Ireland By the Books

The Man Booker judges have the tough job of picking literary perfection. But how powerful is the written word? We asked those in the know if a single book can define an entire place

A Joyce moment in St Stephen's Green, Dublin City
A Joyce moment in St Stephen's Green, Dublin City

In its 40 years, the Man Booker Prize has taken us to strange and unusual places: WWII theatres of war; vivid flashbacks in a Wexford coastal village and wakes in Dublin.

Over that time the Man Booker Prize has, according to Ian Trewin, Literary Director of the Man Booker Prize Foundation, “…become influential beyond the wildest dreams of its founding fathers.”

But how influential can a book be? Can it define a place for us before we’ve seen it? Can it make our mind up about how rugged a coast is, or capture the soul of a city?

With three Irish authors in named in the MBP’s 2013 shortlist we asked Ireland’s literary community if a book can define a place.

Hook Head Lighthouse, Wexford
Hook Head Lighthouse, Wexford

The West

Yeats, Synge, Edna O’Brien – Ireland’s west has inspired writers for centuries. Irene Graham’s Creative Writer’s Workshop is beautifully located on the western islands.

When asked if a western book or author has adequately defined the region, Irene had an unexpected suggestion: “Liam O'Flaherty from Inis Mor Island comes automatically to mind. Liam is unfortunately a long forgotten writer. Many of his works have a common thread of nature and Ireland, especially The Black Soul, perhaps autobiographical fiction, where a tormented former soldier seeks tranquility from the seasons and the sea, and the raw beauty of the Aran Islands”.

Dublin and the East

Dublin’s Unesco City of Literature status sits lightly on the shoulders of this literary town. For Deputy City Librarian, Brendan Teeling, it’s impossible to choose one book that encapsulates the city:

“Dublin is really a City of Literature and it's impossible to come up with just one book. James Joyce's Dubliners and Ulysses are quintessentially Dublin and contemporary books like Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way and Joseph O'Connor's Ghost Light cover the same period but with a modern perspective. 

Of course, given the year that's in it Strumpet City will be the most read Dublin book. Then there are some great novels which tell the story of modern Dublin - Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy springs to mind, as does Christine Dwyer Hickey's The Cold Eye of Heaven.”

Featured again in this year’s shortlist, Colm Toibin’s odes to Wexford have become essential reading for lovers of the south east. Meanwhile, John Banville’s MBP winner, The Sea, is a deep and reflective visit to the same county.

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Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is literature. Literally. A childhood tramping Down’s Mourne Mountains planted Narnia in C.S Lewis’ imagination. In Belfast, Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift is said to have been inspired by the face-shaped rock known as Napoleon’s nose.

The Mourne Mountains, County Down

David Lewis of UK City of Culture Derry-Londonderry is keen to unearth a hidden gem of Northern Ireland’s written word:

“It's little known actually, but one of the 20th century's greatest novelists came from Belfast, Brian Moore. In addition to Moore, everyone should read The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn for a bleak but brilliant portrait of Belfast in the 1940s. If you wanted to read only one novel, however, it should be Call My Brother Back by Michael McLaverty. The book encapsulates the experience of a country boy from Rathlin Island on the north coast moving to the industrial behemoth that was Belfast in the 1920s. Coping with the move, and seeing his family caught up in the sectarian mapping of Belfast is beautifully brought to the page by McLaverty, an unsung master of style and character.”

The Blasket Sound, County Kerry

The South

The Blasket Island authors and an abundance of literary festivals is some clue as to the southern region’s literary pedigree. For Cara Trant, Manager of the Senachaí – Kerry Writer’s Museum, it’s the work of a certain playwright that embodies the flavour of the south: 

“Though best known as a playwright, for me John B. Keane’s novel, The Bodhrán Makers, reflects the rich culture & character of his community.” Cara says. “The novel tells the tale of perennial battle between a handful of families who celebrate the pagan Wrendance festival and the Catholic Church in the fictional town of Dirrabeg. The sound of the bodhrán comes to represent the gaiety and poetry of a life lived for fun rather than fear.”

So can a country fit in a book? Maybe. But if you really want to know how Ireland ticks, you know where we are...

Dig deeper into Ireland’s literary legacy on the Literary Ireland Homepage

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