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A summer look at books - history of Irish language, New York’s Catholic Irish, fiction from the west of Ireland

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On an Irish Island
By Robert Kanigel

Toward the end of the 19th century the native Irish language was being exiled to all but the most remote parts of the island. In fact sometimes it was literally driven off the land entirely to island communities like the Great Blasket.

It’s one of the ironies of the Victorian century that soon the local residents found themselves being sought after for the unadulterated Irish they still spoke. In short order big city poets and scholars were rubbing shoulders with rustic fishermen and farmers as the Irish Literary Revival took flight and the world of the Industrial Revolution found itself stepping back into ancient time for the duration of a summer, stepping into a time they consistently found sweeter and more rewarding.

In Robert Kanigel’s immensely readable and passionate exploration of the inspiration the natives provided to the artists and thinkers who visited the island, he has crafted a love letter to a vanishing world as it is slowly engulfed by the siren call of modernity.

Lives like the ones described in this book are no longer possible; from the craftsmanship that built their boats and knitted their garments and mended their nets to the language they spoke and the spirit it expressed, all are lost to time if not to literature. For a brief moment in Kanigan’s masterful study they live again. This book is literally spell binding.

Knopf, $26.95.
 

Bishop John J. Hughes, His Church and the Coming Age of New York’s Catholic Irish
By Richard Daniel McCann

New York’s first Archbishop John J. Hughes ought to be as widely known and celebrated in the Irish community as John F. Kennedy’s. An early architect of the Irish century that saw the rise of the Kennedy clan themselves, he was utterly central to the lives and dignity of the tens of thousands of Irish fleeing the great hunger to arrive on these shores.

Thanks to McCann’s scholarly and thoughtful new study, Hughes’ life and legacy are in no danger of being a forgotten chapter of the story of New York City.

Born in Annaloghan in Co. Tyrone in 1797, Hughes grew up in a townland where his legal second-class citizenship made an enduring impression on him. Later moving to the U.S., Hughes’ lifelong quest was to see Irish Catholics take their place at the head of strong religious, political and social organizations, the keys to power and influence nationally. Along the way he defended his people from the nativist mobs who sought to marginalize and even kill them.

He had serious shortcomings. For someone so committed to social justice for the Irish, and to battling anti-Catholic sentiment and xenophobia wherever he found it, Hughes remained opposed to abolitionism, the movement to end slavery.  He opposed slavery, but not the massive social upheaval he argued it would cause were it to be ended.

A reactionary conservative, he also opposed the work of the Fenians, the Young Ireland Movement and every other organization that agitated for the removal of English rule in Ireland. They always failed in their efforts, he warned his flock. Besides, many of them were influenced by French revolutionary thinking, which included anti-clericalism and atheism.

But nonetheless Hughes’ stewardship of the Irish community in New York had national implications that rippled outward for decades after his death.

Hughes literally put the Irish on the map, laying the cornerstone of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1858, but his influence and legacy stretched even further and McCann explores it with particular emphasis on the man and his decades long ministry.

E.Booktime.com, $13.50.

Long Time, No See
By Dermot Healy

It's wonderful to witness what the west of Ireland can do to an unprepossessing English sentence. I’m tired becomes I’m destroyed, which is altogether more theatrical. There’s a storm raging outside becomes she’s windy, which is more economical and amusingly understated.

If you can make sense of the alternating Irish desire for flamboyance and economy, without getting whiplash, you’ll love Healey’s deeply felt and tender new novel about family and forgiveness, this time across generations.

Healy knows and writes about the west and Galway like no other Irish writer and his novel is a marvel from start to finish, an epic tale of love and contrition, but creaturely and homespun too, and sure to cast a spell.

Penguin, $18.

Reviews by Cahir O'Doherty, Irish Voice Arts Editor

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