Book Corner

Nothing But an Unfinished Song, by Denis O'Hearn

By Tom Deignan , Contributor
April / May 2007

Tom Deignan reviews the latest Irish and Irish-American books



Nothing But an Unfinished Song: Bobby Sands, The Irish Hunger Striker Who Ignited a Generation

It’s been 25 years since Bobby Sands and his fellow Irish nationalists launched their hunger strikes in 1981, which resulted in Sands’s death after 66 days. That may seem like a long time ago, but as author Denis O’Hearn makes clear in his powerful new biography Nothing But an Unfinished Song, the hunger strikes are still with us today in the fragile peace process still unfolding in Northern Ireland. O’Hearn’s book, which is subtitled Bobby Sands, The Irish Hunger Striker Who Ignited a Generation, follows Sands from when he was first arrested in the early 1970s. In ’76, Sands and others went “on the blanket;” protesting their treatment as common criminals, they refused to wear uniforms and wore blankets instead, in an attempt to regain their previous status of political prisoners. Attempts to break the protest by brutalization of prisoners saw the escalation to the “dirty protest” of 1978 when repeated beatings during “slop-out” led to prisoners living in squalor by smearing excrement on the walls. Few knew such a gesture would escalate into a crisis for the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, while captivating revolutionaries such as Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela. (There had been an earlier hunger strike in the autumn of 1980, which had ended when the British government appeared to concede to prisoners’ demands. When that strike was over, the government reverted to its previous stance.) O’Hearn’s chronicle of Sands (who was quite a talented writer and musician) is powerful enough, but this book’s strength is that it offers a broader view of English and Irish politics. An Irish-American professor at Queen’s College in Belfast, O’Hearn argues that Sands’s eventual death was the start of a process which brought Irish nationalists into the mainstream of political debate about the future of Northern Ireland. True, some readers might like to read more about how Irish America was inspired and outraged by the hunger strikes, but there is plenty of compelling new material in this book to move almost any reader with an interest in Irish history and politics.

($16.95 / 448 pages / Nation Books)


Paula Spencer

After novels about grungy Irish blues bands and coming-of-age boys, Roddy Doyle surprised readers with his 1996 bestseller The Woman Who Walked into Doors, about a woman trapped in an abusive marriage. In his latest novel, Doyle resurrects the main character from Doors. In fact, the book is named Paula Spencer and catches up with this character now that she is sober and a grandmother. Paula is trying to reconcile with her son, who is living with his own substance-abuse problems. Her oldest daughter seems a model of the Celtic Tiger generation “a successful businesswoman,” but under intense pressure. The newfound prosperity of Ireland, meanwhile, affects Paula’s own day-to-day life. Though she still works hard, she is also managing to make a little money for herself – a new experience, to say the least. Paula Spencer is a quieter novel than The Woman Who Walked into Doors, with simple things such as parent-teacher conferences providing the drama. Still, Doyle is to be credited for never taking the easy way out: Paula, for example, is still able to admit she craves booze, despite the trouble it caused her. Doyle also does not give Paula a clichéd miserable childhood to explain away her problems. Paula Spencer may not be made into a movie as The Commitments and The Snapper were. But Doyle can still dazzle readers.

($24.95 / 288 pages / Viking)

Mothers and Sons

Colm Toibin’s body of work is so impressive and wide ranging that he has transcended the title of mere “author.” Aside from brilliant fiction such as his recent biographical novel of Henry James (The Master) and The Blackwater Lightship, Toibin has also written or edited anthologies of Irish fiction, revisionist explorations of the Irish famine and a meditation on the state of Catholicism in Europe. Toibin returns to fiction with his latest book Mothers and Sons, but he is still trying something different. This time he has written a collection of short stories. The title outlines the main theme of Toibin’s stories, though there is great diversity of character, form, language, even length in this collection. In “The Use of Reason,” a lifelong criminal is nearly exposed by his own mother, while “A Priest in the Family” can be seen as a morality tale involving child abuse and Mother Ireland.

($24 / 288 pages / Scribner)


Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride

Billy the Kid was famously slain by Sheriff Pat Garrett at the age of 21 in New Mexico and became an icon of the West. But legend has it that his parents were Irish immigrants from the slums of the Bowery in New York City. Michael Wallis (author of Route 66 and Pretty Boy) does his best to separate fact from fiction in Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride. Wallis, incidentally, is quite an interesting character: he hosts the PBS series American Roads and has done voice work for Hollywood films such as Cars.

($25.95 / 288 Pages / W.W. Norton)


Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland

Bryan Sykes is a professor of human genetics at Oxford University and also operates a company that traces human genetic backgrounds. Think of him as a CSI detective for history buffs. Sykes tackles the Irish genetic code in his new book Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland. He traces the genetic makeup of many royal families, even those distant descendants who live all around the world in the 21st century. Sykes (author of The Seven Daughters of Eve) conducted a ten-year DNA survey that involved 10,000 volunteers, seeking the genetic makeup of British Islanders and their offspring. Sykes also provides historical context and color, visiting Welsh caves and vividly describing burial rituals from thousands of years ago. A highlight for American readers is the chapter devoted to the genetics (and royal bloodlines) of the Irish in the U.S.

