This is a transcription of Episode 24 — Ireland.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Episode 24 of Strong Sense of Place. Today, get curious about Ireland.
Melissa: I have not been to Ireland. But you have.
David: I have! I won a trip from the radio.
Melissa: Which is amazing because when you’re listening to the radio, you think, ‘No one ever wins those trips.’
David: Yeah, well, and I didn’t either. I was calling because they were giving away copies of U2’s ‘Rattle and Hum.’ I wanted a copy of that and the grand prize was a trip to Ireland, and I never thought I’d get that. And then like three days later, I heard them read my name on the radio. Instantly, my heart I could hear my heartbeat in my head like I had been sprinting.
Melissa: How old were you??
David: 24. The plane that I went to Ireland, it touched down in, I think, Galway and then went on to Dublin. And after it landed in Galway, they told us over the intercom that U2 had been on the plane.
Melissa: On your plane? That’s amazing.
David: Yeah, yeah. I think it’s like my weakest celebrity encounter story, but I was really happy when it happened.
Melissa: How do you know that part?
David: Yeah. And then I went to Dublin, rented a car, drove around the southern coast through Waterford and Cork and up the western coast. What I remember taking away from that experience was that Irish people like to read and drink and play music and tell stories, and I also liked all of those things. And I fell in love with the Irish accent.Both the way they say things and how they say it. To this day, when somebody starts talking to me in an Irish accent, I kind of have to make a concentrated effort to not get swept up into it.
Melissa: You get like heart emojis in real life?
David: A little bit. Yeah, yeah. They start speaking and I’m like, I’m sorry, I there was music coming out of your face and I got totally distracted. I remember it all just being really, really lovely.
Melissa: Ireland is on the top of my must-visit list for whenever it is that we can start visiting places again.
David: Yeah. Are you ready to do the 101?
Melissa: I am ready.
David: Let’s do it.
Melissa: Everyone visualize your mental globe and zoom in on the British Isles in the Northern Hemisphere. The island on the west of the British Isles is where we are going. It’s surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the southeast corner of the country, you can swim in the Celtic Sea, if you don’t mind cold water.
David: How cold is it?
Melissa: The average water temperature throughout the year is 55 degrees Fahrenheit, 13 degrees Celsius. That is chilly. You want your wetsuit. The island of Ireland, which is really hard to say — is made up of Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, which is a sovereign country.
Melissa: The capital of Northern Ireland is Belfast. The capital of Ireland is Dublin. The official languages of Ireland are English and Irish, also known as Gaelic, and the population is about five million.
David: There are about five million people there. But I was doing my research and I found that 80 million people claim Irish ancestry.
Melissa: Yeah, there are more Irish people outside of Ireland than there are in it.
David: The five billion people in Ireland — that’s smaller than the population of Arizona. It has an outsized influence.
Melissa: Well, and if you had even just a smidgen of Irish in you, wouldn’t you claim it? It’s amazing! To explain why there are two Irelands is a lifetime commitment of learning about history, religion, and politics. Vastly simplified, I’m going to take a run at it. The British had ruled Ireland since the 13th century, and by the early 1980s, Ireland had had enough. So Ireland split off from British rule, leaving Northern Ireland as part of the UK and the Republic of Ireland as a separate country.
Melissa: For those of us who aren’t Irish, the touchpoints we tend to know from Irish history are usually the potato famine of the mid-1800s, which led to a huge wave of immigration into the United States, and The Troubles, which is the 30-year conflict among Irish factions and the British army where we get the IRA and Sinn Fein, bombings —
David: 30 years of revolt and trouble.
Melissa: So I know, Dave, you are going to be untangling a lot of both of those things when we get into our books. So I’m just going to let those sit here for now. And I get to talk about the reasons why we might want to visit Ireland.
Melissa: I saved all the fun stuff for myself. You’re welcome. OK, first of all, an obvious one. It is stunningly beautiful. Ireland is pretty temperate and it gets lots of rain. So the land is just shades of kelly and emerald and pine green as far as the eye can see. That is partially due to the fact that there are not a lot of forests and the Mexican Gulf Stream warms the waters around Ireland. There are also dramatic craggy coastlines with crashing surf and salt in the air. And there are castles. Do you want to try to guess how many castles there are?
David: A lot.
Melissa: So accurate. Well done.
David: Let’s go with 800.
Melissa: [laughing] There are more than 30,000 castles and ruins.
Melissa: With the oldest dating back to the 11th century. And with castle ruins, you get lots of legends and ghost stories. Which brings me to Irish literature. First, shout out to the Trinity Library in Dublin, which might be the most magical-looking library in the world.
David: It is. If you follow beautiful libraries and roundups of beautiful libraries. The Trinity Library is usually the first image you run into.
Melissa: Ok, I’m going to start dropping some famous names from classic literature on you and you’re going to be, like, ‘Wow, go Ireland.’ Jonathan Swift, the author of _ Gulliver’s Travels_, Oscar Wilde, who gave us The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. George Bernard Shaw, who we can thank directly for Pygmalion and indirectly for the Audrey Hepburn classic My Fair Lady.
David: Right, which is a musical version of Pygmalion.
Melissa: There’s poetry from Yeats, Ulysses and Dubliners from James Joyce. And if you ever wanted to sneak through a magical wardrobe, you can thank C.S. Lewis, who was born in Belfast.
