Review of Books


By Tom Deignan, Contributor
October / November 2007

Fiction

A few years back, Irish novelist Joseph O’Connor wrote Star of the Sea, an ambitious, multi-layered novel set mainly during the voyage of an Irish famine coffin ship. The book was a best-seller, despite the fact that it was a demanding read. Using flashbacks, jumbled chronology and other trickery, O’Connor took readers all over the British Isles, and his narrative spanned the better part of the 19th century. So we should not be surprised by O’Connor’s latest effort, the equally challenging Redemption Falls.

On the surface, Redemption Falls explores the lives of numerous Irish characters trying to make new lives during the American Civil War. There’s Eliza Duane Mooney, walking across the country on an epic search, and James Con O’Keeffe, Acting Governor of the frontier territory, which gives O’Connor his title. O’Keeffe’s past in Ireland is a troubled one, and his present in the U.S. is not much better.

A Spanish poet, a former African-American slave and a war-hardened Irish drummer boy also figure in O’Connor’s long list of characters.  But it is the form of this book that makes it so rewarding.  Each character speaks in his own native dialect, while O’Connor employs news reports, posters, songs and more to move his story along.

Redemption Falls is not for those interested in a ripping yarn.  But there are strong hints of Faulkner in this epic, which adds a new layer of complexity to our grasp of the links between Ireland and America.
($25 / 464 Pages / Free Press)

Cora Harrison’s new mystery novel My Lady Judge goes even further back in history than Joseph O’Connor’s Redemption Falls. The novel revolves around a 16th-century judge, named Mara and is set in western Ireland. Mara is forced to abandon her usual practice of settling local squabbles when one of her assistants is assaulted with a knife during a colorful festival.

My Lady Judge is a highly readable mystery based on the actual Brehon Law system which did allow so-called “lady judges.”                                         ($24.95 / 368 pages / St. Martin’s)

Paul Carson’s protagonist Frank Ryan has a problem. Several, in fact.  As told in Carson’s new novel Betrayal, Ryan is abducted while performing his duties as a medical officer in a Dublin prison. One problem is that no one believes Ryan’s version of events, in part because his girlfriend seems to have vanished and Ryan may have had something to do with it.

So, in search of answers, Ryan becomes enmeshed in a global mystery.  Carson (who is a practicing physician) has drawn comparisons to Michael Palmer and Tess Gerritsen, so if you like those writers, give Carson a try.
($25.95 / 400 pages / St. Martin’s Press)

Highway 23: The Unrepentant by Patrick Carlin, is a historical novel of note. Set during the Korean War, Carlin’s book is about a 20-year-old Irish-American named Eddie Flynn, who falls in love while stationed in Michigan. Complete with disapproving parents, colorful scenery and forbidden passions, Highway 23 is a compelling period love story.     ($20.95 / 351 pages / iUniverse)

Non-Fiction

For better or worse, Rosemary Mahoney will forever be remembered for Whoredom in Kimmage, her 1994 study of sex and gender in Ireland. Mahoney’s latest book Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff is quite different, though not entirely.

Mahoney has long been an avid rower, and the book began when she set out to purchase an Egyptian rowboat and sail the ancient river, the world’s longest. For this reader, an account of someone floating down a river seemed less than fascinating. However, when your guide is as learned, humorous and observant as Mahoney, the trip becomes a worthwhile one.

So, how is this similar to Whoredom in Kimmage? Well, it turns out even a simple ride down a river can be loaded with cultural questions related to sex and gender and culture.

Suffice it to say a lone Western woman rowing herself down the Nile is not a sight to which Egyptians are accustomed. Mahoney is forced to confront and navigate numerous cultural questions that are nearly as troubling as the crocodiles in the Nile.
($23.99 / 288 pages / Little, Brown)

Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey during the Great Depression, Irish-American Chuck Feeney went on to become one of the richest men in the U.S. He made a fortune owning and operating Duty Free Shoppers, a chain of affordable retail stores.

