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A Fictional History: Ireland’s Past in 5 Great Novels

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As a historian I’m interested in facts. What really happened? But that’s impossible to know. The information left behind by previous generations is only partial. Depending on the period, we have a myriad of sources – letters, photographs, newspapers, government records. We can see the houses people lived in, the schools they attended, the transportation they used. But how can we ever know how people felt, why they made the decisions they did? What life was really life for those living it? Historians, like detectives, try to reconstruct and understand the past. I think we generally do a good job, but so too do novelists. In many ways the absences, the gaps, the lack of knowledge can be filled in by the fiction writer who understands the past, but isn’t a slave to facts.

In Irish history, some of the best fictional accounts of the past are those that give a flavour of the time in which they are set. These are some of my favourites.

Days Without End

Choosing this book is a little bit of a cheat, for it is more about the American past, than it is about the Irish. But then so much of American history intersects with Irish history, particularly from the mid-nineteenth century. Death, be it by war or famine, is always close to hand. Thomas McNulty, the narrator of the story, left famine-ridden Ireland and stowed away on a ship to Canada. Unwelcome there he ends up in the United States, a soldier in the Union Army during the American Civil War. McNulty’s relationship with John Cole, both personal and as a comrade in arms, is beautifully drawn. In part the book is about acceptance in many different guises. The Irish in America often struggled with dual allegiance, though McNulty doesn’t romanticise his compatriots: ‘Don’t tell me a Irish is an example of civilised humanity. He may be an angel in the clothes of the devil or the devil in the clothes of an angel but either way you’re talking to two when you talk to one Irishman’. In focussing on one of those who left Ireland, Barry expertly and compellingly tells the story of millions of Irish who created their own history far from Irish shores. 

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Star of the Sea

Another novel focused on that most Irish of tropes – the emigrant experience – Star of the Sea is an epic tale set in the winter of 1847 and straddling the Atlantic Ocean. The Star of the Sea is a ship laden with passengers escaping famine in Ireland for imagined safety (and possibly wealth) in the United States. The ship itself is a microcosm of society, with class struggle being played out across the floors. O’Connor mixes fact and fiction with aplomb and includes snippets from letters, newspaper and cartoons from the period. The result is a complex, compelling story leaving the reader – and the historian – wondering where the imagined ends and the reality begins. 

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The Mill for Grinding Old People Young

Patterson’s book brings nineteenth-century industrial Belfast to life as it roves through the bustling streets of the 1830s. To Gilbert Rice, a young clerk in the Ballast Office, Belfast seems a place where his ambitions could take flight, were it not for the resistance of the decadent and powerful Lord Donegall to a deep-water port. The city of Rice’s youth is one in which the shadows cast by Wolfe Tone and other radicals from the 1790s are long. Through the novel, real and fictitious characters walk the streets side by side (indeed, Rice’s best friend is the real architect John Millar). In many ways the book is a love story about Gilbert Rice and Polish exile, Maria, but it is also a love letter to Patterson’s native city.

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The Red and the Green

Murdoch’s only historical novel is set in Dublin in the week before the Easter Rising of 1916. Within one somewhat fractured family of Kinnards and Dumays, there are Catholics and Protestants, members of the Irish Volunteers, the Citizen Army and the British Army. Tensions abound. Tragedy is just around the corner, but comedy is evident too. The eccentric Millie Kinnard is a marvellously feisty character, though in some ways her rather complex and scandalous love life overshadows the political and military drama that is brewing. Despite this The Red and the Green offers a beautifully written and reflective insight into liberal Anglo-Irish perspectives on Ireland on the eve of the 1916 Rebellion.  

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Troubles

First published in 1970, Troubles was awarded the ‘Lost’ Man Booker Prize in 2010 and deservedly so. The book is set in a grand, but down-at-heel hotel in Co. Wicklow during the Irish War of Independence. The protagonist, Major Brendan Archer, is an English veteran of the First World War who comes to Ireland determined to marry Angela Spencer, the daughter of the owner of the Majestic Hotel. The relationship collapses as does Britain’s grip on Ireland. It’s bleak and comic by turns. Despite rarely straying outside the confines of the shambling hotel, Farrell’s novel is a brilliant indirect reflection on a period of immense upheaval in Irish history. 

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Historian & writer. Author of 'Blood Runs Green'. Currently writing about murder, spies, relics and nuns (not always at the same time!) Also interested in 'Dark Tourism', urban & architectural ... Show More

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