Monday 11 December 2017

Some diverse Irish themes, for the weekend that's in it

The Origins of the Irish By JP Mallory Thames & Hudson (2015) €22.75 HHHHI

At this time of year, notions of 'Irishness' become very important to a large number of people.

Paddy's Day parades take place all over the world - from Carrick-on-Shannon to Shanghai - and the desire to connect with Ireland and with being Irish is met cynically by some, and wholeheartedly by countless more.

Irishness as a concept is actually held quite jealously by those who lay claim to having been born on this island - but we've only to look around at the new populations that have settled in this country to see just how significantly that definition is changing.

Here, JP Mallory takes us back to the Big Bang, and forward through every geological and lithic age you can dig up from the bowels of your memory, and in an exhaustively engaging (but not exhausting) way, asks not only Irish folk, but the world in general, not to get so hung up labels.

That's what I took from it, anyway. Perhaps from enjoying the unique perspective that I do -a blow-in going on 17 years now - I represent my birth nationality while adapting to the ways of my newish homeland. Irishness didn't spring up out of the rocks and soil of this island, and whether we like it or not, people have been coming from elsewhere to here for eons.

Mallory uses archaeology, genetics, linguistics, mythology and geology, and a touchstone in the person of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who handily is a combination of history and myth, to guide us from carbon speck to creator of megalithic tombs to speakers of a distinct language.

This works amazingly well, not only as a testament to Mallory's mastery of the material and as a way to go down to bedrock and build up a comprehensive history of a race, but also to add some levity to the heady proceedings.

Mallory always manages to slip in a sly, witty comment in the middle of what seems like, to a casual reader, a tsunami of dates and names. The use of such a device is a nod to the need to provide a human aspect, and one was left wanting a little bit more of that.

Ultimately, this is a highly scholarly yet entertaining journey into an identity that is robust, seemingly inviolable, composed equally of cliché and truth, along a spectrum of creativity, politics, post-colonialism as well as all that science. This is not a book that you can pick up, digest, and toss aside - it's one to savour, slowly.

A Memory of Violets

By Hazel Gaynor William Morrow (2015) €8.99 HHHHI

Set in an era when the language of flowers was still spoken fluently, this is a deeply effecting read about sisterhood, poverty, generosity of spirit, and loss.

Well, two eras, actually: one strand of the narrative takes place in the late 1870s, and the second in 1912. In former instance, we are introduced to Florrie and Rose, two impoverished cress and flower girls of Irish descent who become separated following the death of their mother.

Told in Florrie's spirited by undereducated voice, her story unfolds through diary entries found by Tilly in the early 1900s. Tilly has left the lakelands, fleeing her past and her unhappy home, to become an assistant housemother at a new charity set up to aid women and girls such as Florrie.

Gaynor sets the scenes impeccably, to the degree that it is almost physically affecting to read about Florrie and Rose's slum life - you can just about smell it,and it is not pleasant.

Some of the initial dialogue does perhaps more heavy lifting than perhaps it ought, but the richness of the prose is really quite beautiful: everything is described with great vividness, down to the smallest detail.

The underlying theme, at least for an Irish reader, would be the thrum of the Famine, the emigration of thousands to England, and the absolutely crushing poverty that greeted them.

It makes Florrie's every triumph that much more impressive, and her every heartbreak utterly crushing.

Get Lucky

By Nicola Marsh, Kelsey Browning, Robin Covington, Avery Flynn, Sara Humphreys, & Kimberly Kincaid Burning Sheets LLC (2015) €0.90, eBook HIIII

Six authors, one star - not a good return on an admittedly miniature outlay of cash.

In an effort to provide more content for eReaders, and as a way to quickly engage readers with new writers, the book bundle was born, and it is false economy at its best.

I don't how many of these I have succumbed to downloading - and on my own time, not in my capacity as book reviewer - but I have yet to come across one that is quality from end to end.

It does the good writers in the bundle a disservice, in one way; in another, it allows them to rise above the rest. Ranging from contemporary to mystical, each has an Irish theme, and all are romances.

None are great, but Kimberly Kincaid's Something Borrowed, the last in the bunch, is the most engaging.

two Irish Releases

Mollie Cinnamon is not a Cupcake

by Sarah Webb (€6.99)

This sees a young girl stuck on a boring island with her great-gran - boring, that is, until a threat to the local beloved café inspires her to action...

Hanging with the Elephants

by Michael Harding (€20.45)

This is deeply moving and brutally honest tale of the author's struggle with depression, and how some time on his own with 'the elephant' - and Asian metaphor for the unquiet mind - allowed him to get to grips with many threads of his personal narrative.

For anyone looking for a deeper understanding this is a satisfying read.

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