Tales of an Ancient Emerald Isle ; A History of Ireland by the People Who Know It Best - the Storytellers

By Zipp, Yvonne | The Christian Science Monitor, March 15, 2005 | Go to article overview

Tales of an Ancient Emerald Isle ; A History of Ireland by the People Who Know It Best - the Storytellers


Zipp, Yvonne, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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