Ireland, by Frank Delaney, published in 2005. A 576-page novel about Ireland, oral traditions, family, and the texture of history. It doesn’t sound like my kind of thing, really, but it turned out to be incredible. Here’s the description:
One wintry evening in 1951, an itinerant storyteller — a Seanchai, the very last practitioner of a fabled tradition extending back hundreds of years — arrives unannounced at a house in the Irish countryside. In exchange for a bed and a warm meal, he invites his hosts and some of their neighbors to join him by the fireside, and begins to tell formative stories of Ireland’s history. One of his listeners, a nine-year-old boy, grows so entranced by the story-telling that, when the old man leaves abruptly under mysterious circumstances, the boy devotes himself to finding him again.
Ronan’s search for the Storyteller becomes both a journey of self-discovery and an immersion into the sometimes-conflicting histories of his native land. As the long-unspoken secrets of his own family begin to reveal themselves, he becomes increasingly single-minded in pursuit of the old man, who he fears may already be dead. But Ronan’s personal path also leads him deeper and deeper into the history and mythology of Ireland itself, in all its drama, intrigue, and heroism. Ireland travels through the centuries, interweaving Ronan’s quest for the Storyteller with a richly evocative unfolding of the great moments in Irish history, ranging from the savage grip of the Ice Age to the green and troubled land of tourist brochures and political unrest.
I listened to the audiobook. It’s long, 19.5 hours, and it took me about four months to listen to the whole thing, but it needs to be long. It’s read by the author, and since it’s a book about oral storytelling, that’s really the medium in which to encounter it. If it was shorter, or if the pace was any faster, it wouldn’t be as effective. Don’t think it’s too slow or cozy, though! Just when you think you’re getting settled, there’ll be a quick turn in the narrative where everything shifts and you have to reconsider all that came before. And that’s just the frame story, the stories included within that frame are excellent too. Some are openly myths, like Brendan the Navigator, or stories that can’t possibly be known, like the origin of Newgrange. Others are about the IRA or other recent events. They roughly follow the story of Ireland from its pre-history to the modern day, but each one is different in content and style, and I think that’s why I never got bored.
Taken all together, the novel is a layered examination of the relationship between history and myth, and how they can be the same thing. It’s the kind of history that settles deep into a place’s bones and stays there, the kind you trip over when you walk outside, and the kind that has nothing whatever to do with historians. People create meaning and community for themselves by sharing these myth/histories with others, developing a sense of region and nationality and family.
Several of the stories within the frame story are history lectures Ronan hears at school, and he even becomes a history teacher, yet historians as such are presented as people who don’t entirely get it. Maybe it makes me a traitor, but I kind of love the fact that historians are outside this history. They put themselves outside, after all. Facts are important, of course they are, but we should care a lot more than we do about the history that actually matters to people. I am never the one who wants to hear a personal story, but we still have to realize that history happened because of humans, and to humans, and it meant something to them. If it doesn’t still mean something to them, then there’s no point at all. Historians seem to feel like if they don’t strip the emotion out of it they won’t be taken seriously, or that if they appeal to the public they’re “dumbing down” history, but that ignores how engaged and invested people already are in history they feel to be their own.
All these themes interest me as a historian, but I am also a lover of stories in their own right, and this is a great novel. Realism isn’t even my preference, but these characters are like family to me now, with all their dysfunction. Be prepared to feel rage and sadness and loneliness and love and shock at the subtly horrible things some people are willing to do for no good reason at all. Most importantly, think of it as going to hear a storyteller spin yarns about Ireland. That’s what you’ll be getting, and it’s delightful.