Reading Ireland: Four Stories Set in Irish History

Mourne Mountains Northern Ireland

Through stories we tell each other of our travels, places and people come vividly alive in imagination. Here are four such tales, books of the imagination set in landscapes of the island of Ireland, from north to south, from east to west, and from the edge of living memory back to ancient times of saints and scholars.

As The Yellow House opens, Eileen O’Neill and her family are celebrating, painting the house her father has just won in a card game a bright yellow that can be seen all across Slieve Gullion. Personal and political changes soon shake the family and the community, as the upheavals of World War I take shape in Europe and closer to home the surge for Irish independence from British rule rises. Eileen finds herself working in the linen mills. Run by Quakers, the mills are among the few places where Catholics are as welcome to work as Protestants — which does not mean the situation is always peaceful, either at work or after hours as Eileen shares her love of playing the fiddle with old friends and new acquaintances. These new acquaintances include both a son of the family who runs the mill and the brother of a friend, two men who hold very differing views on independence for Ireland. All this is set within Eileen’s own burning desire to bring that yellow house she once knew back into her family. Author Patricia Falvey brings a little known aspect of the history of Ireland and a landscape right along what is now the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, into clear focus in this story set in the early years of the twentieth century.

Related story: Northern Ireland: travel, history, stories, songs

Heather Tennant reaches back in time to tell the story in Brigid of Kildare. She tells her story from three points of view: that of Saint Brigid herself, who lived in fifth century Ireland, at first in Louth and then in Kildare; that of a monk come from Rome to report back on Brigid’s not always conventional ways of leading her community, and that of a scholar who, in contemporary times, comes across what may be the diary of the saint. Tennant is good at making clear what is important to the monk, the saint, and the scholar, and what is at stake for each, which makes following shifting viewpoints and centuries easy enough, and means she’s able in include quite a bit of history along the way. Will you find each voice equally interesting? Maybe, maybe not. You’ll want to follow the threads of story that connect them, though.

Related story: Songs of the Scribe

The story in Galway Bay begins in the years just before the Great Hunger, in the fishing communities around Galway Bay in the west of Ireland, just as Honora Keeley meets Michael Kelly, the man she will marry. The story itself is fictional, but author Mary Pat Kelly’s great great grandmother Honora was real. It was from her life that Kelly drew inspiration for a journey that runs from the harsh realties of famine times in the west of Ireland through the hard decision to leave, life on immigrant ships, and first landing in New Orleans. Honora and her sister Maire and their children bring all sorts of connections to their life back in Ireland with them as they make their way to settle in the wide open — and often prejudiced — city of Chicago. The story unfolds as the two sisters, different in personality but united by family loyalty, find ways to make ends meet as they face hard times, see their sons grow and go off to fight in the Civil War, and take part in the rise of Chicago as a center of industry and trade. It’s a wide ranging narrative, well told, with characters and places and vivid depictions of history which will catch your imagination.

Ann Moore has a gift making events of history come alive through character as well. Hers is also a story of famine times told from a different point of view. The title character in Gracelin O’Malley lives in a farm community in the south of Ireland not far from Cork. When the local English squire, twice widowed, is looking for a woman who will give him the healthy son he needs to keep his family and financial situations going, his eye falls on Grace. As the daughter of a Protestant mother, she fits the religious bill: as the daughter of one of his tenant farmers, she hasn’t choice in the matter when her father accepts the laird’s offer. At first the hardest things she faces while making her way in unfamiliar situations — and they are hard — are being out of contact with her family, and dealing with the prejudice against and cruelty to the Irish in her husband’s social world, and from her husband himself. The marriage soon turns brutal, even as the potato blight strikes the island.

During her husband’s absence on business, Grace begins to share what little food and what healing arts she has with the people around her, and those out on the roads who find their way to her door. Many are the twists and turns both emotional and through events of history as the story unfolds. By keeping her characters true to their time and place in history, and by allowing for flaws and acts of good character regardless of social status or country of birth, Moore keeps the story engaging. Through making Grace a woman who reaches for hope even in the darkest circumstances, Moore makes a fascinating story the more compelling. As the book ends, Grace and her young daughter Mary Kate are on a ship headed out of Ireland, a journey in which that resilience and hope will be needed.

Music is another way the stories of Ireland are told. You might also wish to see Ireland in Music: Four Voices.

Photograph is of the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. It is by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

Kerry Dexter is one of five writers who contribute to Perceptive Travel’s blog. You’ll most often find her writing about travels in Europe and North America in stories that connect to music, history, and the arts, including An Evening in Belfast and teaching Irish music tradition.

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