Melissa: So as I was doing my research on Irish authors, I was, like, ‘Those are all great. But that is a lot of men.’
David: It’s a lot of white dudes.
Melissa: Yeah. So I found some women authors of note, and I’m going to put links to their books in show notes in case you want to go deep on some cool Irish women authors. First up is Maria Edgeworth, who was born in 1768 and wrote about domestic life in rural Ireland, which might sound like a little bit of a snooze, except that she is considered an influence on Jane Austen.
David: Oh, really?
Melissa: Yes! Lady Sydney Morgan was Ireland’s first feminist writer. Go, Lady Morgan! She actually earned a living from her writing in the early 1800s.
David: Good for her.
Melissa: And her book The Wild Irish Girl is an epistolary novel that tells a love story between an Irish princess and the son of an English earl, which, based on what we know about Irish history, should be raising some eyebrows. This book was so popular it spawned a line of fashion accessories, including the Glorvina Ornament, which was a brooch named after the heroine.
David: In the early 1800s?
Melissa: Yeah. Isn’t that amazing?
David: Yeah. Did you have a line of T-shirts?
Melissa: Branded corsets.
Melissa: You should also know about Elizabeth Bowen. She’s a little bit more modern. Her novel Eva Trout was written in 1968 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1970. I bring her up because she was the first woman to ever inherit her family’s country home. It was unheard of for women to take over a country manor. She wrote a book about that called _ Bowen’s Court_. I will link to all of those things in show notes.
Melissa: On the more informal side of the storytelling world, Irish folklore is rich with stories of banshee, fairies, leprechauns, and changelings. And the ideal place to enjoy one of those tales is —
David: An Irish pub?
Melissa: Exactly. The pub has been the center of Irish social life since the 10th century. It’s a music venue. It’s Gossip Central. It’s an employment office. Sometimes it’s a funeral parlor. And it has definitely been the meeting place for poets and revolutionaries over the centuries.
David: There’s an Irish pub that’s said to be a thousand years in operation.
Melissa: I believe it, and I want to go there. Once you’ve settled in, you can sip a lovely Irish whiskey or sink your teeth into a chocolaty Guinness while you’re tapping your feet to some lively fiddle music. Or listening to old men harmonize on traditional ballads. And we lived in San Francisco, there was a traditional Irish pub literally on the opposite corner from our flat. And sometimes we would go in there and there would be a bunch of real-life Irishmen singing.
[man singing Irish ballad]
David: To save their lives, too, singing like this is the most important thing that is happening right now.
Melissa: And it was a little it was a little incongruous because the pub itself was kind of airy and modern looking. It wasn’t like a dark wood, smoky kind of what you would consider traditional Irish pub. It was delightful.
Melissa: Are you feeling peckish?
David: Always. [laughter]
Melissa: How about some Irish stew made with mutton and potatoes? Apparently the addition of carrots is a very divisive issue.
David: Yeah. I mean, sure, let’s fight over carrots. Why not? You could have colcannon, which is mashed potatoes with cabbage and butter. I was only halfway-onboard until I heard butter as a primary ingredient. You could have boxty, which is a fried potato pancake.
David: Now we’re talking!
Melissa: Here in Prague, we call them bramboraky — or you could keep it simple with a big slab of Irish soda bread slathered in butter. Note that all of these things make a good absorbent layer in your belly for beer drinking.
Melissa: And finally, big finish. Although the shamrock is recognized around the world as a symbol of Ireland, it is not actually the national symbol of Ireland. That is the harp.
Melissa: I like the image of a punk rock harpist.
David: Yeah. Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I will do my best.
David: I’m about to read three statements. Two of them are true, one of them is not Mel does not know which one is true. Here are the three statements. There is a trail in Ireland that’s 385 million years old. Two: Under European law, leprechauns are considered criminals. An officer of the law has a responsibility to arrest them on sight.
Melissa: That seems like discrimination.
David: And third, Cork has a statue that pays tribute to the Choctaw people. Those are Native Americans of the southeastern United States in Mississippi and Louisiana. Oone of those is a lie; two are not. What do you think?
Melissa: All right. I’m just going to go in order today. The trail. How old was this trail?
David: Three hundred and eighty five million years old.
Melissa: You’re lying.
David: That is true. [long pause]
Melissa: Are you going to elaborate?
David: No, believe me. [laughter]
David: So it’s hard for me to get my head around something like 385e million years.
Melissa: Yes! What does that mean?
David: So here’s a little help. So a thousand years is a long time for humans. That’s about 40 generations of humans. There’s 10,000 years, which is about 400 generations of humans. 10,000 years ago was the end of the last ice age and we were just starting to figure out how to domesticate cattle. That’s the beginning of civilization as we know it. There’s a 100,000 years ago, which was when the earliest structures were built. Humans are all a bunch of hunter-gatherer tribes with rudimentary language, probably a lot of pointing and grunting and I’m guessing trash talking. And then there’s a million years ago. There are no homosapiens. There’s nobody that looks like us. It’s Homo erectus. They had fire, they had coordinated hunting and they had empathy. They took care of each other.
Melissa: That’s nice.
David: Yeah. And then there’s that period, a million years times 385. At that time, Ireland was south of the equator.
