Frank Delaney is the author of eight novels, as well as several non-fiction books (including James Joyce’s Odyssey) and a number of screenplays. He has been a judge for both the Booker and Whitbread prizes and chairman of the Book Trust. In his latest work, Ireland: A Novel, Delaney tells the history of his native land through a young boy’s search for an itinerant storyteller.
1. Ulysses by James Joyce
Obviously Ulysses has to be first. On another day in another room in another town my top 10 Irish novels might be different – but there are ‘given’ novels, the bibles of the country, without which no reader worthy of the nationality ‘Irish’ can proceed. Joyce hammered a job on the novel so complete that he became a category unto himself. Every literary style was mist to his grill, as he might have said, and his plotting, if such it can be called – two men who take all day to meet each other – paved the way for, among others, Samuel Beckett. Above all he taught every writer the importance of naturalistic dialogue; with his fine tenor voice Joyce knew better than most that we read not with the eye but with the ear.
2. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen
Chosen as much to represent Bowen rather than merely for the novel’s own powers. Which are none the less significant. The year is 1920; Sir Richard Naylor and his family await in their great house the final onslaught of the ‘Risen People’ – meaning that the twilight of the Anglo-Irish has begun to fall as the native Irish begin to take back their land. In that anxious gloaming, relationships advance and retreat like sad and fearful dancers; some have possibilities, some never had, some will cause death. And always the clear, cool and nervous voice of Bowen herself comes through the fog of years as it does in all her novels.
3. Troubles by JG Farrell
It seems right that a number of any top 10 Irish novels should address the emotional and physical violence that formed modern Ireland. Farrell wrote superbly; all his books had a quality that hallmarks great literary talent – he could ‘do’ texture. This album – which is what Troubles feels like – records the same Anglo-Irish as Elizabeth Bowen knew and belonged to. As with Bowen, this feels like the real thing (which is all a novel has to do). Always judge a writer by his grasp of what he doesn’t know: Farrell died young yet his old people are almost his best creations.
4. Thy Tears Might Cease by Michael Farrell
This Farrell wrote only one book, spent all his life doing so, told everybody about it incessantly, didn’t live long enough to finish it and startled everybody with its excellence when it appeared. The book centres on the 1916 period and addresses the confusion in the minds of young men who have not yet discriminated between the relative importance of patriotism and personal survival. One of the most irritating questions that all novelists have to field is, “How autobiographical is your book?” In Michael Farrell’s case the answer feels as though it must be, “totally” but as he’s not here to speak for himself let us accept it for the stirring fiction he intended to create.
5. Fools of Fortune by William Trevor
Fools of Fortune makes it into this list because of its rightful place among great books that deal with the Irish question. I would also have chosen Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel and cited it as exciting because it appeared early in Trevor’s writing life and heralded the wonderful powers of observation and characterisation that appear like flashes of lighting in his short stories. Fools of Fortune, however, displays a further and to me even more arresting Trevor hallmark: nobody has written better about each nationality in the other’s country – the Irish in England or the English in Ireland – and certainly never in a single volume. In this novel he again makes tragedy, if not bearable, at least comprehensible.
6. The Year of the French by Thomas Flanagan
I recall the excitement when this book was published in the late 1970’s – and then discovered (not always the case) that the book merited it. Flanagan, an American history professor of Irish descent, pulled off a substantial coup in that he brought a historian’s training to bear upon a romantic moment, the period when the French landed in the west of Ireland in 1798 and all Ireland thought liberation was at hand. His research never lies around the novel in pools, it stains the entire fabric, so that when his character’s point of view is emerging from a dispossessed farmer’s clay hovel or a small town merchant’s table in the local hotel, we smell them – their clothes, their breath and (this is Ireland after all) their politics.
7. Amongst Women by John McGahern
Other than Ulysses I wish that lists such as this did not also suggest hierarchy of choice. McGahern has written the finest novel of what might be called the ‘rural bourgeoisie,’ the small to middling farmer with emotions and opinions. I have heard that when the manuscript first reached his publishers it was more than twice as long as the book that eventually appeared and that McGahern himself insisted on cutting it back. Given the spare power of what appeared here – the farmer and his family and their subcutaneous, needless, heedless anguish – I know that I am perhaps making a literary misjudgment but I merely wanted more and more of this wonderful writing.
8. The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien
Just as pure and compelling today as when it first appeared 45 years ago. Simple in the extreme, it tells the story of Kate and Baba who have made it to Dublin from the deep and damp parish countryside and find that, in all the excitement, hypocrisy remains a constant. The book’s place in my heart was copper-fastened by the banning of it; so how, then, did the natives of Miss O’Brien’s home village in County Clare get enough copies for the bonfire they held to burn it? It was her first novel, not her finest but her most innocent – and see how she grew her talent.
9. Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor
Which is more exciting – to see a writer arrive in one bound or to see a promising writer flesh out his talents? In a sense O’Connor did both; his earlier books always had flash and sparkle, especially when examining young humans, and we should not be surprised that he suddenly pulled out this astounding work. But we’d have been surprised at anyone suddenly leaping to this height. In 1847 many ships crossed the Atlantic, ferrying the fleeing Irish from hunger to the new promised land and many have written about it, fiction and fact. But never like this; here, you catch your breath on every page. Judging by the payload O’Connor delivers, I can only marvel at the emotional demands the writing must have made upon him.
10. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
Chosen because James Joyce did writing and reading (and literary Ireland) the ultimate service; he took nothing for granted. The Wake calls down myriad responses – derision, fawning respect, confusion, ennui; but why not enjoyment? Read it aloud and read it slowly; read it while thinking of a man who loved language and who loved mankind and who loved – above all, perhaps – mankind’s use of language. More poetry lurks in here than in 10 verse anthologies. I don’t claim you should read it every day like some sort of Celtic missal; best to approach it once in a while, and approach it as though quarrying – this is Joyce’s diamond mine.
Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/sep/07/top10s.irish