Review of Books

Tim Pat Coogan's The Famine Plot, and Speech Lessons by John Montague.

By the Irish America staff
February / March 2013

Recently released books of Irish and Irish-American interest.


The Famine Plot
Tim Pat Coogan, the author of many seminal works including The IRA: A History and biographies of Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera, is one of Ireland’s most famous and essential modern historians. Brilliant, controversy-inspiring and painstakingly researched, his writing is also nothing if not to the point, and in his latest issue, The Famine Plot, his point is this: The British leadership at the time of the famine were responsible, and this is something Irish historians (not to mention the Irish as a whole) have taken far too long to fully recognize.

Coogan outlines the horrific straight facts of the Famine – from 1845, when the potato blight first struck, to 1852, Ireland experienced a population decline of over two million lost to death and emigration – numbers that, as much as we repeat them, we should never grow blasé about. He outlines Lord Trevelyan’s many harsh measures and examines the popularity of the belief, at the time, that the Catholic Irish were getting what they deserved. He hails Tony Blair’s famous 1997 apology as not only changing the perception of the Famine within England, but also of changing the way the Irish viewed their own history – opening a window to examine the thorny questions of blame and remembrance. While the Irish in America actively sought to commemorate the famine, the Irish in Ireland had for many years been downplaying its effects. Even scholars approached it with a “colonial cringe.”

In addition, Coogan seeks to determine the lasting effects the famine years had on Irish culture. Aside from the unavoidable legacies of poverty, population decline and emigration, he highlights a helplessness stemming from Ireland’s total lack of a government at the time of the famine. Unable to do anything to help itself, Ireland had to “rely for its sustenance on the droppings from the table of a wealthy neighbor.” From this he draws a startling but apt connection to Ireland’s current dependence on the EU and the IMF. “The famine bell does not merely toll for those who died during the nineteenth century,” he writes, “it has resonance for those who live in the 21st.”  In writing The Famine Plot, Coogan is urging the Irish in the 21st century to take a clear-eyed look at the past and understand how it resonates today. It is an important and masterful work.

(Palgrave Macmillan / $28.00 / 278 pages)

Speech Lessons
This is John Montague’s thirteenth book of poetry since 1959. Born in Brooklyn during the Depression but raised in County Tyrone, Montague became president of Poetry Ireland in 1979 and was chosen as Ireland’s first Professor of Poetry in 1998. In his latest collection there is nothing short of revelry in history, language, and the process of excavating where we come from as human beings. Speech Lessons, as the title may indicate, revolves around the sounds of words, place names, and their ability to conjure deeper meanings within the memory and their influence on our growth.

In the crowning poem of the collection, “In My Grandfather’s Mansion,” Montague fictionalizes a dialogue between himself and his namesake grandfather, John Montague, Justice of the Peace. Debating the temporal disparity between when the two Montagues lived through the conceit of the family house in Co. Tyrone, the poem is a dialogical meditation on family relations, religion, old age, and what it means to be an Irish Montague. Here, the “speech lessons” of the collection’s title become more than the literal learning how to talk, but broaden to encompass language as a tool to understand our histories and who we are as members of varied communities: as part of a family, as part of a nationality, as a Catholic, an emigrant, an artist, or a child and an adult.

Taking immense sonic joy in the names of Irish places, French phrases, and the sound of natural speech, Montague creates auditory landscapes in this book that ground his poems as localities and discrete histories, ranging from the resignation of a president to observations on a scarecrow. Montague’s verse is easy to read and easier to enjoy, for its sonic complexities beg oration, or as he says himself in the titular poem, “Read poetry aloud, it can be such fun!”

(Wake Forest University Press / $12.95 / 64 pages)


Circles Around the Sun
Mike McCloskey, the eldest child of Nita and Jack McCloskey (a former basketball coach and general manager of the Detroit Pistons), was a golden boy in his youth. As a toddler, he is beautiful, snuggling up to his mother on the cover of Ladies Home Journal. In high school he is smart, cool (if a bit introverted), the star of the basketball team, and has a gorgeous girlfriend. At Duke, where he attends college on an academic scholarship, things start to slip away. He quits basketball, he takes acid, but he’s still functional. After college, he can’t settle, can’t hold a job. Friends gradually fade away. He has his first psychotic episode and is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

This is the Mike that his sister Molly, fourteen years younger, remembers most from growing up. Between his phases of wandering and hospitalization, he lives on the couch at their parents’ house in Oregon. Molly and her friend, not fully realizing what they are doing, have fun aggravating his paranoia by ringing the doorbell and running away. After various attempts at getting back into the world, not ill enough to be permanently hospitalized, Mike joins a special house in Portland where he tolerates his housemates and spends most days at a nearby coffee shop.

Those are the facts of his life, carefully detailed in Molly McCloskey’s memoir Circles Around the Sun, published in October. Here, years of research, soul searching, and interviews with family members, friends and distant acquaintances behind her, McCloskey (who is now a writer and journalist in Dublin) takes an unsparing look at everything leading up to and following Mike’s diagnosis: their family, their childhood, the isolation of schizophrenia. Alongside this she reflects on her own struggles with alcoholism and paralyzing anxiety; the fear that what happened to Mike might happen to her. One of the toughest but most penetrating passages concerns her unraveling while living isolated in Sligo, two nearby pubs “the lodestones” of her existence, and the eventual forgiving of the self that came with sobriety.

