A saga retold

The Hound of Ulster
by Rosemary Sutcliff,
illustrated by Victor Ambrus.
Red Fox 1992 (1963)

Cuchulainn is the great hero of the Ulster cycle of hero tales, some dating back to at least the 7th century CE. There has been much discussion about how much they owe to historical events and how much to myth, legend and folklore. In Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling of the saga she treats the main characters as real humans with real emotions, albeit often with superhuman and even supernatural attributes.

She follows the traditional episodes of many hero cycles across many ancient cultures: conception, birth, childhood feats, weapon training, wooings, then the apogee of a career followed by the inevitable descent towards tragedy.

Throughout her version of the saga she brings her telltale skills as a storyteller — sympathy with her material, a poetic sensibility, a fine sense of pace, and the ability to delineate key personages in a huge cast and imbuing them with distinctive traits and appearances. Despite a preponderance of male warriors, druids and giants, several females make their mark, and not merely to weep for fallen warriors.

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Biting satire

Jonathan Swift (1675–1739)

Jonathan Swift: A Modest Proposal
and Other Satirical Works
Edited by Candace Ward
Dover Thrift Editions 1996

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

With this paragraph, around a quarter of the way through a 1729 text, Swift (originally writing anonymously) detonates the bomb that is at the core of A Modest PROPOSAL For preventing the CHILDREN of POOR PEOPLE From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the PUBLICK.

But this, of course, is Swift, and we must never take his writings at their word. When he discusses the main advantages of such a policy for Ireland (such as fewer Catholics, the introduction of a new dish for gentlemen with refined tastes, an added draw for taverns, an income for the ‘breeders’ and an economic policy to encourage marriage) his purpose is to criticise social attitudes, but as with all satire, outward appearances are outrageous–but also deceptive.

Swift was Anglo-Irish Anglican clergyman, and his position was to be a signpost always to a via media (as characterises the Church of England itself, being somewhere in the middle of a Christian continuum stretching from Dissenter to Roman Catholic). By taking arguments to extremes, as with A Modest Proposal, he exposed what he saw as inherent ridiculousness, but with such po-faced earnestness that it was sometimes hard to know when he was being serious without close reading of the text.

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Hibernian readings

Irish landscape (image credit: WordPress Free Photo Library)

I’ve never consciously sought out novels related to Ireland, whether set in that country and/or written by native-born Irish writers. But then I’d never consciously not sought them out. So, bearing in mind that I’ve committed to reading at least a couple of pieces of Irish fiction this March for Reading Ireland Month I wondered what books I’d already read (and, crucially, reviewed) and which could comfortably fit into this category.

What follows, in no particular order, is a not at all exhaustive list of what I could identify as Irish, according to the previous criteria, in reviews posted to this blog. I know some writers could be seen as second generation Irish writers (eg the Brontë siblings, whose Irish father changed his surname from Brunty and who all reportedly retained a distinctively Irish inflection throughout their lives) but I’ve excluded these from my very short list.

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