Reading Ireland Month 2020: Nuala O’Faolain and More

It feels like the whole world has changed in the past week, doesn’t it? I hope you all are keeping well and turning to books for comfort and escape. Reading Ireland Month is run each March by Cathy of 746 Books. I’m wishing you a happy (if subdued) St. Patrick’s Day with this post on the Irish books I’ve been perusing recently. Even before this coronavirus situation heated up, I’d been struggling with my focus, so only one of these was a proper read, while the rest ended up being skims. In the meantime, I’m trying out a new blog design and have been working to create more intuitive menu headings and helpful intro pages.


Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman by Nuala O’Faolain (1996)

Before writing this landmark memoir, O’Faolain was a TV documentary producer and Irish Times columnist. Her upbringing in poverty is reminiscent of Frank McCourt’s: one of nine children, she had a violent father and an alcoholic mother who cheated on each other and never seemed to achieve happiness. Educated at a convent school and at university in Dublin (until she dropped out), she was a literary-minded romantic who bounced between relationships and couldn’t decide whether marriage or a career should be her highest aim. Though desperate not to become her mother – a bitter, harried woman who’d wanted to be a book reviewer – she didn’t want to miss out on a chance for love either.

O’Faolain feels she was born slightly too early to benefit from the women’s movement. “I could see sexism in operation everywhere in society; once your consciousness goes ping you can never again stop seeing that. But I was quite unaware of how consistently I put the responsibility for my personal happiness off onto men.” Chapter 16 is a standout, though with no explanation (all her other lovers were men) it launches into an account of her 15 years living with Nell McCafferty, “by far the most life-giving relationship of my life.”

Although this is in many respects an ordinary story, the geniality and honesty of the writing account for its success. It was an instant bestseller in Ireland, spending 20 weeks at number one, and made the author a household name. I especially loved her encounters with literary figures. For instance, on a year’s scholarship at Hull she didn’t quite meet Philip Larkin, who’d been tasked with looking after her, but years later had a bizarre dinner with him and his mother, both rather deaf; and David Lodge was a friend. The boarding school section reminded me of The Country Girls. Two bookish memoirs I’d recommend as readalikes are Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby and Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan.


Skims (all: )


Actress by Anne Enright (2020)

The Green Road is among my most memorable reads of the past five years, so I was eagerly awaiting Enright’s new novel, which is on the Women’s Prize longlist. I read the first 30 pages and found I wasn’t warming to the voice or main characters. Norah is a novelist who, prompted by an interviewer, realizes the story she most needs to tell is her mother’s. Katherine O’Dell was “a great fake,” an actress who came to epitomize Irishness even though she was actually English. Her slow-burning backstory is punctuated by trauma and mental illness. “She was a great piece of anguish, madness and sorrow,” Norah concludes. I could easily see this making the Women’s Prize shortlist and earning a Booker nomination as well. It’s the sort of book I’ll need to come back to some years down the line to fully appreciate.


Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)

As Catholics, Cal McCluskey and his father are a rarity in their community and fear attacks on their home. Resistant to join his father in working at the local abattoir, Cal spends his days doing odd jobs and lurking around the public library – he has a crush on a married librarian named Marcella. Aimless and impressionable, he’s easily talked into acting as a driver for Crilly and Skeffington, the kind of associates who have gotten him branded as “Fenian scum.” The novella reflects on the futility of cycles of violence (“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” Crilly says, to which Cal replies, “But it all seems so pointless”), but is definitely a period piece. Cal is not the most sympathetic of protagonists. I didn’t enjoy this as much as the two other books I’ve read by MacLaverty.


Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy (1965)

Murphy and her bike “Roz” set out on an epic Fermor-like journey in the first six months of 1963. She covered 60 to 100 miles a day, facing sunburn, punctured tires and broken ribs. She was relieved she brought a gun: it came in handy for fending off wolves, deterring a would-be rapist, and preventing bike thieves. For some reason travel books are slow, painstaking reads for me. I never got into the flow of this one, and was troubled by snap judgments about groups of people – “I know instinctively the temper of a place, after being five minutes with the inhabitants. … the Afghans are, on balance, much dirtier in clothes, personal habits and dwellings than either the Turks or Persians.” Murphy does have a witty turn of phrase, though, e.g. “I suppose I’ll get used to it but at the moment I wouldn’t actually say that camel’s milk is my favourite beverage.”


