Author: Frank Delaney
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2005
It takes a certain kind of moxie to title your book Ireland, especially with no subtitle. After all, this is an island with more than sixteen-hundred years of recorded history and an oral tradition that reaches even farther back. And then there is the distance covered by the Irish themselves, including the emigrants who have left the island over the centuries and their many descendents. Compared to the steady march of time, though, and even the great multitudes of the Irish, the magic of Ireland is even more overwhelming and difficult to capture, even in five-hundred-sixty pages. Frank Delaney does just that, though, and in surprising fashion.
Ireland is a novel and it has all the conventions that you would expect to find therein, including a collection of very good, if static, characters. As a novel, Delaney traces the life of Ronan O'Mara, a young man whose life changes radically at the tender age of nine with the unexpected arrival of the last of Ireland's traveling storytellers. From the moment Ronan meets the Storyteller, he is caught in the rushing currents of destiny, which take him into the study of Ireland's history, the secret past of his family, and on a personal quest to find the elusive Storyteller again. The plot is hurried along by a pair of fantastically surprising twists that push and pull the reader much as they do Ronan.
These elements aside, Ireland is anything but a typical novel. By and large, the narrative framework is used mainly as a skeleton, onto which Delaney hangs the real flesh of his book: short stories about the history of the Emerald Isle. The stories trace Ireland's history from the ice ages that formed the island, through Saint Patrick and the early Medieval kings, past the fateful arrival of the Normans in 1170, and winding through the whole troubled history of revolts and rebellions against the English, culminating in the story of 1916's Easter Rising which secured Irish independence.
Delaney insists on the importance of these stories and writes a book so that they, with all their imaginative details, might stand next to the more official histories of other books. Of the Irish, he says, "mere facts can never be enough; this is a country that reprocesses itself through the mills of its imagination." For him, the facts are of secondary concern, added to the feelings and the emotions of the people telling or retelling the story. This is surely an attitude that will rankle historians, but Irish folk will embrace it wholeheartedly. "Storytelling," says Delaney, "forms a layer in the foundation of the world." On account of their affinity for a good story, the Irish seem closer to these roots than many other people.
The stories Frank Delaney tells are fascinating. They hit just enough historical touchstones - dates, battlefields, famous figures, etc. - to feel like a true account of Ireland's history. All the while, elements of myth and emphasis on the imagined feelings and perceptions within the stories make for a lively read. Ireland is by no means a comprehensive history of the island - that task would take a good many more pages. However, in a uniquely Irish way, Delaney's book is just comprehensive enough to justify its title, and certainly good enough to pick up and read.