It wouldn’t be Christmas without a good book, and for our money two of the best to have come to market this year are Colum McCann’s epic and utterly heartfelt novel Trans-Atlantic and Kevin Maher’s coming of age in 1980s Dublin adventure The Fields.
Both are Dublin writers, but their subject matter and their social milieus are poles apart. McCann’s book is the work of daylight visionary who races toward the connections that his tribe have overlooked and Maher’s dark vision of Ireland is also informed by exile, also voluntary, but blighted in ways that life the lid on the tumultuous decade he is writing about.
It’s my job to notice things about the Irish and one of the most recurring patterns I see is their horror of self-promotion. They can make outstanding music, art, fashion, food or poetry but they’d almost die before they’d ask you to consider it.
Like so many things in the Irish tale, it’s clearly a colonial consequence. The spud that rises gets the spade, presumably. So allow me to recommend two new historical books that take a look at our troubled past and offer perspectives that may help us someday get beyond it.
Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland: The Kindness of Strangers (Bloomsbury $39.95) by Christine Kinealy is a peerless study of the impact of the Great Hunger, when Ireland lost approximately 25 percent of its population to starvation or emigration over just five years.
Far more polemical is The Famine Plot (Palgrave, $28) by Tim Pat Coogan which asks how, in a nation brimming with crops and surrounded on all sides by teeming seas, could the Irish people have starved in their millions in the middle of the 19th century? We may never come to agreement, but it would do us all some good to understand how its legacy plays out for the Irish no matter where they live now.
Finally, for a little Christmas blessing, we recommend a traditional Irish St. Brigid’s cross. The custom was to place these over over hearths and thresholds, where they’d bestow a blessing on all below.
Some say they long predate Christianity in Ireland and are in fact pre-Christian sun wheels, but either way they’ll connect you with home in a way that is hard to describe in just words. Pick one up here and be sure it’s a gift that any Irish person will treasure. Visit biddymurphy.com.