David: [laughter] Yeah.
Melissa: Next, you’re going to tell me up is down.
David: Yeah, Ireland was south of the equator 385 million years ago. So one day, way back then, something that we would probably identify as the big salamander with a nasty-looking tail crawled out of the ocean. Scientists call them a tetrapod. He’s about three feet long, maybe a meter. He is probably looking for food. He crawled out of the ocean, looked at the sun, maybe ate something, walked back into the sea. On his walk, he left footprints in the silt. The silt hardened and turned to rock. And now we have the trail he left behind one sunny day, 385 million years ago.
Melissa: Well, that made me feel like kind of squishy inside.
David: Yeah. Tetrapods gone to evolve to become us and mice and everything. The trail is called the Tetrapod Trackway, and it’s an island just off the west coast of Ireland called the Valentia Island. It’s one of four similar trackways in the world. There are two in Australia and one’s in Scotland. But this one’s supposed to be the best one. Coincidentally, it’s about three miles from where the first transatlantic telegraph was sent.
Melissa: Some kind of magical communication point.
Melissa: OK! Leprechauns.
David: Leprechauns. Leprechauns are criminals.
Melissa: I’m going to say the second statement is a lie.
David: The second statement is a lie. In fact, leprechauns are protected by the EU. Here’s how that happened. In 1989, a man with the very Irish name of P.J. O’Hare —
Melissa: That is beautiful.
David: He’s working in his garden and he hears a scream ring out from a nearby mountain and he rushes up there and to his amazement, he finds —
Melissa: A leprechaun!
David: — scorched earth and a tiny set of charred bones, a little suit and a little hat and four pieces of gold.
Melissa: Come on, Dave. I’ve not been drinking Guinness all day.
David: He takes those down to the pub owns and he puts them in a glass case and they’re on display to this day. Peter has a buddy, Kevin Woods. Kevin hears about this and he has an idea of his own. He gets four ceramic leprechauns and he puts 1000 Irish pounds under each. He hides them on the mountain and he sells leprechaun hunting licenses for ten pounds each.
Melissa: That is genius.
David: He makes an event out of that and the money goes to local charity.
Melissa: Oh, that’s really nice.
David: Eventually, thousands of people are attending this event, the Annual Leprechaun Hunt, held on a Sunday in March. Because of its success, a bunch of people get together to campaign for the mountain to be turned into a protected area. So in 2009, it was made into a preserve. Today, if you go up on the mountain, you’ll find signs that say: Plants, wild animals and leprechauns are protected in this area. Please tread lightly. Hunters and fortune seekers will be prosecuted.
Melissa: [laughter] Go leprechauns.
David: Yeah, which gets us to the final one, and I think we’ve logically determined that this one is true.
Melissa: Yes, the Choctaw statue.
David: Yeah, there’s a Choctaw statue. So this story starts in 1847. The potato famine is devastating Ireland. Almost a million people are starving to death. The press picks up the story and the news makes its way to the US and the Choctaw people hear about it. So keep in mind that this is just 17 years after the Choctaw people have been forced by US President Andrew Jackson to walk from Mississippi to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears during a horrific winter conditions.
David: And about a quarter of the Choctaw people died on the way. So the Choctaw people hear about the suffering in Ireland and they raise $170, which is about the equivalent of $5400 today. And they send it. And this starts a long relationship between the Choctaw people and the Irish.
Melissa: That is so cool.
David: They’ve done events together, walks and demonstrations and such. One of the former Irish presidents is now an honorary Choctaw chief. There’s a scholarship program for Choctaw people to study in Ireland. The Irish people put a really lovely sculpture in Cork to honor them and Choctaw leaders went to the unveiling and the Choctaw and the Irish people are still working together to offer assistance to people suffering from famine worldwide.
Melissa: That is really beautiful.
David: Isn’t that nice?
Melissa: Thanks for that.
David: Yeah. So that’s Two Truths and a Lie. Do you want to talk about books?
Melissa: Yes. My first pick is The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. This is a historical novel set in 1918, Dublin during the Spanish flu pandemic. So kind of familiar-ish territory right now. Almost all of the action takes place in one room.
Melissa: It’s amazing. OK, it’s a ward for pregnant women who have the flu and the story unfolds over just three days. So it’s a very intense snapshot of and very personal look at the day-to-day grind of what it was like for frontline workers during the Spanish flu pandemic. Our narrator is a nurse named Julia. She is very kind and very capable, and she has suddenly found herself in charge of the ward because the nurses who have more seniority than her have fallen ill. This is a blessing and a curse because on one hand, she doesn’t have to answer to anyone. But on the other hand, she’s bearing this huge responsibility. She is also no stranger to heartbreak because remember, in 1918, we are still very close to WWI. Her brother, who lives with her, served in the war and he has shellshock and does not speak. So her home life is also really challenging. She is almost the sole contact for these women who are pregnant, feverish, really scared, and suffering in this makeshift ward that’s basically a closet with three bed shoved into it.
Melissa: They’re mostly poor and young and they’re all suffering from the flu. One of them is beaten by her husband. Another one is unwed, which was a huge problem in a Catholic country that time. When one of Julia’s patients dies, she’s filling out the paperwork and she thinks to herself, ‘I’d have been tempted to put “worn down to the bone. Mother of five at 24 and underfed daughter of underfed generations. This flu had only tipped her over”’ So it’s a theme that comes up over and over in this book is these women are really beaten down by their poverty and by society’s expectations of how they’re supposed to behave.
