Thursday, March 17, 2016

Modern Ireland and modern Irish crime writers: A St. Patrick's Day post

For St. Patrick's Day, here's a post from a couple of years ago about Irish history and what you can learn about it from Irish crime writers.
 =================
 A passage in Adrian McKinty's novel The Bloomsday Dead alerted me to a certain tendency in Belfast to romanticize the present and the past (though McKinty states the case more pungently), and I may first have heard the term irregulars, for the anti-treaty military forces in the Irish Civil War, through Kevin McCarthy.

The dicey subject of Irish-German relations in the middle of the twentieth century? Stuart Neville deals with one strand of its aftermath in his novel Ratlines. (And it appears that Declan Burke may do so as well, in his latest.)  And Eoin McNamee wrote about the chilling sectarian hatred at the heart of one of Belfast's most notorious murder gangs in his novel Resurrection Man.

The strange, orphaned position of Northern Ireland, unloved by both the United Kingdom and Eire (or is that Ireland? Or the South? Or the Republic?) cannot have been portrayed more directly and more touchingly than in the passage of Garbhan Downey's (I forget in which book) where a politician from the North tells a counterpart from the South something like: "I know you regard us as the unwanted child you'd rather tie up in a sack and toss into the river." And my first inkling that Irish history was more complicated than the Manichean pieties we get in America came when Gerard Brennan took me to the Irish Republican History Museum off the Falls Road in Belfast.

I've just finished reading Part IV of R.F. "Roy" Foster's Modern Ireland 1600-1972, and I was periodically surprised and delighted when his entertaining, opinionated, analytical, non-ax-grinding history would touch upon subjects dealt with in some depth by each of the above-mentioned Irish crime writers. Foster's declaration, for example, that
"For all the rhetoric of anti-Partitionism, opinion in the Republic was covertly realistic about this point, too: the predominant note of modern Ireland in 1972 was that of looking after its own."
says in historical terms what Downey does in fictional ones, and induces a similar twinge of sympathy for Northern Ireland's people, if not its leaders.

So thanks, Irish crime writers, for writing entertaining popular fiction while casting an intelligent eye on the problematic present and past of your problematic country.

*
Foster's bibliographic essay at the end of Modern Ireland mentions one Irish crime writer by name, though not for her crime fiction:
"There are few first-rate biographies for the period, one glowing exception being R. Dudley Edwards' Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure, which illuminates far more than its subject."
Looking for more? Edwards, Downey, McNamee, and Brennan contributed stories to Akashic Books' Belfast Noir collection, edited by McKinty and Neville.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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17 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

That's a very ambitious long piece for a busy season. I have read several but not all of the writers here, and I can also say that my own more nuanced view of Northern Ireland came through reading Northern Irish crime fiction.

And my awareness of Nazis in Ireland after the war is solely down to Stuart Neville.

December 24, 2014  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Met Roy Foster at a party once. He's a giant. If he'd grown up in the US he'd of been on a basketball scholarship s'where and probably never picked up a history book.

December 24, 2014  
OpenID melhealy said...

To answer your question, it's "the (Irish) Republic", or sometimes referred to as "the South" to distinguish it from "the North". People from the Republican movement or northerners might call it "the twenty-six counties" or "the Free State". "Éire" is less used, and the 1949 Republic of Ireland Act gives the legal description for the State as both "the Republic of Ireland" and "Poblacht na hÉireann".

Then there are older historical names, from "Hibernia" (from the Latin) to plain Ireland.

Confusing? You bet. The multitude of names reflects the fractured history of the State and its contentious territory and jurisdiction.

December 24, 2014  
Blogger Dana King said...

Scandinavians get all the press, but it's the Irish who are writing the best crime fiction. McKinty, Burke (whose new book rocks), Neville, Bruen, and Hughes are the five I read consistently, and there are others I know I need to get to.

December 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I don't think I knew anything about the Irish Civil War before I visited the Republican Museum. Nor did I know there had been Irish-speaking Protestant nationalists. But I knew something was up when I saw mention of Wolf Tone in the museum but nothing about Michael Collins.

. Roy Foster's section on the twentieth century was a kind of greatest hits of my favorite Irish crime writers, so the piece is not as ambitious as it might appear. The material, that is, had long been in my head.

