Posted by: koolwine | May 9, 2010

Ireland: By the Lake

Country: Ireland

Local Name: Éire (in Gaelic)

I’ve been getting the following mixed up for years:

Ireland (the country) = 26 southern counties on the island of Ireland

Northern Ireland = 6 northern counties on the island of Ireland that are under the rule of the United Kingdom

United Kingdom = England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (does NOT include Ireland)

Great Britain = the name of the island that is home to England, Scotland and Wales (does NOT include Ireland or Northern Ireland)

Title: By the Lake

Author: John McGahern (Irish)

Published: 2002  Pages: 336

Acclaim: A New York Times Notable Book; “Ireland’s finest living fiction writer” – Chicago Tribune; “Ranks with the greatest living Irish writers” – New York Times Book Review

Time Period: Unspecified, but contemporary.

Summary: An intimate, year-long look at the eccentric inhabitants of a traditional Irish farming community and their close ties to the land.

My opinion: McGahern presents the reader with rural Ireland’s version of  Main Street, U.S.A.  It’s the village where everybody knows your name, the welcome mat is always out and all of the food is organic.  McGahern balances this sentimental setting by filling it with flawed characters and delving into painful issues, among them: “the Troubles” with Northern Ireland, the Catholic Church’s treatment of orphans, and the feeling of being overwhelmed by the modern world.

Although I initially felt bombarded by the introduction of too many characters at once and considered giving up on the book, I’m glad I stuck with it; I was steadily drawn into the community and by book’s end felt fully immersed in Ireland.  My biggest complaint: compared with the male characters, who are complex and richly described, McGahern’s female characters are short-shrifted – present merely to serve tea and meals and to ensure that the reader knows that the men are straight.

In my book (or, how Ireland has affected me and maybe you, too)

It’s a rare country that’s celebrated in America other than America, but somehow the Irish charmed us into observing St. Patrick’s Day and convinced us all to dress in green or be threatened with a pinch, to boot!  Elementary school is ground zero for pinches and I got a lot of them.  Not being of Irish decent or Catholic, March 17th seemed like any ordinary day and I’d forget all about wearing green.  Until I got on the bus.

Unfourtunate ones
When we were kids, my friends and I would stretch out on our bellies  on the lawn and study patches of clover, trying to find the lucky four-leaf ones.  Then we’d pick them and they’d wilt and turn decidedly unlucky-looking in minutes and we’d throw them away.

Little green men
An Irish acquaintance of mine lamented that so many Americans pronounce the word leprechaun as “la-pree-shin” (“leh-pra-con” is correct), which is how I have jokingly referred to the green-suited sprites ever since.  The most famous leprechaun in America is probably the one on the box of Lucky Charms – the one who exclaims in the TV commercial, “Pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, green clover, blue diamonds and purple horseshoes!”   Twenty-five years later that fake Irish accent is still in my head!

How Can I Keep from Singing?
High school and music go together like zits & Clearasil, and U2’s 1987 The Joshua Tree album was a huge standout in the soundtrack of my teen years.

Enya’s Shepherd Moons was the first new age album I ever bought.  I listened to it incessantly for years.  Turns out I wasn’t the only one: Enya is  Ireland’s best-selling solo artist, was the world’s best-selling female artist of 2001, and after U2, is Ireland’s second largest musical export.

An Irishwoman singing reggae classics seems like a strange mix, but I dig Sinéad O’Connor’s album Throw Down Your Arms.


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