The Reading Room project presents book reviews and reading suggestions from countries among our Sister Clubs.
The Reading Room is intended to provide a window, and thus some understanding, into our diverse cultures through literature―classical and contemporary.
Book selections are based on the contributing editor's personal recommendations.
Six Irish Books by Six Female Authors
By Linda Anderson, International Women's Club of New England
As a book author and former journalist, I love discovering authors I've never read. So when I was asked to review six books by Irish authors, I jumped at the chance. My mother's family came from Galway, but I sadly had not read much Irish literature.
As I researched, I kept in mind the sophisticated, well-read audience of WCI members. What evolved is a reading plan in chronological order designed to give a well-rounded view of Ireland and the female experience over the last one hundred years.
All of the books appear on multiple lists of “best books written by female Irish authors,” and each writer is considered an important author in her own right. I hope you enjoy this selection of wonderful books – I know I will.
The Last September (1929)
by Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Bowen was an Irish novelist who spent much of her adult life writing about the upper-middle class of her upbringing from the family home in County Cork and London. She garnered mostly high praise for her novels, receiving several major awards as well as honorary doctorates from Trinity College and the University of Oxford. She socialized with well-known authors of the time including, Virginia Woolf, Eudora Welty, and Iris Murdoch.
The Last September tells the story of a young woman coming of age as the Irish War of Independence rages around her. It is about the loss of a centuries-old way of life as the British recede and the new nation is born. Her publisher, Penguin Random House, describes the book this way: "The Last September depicts the tensions between love and the longing for freedom, between tradition and the terrifying prospect of independence, both political and spiritual.”
Written less than a decade after the conflict ended, the novel was heralded as “Brilliant…A successful combination of social comedy and private tragedy” by The Times of London. The Irish Times still calls it “big house fiction at it's best.”
Bowen says in the preface that of all her books and short stories, The Last September was “nearest to my heart, and had a deep, unclouded, spontaneous source. It is a work of instinct…”
Without my Cloak (1931)
by Kate O'Brien
Kate O'Brien is one of Ireland's best-loved writers, as she captured the essence of the place and its troubles in her novels, plays, travelogues, film scripts, and short stories. Born in Limerick, she spent much of her writing life in London (similar to Elizabeth Bowen).
Many of her works featured strong female characters who struggled against family and the church to lead-free and independent lives. As a result, some of her books were banned in Ireland, but her message prevailed —some novels were so popular they were adapted for stage and film.
Without My Cloak is a classic Irish family saga, complete with the requisite struggle between duty and self-fulfillment, a common theme in Irish writing. This was actually O'Brien's debut novel and was awarded both the James Tait Memorial and Hawthornden prizes for its powerful portrait of late nineteenth-century family life across three generations.
I loved this passage from the book highlighted by The Irish Times to illustrate the book's spirit:
“They ate a fantastic supper, the kind they loved, as expensive and out of season as it could be…a remarkable supper, and no doubt the waiters thought that they were celebrating a remarkable event – as indeed they were. It isn't every day that an Irish wife picks up her skirts and runs for it.”
The Country Girls (1960)
by Edna O'Brien
At age 89, Edna O'Brien is still part of the London literary scene and is one of the most cherished of all Irish writers. She has won numerous awards, including the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award in Irish Literature in 2009, and continues to receive awards and accolades for her work. Known for her hospitality, her London home is still a magnet for film, music, and literary stars.
The Country Girls was O'Brien's debut novel and has been credited with breaking the silence on gender inequality during a particularly repressive period in Irish history following WWII. The book caused such outrage in Ireland, though, that it was banned on publication, ironically cementing both her exile to London and her success. It also paved the way for future female Irish writers to tackle controversial gender-related topics in the name of social change.
The story focuses on Kate and Baba, two girls from rural Ireland, who attend a convent school, get expelled and leave for Dublin and London in search of adventure. In a 1986 review, the New York Times captures both the mood of the book and 1960s Ireland as follows: “As always, Miss O'Brien addresses the old misunderstanding between men and women. Her characters live in…a deep, historical distrust. There is little friendliness or goodwill between the sexes in this village in western Ireland: each sees the other as a punishment for the ancient sin of desire.”