Melissa: It’s also filled with really authentic and fascinating detail about the medical procedures for pregnant women at the time, both when things go wrong and when they go right. Wow. If you have any sensitivity around miscarriages or medical stuff, this is not the book for you. Don’t read it. But I will say that the details are not gratuitous. They are serving a really important purpose, which is to show us how knowledgeable and capable Julia is. She is routinely ignored or pushed aside by the male doctors and the nuns in the ward. She knows much more about how to take care of these women from her hands-on experience than any of them. There are two other main characters that could not be more different from each other, and they both have really important friendships and impact on Julia, our nurse.
Melissa: The first is a volunteer named Bridie. She’s an orphan who grew up in a convent. When you meet her, you realize that Julia recognizes ‘grew up in a convent’ is kind of code for undernourished and been abused by the nuns.
Melissa: Really bad situation for orphans, particularly the children of unwed mothers who are just basically cursed by society from the day they’re born. She broke my heart a little bit. But her role in this book is amazing. She’s very bright and she’s eager to learn. And even though she’s had this horrible childhood, she’s optimistic and enthusiastic and grateful to be there with Julia and helping her in the ward. So her presence adds really a much-needed lightness to the ward in the story. And also, as a reader, she helped me kind of manage my sad feelings about what was happening in the book.
Melissa: The other character is really fascinating because she’s based on a real person. Her name is Dr. Kathleen Lynn and she was a suffragette and a political activist, particularly for social justice. She got involved in politics, but her motivation was helping the poor of Dublin. She fought in an uprising against British rule in 1916 that’s known as the Easter Rising. And after that, she was arrested and imprisoned.
David: So she got herself a gun.
Melissa: He was actually transporting guns and hiding them in her house. And I believe she was arrested at the city hall.
David: She’s a doctor and a gunrunner.
Melissa: She is.
Melissa: When she was arrested, she said, ‘I’m a Red Cross doctor and a belligerent.’ And I thought to myself, ‘I love you.’ In real life, she was eventually released, thanks to the mayor of Dublin —
Melissa: So that she could help fight the flu. And she went on to open the first children’s hospital in Ireland.
Melissa: She was amazing. In this story, she is exhausted. They’re all exhausted. And she’s angry and saddened by the plight of her patients. And that just comes through loud and clear in the things that she says to the other nurses. These pregnant women have really been beaten down by life, by poverty, by the Catholic Church. And there’s a saying that the nurses and doctors all know, which was, ‘She doesn’t love him unless she gives him 12.’
David: [long pause] Wow.
Melissa: So she and Julia are pretty angry about that attitude because they see the women when they are just wrung out by multiple pregnancies and not having enough food and too many children to care for and maybe a husband who’s always down the pub so they’re doing clean up, basically. The author, Emma Donoghue, started writing this novel in 2018 in honor of the centenary of the Spanish flu pandemic. She delivered her final draft to the publishers in March 2020, right before everything shut down all over the world.
David: That’s got to be spooky for an author.
Melissa: I would think so. I found reading this book at this particular time very rewarding and oddly comforting.
Melissa: Something about reading the flu-related passages and how much I liked Julia and Bridie just made me feel like they understood how I was feeling. And it made me feel less alone somehow, which is very strange. At the beginning of the pandemic, when people were talking about some of the sort of apocalyptic books they were reading, I didn’t want to have anything to do with that. But the very respectful and caring way it’s handled in this book made me feel like, I said, less alone and also kind of determined. If Julia and Bridie could work their way through this, I can, too. I listened to this on the audio version, which also helped with that intimacy factor because it’s narrated in the first person. So it was very much like having Julia kind of talking in my ear the whole time.
David: By somebody with an Irish accent?
Melissa: Yeah, yeah. The accent’s really nice. And this is maybe going to sound a little weird after the things I’ve told you about this book already. But it’s historical fiction that reads almost like a thriller, because the way Emma Donoghue describes each of these medical heroics that the nurses are trying to pull off, gives it this forward propulsion, and it’s very suspenseful. So it feels like it has a lot of action and the stakes are very high, even though it’s taking place in one room over the course of three days.
David: But for these characters, this is the only thing that’s going on right now and it is the most important thing in the world.
Melissa: Exactly. So I really, really loved it. If you’re at all interested in what life might have been like during the flu pandemic in Ireland, or if you’re interested in what the experience of our frontline workers now might be like, this book is very relevant and beautifully written. That is The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue.
David: My first book is The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero by Timothy Egan. This is a non-fiction story about an Irishman and his drive for life and justice that ultimately takes him all over the world back in the 1800s I read it as a grand adventure story, but there’s a lot of politics in here, as well. I decided to read this book because of the very first paragraph, and I will read this paragraph to you now.
