I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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The European Way

Fionn Ó Gráda
My brother Diarmuid told me that some years ago when visiting the Church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome his “Sono irlandese” to a church official elicited the reply of “O’Neill?”. Diarmuid nodded and that was enough ‑ he was immediately brought to the tomb of the great Hugh O’Neill. O’Neill has had a strong symbolic presence in Rome from when he arrived there in 1608, having set sail from Rathmullan in Donegal the previous September with about ninety followers. O’Neill and his opposition to Tudor and Stuart rule in Ireland is the subject of Liam Mac Cóil’s splendid new historical novel in Irish, set in 1612 and titled Bealach na Spáinneach (The Spanish Way). Bealach na Spáinneach is a significant new book in the tradition of Alessandro Manzoni, Thomas Mann or Hilary Mantel. It follows An Litir (The Letter) and I dTír Strainséartha (In a Foreign Land) as the third and final instalment of a trilogy which relates the journey of Lúcás Ó Briain, who has been charged with delivering a mysterious letter, which appears to carry a vital message from his Irish allies, from Galway to O’Neill in Rome. For Mac Cóil, Lúcás Ó Briain and O’Neill represent a Gaelic Ireland which has to accept the supremacy of Spain (and Rome) as it identifies with Europe. O’Neill is both a fine subject for historical fiction and an enduring symbol of the struggle for an independent European Ireland and, in a sentimental sense, to hold this book in one’s hand is somehow a vindication of that cause. The book is important and has enduring resonance because O’Neill ensured that Ireland had a distinct “voice” in Europe long before Brexit. Bealach na Spáinneach is a delight to read as there is wry humour throughout. In Brugge (Bruges), Ó Briain finds an inn where, in deep conversation with fellow admirers of O’Neill, he finally understands the problems of Europe just when “go raibh bunús dhá mhuga beorach ólta aige” (he had consumed almost two jugs of beer). Thus he becomes one of many visitors to discover that Belgium is strong beer territory. Mirroring the journey of O’Neill, Ó Briain is frequently blown off course in his efforts to reach Rome. En route he loses his heart to Katelyne, a beautiful Flemish girl, while his mind is expanded by reading Erasmus and familiarising himself with European cuisine and architecture. O’Neill wished to exchange Spanish for English rule in Ireland…



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