To call the book a form of amends is to simplify what McCloskey has achieved. But poring over the pages, one can’t help but think about the difference between the Molly who played tricks on her brother as a child and the one who wrote this brave, beautiful and completely consuming account of his life and illness. How far she has come, and how much she has given.

(The Overlook Press / $24.95 / 240 pages)


This Is the Way
Gavin Corbett’s second book, This Is the Way, is ostensibly set in contemporary Dublin, but jumps around space and time with beguiling ease. These shifts, which might be cause for concern in the hands of a lesser writer, serve Corbett’s ends well in this novel about the Irish community of travellers, told through the voice of Anthony Sonaghan. Anthony, the twenty-something child of two long-feuding travelling families, the Sonaghans and the Gillaroos, has moved to Dublin and “settled,” forsaking his travelling heritage. But when his uncle Arthur shows up, missing a thumb, they embark on a series of hijinks that take them deeper into Anthony’s roots and the families’ shared animosity, creating fodder for Corbett’s vividly described scenes of modern Dublin life and, moreover, Anthony’s delicious narration.

Anthony narrates the novel in his natural voice, forgoing commas, quotation marks, and “standard” English grammar, solidifying his as a voice that is sure to stick with readers long after the final page.

It is evident that in Anthony’s voice, Corbett seeks to actively deconstruct the barrier between spoken word and printed text through such a unique, if at times muddled, prose style. Such confusion, however, is precisely the point because it highlights the dialect in which Corbett writes and our unfamiliarity with seeing on the page what is usually a verbal difference. If this creates a difficulty in reading the book as a whole, it is one out of which springs oral fluidity, urgency, the sound of sense (if not always total understanding), and delight in the subtle tonalities of Corbett’s unique style.

(Faber and Faber / $26.00 / 230 pages)

The Whipping Club
First-time novelist Deborah Henry burst on to the literary scene last summer with The Whipping Club. Henry, who spent two years working on the novel in Fairfield University’s MFA program, rapidly garnered acclaim, with The Whipping Club receiving a coveted spot on Oprah’s Summer Reading List. After a glowing initial review, Kirkus went on to name it one of the Best Books of 2012.

Painstakingly researched and intensely moving, it tells the story of Marian McKeever, a young schoolteacher in 1960s Dublin. Very much in love, Marian and Ben Ellis, a journalist, plan to wed despite their differences in religion – she is Catholic; he is Jewish. Then Marian learns that she is pregnant, and, fearing that an unexpected child will make things even more difficult for her and Ben, she decides not to tell him, and leaves the city to have her baby at the Castleboro Mother Baby Home, where she gives it up for adoption and a better life in the U.S.

Ten years go by, and Marian and Ben are happily married with a daughter, Johanna, when a nurse from Castleboro, attempting to ease her conscience, contacts Marian with the news that her son, Adrian, was never sent to America. Instead, he has been living a few miles away all these years, at a grim Catholic orphanage. It is not giving much away to say that Marian tells her family about Adrian, as the heart of The Whipping Club concerns the Ellis family’s struggle to give their son the life he should have had in the first place, though it may be too late for him to fully assimilate into their lives. This is a captivating and confident debut, brimming with the promise of more to come.

(T.S. Poetry Press / $14.95 / 310 pages)


For Lieutenant Albert Ryan, a career military man, being a soldier is all he knows and following orders is just another day in his life. But what happens when Ryan is faced with the choice between following orders or following his conscience?

Northern Irish author Stuart Neville’s latest book, Ratlines, is an engrossing mystery set in Ireland in 1963. Since WWII, Ireland has quietly allowed foreign nationals, including German Nazis, to take asylum. Many prosper and live peaceful lives. But when the former Nazis are suddenly being targeted and killed, Lieutenant Ryan, an investigator for the Irish Intelligence, is ordered to find out at whose hands these Nazis are falling. In so doing, Ryan finds he is not only compromising his conscience and life, but also the lives of his loved ones, and all to protect Otto Skorenzy, a dangerous man, supposedly one of Hitler’s favorite officers, responsible for the deaths of countless innocent lives during the war. Ryan, a hero you want to root for, is faced with a tough question: should those who don’t deserve it be protected?

Ratlines is a well written and masterfully plotted tale of betrayal and loyalty, love and trust, and a brilliant blending of historic plotlines we wouldn’t expect to see brought together.

(SoHo Press / $26.95 / 354 pages)

Leave a Reply


More Articles

Author Mary Beth Keane as an infant with her father, Willie.
What Are You Like? Writer Mary Beth Keane

On swanky hotels, Gráinne O’Malley’s tailor-made pirate outfits, and her own unusual hidden talent. ℘℘℘ Mary...


Book Reviews

1,000 Books to Read Before You Die By James Mustich If you can get past what is clearly one of the more intimidating...


Your Summer Reading List

MILKMAN Anna Burns I didn’t know much about Northern Ireland before I left home in 1972.  There was one shopping...


Review of Books

Recently published books by Irish and Irish-American authors. ℘℘℘ In the Galway Silence  by Ken Bruen The...