For the better part of seven centuries, to be Irish in Ireland was to live in a land not your own. You called a lake next to your family home by one name, and the occupiers gave it another. You knew a town had been built by the hands of your ancestors, the quarry of origin for the stones pressed into those streets, and you were forbidden from inhabiting it. You could not enter a court of law as anything but a criminal or a snitch. You could not worship your God, in a church open to the public, without risking prison or public flogging. You could not attend school, at any level, even at home. And if your parents sent you out of the country to be educated, you could not return. You could not marry, conduct trade or go into business with a Christian Protestant. You could not have a foster child. If orphaned, you were forced into a home full of people who rejected your faith. You could not play your favorite sports – hurling was specifically prohibited. You could not own land in more than 80 percent of your country; the bogs, barrens and highlands were your haunts. You could not own a horse worth more than five pounds sterling. If you married an Englishman, you would lose everything upon his death. You could not speak your language outside your home. You would not think in Irish, so the logic went, if you were not allowed to speak in Irish.
David: The chapter goes on to explain how you were forbidden to sing your folk songs or play your own music. Voting, of course, was out of the question, and at one point your fingernails could be removed if you were caught playing the harp.
Melissa: Come on now.
David: Yeah. And then there’s this line: What had the Irish done to deserve these cruelties? They’d refused to become English.’ We talk a lot about colonization and the show, and it had never occurred to me before reading that chapter that the English started colonization with the people closest to them.
Melissa: Yeah. I feel like that little passage you read summarized more than I learned in a couple of days of research about how Ireland came to be the country it is now.
David: Yeah. So into this mess, this is the 1800s… Into this mess walks a man: Thomas Francis Meagher. He’s the son of a wealthy man. He’s smart, he’s eloquent. He’s a good writer. He’s an idealist and he’s a romantic and he’s a rabble-rouser. And he’s alive during the Irish potato famine where England is starving Ireland out. I remember wondering why didn’t the Irish just eat something else of the potatoes were bad. And the answer is because the English took everything. They took grain and beef, corn, wheat, oat, barley, all of it. The Irish couldn’t fish their own seas. There’s speculation that at least some of the English saw this as an effort to control the Irish population. So Meagher sees this and he gets radicalized and it doesn’t take him long to get into trouble. He’s 26 when he’s tried for treason and he’s found guilty. The usual sentence for treason at that time is hanging and then beheading. And then your corpse is ripped into quarters.
Melissa: Literally the definition of overkill.
David: [laughter] Yes, but the English have pity on him, possibly for political reasons, because his dad was connected and they sentenced him to ‘Transportation for life.’ Which sounds nice.
Melissa: I think I would sign up for that if it was an option.
David: But what it means is that he’s sent to Tasmania for the rest of his life.
Melissa: So transportation was code for Tasmania?
David: Yeah, you are exiled. Through the magic of good writing, I went along with him. So over the seas on a perilous journey and tossed into a strange land. Meagher eventually settles in and he even gets married, but it’s not enough for him. He has a daring escape from the prison colony. In a particularly cheeky move, he warns his captors beforehand. So he breaks freem and he sails to the United States. He lands in New York in 1852. The Irish in New York are suffering from the racism of being the latest bunch of people to go through Ellis Island, and they greet him like a hero. He goes about founding a newspaper and he starts rabble-rousing all over again. A few years later, after he arrives, the US civil war breaks out Meagher’s opposed to slavery. But he also sees an opportunity for the Irish to win acceptance in their new country and to train for a war against the English. So he signs up and he puts together a brigade he and 100 men go and fight in the Civil War. He’s part of the first battle of Bull Run.
David: And then Antietam, which is the bloodiest single day in American history. Twice has this horse shot out from under him and has to be dragged from the battlefield. He makes friends with Abraham Lincoln. He’s the kind of friend where Lincoln would see him when he wouldn’t see anybody else.
Melissa: Wow. Yeah, that’s pretty cool.
David: Yeah. After the war, Meagher’s made acting governor of the Montana Territory, which is you can imagine is its own adventure in 1866. And then one day he’s on a steamboat and he falls into the Missouri River.
David: Yep. And there’s a possibility that he was pushed or slipped or jumped, but he’s never seen again.
Melissa: Holy cow. I was not expecting that plot twist.
David: The author suggests that he was possibly murdered by political enemies, but it’s also likely that he was drunk and ill and depressed and fell overboard.
Melissa: How old was he?
Melissa: I think it was in his late 40s.
Melissa: That’s not very old.
David: Today, he’s remembered with a statue outside of the Montana state house and another in his hometown in Waterford, Ireland. And he and his buddies designed what is now the Irish flag.
Melissa: Well, that’s pretty cool.
David: Yeah. So this book is a ride, and it’s great for two reasons. First, the subject is fascinating. And second, the writing is great. The author, Timothy Egan, is the winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction and he’s an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. He understands how to write about politics, and he’s also really good with the small detail that makes the scene come alive. He wrote this book because he ran into a statue in Montana and it got curious.
Melissa: Oh, that’s the best way to start a story.
David: Yeah. This book is just a chef’s kiss when it comes to describing the Irish experience of the 1800s, both in Ireland and abroad and the life of a fascinating man. It’s called The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero by Timothy Egan.
Melissa: When I was thinking about the books I went in to recommend on the show, I really wanted to find something that I felt like had atmospheric Ireland baked into it.
Melissa: And it was harder to find than I expected it to be. But this pick is exactly what I was hoping to find. This is a short story collection called That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry. This is a collection of stories that tell tales of longing and home and what that means to people and the complicated simplicity of country life. They’re mostly set in western Ireland. They’re like prose poetry. They are so beautifully written. I felt like the stories were photographs crafted with precise words instead of light and pixels.