My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die by Kevin Toolis (2017)

Toolis is a journalist and filmmaker from Dookinella, on an island off the coast of County Mayo. His father Sonny’s pancreatic cancer prompted him to return to the ancestral village and reflect on his own encounters with death. As a young man he had tuberculosis and stayed on a male chest ward with longtime smokers; despite a bone marrow donation, his older brother Bernard died from leukemia.

As a reporter during the Troubles and in Malawi and Gaza, Toolis often witnessed death, but at home in rural Ireland he saw a model for how it should be: accepted, and faced with the support of a whole community. People made a point of coming to see Sonny as he was dying. Keeping the body in the home and holding a wake are precious opportunities to be with the dead. Death is what’s coming for us all, so why not make its acquaintance? Toolis argues.

I’ve read so much around the topic that books like this don’t stand out anymore, and while I preferred the general talk of death to the family memoir bits, it also made very familiar points. At any rate, his description of his mother’s death is just how I want to go: “She quietly died of a heart attack with a cup of tea and a biscuit on a sunny May morning.”


What have you been picking up for Reading Ireland Month?

24 responses

  1. Thanks for taking part! I loved Are You Somebody?. It’s been years since I read Cal – if you’re interested, it was made into a great movie with John Lynch and Helen Mirren.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My copy has a photo of them on the front cover! I think I might well enjoy the story better as a film.


  2. Brilliant start to your Enright review! It’s whetted my very keen appetite even further.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks — something about the timing / my concentration wasn’t right this time around, but Enright is always worth reading. Eric (Lonesome Reader) has a very enthusiastic review up if you haven’t seen it yet.


  3. Ooops. I’ve not been participating. But Anne Enright and Dervla Murphy are always rewarding reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure you’ve had other things on your mind! I still have Enright’s back catalogue to explore. I found this Murphy book a bit dated — is there a more recent one of hers that you’d recommend?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. To be honest it’s some years since I read her. I always admired her can-do spirit, horribly aware that my own adventures would never get so daring. I’d probably agree with you assessment now.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. My grandmother died in exactly the same way as Toolis’ mother. At 91, she had had a day out in York the previous day and when my uncle found her her day’s shopping was by her side. I’m hoping it runs in the family.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a lovely story, and the perfect way to go.


  5. James Ashley Shea | Reply

    I strongly recommend Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir by John Banville, Dead as Doornails by Anthony Cronin, and Remembering How We Stood: Bohemian Dublin at the Mid-Century by John Ryan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard about the Banville and I’m definitely interested; I’ll look into the others as well. Thanks!


  6. Love the blog re-work. Looks great!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! You’re the first to mention it 😉 This design has a few tiny aspects I don’t like, but I’ll work on changing them gradually.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t touched my design since I first started the blog almost 4 years ago. Definitely time for a refresh!


  7. Thanks for recommending Are You Somebody, I downloaded the audio the other day but after reading your review I’m even more convinced I’ll love it! I’m a huge fan of Angela’s Ashes.

    I’m currently reading Actress and really enjoying it 🙂

    Love your new layout btw!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Hope you’ll enjoy those two and get into Actress more than I did. Is The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan on your radar?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not at all! I just looked it up though and it sounds BRILLIANT? Have you read it?


      2. No, I was offered it for a blog tour and decided not to accept as I feared it would not be my cup of tea. But I thought of you instantly.


  8. I managed to read a pony book, pleasingly! I love travel books but I think oddly it’s because I read fast so I can get absorbed in a big, meaty journey!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I often only manage 5-10 pages of a travel book at a time. I need to find one I can get engrossed in and read big chunks of!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] at Bookish Beck reviewed a few books by Irish authors , including Are You Somebody? by Nuala […]


  10. I hope I can find Full Tilt! I read Are You Somebody when it came out and enjoyed it. Good reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Full Tilt is such a classic that I feel it must still be in print. Just looking quickly on Goodreads, I can see 2010 and 2018 editions of it.


  11. […] especially for you if you enjoy Bill Bryson’s sense of humor, think Dervla Murphy was a badass in Full Tilt, and enjoyed War Doctor by David Nott and/or The Crossway by Guy Stagg. It’s one of my top few […]


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