By the Book: A few belated words in praise of the Irish

Just missed St. Patrick’s Day but I’m doing Irish stuff anyway. Before I continue you should know I’m going nowhere near Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which I keep in cold storage alongside “Beowulf.” 

When books about Ireland come up, “Trinity” is always mentioned. Leon Uris, who was about as Irish as Gina Lollobrigida, wrote this epic in 1976. Four families, the Larkins, the O’Neills, the Macleods and the Hubbles, take us through Ireland during the potato blight, the resulting poverty and starvation and on to the Easter Sunday rebellion. Filled with characters strong and weak, honest and otherwise, the book still holds up today. (HBO has secured the rights and is planning a six-episode series).

More current are Colm McCann’s “Transatlantic,” which I’ve previously recommended, and “Norah Webster” (Colm Toibin), about a Wexford family struggling with loss, which I’ll read when I can wrest it from my wife’s grip. (Whoa! One from Colm A and one from Colm B.)

Frank McCourt wrote “Angela’s Ashes” in 1996, a bleak, harrowing book that described an Ireland most were not totally familiar with. The pervasive poverty, the harsh schools, the nothingness and utter hopelessness of life was heartbreaking. Hope blessedly appeared at the story’s conclusion.

“How the Irish Saved Civilization” (Thomas Cahill/1995). The Dark Ages brought European culture to an abrupt end. Greek and Roman literature, Jewish and Christian writings literally disappeared from mainland Europe. If not for the monks in un-invaded Ireland, who dedicated their lives to transcribing these works, it all would have been lost forever. A fascinating and very approachable book.

Then there’s the poetry. I’m not diving in too deeply, but the final lines of Yeats’ “The Host of the Air” create such spooky beauty that I’m including them. O’Driscoll had fallen asleep by a lake and dreamed of the sounds of far-off piping. The dream turned cruel — nasty people, a strange game of cards …

<I>O’Driscoll scattered the cards, and out of his dream awoke

And old men and young men and young girls were gone, in a drift of smoke

Then he heard it, high up in the air, a piper, piping away

And never was piping so sad, and never was piping so gay.<I>

And music. Joyful, yes. Rebellious, yes. Sad, yes. “ … and watch the sun go down on Galway Bay … for the pikes must be together by the rising of the moon … but come ye back when summer’s in the meadow, or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow … ” Danny Boy. Grown men weep.

And comic. Here’s Bridget O’Flynn’s admonishing mother:

… and keep away from the dancin’ hall

There’s nobody there worth while at all

It’s where I met your Father, Bridget darlin’ …

But St. Patrick’s Day isn’t just for the Irish. It’s a day for smiling, singing, perhaps a bit of the juice of the barley — a hope-filled sneak preview of spring. We’ve all survived a most challenging winter, so here’s a lovely Irish thought on such strenuous matters:

And though the sky should send the deluge, or the snowy North its flakes

We two could live as pleasant as the swans upon the lakes.”

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].