Where Literature Is Legend

ShowBuzz bookcover The Master by Colm Toibin CBS

Few Irish authors have made the impact acclaimed author John McGahern has.

Called "the greatest living Irish novelist," by "The Observer" before his death in 2006, he released six novels throughout the span of his life.

His most well-known work, Amongst Women, published in 1990, tells the story of Michael Moran, an IRA veteran of the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, who now dominates his family in the unforgiving farmlands of County Leitrim, near Mohill.

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His last work was published in 2001, titled That They May Face the Rising Sun, a poignant tale about the year in the life of a rural lakeside community. It won Irish Novel of the Year in 2003. He released a memoir in 2005, a year before his death.

Colm Toibin is another noteworthy modern Irish author.

His first book was published in 1987, but his more notable works come in the 1990's and 2000's. His second novel, The Heather Blazing, had intense prose and emotional tension that placed him at the top of the list of Irish novelists.

Other famous works by Toibin include: The Story of the Night, The Blackwater Lightship, The Master and most recently 2009's Brooklyn, which tells the story of an Irish immigrant who settles in Brooklyn just to get a call to return to Ireland, creating a grave dilemma for her.

Irish authors cannot be discussed without mentioning the true talent of Frank McCourt.

Angela's Ashes chronicles Frank McCourt's memoir of his childhood in poverty-stricken Limerick, Ireland. It was published in 1996, won a Pulitzer Prize and stayed on the bestseller charts for two years.

A movie made from the book played in theaters across the United States last spring and is now on video.

McCourt followed up his success with 'Tis, which tells of his life as an immigrant and his pursuit of the American dream.

'Tis - the title comes from the last word in Angela's Ashes - picks up where the first book left off as 19-year-old McCourt, immigrated to the United States.

He writes of his education, stint in the Korean War, marriage and teaching career in the New York City schools.

While McCourt wrote Angela's Ashes in a little house in Pennsylvania, 'Tis was written everywhere - planes, buses and cruises.

"I would write in notebooks and then transfer the material to the computer. Maybe that's why it has a more jagged quality," he says.

"Some writers are very precious about their writing requirements. Hemingway and others needed special circumstances. Joyce said he could write anywhere, and I think that's right," he concludes.

That conviction is not the only thing he shares with Dublin's James Joyce. Both come from a long line of Irishmen who have turned their legendary gift for storytelling into literary pursuit.

Ireland has been home to world-famous writers since satirist Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels in the manse of Dublin church.

Among their rank are short story writer Brendan Behan, Bram Stoker (Dracula), J.M. Synge (The Playboy of the Western World), Sean O'Casey (Juno and the Paycock, Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest) and four Nobel Prize winners: poets W. B. Yeats (Easter 1916), who won in 1923, and Seamus Heaney (The Government of the Tongue), who took the 1995 prize; and playwrights George Bernard Shaw ( Major Barbara, St. Joan), who won the 1925 prize, and Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), who won in 1969.

The most famous Irish writer of all, however, never won a Nobel. James Joyce, who many believe is the equal of Shakespeare, wrote from self-imposed exile in France but always about his hometown on the River Liffey.

Joyce is not a quick read. Some scholars have devoted their careers to explaining the obscure references in Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, their guides thicker that the novels themselves. Easier going are Joyce's shorter works, Dubliners, a collection of short stories, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a quasi autobiographical novella. Both show how Joyce uses language to create memorable Dubliners and scenes of middle-class, stolidly Catholic Dublin in the early 1900s.

One short story in Dubliners, titled The Dead, was turned into a John Huton movie of the same name and formed the basis of Broadway play, also of the same name, starring Blair Brown and Christopher Walken.

In addition to McCourt and his brother, Malachy, who wrote the novel A Monk Swimming, a number of other Irish writers have climbed to the top of the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Maeve Binchey gained attention here with her coming-of-age novel Circle of Friends, which was made into a movie starring Minnie Driver. Her latest effort is Heart and Soul, the story of a Dublin doctor who take son the task of operating a clinic for a year. Roddy Doyle, another popular writer there, is the author of The Commitments, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and The Woman Who Walked Into Doors.

And Irish playwrights continue to draw American audiences. Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa had a long run on Broadway as did Conor McPherson's The Wier.


By Mary Jane McKay
  • Mary-Jayne McKay

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