($26.95 / 320 Pages / W.W. Norton)

The Prendergast Letters: Correspondence from Famine-Era Ireland, 1840-1850

Some great novels about the experience of the Irish famine have come out in recent years, such as Kevin Baker’s Paradise Alley and, more recently, The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens. However, The Prendergast Letters: Correspondence from Famine-Era Ireland, 1840-1850 (from the manuscript collections at Boston College’s John J. Burns Library) offers readers the actual words and experiences of a single family from Kerry. Not unlike The Diary of Anne Frank, the details of the letters seem mundane (weather reports, check cashing and gossip appear alongside comments of a more political nature), but because we know of the looming horror, these observations seem all the more striking. James and Elizabeth Prendergast raised six children in Milltown, County Kerry. These 48 letters were sent to children who left Ireland for Boston. “What comforts I anticipate at the thoughts of embracing each and everyone of you so long parted from me,” Elizabeth wrote in 1850. The Prendergast Letters also includes essays by historian Ruth-Ann Harris and genealogist Marie Daly, which provide valuable context.

($29.95 / 202 pages / University of Massachusetts Press)

The Wearing of the Green: A History of St. Patrick’s Day

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, a paperback edition of The Wearing of the Green: A History of St. Patrick’s Day has been released. This book (first released in 2002) doesn’t quite live up to its far-reaching title. Both authors are academics, and it shows. Daryl Adair is a Lecturer in Sports Humanities in the Centre for Sports Studies at the University of Canberra, Australia, while Michael Cronin is Senior Research Fellow in the History Department at De Montfort University, Leicester, England. For a book about boisterous celebration, the tone of this book is extremely analytical. Still, it does offer some useful facts about how St. Patrick’s Day has developed into a global holiday, celebrated in Ireland, America, Australia, Canada and Britain.

($19.95 / 328 pages / Routledge)

In Search of Ireland’s Heroes

Carmel McCaffrey reached a wide audience writing the companion book to the PBS special In Search of Ancient Ireland. Now comes a follow-up, In Search of Ireland’s Heroes. This is a broad, chronological overview of the past 10 centuries or so. Much of this might seem familiar to some readers, but for those looking to brush up on the basics of Irish history, this is as good a general history as any. The recurring theme of this book is Irish conflict with England, which has defined the Irish experience going back to the 12th century. McCaffrey is to be credited for lively narrative writing, while offering insightful portraits of towering historical figures such as King Dermot MacMurrough, Oliver Cromwell, Charles Stewart Parnell and, more recently, Pearse, De Valera and Collins. McCaffrey does not rely solely upon previously published summaries, but instead gives readers plenty of material drawn directly from letters, political records and other documents from the era.

($26.95 / 290 pages / Ivan R. Dee)


A Great Feast of Light

John Doyle’s excellent memoir A Great Feast of Light combines recent history with coming-of- age angst and ultimately captures how Ireland was transformed when TV became more widespread in the early 1960s. Doyle’s portrait of everyday life in Nenagh, Tipperary alone is vivid. He skillfully expands his narrative outward, exploring sex, poverty, civil rights and more. All of these topics are seen through the prism of television, how it depicted, reflected and ultimately changed Ireland and the world. The “boob tube,” in Doyle’s mind, delivered subtly subversive messages to Irish audiences, changing a culture stubbornly clinging (Doyle believes) to the past. Who would have believed Gunsmoke, Monty Python and The Man From UNCLE could do such a thing? But if you don’t believe it, read A Great Feast of Light.

($15.95 / 321 pages / Carroll & Graf)

I Never Knew That About Ireland

I Never Knew That About Ireland is a great St. Patrick’s Day gift book. Flipping through it offers up a bounty of trivia, facts and figures about Ireland, its landscape and its most famous figures. Author Christopher Winn is a former question writer for the TV hit The Weakest Link, so he knows his way around trivia.

($24.95 / 320 pages / Thomas Dunne) ♦


Leave a Reply


More Articles

Peter Quinn’s Novel Redux

“Quinn has a way of making ordinary things, the ordinary or wise or inadequate thoughts of many persons in many...


Tom Deignan Interviews…

Tom interviews James Nesbitt about his new Irish crime drama Bloodlands. In this March 2021 interview, Tom and...


The Crisis in the
Catholic Church

Please join in the conversation about this important topic; we welcome your comments, thoughts, and...


Flannery O’Connor:
The Storied Life of
the Writer from Georgia

By Tom Deignan A new documentary about the short life and powerful work of Irish American literary giant Flannery...