1. Forgetting Ireland by Bridget Connelly (Borealis Books). A professional folklorist, Connelly recounts the strange discoveries she made while digging up her family’s past. Following her family’s journey from Connemara, Ireland, to Graceville, Minn., Connelly uncovered the story of Irish paupers who, in 1880, were sent to Graceville to take up land and rebuild their lives. Not long after they arrived, a blizzard hit the Graceville area and lasted for months, causing the Connemara families to miss the crucial planting season and nearly freeze to death in unshingled shanties on the prairie. Newspapers immortalized their plight as the welfare scandal of the year. Blending oral tradition, the clues in documents and her own insights, Connelly weaves a family history memoir that places her relatives’ experiences in broader historical perspective and serves as a model for other writers of the genre.
2. McCarthy’s Bar: A Journey of Discovery in Ireland by Pete McCarthy (Thomas Dunne Books). Although McCarthy was born and raised in England, his mother was Irish, and he always felt a connection with her native country. So he set out along Ireland’s west coast — beginning in Cork and traveling north to Donegal — to “work out whether I was on some metaphysical level Irish, due to the collective genetic memory of my ancestors living on in the innermost reaches of my soul.” Obeying the rule to “never pass a bar that has your name on it,” he stopped in every pub called McCarthy’s and met some fascinating people. Although McCarthy doesn’t venture much into his family history per se, his experiences with the people and places of Ireland will make you laugh out loud. One of McCarthy’s funniest escapades is his pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s Purgatory, a place of spiritual contemplation in County Donegal. It comes toward the end of the book, but readers will delight in McCarthy’s other travels along the way.
3. Midlife Irish: Discovering My Family and Myself by Frank Gannon (Warner Books). Growing up a first-generation Irish-American (his parents were born in Ireland in the 1900s), Gannon knew very little about his parents’ experiences in their native country. So after their deaths, he traveled across the pond to learn more about the Emerald Isle and his heritage. This memoir is a sheer delight to read, whether you’ve been to Ireland or not. Gannon’s sense of humor fills the pages, and as he guides you through Ireland, he presents the country’s history, customs, folk beliefs and stereotypes in an entertaining and interesting manner. My only complaint is that he waited until the last three chapters to discuss his roots. I wanted him to search for the generations beyond his parents, but perhaps that could be the subject of another book. I know I’d be first in line to read it. Nevertheless, this is a memoir you won’t be able to put down.
4. Yesterday’s Ireland by Paddy Linehan (David & Charles). In this well-illustrated and beautifully written book, Linehan reflects on growing up in 1940s and ’50s rural Ireland. Although he focuses on life in the mid-20th century, he also writes about the experiences of previous generations: “I never met my great-grandmother but I knew her well. … [T]hrough my mother, her mother and grandmother, I think I have known [Ireland] for a lot longer than my own lifetime.” And he explains the effects of major events in Irish history on everyday people: “Because of emigration almost everyone in Ireland has relations in America.” Through his entertaining stories, Linehan brings to life the Irish people and their rich history and culture.
From the April 2004 Family Tree Magazine