When asked by the Paris Review in 1984 if The Country Girls is autobiographical, O'Brien answered:
“The novel is autobiographical insofar as I was born and bred in the west of Ireland, educated at a convent, and was full of romantic yearnings…but any book that is any good must be, to some extent, autobiographical, because one cannot and should not fabricate emotions. With luck, talent, and studiousness, one manages to make a little pearl, or egg, or something…but what gives birth to it is what happens inside the soul and the mind, and that has almost always to do with conflict. And loss—an innate sense of tragedy.”
The Sea, The Sea (1978)
by Iris Murdoch
Iris Murdoch is arguably the most well-known female Irish writer. Born in Dublin, she grew up in Ireland and England, but always clung passionately to her Irish roots. She attended progressive schools, where she became deeply interested in philosophy, which she studied at Cambridge. She taught philosophy at Oxford and, in fact, for many years was better known as a philosopher than a novelist. Her 25 novels and other works were so critically acclaimed, however, that she was highly regarded as both a novelist and philosopher, and in 1987 was made a Dame Commander of Order of the British Empire.
The Sea, The Sea is a novel immersed in the world of the theatre, and ultimately of vanity and conceit. It tells the story of renowned director Charles Arrowby, who attempts to escape the drama of London life to write his memoirs. The Guardian sums up the book quite well: “Demonstrations of Murdoch's talent exist in the terrific comic set pieces involving the squabbles of actors who descend on the house, and many hilarious descriptions of the…meals Arrowby makes for himself. More seriously, Murdoch takes great care to imbue the house, the sea, the surroundings – everything – with depth and significance.”
The Sea, The Sea was awarded the Booker Prize in 1978 (the fourth of her novels to make the Booker Prize short list).
Upon her death, the Independent reflected on her work: “She was an…institution. Her name has entered the language in adjectival form, as have those of Proust, Kafka and Pinter – once you embark upon reading a Murdoch novel you are caught up in a whole world, a world whose chief characteristic is hordes of characters, each of whom seems to be in love with more than one of the others, and to do improbable things that seem startlingly apposite.”
Scarlet Feather (2000)
by Maeve Binchy
Maeve Binchy, as a contemporary Irish writer, was so prolific and so successful that it was challenging to choose a book to highlight for this list. According to a perusal of literary reviews, any reader of contemporary Irish literature would do well with any book by her.
Binchy was born in Dublin, worked as a teacher and eventually joined The Irish Times as a journalist. Her first novel was published in 1982, and all 20 of her novels were bestsellers, according to her publisher, Orion Publishing Group. Several have been adapted for cinema and television. She received many awards for her work over the years, including the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards in 2000.
The Scarlet Feather is still a favorite among readers and won the WH Smith Book Award for Fiction in 2001. The plot focuses on friends Cathy Scarlet and Tom Feather and their attempts to create a successful catering business. But not everyone in their circle of family is pleased with the idea. The book examines class divisions, unhappy relationships, and broken families by what her publisher calls “an enchanting cast of classic Binchy characters.”
When the book was published, Binchy said this about it in an interview with BookPage magazine: “I don't want heroines who are elegant or wealthy. I want ordinary people. In my stories, there's no makeover. The heroine does not become beautiful. A streak of toughness combined with optimism is a good passport through life. The winners are the ones who get on with it.”
by Claire Keegan
Claire Keegan was born in 1968, grew up on a farm in County Wicklow, studied English and political science at Loyola University, and eventually earned a Masters degree in creative writing from Trinity College.
To say she is a gifted writer is an understatement. Her first collection of short stories, Antarctica, published in 1999, won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Her second collection of much-awarded stories, Walk the Blue Fields, was published in 2007. Her third work, Foster, is a long short story and was published as a spare book of 96 pages in 2010. It quickly won the Davy Byrnes Memorial Prize.
