As recently as 1996, an English editor of an edition of a seventeenth century play wrote in a footnote to explain to students a puzzling reference that “the Irish were notoriously cruel and bloodthirsty”. This of course is very much a matter of perspective. Both sides in the sixteenth and seventeenth century conflict in Ireland used extreme violence. The Elizabethan English tended to see Irish beheadings as savagery; their own decapitations were simply an expression of due process.
Walks through Dublin’s streets and slums, and through the leafy avenues of the airy and salubrious suburb of Kingstown, punctuate James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, casting light on the social divisions of the city and the political tensions which, as the book opens in 1907, are just beginning to bubble up.
Some recent writers have strongly emphasised the morbidity of Jonathan Swift’s temper, but a new biography restores some balance, putting the Dean’s apparent savagery into the context of his century and equally emphasising his huge gifts and the glamour and intrigue of parts of his life.
Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music is the latest evidence of the writer’s ability to create rich characters and stories in whichever historical context she chooses. But do the historical research and narrative brio sometimes come at the expense of deeper introspection for the novel’s characters and a more satisfying grappling with the human condition?
Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls was published in London in 1960 and almost immediately banned in Ireland. It has never since been out of print, its author has continued to publish successfully, to enjoy a high reputation internationally and to be translated into many European languages. And yet she is still not quite accepted by many in her native country.