David: Oh, that’s nice. That’s a great description.
Melissa: The stars of these 11 stories are loners and oddballs. So my kind of people.
Melissa: And they’re not necessarily like anyone you’ve ever met before, but Kevin Barry’s writing lets us get to know them very intimately, very quickly. He is so good at giving you just a particular detail that makes this person different, makes them who they are. For example, in the first story, which is called ‘The Coast of Leitrim,’ we meet 35-year-old Seamus.
Melissa: He’s described as a man with, ‘The misfortune in life to be fastidious and to own a delicacy of feeling. He drank wine rather than beer and favored French films.’ So with that description, you can immediately imagine how he might feel in a small town in western Ireland and how that town might feel about him. He’d rather drink wine than beer? He likes French films? Who is this guy? He falls helplessly in love with the Polish girl who works at his local cafe and he asks her out. The build up to him asking her out is adorable, and he’s stunned when she says yes. And then from there, the human foibles and frailty unfold as Seamus kind of starts to sabotage himself. He thinks, ‘I can handle just about anything shy of a happy outcome.’
David: Oh, yeah. It’s a sad, sad statement.
Melissa: It is a strong start to the collection. It’s one of my favorite stories. It was so good. The stories are often darkly funny and poignant, just like the example I shared with you.
Melissa: And they also even elements of folk songs and fables, but they are very firmly grounded in reality. At the same time, they also feel timeless. The settings are contemporary, but they feel like they could work in any time period. This is a part of the world with a long memory and that kind of comes up in the stories, too. It’s hard to escape your past there.
Melissa: And it can be really hard to build a different kind of future, too. In the story ‘Ox Mountain’ a sergeant is on the trail of a small town crook who’s from a family of other ne’er-do-wells. So it’s just generation after generation of troublemakers. And the sergeant is one in a long line of cops. This is how we meet him:
Sergeant Brown was from a line of guards. His father had been the sergeant… before he drank himself into the clay of the place. His father’s father had at the time that it was still Royal Irish Constabulary been the sergeant… before he drank himself into the clay of the place. His father’s father’s father had been the sergeant… when they were still jawing grass at the side of the road and spitting the green juice, and he, too, had drank himself into the clay of the place. Sergeant Tom Brown did not drink.
David: Drinking yourself into the clay that place.
David: Yeah, that’s great.
Melissa: In other stories, we get to know a young girl who’s just beginning to explore her sexual power with really terrible results, and another young girl who’s caught up in a romantic mess and is rescued by her mom’s forgiveness and love, which was so moving. The last paragraph, the last sentence of that story was like getting kicked in the solar plexus. It was so good. Both of the girls are messy and flawed.N But we care about them because of the way Kevin Berry lets us into their hearts and their minds. He’s also really good at scene setting. One of the reviews I read highlighted three dramatically different ways that he described the sun setting. It’s amazing. I will link to it in show notes. The reviewer was so astute to pick that up. And the way Kevin Berry basically takes the words ‘the sun was going down’ and describes them in dramatically different ways is beautiful. I wanted to share this description of County Donegal:
His cottage looked across a bog to the Bluestack Mountains; the ocean was nearby, unseen but palpable. There were huge granite boulders around the fields, as if giants had been tossing them about for sport. The ocean hissed at the edges of the scene like a busy gossip. There was salt on the air and the local cars wore coats of rust. I felt somehow a little hardier and tougher in myself as I looked out from the doorway of the place.
David: That’s great.
Melissa: You’re just transported there. You can smell the air. You can see the mountains.
Melissa: I loved these stories.
Melissa: And you know, and our audience might know: short story collection are sometimes a tough sell for me.
David: I feel like you’ve come around on that.
Melissa: I have come around a bit in the last two years or so. I’ve been choosing better collections, maybe. Ssome of these stories are very uncomfortable. Some are really sweet, but they all feel true. And they show us the different ways that life can be without judgment, but with empathy and humor and grace. I really suspect that I’ll be reading many of them again, particularly the first one I could go read it right now. That is That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry.
David: My next book is Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Rodden Keefe.
Melissa: That already sounds kind of bad. I mean, not that the book sounds bad. The situation sounds bad.
David: The situation is bad, yeah. This is a nonfiction book about the conflict in Northern Ireland for the 30 years between 1968 and 1998.
Melissa: The Troubles.
David: Yes, this book walks you through The Troubles in Belfast. So, let’s talk about The Troubles for a second. Northern Ireland was starkly divided this time. You’ve already established there’s Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. On one side of Northern Ireland, you’ve got the Catholics who, for the most part, want Northern Ireland to unify with the Republic. Some of the Catholics banded together and armed themselves under the name of the Irish Republic Army or the IRA. And then on the other side, you’ve got the Protestants who, for the most part, want to remain part of the United Kingdom. And then you’ve also got the British army.
David: Tensions among those groups could not be higher. And in 1972, there’s a day that’s become known as Bloody Sunday. My first exposure to that was the U2 song ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday.’
David: On that day British soldiers shot 26 Catholic civilians during a peaceful March. 14 of those people died. Most of those people were shot fleeing the soldiers and helping people who’d been injured.
