Classic review: Ireland

A history of Ireland by the people who know it best - the storytellers.

Ireland By Frank Delaney HarperCollins 576 pp., $14.95

[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This book review originally ran on March 15, 2005.] When a friend revealed that he was working on a book, my husband and I were im-pressed and delighted. When he explained that it was a historical novel set in Ireland, a little pity crept in.

Poor guy, my husband said, with deep sympathy. Why couldn't he have picked Croatia or someplace like that?

So many books have been written about Ireland that their collective weight could sink the Emerald Isle beneath the North Atlantic. (Any village, rolling hill, or leprechaun that's been overlooked, please raise your hand, and a writer will be there directly.)

I was going to propose that anyone not beyond page 80 of a first draft immediately switch to Iceland. It's also an island nation with a rich mythology, and, as an added bonus, novelists would have to change only one letter (well, and a few dozen descriptive passages).

But the fact remains that people love to read about Ireland - possibly as much as writers like writing about it. And that the country's tradition of history and folklore is strong enough to bear up under repeated retellings, especially if the teller is someone who truly loves the tales. Which brings us to Frank Delaney and Ireland. The former BBC reporter has wrapped as many Irish folk tales as he could into this giant bear hug of a novel.

Warm, intelligent, and unapologetically nostalgic - the book's American cover art is a print by Currier & Ives - Delaney is as much in love with the art of storytelling as he is the story's subject.

He's upfront about his desire to rescue history back from the historians, who "dry out history in order to put it down on paper." He wants the full-blooded tales of the past. "The old stories, told by traveling storytellers round the fireside on winter evenings - they came hurtling straight down the long, shiny pipeline of the centuries, and characters, all love and hate and fire, 'tumbled out on our own stone floor.' "

The novel begins on a night in 1951, when the last traveling storyteller in Ireland comes to Ronan O'Mara's house. The 9-year-old boy's father makes the old man welcome, and Ronan and his neighbors are riveted - until Ronan's mother kicks out the seanchai (pronounced shana-quee) for a tale she considers blasphemous.

Heartbroken, the boy spends his teen years tracking the storyteller down, interviewing everyone who has heard one of the old man's stories. In the process, he ends up learning as much about his own personal history as he does about that of his country.

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.

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.

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