A sampling of the latest Irish books on offer, reviewed by Tom Deignan.
One summer day in 1948, a shy kid in short pants named John Connolly wandered into a corner drug store with a couple of pals. The boys were looking to check out the candy at the store on the outskirts of the Old Harbor housing project in South Boston, where they all lived.
“There’s Whitey Bulger,” one of the boys whispered.
It was the first time John Connolly met the infamous South Boston gangster Whitey Bulger – but Connolly would meet up with Bulger again, almost 30 years later, when he was an FBI agent. In an attempt to bring the Irish gangster on board as an FBI informant, Connolly ended up unwittingly aiding and abetting Bulger as he built a New England criminal empire.
This tawdry tale of Irish South Boston is colorfully reported in Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI and a Devil’s Deal by Boston Globe journalists Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill – a Pulitzer Prize winner.
At this hard-hitting book’s center are two sons of Southie’s Irish tenements – Whitey, the dashing, deadly criminal, and Connolly, the ambitious, younger FBI agent. This past December, 25 years after Connolly approached Whitey to discuss the informant deal, Connolly was indicted on racketeering, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and other charges, accusations which he continues to fight.
Whitey, meanwhile, remains on the run, still one of the FBI’s most wanted criminals.
Black Mass is already a hot topic in Hollywood, and this book shows why. The story is gripping, complex, and suspenseful. The authors also deserve credit for their handling of the South Boston Irish and their codes, a crucial aspect of this page-turner. (Hardcover, $26)
Meanwhile, a tabloidesque tale of murder and scandal from 100 years earlier is the focus of not one but two soon-to-be-released books. The setting is 1895, in rural Tipperary. Twenty-six-year-old Bridget Cleary fell mysteriously ill, and then vanished. Among the local population, who were filled with what William Butler Yeats once called “indomitable Irishry,” Bridget Cleary’s fate seemed as obvious as, today, it might sound ludicrous: the sick girl was carried away by fairies. Others went further and thought she would return in glory on a white horse.
A quaint but sad tale of Ireland’s innocent past? No way, according to Angela Bourke, the author of The Burning of Bridget Cleary. Bourke, a University College Dublin professor, uses this fantastic incident to show the British government’s persistently negative attitudes towards the Irish, as well as Bridget’s own community’s horrific role in what would become an international scandal, when Bridget was in fact found beaten and burned in a shallow grave. (Hardcover, $24.95)
The Cooper’s Wife is Missing, by Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates, tells the same story, though in much greater detail – which can be seen as a benefit or drawback, given the minute details the authors dwell upon. Nevertheless, the Cleary family history, and the resulting trial, make for a fascinating read. (Hardcover, $26)
For those who like their Irish history firsthand, Selected Documents in Irish History, edited by Josef L. Althoz, captures over 1,000 years of tumultuous events in just over 40 documents. They include St. Patrick’s Confessio, Oliver Cromwell’s coarse recollection of the massacre at Drogheda in 1649, and go right up to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, and 1998’s Good Friday Agreement. The volume perhaps could have used a longer introduction, rather than merely a preface, and each document comes with just brief background information. Nevertheless, this is an excellent and valuable reference work for any library which leans towards things Irish. (Softcover, $15.95)
Finally, with the Northern Ireland peace process on the mend (at least for now), two new books look back at key players in the conflict’s past. The Irish War: The Hidden Conflict between the IRA and British Intelligence is written by Tony Geraghty, a journalist whose research for this book led to his arrest in 1998, for exposing top-secret British intelligence. ($29.95, hardcover) Meanwhile, in The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party 1916-1923 University College Dublin lecturer Michael Laffan clearly outlines the roots of the Gerry Adams-led party, its inner conflicts, and its role in Irish politics. Occasionally dry (and a bit pricey), the book makes up for this with the inclusion of political cartoons and caricatures from the past and present. (Hardcover, $69.95)
Brendan O’Carroll is back.
Sure, Agnes Browne, the movie that Anjelica Huston made based on O’Carroll’s ultra-bestseller The Mammy, had a few detractors. But you can’t really say that about O’Carroll – playwright, comedian, youngest of 11 children from gritty North Dublin. He’s turned his raucous family novels into an industry, and readers on both sides of the Atlantic can’t seem to get enough. So here’s the third and final entry in the Agnes Browne trilogy, following The Mammy and The Chisellers.
