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Clare Egan

Shamrocks Not Required: A Reading List on Modern Ireland

Early evening landscape shot of the quays in Dublin City, Ireland
David Soanes Photography / Getty Images

By Clare Egan

Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, I brace myself for a flood of articles about Ireland. Almost always, these stories rely on a series of well-worn tropes that caricature the place I call home. No doubt you’ve read stories which reference Irish people’s love of alcohol and seen images of random things dyed green. While living in the U.S., I became accustomed to talking to strangers about Ireland. I have curly red hair, blue eyes, and a freckled complexion. My Irish accent is inescapable. When you look as Irish as I do, strangers want to talk to you about it. I didn’t mind but the stereotypes did grow tiresome.

For a while, I worked with a nonprofit focused on developing leadership skills among college students from Ireland and Northern Ireland. The program was established in the 90s in response to the sectarian violence euphemistically known as “The Troubles.” Though the island has been relatively peaceful since the late 90s, I would occasionally meet Americans who still imagined my homeland to be a dangerous, frightening place.

St. Patrick’s Day is, in essence, a great story. According to the legend, Patrick was “a sinner, a most simple countryman.” At 16, he was kidnapped and brought to pagan Ireland. He spent six years working as a shepherd and during this time, found God. He later converted Ireland to Christianity. This simple fifth-century story was the foundation for Ireland’s identity. 

In recent decades, Ireland has changed fundamentally. It is no longer the twee caricature that exists in our collective imagination. When I was born in the late 80s, Ireland was powerfully discriminatory toward anyone who veered outside its so-called “Christian values.” Once married, women who worked in the public service were fired. Divorce was illegal. Rape within marriage was legal. Abortion was illegal, in almost all circumstances. Homosexuality was a criminal offense. In 1982, an Irish gay man named Declan Flynn was murdered in Fairview Park in Dublin. Despite two of his attackers admitting their role in his death, they served no jail time. “All of you come from good homes,” the judge said. In Northern Ireland, “The Troubles” seemed destined to continue indefinitely.

Since then, Ireland has modernized. I was 8 when, in 1995, divorce was finally made legal after a bitter referendum. It passed by the narrowest of margins: 50.28% in favor and 49.79% against. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement ended most of the violence in Northern Ireland, though peace remains fragile. Declan Flynn’s murder sparked a queer movement and, in 2015, 62% of people voted to allow same-sex marriage. Ireland was the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage by popular vote. In 2018, 66% of people voted to allow access to abortion

The Ireland of my youth was almost uniformly white. When I left secondary school, there was one black student in a school of more than 700 pupils. These days, Irish towns and villages are home to vibrant, diverse communities. Equally, as a child, I had almost no interaction with the Traveller community which was formally recognized as an ethnic minority in 2017. Irish Travellers have a rich cultural history which merits a list of its own. For those interested in knowing more, I’d really recommend Rosaleen McDonagh’s latest book, Unsettled.

Ireland has changed and yet, I’m not sure that international audiences have updated their mental image. To be fair, our tourism industry has long understood that there’s money to be made selling Ireland as “the land of saints and scholars.” That is part of Ireland but it’s not the complete picture. This reading list offers a more complicated portrait of Ireland. It is necessarily shaped by my sensibilities as a queer feminist. I’m white, middle class, and able-bodied, a set of experiences that have undoubtedly informed my worldview. Other Irish writers would compile a very different list and I hope they do. But this is my take.

For a tiny island on the edge of Europe, we get outsized attention today. I hope that this collection of longreads pushes people to examine their simplified notions of this country I call home.

Ann Lovett: Death of a ‘Strong, Kick-ass Girl’ (Rosita Boland, The Irish Times, March 2018)

Acclaimed Irish folk singer Christy Moore wrote a haunting song about Ann’s death.

In 1984, 15-year-old schoolgirl Ann Lovett died after giving birth to a baby boy in a grotto in Granard, County Longford. The story shocked the nation and the world. Overnight, the small village of Granard was swamped with national and international media. The community banded together, refusing to speak to the media. Her death sparked a seminal national debate on women giving birth outside marriage. Just four months before she died, two-thirds of the Irish people voted to enshrine the right to life of the unborn in the Irish Constitution. This controversial Eighth Amendment to the constitution wasn’t overturned until 2018.

Vicky Langan, the daughter of Ann’s boyfriend, wrote about the impact of Ann’s death on her family through the generations.

To mark what would have been Ann’s 50th birthday, award-winning journalist Rosita Boland spoke with her friends, and eventually her boyfriend, to remember her life and the impact her shocking death had on Irish society. This piece goes some way toward restoring Ann’s dignity as a complicated, rounded person in her own right. Ann Lovett’s name has been synonymous with Ireland’s horrific treatment of women but, as this piece shows, she was so much more than that.

Ann took the scissors out of her schoolbag, leaving the bag near the entrance. Sometime between 12.45pm and 4pm, she lay down beside the workhouse chapel railings, removed her underwear, and gave birth in the rain.

She cut the umbilical cord with the scissors she had brought from home, and wrapped her dead baby in her coat.

He was full term and weighed 6½ pounds. Then she lay down again on the wet mossy gravel, in her school uniform, in the persistent rain, without her coat, her body beginning to go into irreversible shock.

