Many Irish women and men probably tire of the official version of themselves that is packaged for export nowadays. From the hammering heels of Lord of the Dance to the manic comedy of Waking Ned Devine, books, films and Broadway extravaganzas portray the children of the Emerald Isle (both natives and their descendants) as devout but hard-drinking, sentimental but hard-bitten and colorful to the point of gaudiness.
Several new books alternately confirm and refute this national stereotype. Among the more comprehensive recent accounts is Patrick Bishop's The Irish Empire: The Story of the Irish Abroad. The stories range through the Dromberg stone circle in Cork, New York politicians, the English invasion and oppression of Ireland, lyrical poetry, prison uprisings, shipboard squalor, urban exploitation, religion and political activism. The scope is surprising, for such a brief and comprehensible and well-illustrated book. It's beautiful to look at, but also rich in anecdotes.
Bishop tells, for example, the fascinating Bonnie-and-Clyde epic of Ned Kelly, an Irishman in Australia. Kelly imbibed stories of oppression and outrage at his mother's knee and grew up contemptuous of authority and particularly scornful of Irish policemen, whom he considered traitors. Inevitably he clashed with the abusive, nationalist, class-obsessed rulers. Next, turn to two books that address the American experience. A good place to start is Greatest Irish Americans of the 20th Century, edited by Patricia Harty. At one point the Irish made up 10 percent of all immigrants into the United States. In these 200 oversized pages, you find out some of the consequences of that influx. Included are labor and religious leaders, actors, writers, politicians, gangsters. Everyone is here: Michael Flatley and Grace Kelly, Margaret Bourke-White and Georgia O'Keeffe, John McEnroe and Mark McGwire. No other designation besides "fellow Irish" would corral both Dorothy Day and Andrew Greeley in the same subset.
On the same theme is Maureen Dezell's Irish America: Coming Into Clover, with the second subtitle "The Evolution of a People and a Culture." A staff writer for the Boston Globe, Dezell writes entertainingly and provides rather more historical perspective than Harty does in her browser book. She also goes further back than the recently departed century. Dezell gets into some surprising and fascinating topics. These even include an analysis of the ways the Irish rib each other about everything, comparing the habit to certain aspects of humor among African Americans. She also looks at how female purity and passivity were drilled into the new young Irish Americans after the Famine, and how stereotypes became scapegoats in all sorts of situations. She even thoughtfully critiques anti-Irish attitudes in E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime.
Not surprisingly, Ireland has produced an array of wonderful writers. You can find the ultimate sampler of them in a new book edited by Susan Cahill, For the Love of Ireland: A Literary Companion for Readers and Travelers. In a nice original touch, these poems, essays, stories and excerpts from novels are grouped by county and province. Naturally, you will find Sean O'Faolain and James Joyce, William Butler Yeats and Samuel Beckett. But you may be surprised to run across Lorrie Moore, Edna Buchanan and Joyce Cary. There are fine later poets such as Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland, too, providing an almost musical accompaniment to the beautiful, textured prose around them. For the Love of Ireland has the virtue of following each author's contribution with a note entitled "For the Literary Traveler." These detailed asides get you out to the sites described, warn you about ways in which they have changed and provide lovely cultural footnotes to the main entries.
By now, of course, you will have called your travel agent. Before you go to Ireland yourself, however, read Pete McCarthy's first book, McCarthy's Bar: A Journey of Discovery in the West of Ireland. Then take it with you. McCarthy is a journalist and performer well known on radio and TV in Britain. His book is along the lines of Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island. To discover the roots and test the validity of his fascination with his mother's homeland, McCarthy travels throughout Ireland. One of his travel rules is Never Pass a Bar That Has Your Name on It. This is a smart and funny book, and not just because McCarthy learns that there are a great many pubs in Ireland named McCarthy's Bar. He has to plan elaborate strategems to escape the convivial habitués. Along the way he encounters, and recreates for us, some hilarious conversations. Consider this response to his desire to eat an actual meal rather than continue to subsist on fermented liquids: "You're on holiday. You can eat when you're at home. Have a bag of nuts, why don't ya?"
And now for the dark side of this famously hospitable land. Ireland's critically acclaimed and popular novelist Patrick McCabe is back with a scary new book, Emerald Germs of Ireland. No quaint, cheerful volume, this although McCabe is certainly darkly humorous, in a Hitchcockian way. The author of The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto tells the story of Pat McNab, who definitely murders his mother and who possibly, just possibly, becomes a serial killer. This particular Irish outing is unlikely to become a dance anytime soon, although it would make a good movie. Although this book is in helpfully distancing third-person, its dark psychology may remind you of the twisted narrators of McCabe's fellow Irishman John Banville.
If, after this survey course, you'd like to get in touch with your own Irishness, you can turn to a helpful book by Dwight A. Radford and Kyle J. Betit, A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Irish Ancestors. While not exactly sparkling with scintillating prose, it supplies advice, methods and highly specific references, including a number of fruitful research avenues you would never think of on your own. Replete with case studies and bibliographies, this book seems like the last word on its topic.
Like most history books, these new volumes remind us of the quirks of fate that shape the daily lives of future generations. As a historian once pointed out, if not for the potato famine of the 1800s, John F. Kennedy would have been born an Irishman, not an American.
Michael Sims is fond of Irish coffee and greatly admires redheads.