Religion, death, bereavement, love, violence, abuse, alcoholism, suicide, loneliness. What more could you ask for?
This has been a decade of sizzling Irish books. No issue has been too difficult or too personal for our authors to tackle, and my, how impressive the outcome is.
Memoirs play a large role in iriishcentral's top 10 books of the decade – we have John McGahern exploring his family’s twisted past, Ted Kennedy explaining Chappaquiddick, and Nuala O’Faolain on the loneliness of an Irish woman – but in fiction and in poetry too, this has been a decade when our authors outdid themselves.
1. “A Memoir” by John McGahern
The Leitrim writer died in 2006 but age did not stop him coming up with brilliant work. “A Memoir” – his first non-fiction book – came out in 2001. It tells of his youth as the oldest of seven children, and his upbringing at the hands of a brutally violent father after his mother died.
2. “True Compass” by Ted Kennedy
The posthumously published autobiography shed light on the senator’s extraordinary life. Kennedy writes of how the assassinations of his brothers John and Robert affected him, and about the fateful car crash at Chappaquiddick. “That night on Chappaquiddick Island ended in a horrible tragedy that haunts me every day of my life.”
3. “Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman” by Nuala O’Faolain
“Almost There” is the sequel to “Are you Somebody?” and like the earlier bestseller it’s full of O’Faolain’s brutal honesty and self-criticism. The book tells of O’Faolain’s experiences living in the U.S. after 9/11, and her eternal search for love, which came to fruition in New York. The author died last year.
4. “Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann
It took an Irishman to write what Esquire magazine called “the first great 9/11 novel.” Colum McCann’s seventh novel begins with a tight-rope walker balancing on a rope between the Twin Towers, an act of bravery and showmanship that really happened in 1974. McCann says he sees that tight-rope walk as a gesture of creativity that balances the destruction of 2001.
5. “The Secret Scripture” by Sebastian Barry
Terrible tales of the Catholic Church seem never to be far off in Irish fiction (and non-fiction). Sebastian Barry’s wonderful novel “The Secret Scripture” tells the story of Roseanne McNulty, an Irish beauty whose charms gave her a lot of trouble, as society punished her for her loveliness. “The Secret Scripture” was shortlisted for the Booker prize and won the Costa book of the year.
6. “The Gathering” by Anne Enright
Death, bereavement, suicide, sex and love – all are in “The Gathering,” for which Enright rightly won the Booker prize in 2007. The story revolves around the Hegarty siblings (there are 12 of them) who gather together at the funeral of one of them, Liam.
7. “The Sea” by John Banville
Ageing art critic Max Morden mourns his wife’s death in “The Sea.” A New York Times reviewer described it as “misshapen but affecting” and it won Banville the Booker prize.
8. “The Fifty Minute Mermaid” by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, translated by Paul Muldoon
This delightful little book of poetry is about a whimsical figure of myth, the mermaid. Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill is an Irish language poet and Paul Muldoon a Pulitzer prize-winner and poetry editor of the New Yorker. He does an excellent job translating Ni Dhomhnaill's poems, and you get both Gaelic original and Muldoon's English verse. It’s definitely worth a read.
9. “Brooklyn” by Colm Toibin
Toibin makes the harshness of emigration relevant again, just as youngsters in Ireland are discovering it for themselves.
10. “Star of the Sea” by Joseph O’Connor
The famine of the 1840s becomes real again in this imaginative trip on a coffin ship to America. Dickensian poverty, beautiful love scenes, madness and destitution are all present in O'Connor's ambitious book about emigration, which puts Irish history back on the literary map.