Posts Tagged ‘ Irish literature ’

New Year: New reading challenge!

irelandAt this time of year, we are all thinking of new beginnings and resolutions. I have been looking around at a few bloggers who really have their teeth into the New Year to an unusual extent. These writers have not merely made a few resolutions; they have set challenges for themselves and they encourage us to join them in their efforts to scale new heights. I thought I would feature in my piece a couple that I have bookmarked for my own interest.

While I am fascinated by the wide variety of challenges, it is the reading or writing ones that are dearest to my heart. On my trawl through Google’s rich archives, I came across an American blog site run by book and film enthusiast Carrie Kitzmiller, which is a veritable treasure trove of literary challenges. Books and Movies!  blog site has one challenge in particular that might appeal to the discerning readers of this news site and that is the 2013 Ireland Challenge (now in its fourth year).

The details are broadly as follows: the challenge runs from January 1st – December 31st and any book with an Irish connection and in any genre qualifies for the challenge. Apparently, re-reads are allowed (which is very generous I think) and you can count any book read for this challenge towards another challenge if you so wish. Interested book lovers just need to register on the site and can upload reviews (and link to their own blogs) as they go along.

Finally, there is a graded commitment scheme so you just choose your level of participation and away you go. For example, the lowest level is Shamrock at four books read, moving up to ten books and more read for the Ceilidh challenge. I assume that you could aim cautiously and then upgrade if you were flying through your James Joyce. Mind you, I feel that Ulysses probably ought to count as more than one book due to sheer size!

If you are more of a writer than a reader (though I admit most writers read and vice verse) you could do a lot worse than check out Irish writer Alison Wells’ Head Above Water blog site for some early year therapy. Alison has begun a series of thirty-one blog posts designed to help with getting your creative juices flowing (and keeping them flowing). Each post will ‘explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas’, as Alison writes in the introduction to her blog series.

Each post will give you something to think about, something to reach for or suggest sources for inspiration. For instance, on the January 6th post Alison gives a link to a Ray Bradbury interview on tips for young writers. There you will find plenty of food for thought from an expert writer. Keep checking back over the rest of January to see what else Alison comes up with to inspire and encourage your creative muse.

Check out the links given in the text for more information.


Joseph O’Connor’s “Ghost Light” (2010)

Ghost Light is a novel written by Joseph O’Connor and published in 2010. O’Connor is also the author of the renowned 2002 novel Star of the Sea, which similarly to Ghost Light, is an historical-metafiction. Ghost Light centres on the character of Molly Allgood (1885-1952), a non-fictional Irish actress. Molly, a Catholic working class Irish girl * and star of Yeats and Lady Gregory’s Abbey Theatre, attracts the attention of the Protestant upper-class playwright, John Millington Synge. J.M. Synge is best known for his 1907 play The Playboy of the Western World that sparked anger and even a riot at its Dublin opening night. As Synge is much older than Molly their relationship is frowned upon, particularly by Synge’s proud and rather affected mother. The narration is split between Molly’s memories of her youth as an actress in Dublin, her time with John and Molly’s present day existence in London as an older lady, still trying to reignite her success as an actress, living in a decaying bedsit and largely dependent on alcohol.

O’Connor’s depiction of Molly is commendable – though she is haunted by loneliness, alcoholism and the death of her lover, Molly retains her ladylike demeanor, she still rises in the morning and puts on her best clothes, applies rouge to her cheeks and lips and walks London town. Although there is also a sense that she has succumbed to dementia and alcoholism as she describes a BBC interview that she appears to have imagined as well as appearing to pass out drunk in public; O’Connor manages to portray Molly as tragic and lonely without making her seem pathetic or completely erratic to herself. O’Connor’s narrative style can also be held responsible for the powerful effect it has on the reader; you become Molly, you embody the sophisticated elder lady appearing to be having a leisurely stroll around London but in fact pawning off a past lover’s letters for money to drink. You become the young, beautiful, spirited actress touring America, the love-struck fiancé and the grief-stricken lover.

O’Connor’s novel is a perfect study of the imperfect human condition. Rather than be the simple tragic love-story that it offers to be, it defies this with a stylistic narrative and its intricate portrayal of Molly Allgood’s haunted elder life. The novel setting is also one worth mentioning, Molly’s youth and her relationship with John are set in the heart of Dublin at a very exciting time for literature. The time of the Irish Literary Revival; Yeats, the Abbey Theatre, Lady Gregory, Maud Gonne, George Moore and G.B. Shaw. O’Connor takes us all around Dublin at this famous time, Killiney Hill, Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) and elsewhere are the backdrop to the story so if this interests you then the novel is definitely worth a look. The novel, despite its fictional story-line is based on the real affair between J.M. Synge and Molly Allgood and is a fascinating account of the life, though tragic, left behind by the famous playwright.

* All opinions in this article are based on information taken from the novel, they are not necessarily based on real-life fact of either Molly Allgood or J.M. Synge.