December 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: No, he'd have been a student-athlete. He has a new book due out in a couple of week's about the revolutionary generation in Ireland. I'm going to snap up a copy as soon as I can.

December 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, have you read Belfast Noir? That could serve as a guide for further crime fiction explorations.

No knock against Nordic crime writers, but why they caught on to the extent they did is a bit of mystery. Jo Nesbo used to be called the new Stieg Larsson, and I just saw some other writer referred to as the new Jo Nesbo.

December 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, did you chat with Mr. Foster? He seems like he would be an interesting, level-headed, opinionated, intelligent guy.

Speaking of Irish academics, what do you suppose Andrew Pepper's students call him?

December 24, 2014  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I had a great chat with Roy Foster. He is of course very funny... Also had a great chat over a pint with Andrew Pepper.

December 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mel, I generally call it "the South" when I need to distinguish it from Northern Ireland. And you're right about the plethora of names, each with political baggage of its own. I learned from Foster's book, for example, that dismissive Republicans would make a point after the Treaty of persisting in using the "Irish Free State" name.

December 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But do his students call him Dr. Pepper?

It's no surprise to me that Roy Foster is a funny guy. I'd have guessed as much from the occasional acerbic remark in Modern Ireland. He's such a sharp thinker and such a good writer that I would recommend him to readers who may not think they're interested in his subjects.

I had dinner with Andrew Pepper, D. Burke, B. McGilloway and a bunch of other Irish crime writers at Crimefest in Bristol one year. I remember Pepper as a pleasant chap who had a lot of brains in his head. Now I should get off my keister and read his books.

December 24, 2014  
Blogger Kevin McCarthy said...

Synchronicity at work or what? Just two days ago I had a text from a friend asking if I'd recommend Foster's book for her Irish history loving father. 100% yes, I said. And then today I see your post!


On a side note, Irish writers-- Mr McKinty in particular--feature prominently in the crime/mystery section and Staff Picks in Powell's Books in Portland. (Better known to some as the Homeland, is Powell's. Best bookshop in the world? I haven't been to all of them but...) You can guess whose books I was looking for when I stumbled upon his. (My ambition in life: have my books on the shelf in Powell's! Even dog-eared, pre-loved copies...)

Season's best to you, Peter, and to anyone else, read Foster. He is brilliant.

December 25, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kevin, I visited Powell's years ago and liked its amiable disorganization. More recently I have read some unfavorable comments on the Internet about what the owners had done with the place. But I'll certainly pay another visit should I happen to be out that way.

I like Foster so much that I am now reading his Luck and the Irish, about Ireland since 1972. The book grew from a series of his lectures and retains a more informal air than does Modern Ireland. And that means some wonderful wordplay and scathing denunciations, not all of them at Charles Haughey's expense. I also have his new Vivid Faces on order. If more historians wrote as well as he does, more people would be excited by history.

In re the books you were looking for at Powell's and the ones you found, I remember shopping for crime fiction one time and buying books by McFetridge, McKinty, McIlvanney, and McGilloway and thinking how much wear and tear on my shoes I saved by reading Irish and Scottish writers.

And Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your family.

December 26, 2014  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Fabulous post, as usual, Peter.

Just dropping by to wish you every happiness in this Christmas season.

Just back from Carlow, a place with no association with thrillers or crime writing, as far as I know.

You may be able to put me right.

December 26, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And the same to you.

Carlow has no association with crime writing and thrillers that I know of, but if does get a mention or two in Roy Foster's book.

A Happy Christmas and New Year to you. I should add that you have had more impact on my daily life than have most who post here. I owe you a debt of gratitude every time I lower the saturation on a photograph, as I did on the ones that accompany the post immediately below this one.

December 26, 2014  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

That's really kind of you, Peter.

If you ever work out how to avoid red eye without having to spend a fortune on an external flash I would be really grateful.

Just to say I once brought Roy Foster's book on holidays with me. It brings back memories of wild beaches in Connemara with nary a soul in sight.

December 28, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maria: I've found that built-in programs on whatever computer I happen to be using (iPhoto, and so on) sufficient for removing red-eye. But then, I have shot very few portraits using flash.

Since this post, I have read Foster's Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change Since 1970, and his essay collection The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland kept me up late last night. As much as I am impressed by Foster's wit and elect, I can't say his books have brought back any memories as picturesque as yours.

December 28, 2014  

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