Monday, March 17, 2014

My Favorite Irish Writer

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I've been thinking about my favourite Irish writer, Edna O'Brien, and just how influential she was to me when I was a 'formative' (i.e.: terribly young and earnest) writer. I was first introduced to her as a teenager and fell in love with her lyrical, stream-of-consciousness approach to writing. Much of her work inspired my own (far less stellar) writing attempts. She was also so  quintessentially Irish, that her work resonated with me at a time when I was particularly fascinated with Irish history (my family has Irish blood and I do believe in a kind of genetic memory that draws me to the places and stories of my ancestors).

In recent years I've not read as much of O'Brien's work and I wonder if that's partly due to the fact that her books were inextricably tied up with a particular period of my life. I was also
worried that if I re-read her old books now, their impact and beauty would have somehow diminished over the years. I've often found that when I go back to a novel which had a huge impact on me at one time in my life, I'm disappointed that it no longer has any such impact at all. 

But in anticipation of the day that celebrates all things Irish, I sought out my Edna O'Brien novels on my bookshelves and started leafing once more through their pages. I was relieved to find the lyricism of her writing still drew me in and was delighted to feel the same sense of anticipation, wonder and sadness I used to feel when I read her work. I thought I'd share a short passage - from the opening to her 1994 novel, House of Splendid Isolation:

It's like no place else in the world. Wild. Wildness. Things find me. I study them. Chards caked with clay. Dark things. Bright things. Stones. Stones with a density and with a transparency. I hear messages. In the wind and in the passing of the wind. Music, not always rousing, not always sad, sonorous at times. Then it dies down. A silence. I say to it, have you gone, have you gone. I hear stories. It could be myself telling them to myself or it could be these murmurs that come out of the earth. The earth so old and haunted, so hungry and replete. It talks. Things past and things yet to be. Battles, more battles, bloodshed, soft mornings, the saunter of beasts and their young. What I want is for all the battles to have been fought and done with. That's what I pray for when I pray. At times the grass is like a person breathing, a gentle breath, it hushes things.

As O'Brien writes at the very start of this book: History is everywhere. It seeps into the soil, the sub-soil. Like rain, or hail, or snow, or blood. As a writer of historical fiction, I love being reminded of this from a wonderful writer who captures the essence of place, history, and emotion, so beautifully.

So do you have a favorite Irish writer, and if so, what is it about their work you find so compelling? Or, if you aren't as into Irish history as I am, which writer captures for you the stories of your ancestors?


  1. I second Jim's assertion. Lewis is awesome in every various plane of writing style and genre he worked. Few writer's have sparked as many imaginations for extended generations and then been able to equally hold their weight in serious philosophical, theological, and political debate to boot.

    Along with him, at least in the literary fiction field, I would put Frank Delaney. Delaney's prose and general description of the Ireland he loves so well, is pure magic. Add to that the fact he narrates his own works in audiobook format and has a voice with every quality I so wish I could emulate and I am in awe.

    1. Haven't read any Frank Delaney...have to put him on the list! And agree with C.S. Lewis:)

  2. Great topic, Clare.

    For me, Cormac McCarthy.

  3. Thank you so much for introducing me to a new author, Clare. Although it is universally acknowledged that a writer should never begin a novel with landscape or weather, the breath-taking narrative of the first paragraph overwhelmed me and I ordered a copy of 'House of Splendid Isolation' from Amazon. I look forward to enjoying Edna O'Brien's prose.

    1. If I have introduced one more reader to the wonder of Edna O'Brien I'm content!

  4. I have two favorite Irish writers: James Joyce and Roddy Doyle. Coincidentally, my favorite works by them are coming-of-age novels.

    Here’s why:

    Joyce: every few years, I reread “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” and each time I get chills at how he unfolds a gifted boy’s coming-of-age within an Irish Catholic culture.

    Doyle: about a year ago, I began reading Doyle’s novels and stories. I like his stark portraits of the working and lower middle classes in Ireland, especially “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha,” for its skillful blending of the cruelty, humor, tenderness, peer pressure, and reality of growing up.

  5. I sadly have mixed feelings about Joyce - only because I was forced to read "Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man" when in high school and for some reason (perhaps because we studied it to death) I found it hard to love it. I really liked the Dubliners though but have yet to brave Ulysses. I have Doyle's "Paddy Clarke ha ha ha" on my book shelf but (embarrassingly) haven't read it yet! Now I must!

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  7. Trying again, without so many typos.
    Roddy Doyle. His series, "The Commitments," "The Snapper," "The Van," what a great set of books, the extended story of a lower class Dublin family struggling for something more. "The Commitments" is a classic, and in "The Snapper" the father becomes one of my alltime favorite characters. Doyle sort of invented his own grammar, they can be a little challenging at first, but the characters are so clear and sharp and alive, and the stories so entertaining. They're wonderful.