But these are not the most fascinating details located in The Billionaire Who Wasn’t, Conor O’Clery’s biography of Feeney. The world discovered in 1997 that Feeney was also one of the world’s great philanthropists, a fact he managed to keep secret until he sold much of his business interests. It was then that Atlantic Philanthropies, Feeney’s charitable operation, became known to the public.  Why did he keep this a secret?  Why does this billionaire refuse to spend money on first class travel or even a car or house? O’Clery, the award-winning Irish Times journalist, attempts to answer these questions.  He also notes that Feeney, now in his mid-seventies, has a new project: spending the remaining four billion of his fortune while he is still alive.
($26.95 / 352 pages / PublicAffairs)

A dark moment in Irish history is explored in The Killing of Major Dennis Mahon, by Peter Duffy. Mahon was ambushed and killed during a roadside attack in 1847, during the height of the Irish Famine. Mahon controlled land on which some 12,000 peasants struggled mightily to scratch out a meager existence.

What precisely spurred Mahon’s killers?  Were they justified?  These are some of the questions Duffy explores in a fair and balanced manner.
The book also takes a close look at the trial of Mahon’s killers, and how prejudices of the day and other factors played out in the courtroom.
($25.95 / 352 pages / HarperCollins)

Irish Times journalist Patsy McGarry also has a fascinating story of crime and punishment to recount in While Justice Slept: The True Story of Nicky Kelly and the Sallins Train Robbery.  This story has been called Ireland’s own great miscarriage of justice, on par with the Guildford Four/IRA scandal in Britain.

Though he signed a confession, Kelly is believed to have been innocent of involvement in the infamous 1978 train robbery.  Kelly was officially pardoned in 1992. McGarry takes an authoritative look at what happened not just during the robbery and ensuing trial but the fallout, public reaction and Kelly’ s crusade for exoneration.
($24.95 / 262 pages / Dufour)

How the Irish Invented American Slang: The Secret Language  of the Crossroads

The Irish saved civilization, Thomas Cahill told readers in a best-selling book.  Did they also invent American slang? That’s what Daniel Cassidy
contends in his fascinating new study How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads.

Cassidy argues that words such as “jazz,” “sucker” and “scam” all derive from the Irish language brought to the U.S. by immigrants.  Cassidy’s study has been making big news in Ireland, in part because it completely reverses previous arguments that the linguistically rich Irish somehow were unable to impact English in the U.S.

This never sat well with Cassidy, and as he learned more Gaelic the words seemed very familiar to him. “Was it possible that some of the slang words and phrases that I learned as a kid in New York in the 1940s and 1950s were derived from the Irish language?” he writes.
According to Cassidy, the Irish changed English in the U.S. so thoroughly that it was hard to detect. “Americans speak Irish every day, but they do not dig (from the Irish tuig, which means understand or comprehend) it.”

Cassidy has the right background for this undertaking. He is founder and co-director of An Leann Eireannach, the Irish Studies Program at New College of California in San Francisco.  He has written about the Irish language in U.S. and Irish publications and now his research is gathered in this single volume with an Introduction by acclaimed author Peter Quinn. How the Irish Invented Slang, however, is no dry linguistic study.
Cassidy also explores the gritty Irish urban underworld where slang was born and became a kind of code language to deceive various authorities.
What are some other slang words and phrases the Irish gave to the U.S.?

“Baloney,” as in nonsense; the phrase “mind your own bee’s wax”; “cold turkey,” as in to quit; and even “Gee Whiz.”

Cassidy has come across some interesting discoveries in this provocative study, which combines different strands of Irish-American history.
($18.95 / 224 pages / Counterpunch)

Memoir

Two Irish-American women have recently told their personal stories of family and perseverance. First there’s Circling My Mother by Mary Gordon, one of the great chroniclers of Catholic America. Gordon’s mother Anne died in 2002, and the writer explores the world of blue-collar ethnic Catholicism which shaped her and also left an indelible mark on her daughter Mary. Gordon’s work can seem harsh, but here, her words are imbued with wisdom, love and compassion.
($24 / 272 pages / Pantheon)

Carole O’Malley Gaunt’s Hungry Hill is a coming-of-age memoir in which the world of high school dances and budding romance is shattered by the death of the author’s mother.  Seven brothers and an alcoholic father become Gaunt’s reality in this harsh yet poignant book set in the working-class Irish world of Springfield, Massachusetts.
$19.95 / 284 pages / University of Massachusetts Press) ♦

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