Well, I am only just scraping in this “March – Books set in Ireland” episode of the World Party Reading Challenge by the skin of my teeth – I blame it on St Patrick’s Day on March 17 – it takes forever to recover from such an event!
It is almost impossible to know where to start when discussing books set in Ireland – a country with such a rich literary history.
There are, of course, the classics of Irish literature, like James Joyce and Frank O’Connor, who both wrote works set in Ireland. Or you could go to the other extreme and indulge yourself in the gentle family sagas of Maeve Binchy or the chicklit of Marian Keyes.
I wasn’t quite up for Joyce and wanted something a little more challenging than Keyes this month, so I settled on the lovely, lyrical prose of Sebastian Barry.
Barry’s The Secret Scripture is the story of Roseanne McNulty, the 100ish-year old inmate of a psychiatric hospital in the town of Roscommon who begins writing her autobiography, just as a doctor at the hospital does his own investigation into her past in a bid to determine where she should live once the institution is closed down.
But while this part of the narrative is set in Roscommon, it is the town of Sligo in the 20’s and 30’s we really get to know in this novel, through Roseanne’s memories and Dr. Grene’s exploration of her past.
Sligo is where Roseanne grew up and lived before her institutionalization and the novel gives us a pretty thorough look at both its landscape and character. At times, it is overwhelmingly bleak “as it was raining with that special Sligo rain that has made bogland of a thousand ancient farms” (p96) while at others we experience the tantalizingly brief bursts of sunshine which mirror Roseanne’s life…“Oh yes, the beach at Strandhill, high tide as it was, is good for a little, and then it plunges down, you are suddenly in the big water of the bay there” (p150).
From “the devious roads of Ireland” (p9) to the observations of national character “a hot Irish day is such a miracle we become mad foreigners in a twinkle” (p149), this novel gives an achingly beautiful snapshot of rural Ireland in a particular era. And crucial to this is the country’s political history, which permeates every aspect of the novel.
This was a time of civil war and the fledgling Irish Free State, where a person’s allegiances and politics could determine their fate, and The Secret Scripture reminds us of how brutal such times could be. And then, of course, there is the other huge influence on all who lived in Ireland – that of the Catholic church. The influence of a priest was all it took to determine Roseanne’s future…
I loved this book. While its conclusion may require a bit of suspension of disbelief, it remains a stunningly beautiful novel, and I delighted in Barry’s poetic prose. It is a story of betrayal, survival and redemption, as well as being a mystery, as we question the role of memory in any exploration of the past.
I highly recommend this novel to anyone who fancies delving a little deeper into Irish history, and if after you finish reading it you have a longing for a little more of the McNulty clan, then a look back at Barry’s previous works reveals The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, a prequel of sorts to The Secret Scripture.
If you are seeking a gentle, moving novel set in Ireland, this is an ideal choice. Some complain of a slow start, but I didn’t feel it – perhaps because I was so engaged in Barry’s stunning turns of phrase. But if this is not for you, then there are many other books set in Ireland to explore, and I’d love to hear more about your choices. If you have taken part in the World Party Reading Challenge and have written a review on an Irish-set book, then let us know where we can find it in the comments…
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.