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A look at books - Irish history and biographies

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Oscar’s Shadow
By Eibhear Walsh

After his imprisonment and death, poet and dramatist Oscar Wilde continued to be a visible presence in popular culture in Ireland in a way that did not happen in England.

James Joyce had a lot to do with it. He wisely read Wilde’s sexuality and his art as challenges to the dominant political and moral hegemony of the British Empire (bolstering his own fight with official Ireland in the process).

For Ireland’s benighted writers Wilde became a standard bearer, a patron saint and a battering ram against officialdom in all its forms, which had the unintended effect of keeping him current, in a way that simply didn’t happen in Britain.

There Wilde had been imprisoned and made an example of.  No one imagined that they had actually added to his legend.  In England Wilde was a gay man -- in fact he was the gay man (the image that would define the stereotype for generations after) -- but in Ireland he was also the dissident and the patriot, which rehabilitated his reputation faster.

Walsh’s fascinating and meticulously researched new book examined unpublished archival material, and delves into a wealth of Irish critical studies and dramatizations of Wilde’s life and sexuality.  As a father who was also a homosexual, as a Anglo Irish writer who was unmistakably nationalist, as an aristocrat who was also marginalized to the outer limits of society, Wilde has been a mirror that an anxious postcolonial Ireland gazed into in search of its selfhood.

His legend will endure, as will his challenge.

Cork University Press, $50.

A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver
By Mark K. Shriver

Is there anything more miraculous than a genuinely good man? Or more mysterious, frankly? For years writer Mark K. Shriver has grappled with the inspirational legacy of his father, and this book is the expression of a grateful son.

Sarge, as he was known, lived an incident filled life. He had served in the navy in World War II. With his brother in law John F. Kennedy he started the Peace Corps.

He was the architect of President Johnson’s War on Poverty campaign. He served as ambassador to France. In 1972 he was a vice presidential candidate and in 1976 he ran for president.

Sarge was also married to Eunice Kennedy Shriver for 56 years, raising five children. Both were deeply committed to their family and their Catholic faith.

In sharp contrast to the conservative Christianity that has come to the fore in recent decades, Sarge saw his faith as a call to service to help the poor. He saw a continuum between his political life and his advocacy. His faith was a call to service, not a call to arms.

But to Mark Shriver he was simply dad. From a young age he was aware of his father’s standing on the political stage. His family was revered but it was also scrutinized and criticized.

A Good Man is his own estimation of his father, a love letter of sorts and an astounded thank you for encountering such a soul.

Henry Holt. $24.

Banished Babies
By Mike Milotte

Much has been written about the children abused by priests and about the tens of thousands of women condemned to indentured servitude in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, but what about Ireland’s once lucrative baby export industry?

The extend to which the Irish church and state stood side by side in organizing the export of thousands of Irish children in the 1950s is a tale to make your blood boil.

These helpless infants were not being sent off to well-to-do families in the U.S. In fact, there was a wealth of evidence to show that many of the children the church exported were being sent to people whose suitability as parents had not been vetted. Often they went to parents who had been rejected
previously by America’s own child welfare services.

But these babies were still sent out, and even when the alarm was raised the response was to do nothing. A child’s welfare during the most dominant years of church influence in Ireland in the 1950s mattered less than ensuring there was no bad publicity.

This shattering and scrupulously, even passionately, researched book brings us face to face with our own past. It will shock and infuriate all who read it as it uncovers the hidden truth about the nation’s utterly sordid past.

New Island, $22.

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