Classic review: Ireland
A history of Ireland by the people who know it best - the storytellers.
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The tales move in a loose chronological order, starting with the construction of Newgrange - a stone formation built "before Stonehenge, before the pyramids of Egypt," and moving through the country's recorded history to the revolt of 1916.Skip to next paragraph
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Appropriately enough for this time of year, St. Patrick gets a story of his own. Finn MacCool and Brian Boru rate several pages, as do Jonathan Swift and Edmund Spenser. Somewhere between Brendan the Navigator (an Irish monk who the storyteller is positive was the first person to discover America) and the creation of the Book of Kells, we start to get a sense of the volume of scholarly research that went into this book.
Delaney's narrators range from a bedridden old lady and her eavesdropping maid to a country and western trio (sadly, not as funny as it sounds).
My favorite is a scathing professor of history, T. Bartlett Ryle, who lays out the case for why Irish history rings differently.
"Those of you who have managed to understand me thus far have probably been told already that all history is a matter of interpretation, mostly by the victors. In the case of our little island it has been rather different, because the history of Ireland was also written by the vanquished - the repeatedly defeated, the hung, drawn, and quartered, the kicked and beaten. And haven't we made the most of our victimhood?"
In between stories, Delaney also delves into what constitutes good storytelling - which can be tricky. The characters in the book who hear these stories sometimes seem more enthralled than we do. The first poem ever created, for example, harks more to Hallmark than to W.B. Yeats (who also makes an appearance).
And the letters the storyteller writes to Ronan, waxing lyrical about the beauty of the Irish countryside, probably resonate more heartily with a native.
Finally, Ronan's personal history comes as far more of a shock to him than it does to readers, who have been waiting 400-odd pages for the boy's enlightenment.
But those criticisms are ultimately outweighed by the pleasure of tales that begin "King Conor of Ulster suffered from toothaches..." or "Long, long ago when the geese went barefoot...."
And instead of "happily ever after," they end, "And that goes to show that things of great beauty can sometimes come out of awkward situations and that people, if you leave them alone, know how to make their own decisions. It also, according to some people, gave the Irish people the habit of voting often at elections."
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.