[song clip of the song Sunday Bloody Sunday: I can’t believe the news today Oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away How long, how long must we sing this song? How long? How long?]
David: I am oversimplifying this complex topic, but that gives you an idea of what’s going on. The author of this book, Patrick Rodden Keefe, has degrees from Yale, Cambridge and the London School of Economics.
Melissa: Well, I guess he’s pretty smart then.
David: Yeah. And at one point, he was the policy adviser for the secretary of defense. Yeah, good resume.
Melissa: I can just imagine him listening to the two of us talking about The Troubles: ‘Good try, you two little cuties’
David: [laughter] So based on that background, you might think you’re going to get a fairly dry and academic, possibly, write up of this subject -
Melissa: Except for that subtitle.
David: Well, so Patrick Rodden Keefe is also a staff writer at The New Yorker.
Melissa: Oh, yeah.
David: So he knows how to put together a story. This book centers on the abduction and murder of Jean McConville. Jean McConville was taken from her house and her 10 children by a band of masked men and women one night in 1972. She was 38. She was a Protestant who married a Catholic. She was a widow. Her husband had died from cancer earlier that year. Her and her family were welcome nowhere in Belfast. And then at the time she was living in an IRA controlled neighborhood, a Catholic neighborhood.
Melissa: And she was Protestant.
David: It was rumored in the neighborhood that she was an informant for the British army. She was such a pariah that the community wouldn’t even help her children after she disappeared.
Melissa: That is really sad.
David: Yeah. While it focuses on that, the book is about everything else that was happening at the time and it’s still playing out. But Keefe does the hard work of telling a larger story by focusing on one event: who was there and what happened and why. And then there’s another big thread in this book. And the reason this book is here at all is because there’s an archive of recordings at Boston College of people who were involved in the conflict. It’s called the Belfast Project. After the struggle was over, an Irish journalist put together a team to go interview people who’d been involved. There was an understanding, though, that the recordings wouldn’t be made public until after the death of those who participated.
David: Many of those people have since died, and Keefe started listening to the tapes. He’s written up the ’70s in Belfast almost like a novel. You meet characters, these, like, real-life people, and you hear about their arc through time and he takes his time. So for me, I didn’t know much about Belfast, and he walks these characters out early on and he introduces them and then later he goes back — and now they’re sort of making mischief and getting involved. And then a few chapters later, I come to find out that they’re full-on terrorists or bank robbers or informants or revolutionaries, depending on your point of view. And they have diaries with notes about making car bombs because that’s what they did that weekend.
Melissa: Wow. This sounds like an amazing book.
David: It’s an amazing book. As a reader, I found that particularly effective because I’m forced to figure out whether I’m still with them or not. I don’t condone violence, but I see how you got there.
David: Because of how and when this book was written, you get to see how all of this played out for the main characters over decades. There’s kind of an end to The Troubles in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, but it’s unsatisfactory for a lot of people who are involved. Eventually we hear from 50-year-old insurgents about how they feel about their actions and its consequences 30 years before. Some are angry, some are drunks. Some deny that they were ever part of it at all.
David: I don’t want to say a lot more about this book, because if you’re going to read it, I want it to unfold for you like it did for me. But to sum, what we’ve got here is a true to life murder mystery with significant political interest, centered on a fascinating and dangerous time in history, using never-before available source material straight from the people who were involved. And it’s written like a novel.
David: This book won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, for reasons if you were at all interested in any of the things I just said, I highly recommend this book. It’s called Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Rodden Keefe.
Melissa: My final pick is completely different than everything we’ve talked about so far.
David: Oh, good!
Melissa: It is just a rip-roaring fun ride.
David: Yeah, yeah.
Melissa: But it is dark.
Melissa: It’s The Guest List by Lucy Foley. This is a murder mystery thriller and it’s a modern take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.
David: Oh, all right.
Melissa: It’s set at a destination wedding on a remote island off the coast of Ireland. It is glamorous and glossy and sinister and so much fun. The story opens on the night of the wedding. It actually says, ‘Now, The Wedding’ at the top of the chapter. The guests are all dressed up, but the evening has moved beyond the gourmet dinner and polite conversation into the sloppy dancing and shots at the bar.
Melissa: There’s a storm raging outside the walls of the enormous canvas tent in which the wedding is taking place. And then the lights go out. There’s an anguished scream that splits the air. Something has gone terribly wrong at this wedding party, and I could not be happier.
David: I feel like that’s all you should need to know right there.
Melissa: I mean, yeah, we could just stop there.
Melissa: We don’t find out what happened and why until the very last pages of the book. So along the way we get to know the bride and the groom and their families and the wedding guests who have all gathered on this craggy, beautiful, dangerous island. The bride is gorgeous. She’s super chic. She’s an egomaniac. She’s the editor of a splashy online magazine. So it’s super 2020. And her husband-to-be is the star of a reality show where he survives dangerous situations in the wild.
Melissa: He is 100-percent alpha male and according to everyone in the book, is devastatingly handsome. Because this is kind of a riff on a golden age mystery, we have a big cast of characters. There’s the bride’s emotionally unstable younger sister. The groom’s asshat friends who all went to the same posh boarding school together. They are terrible. They reminded me of the donkey boys in Pinocchio. There’s the bride’s best friend who is a weak-willed babyman. He has been, like, halfway in love with her the whole time they’ve been friends, and he’s dragged his wife to the wedding with him. And she’s referred to in her chapter headings as ‘the plus one.’
