(Image from C/W Mars Catalog)
Ireland: A Novel by Frank Delaney (2005) is one of the best novels I have read in a while. I will admit that I am usually not that interested in historical fiction but I picked up this book on the recommendation of a family friend who said it was a tale about the last traveling storyteller in Ireland. On the most superficial level, that is what the story is about, but it also has so much more to say about the art of storytelling and the history of Ireland itself.
The book follows a young boy, Ronan, growing up in Southern Ireland in the 1950’s, after a travelling storyteller visits his home and changes his life forever. The storyteller’s vibrant tales of the history of Ireland inspire the boy to learn all he can from the mysterious man, sparking a life-long journey of discovery of both his own history and that of his country. Through a mastery of the art of storytelling, the book switches back and forth between Ronan’s journey and the stories that he hears and tells along the way.
Almost every character Ronan encounters has their own story to add, demonstrating the pervasiveness of storytelling across all walks of life. Everyone has their own piece of history to share and their own style of storytelling. Those humanistic elements are part of what help weave the history of Ireland together into one narrative that is meaningful to the characters as their own story progresses.
What I love most about this book is the way that it makes history fun and accessible. As I said before, historical novels are generally not my favorites, but hearing history through the voices of storytellers who are able to give life to the events and bring a distinct perspective makes it all much more interesting. The use of a storyteller’s voice gives the history a bit more depth, connecting the vast past to the present in a way that cannot be conveyed through a single narrative the way most novels are written.
The history of Ireland is itself a very interesting subject, considering the number of times it has been invaded. As the boy’s history professor in college explains,
… all history is a matter of interpretation, mostly by the victors. In the case of our little island it has been rather different, because the history of Ireland was also written by the vanquished – the repeatedly defeated, the hung, drawn, and quartered, the kicked and beaten. And haven’t we made the most of our victimhood?
It is this perspective of the vanquished yet proud and vivacious Irish that is given throughout the book, especially in the stories that are told. These tales run the gamut from stories of mythical events, romance, and heroism to religious and political battles that all helped shape the country. They tug at your heartstrings while making you laugh and truly demonstrate the ability of storytelling to transport you into another culture and lifetime.
On the whole, Ireland is a must read book for anyone interested in the history of Ireland or the traditions of storytelling that have survived there. Although I cannot speak to the veracity of the stories that are told, it is not really something I care to research because it is much more about the meanings and artistry behind the stories that matter. It is easy to get swept away by this enchanting book, just as easy as it is to get swept away by Ireland itself.
I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a week in Ireland in October 2008 and experience the land and the culture for myself. It was the kind of experience that is difficult to describe to others because it is nearly impossible to find the words to describe the majesty of the land and the warmth of the culture. However, Delaney’s book comes pretty close to conveying just some of what makes Ireland so special.
Delaney, F. (2005). Ireland: A novel. New York: Harper.