By Monica Connell
Turf fires, hand powered water pumps and paraffin lamps. Add to that rain that starts in the early afternoon and falls in sheets from the wide Atlantic until the next day.
To some all that might sound forbiddingly rustic, but to others like memoirist Monica Connell it’s Edenic. These and other memories are among the stations of Connell’s Donegal turas.
Growing up in Belfast in the 1950s, Connell was lucky enough to spend her childhood summers in Donegal, which became – and clearly endures – as a kind of inner landscape of her soul.
Connell writes so evocatively about the county that it leaps to life on the page. But there is more to her tale than a memoir in search of lost time. Connell studied sociology at Oxford and in the 1990s she returned to the place that she had carried with her from childhood.
Gathering Carrageen is the story of her return, and her observations are arrestingly vivid. She learns that Donegal people respond to the harshness and often bleak beauty of their home county with a sense of fun that is leavened by darkness.
So Connell’s book is filled with lobster fishermen, sheep farmers, trawler workers, and in one memorable passage an old woman gathering carrageen (which the locals believe can cure multiple ailments, as well as fortify the blood).
In her book Connell shows us that the experience of returning to the scene of a great childhood happiness is as restorative and enriching as the locals themselves. This heartening and heartfelt book is the autobiography of a soul.
Old Ways, Old Secrets
By Joe Kerrigan
The Irish like to hedge their bets in this world, so it’s really not surprising that they have long tried to do the same with the world to come. Many Irish traditions still alive today have their origins in pagan times, and were simply or grudgingly repurposed to suit the new Christian god.
That means that on occasion they have lost little of their original purpose or voltage, as the distinguished academic and journalist Jo Kerrigan reminds us in her delightful new book Old Ways, Old Secrets.
Unlike in many Christian cultures, the legacy of pre-Christian times has endured in Ireland in a way that’s remarkable in the wider European context. Our folklore is alive with tales of banshees, fairies, ghosts and enduring curses in a way that has vanished from other shores.
It says something about us that the presence of the otherworld remains so accessible even in 2015. Perhaps it’s the superabundance of nature and the mild climate where it flourishes, because it seems always on the point of reclaiming all that has been built.
In Ireland you are never more than a stone’s throw from an epic tale, a passage tomb or a sacred space. By making room for these legacies in our lives and our imaginations, we have kept faith with Irish people who’s faith was vastly different from our own.
Kerrigan’s book would make an ideal Halloween primer for the enduring tales and traditions of ancient Ireland, which remain as potent today as they ever were.
Young Ireland and the Writings of Irish History
By James Quinn
The revolutionary generation of 1916, despite what some suggest, did not spring fully formed into being without a prior generation taking up the great work setting the scene for them.
James Quinn is the managing editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the writing of Irish history in the 19th century.
In prose as clear and concise as glass, Quinn outlines how in 1842 a small group of Irish nationalists, who would later become known as Young Ireland, founded The Nation newspaper to awaken the Irish people to the fact that they were a historic nation that should determine its own future.
It can be hard now to understand the depth of the damage done to the push for national self-determination by two centuries of poverty and colonial exploitation. Young Ireland not only sought to kindle an Irish national consciousness, but to counter the history that had been written by its conquerors, which had misrepresented the past.
The true history of Ireland had not yet been written, the group claimed, in an act of restitution that was as imaginative as it was political and profound. Reclaim your own history and write your own future, they counseled. Their lesson is still being learned in 2015.