Melissa: There’s also a very uptight wedding planner who owns the island and the hotel on it. To give you a sense of the magnitude of the awfulness, the delicious, delicious awfulness of these characters, here’s an example of the bride’s internal monologue as her mother is making a toast at the wedding reception. It tells you everything you need to know. This is the bride talking to herself:
I grip the edge of the table with one hand, hard, anchoring myself. With the other I pick up my glass of champagne and take a long swig. Say you’re proud of me, I think. And it will just about make everything all right. Say it, and I’ll forgive you. ‘This might sound a little immodest,’ Mum says, touching her breastbone. ‘But I have to say that I’m proud of myself, for having brought up such a strong-willed, independent daughter.’
Melissa: [laughter] It’s so good.
Melissa: This book has a full cast of untrustworthy people with all kinds of issues and every one of them is keeping secrets. The island is also a major character in the shenanigans. We get vivid descriptions of the rugged landscape and the creepy century-old cemetery that’s on part of the island. There’s a tower where the groomsmen go to get drunk and reminisce. There’s a dangerous bog just on the edge of the festivities where, according to legend, hundreds of bodies of the island’s former inhabitants are buried. Would it surprise you to know that some people kind of wander into it accidentally?
David: No, not given that set up.
Melissa: The stories that are told to the guests are just this side of full-blown ghost stories. So even though they’re in this beautiful setting, and they’re there for this glitzy wedding, they’re all a little bit on edge, too. And the author, Lucy Foley, keeps us on edge the whole time. The narrative point-of-view is passed around among several of the characters, and it bounces around in time. So it starts on the night of the wedding. And then — and the chapters are very short, a couple of pages — and then the very next chapter is the day before the wedding. And we’re meeting the wedding planner. The chapters kind of advance and retreat toward the now, which is the wedding ceremony.
Melissa: When The Thing has taken place, but we don’t know what the thing is, who it involves or who did it. It’s amazing. It’s really brilliantly constructed. And I reread it to get ready for this show. And it was almost more rewarding the second time.
David: Yeah, I would think, because you can see how the times play against each other.
Melissa: Exactly. I changed my mind so many times about who I thought the victim was and who I thought the culprit might be.
David: Oh, so the victim is also a secret. Wow.
Melissa: It’s oh, so good. I love weddings. I love to go to weddings for people that I care about. I really love to go to weddings for people I don’t know very well. [laughter] So you’re just eating cake and dancing like an idiot and —
David: Kind of making up stories to yourself!
Melissa: Yes. Eavesdropping and observing the undercurrents that are going on.
Melissa: This book is like being a plus one at the worst destination wedding ever.
David: That sounds fantastic.
Melissa: Which makes it the best destination wedding. [laughter]
Melissa: That is The Guest List by Lucy Foley.
David: Those are five books we love set in Ireland. That is a wrap on Season Two.
Melissa: We made it.
David: We made it. We will be back in April. Mel, where we going for our first episode of Season Three?
Melissa: We’re going to the land of movie stars and palm trees in Hollywood.
David: Do you want to talk a little bit about what we’re going to be doing between now and then?
Melissa: Yes, we call it a break. But it’s not completely a break. I don’t want people to think we’re sitting around eating bonbons and watching episodes of _Below Deck.
David: That sounds really good, though.
Melissa: and I am a little addicted to watching _Below Deck. It’s really good for when I’m tired.
David: We’ll be marathoning that.
Melissa: We will not be marathoning that; we have things to do!
Melissa: OK, so here’s the deal. We’re going to take a little bit of time off to recharge the batteries and read some books so that we can get ready for Season Three.
Melissa: We also have some things we want to do for the website and some special events we need to plan. We will be sharing our work plan and schedule for what we’re doing between our seasons on Patreon. We are sharing that with our patrons. Transparency is fun.
Melissa: But don’t worry. I don’t want anyone to think you’re not going to hear from us between now and April. We will have our annual audience survey coming out soon and we’ll do a mini-episode to talk to you about that. And then we’ll have a results show where we will answer questions that you have for us. It’s our Ask Me Anything episode, which has now become an annual tradition.
David: I guess? Sure.
Melissa: We did it — I guess it’s a bi-annual tradition, semi-annual tradition? How do those work? Anyway. At the end of every season, we ask you what you think. So we’ll be we’ll be hearing from us again.
David: Yeah. We are going to be planning the destinations for Season Three. We’ve got four picked out so far. That leaves eight more that we need to determine. We will be asking our Patrons to help work with us on that. If you want to advocate for your dream destination, please consider supporting us on Patreon. You can do that for as little as three dollars a month. To learn more about our Patreon, go to https://strongsenseofplace.com/support.
Melissa: And now I think a cup of tea and a nap.
David: Thanks so much for listening, and we will talk with you soon.
Top image courtesy of K. Mitch Hodge.
Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!
Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.
If you like the work we do, you can help support us through our Patreon! That'll unlock additional content, too — like Mel's recipe for Banh Mi Bowls, and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.
This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.
We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.
This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.
Content on this site is © 2021 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.