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
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. …