This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

March 17, 2002 — I'm a third generation Irish American and even I don't get it: what's going on in Ireland? Forget about key specifics — Bobby Sands, Bloody Sunday, the Easter Uprising — it's hard just figuring out what "The Troubles" are, let alone what's behind them.

Why in the world do those people — who are all the same color, speak the same language, come from the same place and are all Christian — keep killing each other?

Well, one wonderful aspect of Irish culture obscured by the bloodshed is that the Irish honor writers and writing like few other cultures. Which is all to say that there's a lot to read about The Troubles.

The first thing I ever read that pierced the shroud of history and made it all seem like a real, ongoing situation involving real people was Frank O'Connor's short story, "Guests of the Nation." It involves a group of men who seem to like each other, are shown talking to each other reasonably enough . . . except the two British characters are prisoners of the Irish characters, who have been ordered to execute them. The story takes place nearly a hundred years ago, but the first person narrator makes it very vivid, and very current.

A novel that had a similar impact on me was Bernard MacLaverty's "Cal." It's another nonpartisan take that focuses on character — sweet young Cal falls in love and can't quite bring himself to believe the advice his friends are giving him — to "think of the issues, not the people." It is, of course, a modern–day "Romeo and Juliet," but it shares a quality that is generally overlooked about Shakespeare's play — it does not glamorize the violence at the heart of the story.

A little more melodramatic, but a lot more informative of issues and history, is Leon Uris' "Trinity," another take modeled on Romeo and Juliet — a Catholic rebel and his Protestant damsel join forces against the British invaders (and represent the "trinity" of the title: the nationalists, the unionists, and the Brits). It's a sweeping, 811–page whopper, but a solid source of background on the entire conflict.

And last year, Nuala O'Faolain's wonderful "My Dream of You" was an absorbing, double-plotted tale that looked even further back for the origins of the problem -- to the country-wide starvation of the potato famine, and the relationships between some British landowners and their Irish tenants. Making the story particularly rich was that it was framed by the story of a modern-day Irishwoman trying to make sense of it all, and consider how it had an impact on her life now.

But perhaps my favorite novel on the subject is Liam O'Flaherty's 1925 classic "The Informer." Set in the immediate aftermath of the Irish Civil War, its protagonist Gypo Nolan is one of the great tragic figures of modern literature — a hulking simpleton weakened by poverty and desperation to betray a comrade, Gypo subsequently castigates himself nearly as ruthlessly as his IRA pursuers. This is one of the most moving novels I've ever read, and the brilliant stroke of turning Gypo into a microcosm of Ireland itself lends the book a transcendent quality that offers some hint of salvation.

And a real–life character who, to many, also symbolized Ireland — Michael Collins, a leader of the revolution that evenutally led to the formation of the Irish state — is the subject of a biography that reads like a gripping novel, perhaps because it's written by fiction writer Frank O'Connor. "The Big Fellow" focuses on Collins' life during the revolt and as lead negotiator with the British afterwards, the period during which O'Connor actually knew Collins. The personal observations sprinkled throughout make this story as involving as his first–person ficiton.

For those interested in more straightforward and objective history, another book on Collins, "The Man Who Made Ireland," by Tim Pat Coogan, is a comprehenisve and well–written biography. And "The Man Who Was Ireland," Coogan's book about Collins' colleague and sometime antagonist, Eamon de Valera, the first president of the Irish Republic, is equally good.

Numerous books, meanwhile, track more recent developments. "Ten Men Dead: The Story of the 1981 Hunger Strike," by David Beresford is an account of the men imprisoned in Long Kesh prison in Belfast who starved themselves to death in an effort to simply have themselves classified as political prisoners, rather than common criminals — a watershed moment that regalvanised the IRA. Making it particularly fascinating is that it draws extensively on writings smuggled out of the prison. "Rebel Hearts," by Kevin Toolis, meanwhile, uses ten years' worth of interviews with IRA members for a searing, warts–and–all portrayal of the group.

There's more. But as the world observes the odd, beer–soaked occasion that St. Patrick's Day has become, perhaps a better way to honor the Irish people, struggling with oppression from without and within, is to open any one of these fine books, and begin working toward real understanding.

Last Week’s Column: IS SOMEONE AFTER DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN? A barage of anonymous e–mails spreading bad news about the embattled historian prompts some idea of what she's up against — even though she seems to be the only recent plagiarist to confess and try to make amends.


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.