This time around, in The Granny, Agnes is still dealing with six of her twenty-something children, as well as a French lover. But, as the title indicates, Agnes – “no stranger to childbirth,” O’Carroll quips in his trademark deadpan voice – is now a grandmother. Triumph and tragedy, comedy and despair follow. Three times around may be stretching Agnes’ plucky personality too thin for some readers. They’ll be the ones watching O’Carroll’s legions of new American fans grab this latest book off the shelves. (Softcover, $10.95)
With the 50th anniversary of the Korean War in the headlines, it’s appropriate that Irish-American New York native and superjournalist James Brady has traded his widely-read columns in Advertising Age and Parade magazine for the war novelist’s chair. The Marines of Autumn is Brady’s follow-up to his much-praised memoir, The Coldest War, and plunges Captain Thomas Verity, cozy in his Georgetown home with his family, back into battle. Quickly, fate – and General Douglas MacArthur – sends Verity to the brutal front lines. The Marines of Autumn is not only a tough, engaging work – especially for an author also well known for satiric portraits of the swanky Hamptons set – it nobly helps readers recall what is too often known as “the forgotten war.” (Hardcover, $24.95)
A quieter piece of fiction is A Riddle of Stars, a first novel from Waterford City native Pierce Butler. Butler’s protagonist Matt Quigley is (like the author) an expatriate in New England, and struggling with American ways. He grew up listening to dark, mythic tales told by his unsentimental grandfather off the coast of Kerry, and Matt is now struggling with love and fate in the States.
Only when another patriarch in his life (from quite a different background) must confront death, does Matt seem to be able to balance life’s possibilities with its dangers, in this impressive, lyrical debut. (Softcover, $13)
Fresh from editing the impressive Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, Colm Tóibín now releases his fourth novel in the U.S., The Blackwater Lightship. Shortlisted for 1999’s prestigious Booker Prize in the U.K., Tóibín’s latest book is a novel of modern Ireland, which also conveys the importance of the past.
Set in the 1990s, The Blackwater Lightship is an episodic, multi-generational novel which explores AIDS, death, the young, and the old. And while you wouldn’t call a book which contemplates such heady stuff “breezy,” Tóibín uses precise, efficient prose and well-chosen scenes to portray the inner lives of his diverse, complex characters.
He has written several well-received nonfiction books (perhaps most impressive, The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe), and The Blackwater Lightship feels, at times, like a non-fiction report, the emotions are so genuine and resonant – further proof that Tóibín is clearly one of Ireland’s most important writers. (Hardcover, $24)
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill continues to stretch the boundaries of language and poetry itself in her new collection The Water Horse. As with much of her past work, The Water Horse contains poems in Irish, though Medbh McGuckian and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin are on hand to provide translation. Natural and erotic imagery, as well as personal history, mark memorable entries in this collection’s first section, including “My Father’s People,” as well as the title poem. As The Water Horse concludes, Ní Dhomhnaill seems to turn to the past, and to mythic topics – even as her wordplay seems ultra-modern. At times it feels like you need a Ph.D. to grasp all the things that are going on in The Water Horse – but there’s plenty of magic just on the surface to appreciate. (Softcover, $12.95)
While Ní Dhomhnaill appears to have been born just a bit too late to be included in Irish Poetry: An Interpretive Anthology from Before Swift to Yeats and After, her translator Medbh McGuckian is represented, to shed light on one of the many, often contradictory strands of Irish poetry that have developed over centuries. In editor W.J. McCormack’s view there’s the outsider / Gaelic strand which would eventually produce McGuckian (and Ní Dhomhnaill), not to mention the Anglicized, Saxon, and mythic prose traditions as well. With the exception of a fine introduction, it’s all poems (and a few ballads) here. All the heavy hitters are represented, though the title “interpretive” anthology could be a bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, a thorough, valuable collection. (Hardcover, $59.95)
Lovers of knits and fashion as well as Celtic crafts should take a look at Debbie Bliss’s Celtic Knits, a helpful, beautiful guide to knit projects for adults and children, ranging from socks to sweaters. Shopowner Debbie Bliss (who also works as a designer for Baby Gap) takes a look at the Irish, Scottish, and Welsh traditions and designs, and stresses their simplicity and accessibility for knitters, while sacrificing none of the projects’ attractiveness or accessibility. Ambitious and advanced practitioners can tackle sweaters and jackets for adults, while beginners may want to stick to socks or berets for the baby. Along with striking photography, there are extensive and detailed instructions. (Hardcover, $22.95) ♦