Review of Books

Hidden History of Boston Irish

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
August / September 2008


Until releasing his latest novel, Joseph O’Neill was best known for his “family history” Blood-Dark Track (about his grandfather who was an IRA soldier) and his regular, insightful contributions to The Atlantic Monthly magazine.  Add two earlier novels into this mix, and this is certainly a fine résumé.  But it does not quite strike you as the background of the author who may very well have written the best-reviewed novel of the year.  (“It has more life inside it than ten very good novels,” raved the New York Times Book Review in a much-coveted cover review.)
That, however, is what O’Neill has done with Netherland, his chronicle of a married couple in Manhattan struggling to hold their lives together following the September 11 attacks.

We have already had a flurry of so-called 9/11 novels, many of them straining to recapture the horror of the moment, and the gravity of its aftermath.  Netherland shows the value of allowing some distance to accumulate before an artist attempts to tackle a major historical event.  The attacks of 2001 are of profound importance to Netherland, but really the novel is about a man struggling to cope as his life falls apart around him.  It is also a lovely portrait of Manhattan, which, though it has endured an apocalyptic moment, still mesmerizes O’Neill’s protagonist, a Dutchman named Hans.  “Sometimes to walk in shaded parts of Manhattan is to be inserted into a Magritte [painting]: the street is night while the sky is day,” O’Neill writes in one typical passage. Then his observations move inward.  “If I was indeed embracing an American lot, then I was doing so unprogrammatically, even unknowingly.  Perhaps the relevant truth … is that we all find ourselves in temporal currents and that unless you’re paying attention you’ll discover, often too late, that an undertow of weeks or of years has pulled you deep into trouble.”

Given the largeness of O’Neill’s themes – terror, the disintegration of a marriage, the struggle against history – his language is generally quite subdued.  I’m not quite   sure Netherland is as brilliant as many critics have noted, but it is still brilliant.
($23.95 / 256 pages / Pantheon)

Best-seller Marian Keyes is back with a new novel entitled This Charming Man.  Fans of Keyes’ previous best-sellers Anybody Out There? and Last Chance Saloon will not be disappointed. In fact, the topics and characters might seem very familiar to Keyes’ many fans.  This latest book revolves around four female friends, as well as a rising star on the Irish political scene.  All of Keyes’ characters (as in most of her previous work) are struggling to conquer the past, in the form of substance abuse, psychological problems or both.  For all the weight of these topics, however, Keyes’ trademark humor is also on display. This is a blessing since (again, as with much Keyes work) This Charming Man checks in at over 550 pages.  Marian Keyes is not for everyone, but her fans will not be disappointed.
($24.95 / 576 pages / Morrow)

David Guterson had a smash success about a decade ago with his novel Snow Falling on Cedars, later made into a movie starring Ethan Hawke. Guterson’s latest novel, The Other, explores two star-crossed childhood friends: Neil, from an Irish-American family of carpenters, and John, who becomes so disenchanted with life that he seeks to vanish from the face of the earth.  Neil is a family man, but takes a risk in the name of helping out his old pal, a choice which has potentially tragic consequences.
($24.95 / 272 pages / Knopf)

In the vein of Roddy Doyle’s recent story collection The Deportees, acclaimed author Gerard Donovan shines a literary light on new Ireland with his collection of stories, Young Irelanders.  Though the title might seem to refer to Ireland’s 19th-century liberation movement, Donovan is actually talking, literally, about today’s new Irish, be they immigrants or struggling adulterers.  Donovan’s 13 stories add another intriguing layer to our understanding of the much-discussed post-Celtic Tiger Ireland of the 21st century.
($24.95 / 224 pages / Overlook)


T.J. English is best known for his gripping chronicle of the New York Irish gang the Westies, as well as his authoritative history of Irish organized crime, Paddy Whacked. English now turns his attention to Cuba with Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution.  English explores infamous mob figures such as Lucky Luciano, and their operations in the 1950s, when Cuba and its capital were one of the most desirable destinations for pleasure seekers.  That was before a revolutionary named Fidel Castro whipped up a frenzy and not only changed the course of world history, but also left the Mafia quite angry.
($27.95 / 416 pages / Morrow)

Frank McCourt has written the Foreword to a new collection of essays (edited by Nell Casey) entitled An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family.  “There are two great themes in this book: suffering and heroism. You’ll be shocked by the honesty in these narratives, the mixed feelings we have when our parents – or family members in general –suddenly become so much of a burden that we have to change our lives,” writes McCourt  Among the 19 authors who contributed to this at times touching, at times disturbing volume are New York Times writer Sam Lipsyte, Jerome Groopman and Andrew Solomon.
($24.95 / 277 pages / Morrow)

Meanwhile, Frank McCourt’s brother Malachy has also kept himself busy.  His latest book is called Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland.  In it, McCourt puts his own spin on thousands of years of Irish history, from Fionn mac Cumaill to Bertie Ahern and Bono.  Not only is this an informative read, but you have to be impressed by the author of a history book who admits in the very first pages that “I came to America at the age of 20 with no certificates to prove that I had ever been to school, far less learned anything there.” It is in this roguish spirit that McCourt actually does manage to teach readers many things about Ireland’s past.
($15.95 / 413 pages / Running Press)

Speaking of the Irish past, a provocative new book suggests that the horrific institution of slavery in America was not confined to African-Americans. In White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, authors Don Jordan and Michael Walsh outline how the North American colonies were also populated by British, Scottish and, yes, Irish slaves, as well as indentured servants.
($18.85 / 320 pages / NYU Press)

The Irish past also hovers over Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader. The longtime radical has collected many of his writings just in time for a presidential election.  This volume touches on many of Hayden’s noted causes, including the Vietnam War and injustice in Central America.  We also get a retrospective of events at which Hayden often had a front row seat: the infamous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, his marriage to the similarly outspoken Jane Fonda (they eventually divorced), as well as Hayden’s years in the California State Senate. Hayden also remains passionate about his Irish roots. In the introductory essay, entitled “The Famine of Feeling,” Hayden explores the impact of his Irish-American background, as well as his travels to Northern Ireland. He later recalls icons such as Bobby Kennedy, calling the slain leader “a raw Celtic spirit.”
($21.95 / 591 pages / City Lights)

Boston’s towering Irish titans, from James Michael Curley to Ted Kennedy, have received plenty of attention. In Hidden History of the Boston Irish: Little Known Stories from Ireland’s Next Parish Over by Peter F. Stevens, lesser known Boston Irish men and women are given some of the attention they, too, deserve. These include Civil War nurse Sister Mary Anthony O’Connell, who earned the nickname the “Irish Florence Nightingale.”
($19.99 / 160 pages / History Press)

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...