The Irish Short Story

As the 2012 Cork Short Story Festival finished up yesterday, following another successful year, I wanted to look at three Irish short stories, classic and contemporary. Short stories have long been a part of the Irish literature tradition, even more so than the novel. Each of the short stories below represent different times in Irish literary history; the gothic novella, Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’; the desolation of 1960s rural Ireland in Trevor’s ‘The Ballroom of Romance’; and finally the story of Modern Ireland in Enright’s ‘The Portable Virgin’; a place of bleached haired women, posh hairdressers and suburban adultery.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, ‘Carmilla’ (1872).

Le Fanu’s tale, published in 1872 from the eerie and gothic collection, In a Glass Darkly, paved the way for many subsequent publications such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. The depiction of Carmilla as a female lesbian vampire has proved influential in countless narratives over the centuries. The story opens in Styria, a “lonely and primitive place” it is instantly recognised by the narrator, Laura, as being Gothic in feel and style. Carmilla’s presence in the castle of Laura and her wealthy English father in Styria comes about when the carriage carrying Carmilla and her mother crashes nearby. The unsettling mother figure cannot stay for long and as Carmilla has not quite recovered from the accident, asks if she can stay with Laura and her father and be collected again in three months. They agree and Laura, who has been lonely in the isolated area, is content with some suitable company. As the weeks go by Laura becomes weak and ill and strange occurrences begin to creep upon the household…. As it is just over a month to Halloween and a perfect time to read this gothic creation, I won’t give too much away! ‘Carmilla’ has been proven as an influential story for vampire narratives succeeding it to date. Because today’s society has something of an obsession with vampire novels: the Twilight series, Anna Rice’s sensational gothic novels and many others; it is satisfying to recall that Irish writers such as Stoker and Le Fanu had such major parts to play in the development of the Gothic literature genre.

William Trevor, ‘The Ballroom of Romance’ (1972). 

Trevor, originally from Mitchelstown in Co.Cork, is the author of this poignant story of Irish rural life, ‘The Ballroom of Romance’. The story focuses on the lonely and eventless life of Bridie, a thirty-six year old woman who resides in the hills of rural Ireland looking after her disabled father, a kind and compassionate figure. Trevor’s image of rural Ireland is one of isolation and gloom, an almost outcast society. Bridie’s only release from her life on the farm is her cycle every Saturday evening to the blue and pink dancehall named The Ballroom of Romance, ran by the Dwyers. Bridie is now one of the eldest women who attend the dancehall, along with Madge Dowling who is thirty-nine. As the night wears on and she dances with the men and small talks with the women, her past hopes and regrets open up like a wound in her lonely heart. She recalls her first love, Patrick Grady, who had been stolen from her by a girl who had never even attended the dancehall, they had then emigrated to Wolverhampton as husband and wife. Her efforts with the dancehall band’s drummer, Dano Ryan go unnoticed as it becomes apparent that he will eventually marry his widow landlady, Ms. Griffin. The injustice of life becomes too much for her at this point, she wants to cry but does not allow herself the selfish release. Throughout the story Bridie does not protest her unfair existence, all of her grievances are met by acceptance and resilience. Bridie knows that she will eventually marry the drunken bachelor, Bowser Egan when his mother dies and though she does not love him and knows his drinking will be a problem for her, at least she will not be alone. The story is an image of past Ireland; of isolated rural living, of cycling eleven miles to dancehalls, six miles to go to mass, of Kerry Cream biscuits and hopes of the Yanks coming to the area to save them all from unemployment and to bring some excitement to the misery. Trevor pours all of the loneliness, disappointment and desolation of past rural Ireland into the pages of ‘The Ballroom of Romance’, his depiction of Bridie is heartfelt, realistic and powerful; Brenda Fricker takes on the role effortlessly in the equally moving film version, directed by Pat O’Connor in 1982.

Anne Enright, ‘The Portable Virgin’ (1991). 

This short story, taken from a collection of the same title won the Rooney Prize in 1991. Enright’s ability to put into words the clearest articulation of the female psych that I have ever come across is, in the least, astounding. Her characters do not need strong story-lines; in the most general and everyday events Enright produces some of the most passionate and heartbreaking narratives in Irish literature. ‘The Portable Virgin’ is no different to this; it is the story of a woman, Mary, who discovers her husband’s affair with a woman, also called Mary. Mary goes to the hairdressers in a bid to make herself look like her husband’s mistress. She steals a handbag in the hairdressers, assumably the mistress’s and pours the contents out on Dollymount Strand. In the bag she find the statue of the Virgin Mary and drinks the contents, realising she will not leave her husband, because she loves him. Though this ending can be deciphered in two ways which if you read it, you will see clearly. The language of the story is raw and the images are familiar, BBC and Judi Dench on tv, the scene in the hairdressers, Dollymount Strand; yet, simultaneously, they are unfamiliar, uncomfortable even. Enright expresses the inner conscience of a betrayed wife as realistic and heartbreaking as she struggles with her identity as a wife and as a woman. The portable virgin she finds in the mistress’s bag signifies to a society still obsessed with maintaining a religious image even in the most contradictory circumstances: the statue of the Virgin Mary from Lourdes that could be found at the bottom of any Irish mistress’ handbag.