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Ireland    by Frank Delaney order for
by Frank Delaney
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2005 (2005)
Hardcover, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The bardic tradition is a strong one in Ireland, whose people depended on Seanchai to keep alive an oral history in periods of severe oppression, and where unjust kings used to fear their satirical verses. Frank Delaney's Ireland celebrates the Celtic bard. He unrolls a tapestry of Irish history and myth for his reader, framing it in the modern tale of a boy's fascination with everything a travelling storyteller represents. Delaney tells us that 'stories unite us'.

In 1951, this ancient mariner (he took to the road in 1912) of a bard is welcomed in a nine-year-old boy's home by father and aunt, and received coldly by the mother. He begins his 'story of Ireland' with the early days of the planet, and then spins words through four ice ages - 'Ice, they tell me, is never pure white ... It is ivory, it is silver, it is chalk, it is salt.' When the old man tells a tale of the ancient Architect of Newgrange, 'the boy knew that he had met great, rare magic.' The storyteller shows St. Patrick chasing the devil out of Ireland 'to England, where he lives to this very day', and speaks of Brendan the Navigator's voyage to America in a cow skin boat. There are lively, engrossing accounts of Finn Maccool's selection of a wife, the origins of the Book of Kells, King Brian Boru, Strongbow, Hugh O'Neill, the Battle of the Boyne, Daniel O'Connor, Charles Stewart Parnell, and the Easter Rising.

The boy, Ronan O'Mara, only hears the first few renditions directly. He gleans most tales second hand, passionately and obsessively searching out news of the bard as he grows up. Some stories are in writing, some recorded. He hears the old man on the radio, sees him on television, glimpses him in the distance, but he's always elusive. In an interview the Seanchai says that his stories come 'From the woods. From the mist on a hill in the dawn. From a curling wave out at sea that's coming to the shore.' Ronan studies history (his professor, T. Bartlett Ryle has an especially engaging way with words). He begins to tell his own stories, and eventually takes to the road himself for a time. Is the young man the old one's chosen apprentice? What links them so strongly? Late in the novel, Delaney gives us surprising answers that explain much that was mysterious in Ronan O'Mara's life.

Ireland is a magical must read for anyone interested in Irish history and its bardic tradition. Frank Delaney tells us that the Irish 'are infinitely permissive of possibility', and reveals it in his writing.

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