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Four books about the Irish

Fresh takes on the ould sod

matthew callahan/globe staff

Of all the 50 states, Massachusetts is officially the most Irish. A quarter of us claim Irish descent, the highest portion of any state population, and we also boast the nation’s most Irish-American town - Scituate at 47.5 percent. As the great-granddaughter of Rosetta Nora Galvin, who emigrated to South Hadley from Cork, I’m proud to play into these fine numbers, I am. Even if a true Irishman would find my heritage, as the saying goes, as useful as a pair of shoes to a snake.

Speaking of snakes, it’s almost St. Patrick’s Day. Inexorably, an Irish literary mood takes hold and, like Joyce, I’d love to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Or at least stop by Yeats’s bee-loud glade. But there will be no revisited classics today. Instead, I have some lovely literary núíosachs for you (that’s Gaelic for “new arrivals’’), and they’re grand reads indeed.

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I’ll launch with “On an Irish Island,’’ (Knopf, 2012) by Robert Kanigel, a just-retired MIT science-writing professor. It deliciously hones in on the “singularly severe glory’’ of the Blasket Islands off the west coast of county Kerry. That “severe glory’’ bit comes from playwright John Millington Synge. His lush “The Playboy of the Western World’’ was inspired by the sea-wind-driven locals he met on Great Blasket Island, one of the last and the purest outposts of the Gaelic language at the turn of the century.

Such inspiration had legs; When Dylan Thomas died, he was working on a script based on an islander’s memoir, which in turn featured an introduction by E.M. Forster. “On an Irish Island’’ covers this bookish pedigree, but also follows a handful of English, Norwegian, and French linguists who camped out here in the 1920s and 1930s to transcribe a dying (and now remarkably revived) tongue. One admiring linguist, Kanigel notes, would write to his wife that Gaelic had “thirty-nine ways to express ‘darling’ and bestow on her a bountiful sampling.’’

Bountiful sampling is what you get in “The Story of Ireland: A History of the Irish People’’ (St. Martin’s, 2012) the companion volume to the recent popular BBC series. It’s a prime starter kit. Author Neil Hegarty artfully encapsulates this land of saints and scholars from 433 BC to 2010, when the British admitted, unequivocally, that Bloody Sunday was their fault. You can’t write about Hibernia without Albion, and much is made of the centuries of English mistreatment (unsurprising given that Hegarty is from Derry, in the north). We are led through the forced marriage of the English Strongbow and Irish Aoife and then to the 1607 Flight of the Earls, when Irish landowners, including the storied Hugh O’Neill, were run off to mainland Europe. And we plunge into the Great Famine, when the Irish were given stomach-turning cornmeal from England known as “Peel’s brimstone,’’ after British Prime Minister Robert Peel.

The numbers still stun; an estimated one million lost to famine, more millions lost to emigration. But Hegarty is good company for a sorry story, someone you’d happily buy a Vitamin G (a pint of Guinness, in Irish slang). He cheerfully cites the “clerical spin doctors at Armagh’’ who invented much of Saint Patrick’s life story to raise their ecclesiastical profile. And he also admits that the famous 19th-century Fenian James Stephens was “guilty of over-egging his pudding’’ by exaggerating the likelihood of an Irish uprising to American sympathizers.

Which brings us to a slightly different but no less impressive display of the Irish gift for spinning tales. This one, by Neil Jordan, the gifted filmmaker (“The Crying Game’’) and writer, was, in fact, impressive enough to win 2011 best novel of the year at the Irish Book Awards. Jordan’s “Mistaken’’ (Soft Skull Press, 2011) recounts the unsettling story of two Dubliners - one posh, one the son of a bookie - who look perilously alike, and are repeatedly mistaken for one another, at first harmlessly and then not. Let’s just say women are involved. This “long waltz of mutual confusion’’ is set amid the rain clouds and “bauble-lit’’ clubs of Dublin in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, with junkets to Los Angeles and London. It’s a smart, Hitchcockian, melancholy story. “You Irish,’’ as one character says, “you so love your grief.’’

Yes, but there’s also those 39 ways to say “darling.’’ So St. Patrick’s Day blessings on you: Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh!

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.
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