Faber & Faber, the book's publisher, summarizes the plot as follows:
“A small girl is sent to live with foster parents on a farm in rural Ireland, without knowing when she will return home. In the strangers' house, she finds a warmth and affection she has not known before and slowly begins to blossom in their care. And then a secret is revealed and suddenly, she realizes how fragile her idyll is. Beautiful, sad and eerie, it is a story of astonishing emotional depth, showcasing Claire Keegan's great talent.”
Here is an interesting excerpt about Foster from a 2010 interview with Maeve Binch by The Guardian:
"Blessedly, Keegan's Ireland is not the familiar land of misery, abuse and constant drizzling rain, but a place of community, common decency and, most surprising of all, sunshine. 'For me, the fact that the story unfolds in summer was primarily a practical matter,' she says. 'For [the main character] to go away, it would have to be a summer. I made it hot because, given that it is so long since we've had a hot summer, it was pleasurable to write about, but because it also deepened the happiness of the summer.'"
The Irish Times
New York Times Review of Books
A Message from an Irish Friend
My name is Kathy Meyer and I'd like to share some information about my beloved native country, Ireland, where literature and the love for storytelling are abundant.
Before my arrival in the United States, I grew up in County Roscommon, a county next to County Galway. My maiden family name was Burke, which is a very common family name in Galway. The Burkes are part of a tribe or clan who lived in three counties: Galway, Mayo, and Tipperary.
The Irish are a Celtic nation who share a common ancestry and cultural identity. The Celts first arrived in Ireland in 350 BCE. from as far away as the Russian steppes through the Iberian Peninsula. In the 5th century, the people of Ireland were introduced to Christianity by St. Patrick. The predominant religion in Ireland is still Christianity, with the largest church being the Roman Catholic Church.
From the 12th century on, Ireland saw the invasion of its territories by several other groups, among them the Anglo-Normans and later the English. It was not until 1949 that Ireland became an independent nation, known as The Republic of Ireland. During the approximately 800 hundred years of occupation, the people of Ireland suffered various misfortunes. For example, when Ireland was hit with the Great Famine, also called the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849, there was enough food for the citizens of Ireland to survive the famine. But the British, who were ruling Ireland at the time, only allowed those belonging to the Catholic faith to harvest the potatoes which had become diseased and were deemed inedible. As if that weren’t enough, they also required the livestock and grain be used to pay taxes to the British government. As a consequence, one million died from starvation and another million fled to the Americas. Some became famous in their new countries. In Argentina, a William (Guillermo) Brown from County Mayo, near Galway, founded the Argentine Navy. And, the revolutionary Ernesto (Che) Guevarra Lynch's grandmother was from Galway and their ancestral castle is still in existence in Galway. But, the single one country where most Irish immigrated to is the United States. It is estimated that in the 1840s, the Irish comprised nearly half of all immigrants to the U.S. According to the 2013 U.S. census, there are 34.5 million Americans who claim Irish ancestry. This number is seven times larger than the population of Ireland itself (4.68 million).
Ireland is often called The Emerald Isle, for all the green grass due to the rainfall. Another epithet that is given to Ireland is The Island of Saints and Scholars because of Ireland's role in the spread of Catholic teachings. Irish Monks spread the Catholic faith to many countries. The remains of many churches and monasteries are also found all over Ireland. In fact, it is claimed that Irish Monks saved civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire in 410 by rewriting the books that were destroyed by the Barbarians.
For those of you who may enjoy learning more about Irish history, I recommend The Course of Irish History by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin. The book, which is organized into short chapters, offers a well-informed overview of important periods and events in Ireland's history.
Another book that I highly recommend is Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. The book, which is based on the author's
memoir of his childhood in Ireland, tells a heartrending account of growing up Catholic in Limerick with an alcoholic father in unbelievable poverty in the 1930s and 40s Ireland. It also demonstrates the great character and humor of the Irish spirit to overcome adversity in the worst of circumstances.
A drama film by the same title was produced in 1999 featuring Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge, who played the young, middle, and older Frank McCourt respectively.
I hope you enjoy your visit to my native country this coming May, and that your stays in Galway and Dublin are most pleasant. I'm confident you’ll be met with great hospitality and that you’ll come to appreciate the warmth of the Irish!
Sincerely and slan leath (goodbye),
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