neighborhood there belong. And in the opening scene, Jimmy is being tortured. He is being treated in ways that the Geneva Convention was created to prevent, yet it doesn’t. He is a “terrorist”, and so he can be treated any way they like, proof or no proof. The scene goes so far as to have him placed in a helicopter after the beating is over and he has regained consciousness. They drop him from the helicopter…and he goes only ten feet before he hits the ground. He is broken. After spitting in their faces, after beating after beating in which he will only swear at his interrogators or say “I love Ireland”, he is broken. He only wants to live, and to be gone, and we might hope that the information he gives them is false…but it isn’t. He gives up safe houses. He gives up friends. He does it with the condition that his closest friend since boyhood, Louis Duffy, will be spared.

When it’s over, he is assigned to be an informant.He must meet with Detective Ian McDonald, whose perspective we also gain later in the book. He is outwardly an ordinary man, a man who can look himself in the mirror and like what he sees every morning, one who is responsible for enforcing the law, upholding order, and stopping the Irish attacks on the British troops that make their lives hell. He has a wife and a little boy he loves, and he thinks that he is a good person. Some might see him as merely cynical. I went into this book with a bias, and I see a monster there. I hope that others who read this book will think so, too.

Catholics are considered a lower class, Finian dirt on the floor of Belfast. We learn early on of a job Jimmy and his “Da” were given cleaning out the coal cellar of a Protestant family. The family, clearly enjoying a much higher standard of living, is converting to gas central heat, but they warn Jimmy and his Da that they have inventoried and expect everything to be there when they are done. Jimmy and his father are horrified and seething at the suggestion that they might walk off with their one-day-employer’s coal in their pockets. This kind of rage beats in the hearts of most native Irish (as opposed to the Orangemen imported generations ago by the Brits to give some credence to the lie that Belfast is majority Protestant).

Later, much later in the story, after British cops have kicked in doors all over the neighborhood looking for IRA members, after the family furniture in one residence (and we can infer, many others) has been shredded, mirrors broken, the family’s only television set smashed, an Irish mother turns to her small son and asks, “Who was it put your Grandpa in prison?”
The lad replies,”The Brits”.
“Who?”
“The Brits.”
“Aye…Who wants to get your Da and lock him away?”
“The Brits.”
“Who?”
……..
“Why did they do this to ye?”
“Because I’m Irish.”
“An’ who is it that hates the Irish, who is it robs the Irish, who is it murders the Irish?”
“The Brits.”
(first person, quoting author here)”She took his head in both her hands to whisper, “An’ who will protect yer mother from the Brits when he’s a strong young man?”
“I will.”
“Why?”
“Because I’m Irish.”
The mother calls her son a “wee man” and a “brave Belfast boy”.

This novel spoke to me deeply. I was a supporter of Sinn Fein during the hunger strikes of the 80’s, and I, along with many other Irish Americans of whatever generation, gave money for humanitarian aid. Two-thirds of the funds that paid for Irish independence came from Irish American pockets. The same has held true for the cause of making Ireland free and united once more.

Not everyone will appreciate this novel as I did. The IRA has had press that likens them to serial killers when “The Troubles” took place, and very few rejoinders sent to large newspapers ever saw the light of day.

But if your heart beats for one united Ireland, or if you enjoy one helluva ride and you are neutral or undecided on the Irish Question, then buy this book. Read it. You haven’t read anything like it lately, I promise.

All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnson, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship, by Kathryn Miles *****

The Irish potato famine is at its worst. Blight kills all of the potatoes–my god, even the ones that had been harvested and stored away in root cellars where the families thought they could access them!–and the potato was nearly the only crop that the Irish had. Millions depended on charity (nearly nonexistent) or the government, and unspeakable numbers died, while the grain that had grown was shipped abroad as an export for sale. Local farmers who had a surviving patch of turnips or even a single cabbage had to post a guard overnight, or someone else would steal it. Unfathomable.

I was sent a free copy of All Standing as part of the Goodreads First Reads program. My gratitude goes to Goodreads and the publisher for the book, and to Miles for ferreting out the facts to tell this story properly. Research is such tedious work, and here she has done so much to tell an important story.

The first seventy pages of this story are bleak, miserable, horrible, terrible. Miles does not let us go gently. The documentation is well done, and the statistics and examples lend a special sort of dread to that which was macabre to start with. There is no way to Disney-fy a story like the famine and still have it be real history. And those who buy a place on the “coffin ships” for the small chance that they may survive the trip to the new world die in droves, primarily of typhus, though a small number are fortunate and survive.

An innovative ship builder, an experienced and humane captain, and a doctor who was ahead of his time combined to make the Jeanie Johnston exceptional. It is for this part of the story, as well as the righteous anger that serves as the transition from utter misery to success, that those who love Ireland, history, or better still, both should read this book. It is a beacon that is welcome in times such as ours, one that reminds us that one person, or two, or three who have the courage of their convictions really can make a difference to others.