He Had His Reasons (Colin Barrett, Granta, September 2016)

Looking at the grim statistics in Ireland, the most dangerous place for a woman is her home. Since 1996, 244 women have died violently. Of these deaths, 62% happened in their homes and 87% were killed by a man known to them. Eighteen children have died alongside their mothers and in all but one murder-suicide case, the killer was the woman’s partner. Despite this epidemic of violence against women, many Irish media outlets fail to understand the true scale of the crisis.

Colin Barrett examines the August 2016 murder of Clodagh Hawe and her three young sons Liam, Niall, and Ryan. The killer, Alan Hawe — Clodagh’s husband and the boys’ father — died by suicide. Often in Ireland, cases like these are framed as “family tragedies.” In this case, media coverage emphasized how well-respected the killer was in the local community and speculated as to some unknown mental distress he must have been experiencing. This piece rightly focuses its attention on “the invisible tyranny of domestic abuse,” situating these murders as the terminal act in an escalating pattern of violence and fear.

Language, in its quest to be accurate and as concise as possible, can be callous, and the hyphen in the term ‘murder-suicide’ is a violent coupling, a forcing together into a state of symbiotic equivalence two things that are not, of course, symbiotic or equivalent at all. The hyphen welding ‘murder’ to ‘suicide’ implies that each state is as bad, or as tragic, as the other. That the murderer who then commits suicide is, on some level, as much a victim as those he murdered, is paying a commensurate price within a larger, indivisible spectrum of suffering signified by that conjoining hyphen. But what happened to the Hawe family was not only a ‘murder-suicide’. It was, first and foremost, a multiple murder committed by a man who then committed suicide.

Are You Somebody? (Nuala O’Faolain, New Island Books, first published in 1996)

Nuala O’Faolain died of cancer in 2008. Before she died, she appeared on The Marian Finucane Show to talk about her terminal diagnosis. A documentary was later made about her life.

Perhaps the best way to introduce Nuala O’Faolain is to recount the time she went on The Late Late Show and told the bemused host that she’d had lots of sex often just for the exercise. It was 1996 and women’s sexuality was simply never discussed. Her candor was part of what made her memoir a bestseller. She describes the Ireland of her youth as “a living tomb for women” and recounts her experiences with men, alcohol, and the Catholic Church. Many American readers with an interest in Irish literature have read male authors like Colm Tóibín and Frank McCourt. Books by both of these men have subsequently been made into Hollywood movies, reaching even larger audiences. Irish women almost never get that opportunity. O’Faolain’s book gives an important snapshot into the life of Irish women who, in many cases, suffered while the men in their lives flourished. If she were alive today, she’d be celebrated as a virtuoso of the personal essay and an authority on living your life on your own terms.

They were Mother and Father, and does a child know any different? Sure it made me bedwet when he came home pissed and pummelled my mother. Her cries for help were heartrending, and made me try to sleep in a chest of drawers.

Where The Bodies Are Buried (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker, March 2015)

Throughout the Troubles, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had a policy of killing suspected informants. The case of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10, was especially heinous. She was taken from her home in 1972. Her remains were eventually discovered 31 years later. A police investigation found no evidence that McConville was an informant. Many thousands of articles have been written about The Troubles. I’ve selected this piece as a useful introduction for readers interested in learning more about this long and brutal conflict. It evokes the particular cruelty of “disappearing” a young mother, leaving her children “in a purgatory of uncertainty.” Patrick Radden Keefe’s article was later expanded into a book, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.

Jean McConville had just taken a bath when the intruders knocked on the door. A small woman with a guarded smile, she was, at thirty-seven, a mother of ten. She was also a widow: her husband, Arthur, had died eleven months earlier, of cancer. The family continued to live in Divis Flats—a housing complex just off the Falls Road, in the heart of Catholic West Belfast—but had recently moved to a slightly larger apartment. The stove was not connected yet, so Jean’s daughter Helen, who was fifteen, had gone to a nearby chip shop to bring back dinner. “Don’t be stopping for a sneaky smoke,” Jean told her. It was December, 1972, and already dark at 6:30 P.M. When the children heard the knock, they assumed that it was Helen with the food.

How the Truth of ‘The Troubles’ Is Still Suppressed (Alex Gibney, The New York Review of Books*, February 2019)

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On June 18, 1994, in the small village of Loughinisland, County Down, a pub was crowded with patrons watching the Republic of Ireland play in the World Cup. Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) gunmen burst into the pub and opened fire. Six people were killed and five were wounded. Documentarian Alex Gibney set out to make a documentary about the events of that night, interviewing victims’ families, former terrorists, officers from Northern Ireland’s police force (then the Royal Ulster Constabulary), and other government officials. Despite an extraordinary amount of physical evidence and damning testimony, no one was ever charged with the crime.

While making the documentary, filmmakers uncovered evidence of collusion between police and paramilitary forces. Rather than investigating these allegations, the police arrested two of the film’s producers, Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey. The case attracted worldwide attention and sparked a campaign on the importance of press freedom. This article asks whether secrecy should be the price for peace and how the families impacted by The Troubles can move forward without achieving justice for their loved ones.

From the perspective of the government, keeping secrets is the price of law and order. But from the perspective of victims and survivors, a secret that hides the truth is not any kind of justice; it means getting away with murder.

On Liberating the History of Black Hair (Emma Dabiri, Literary Hub, June 2020)

The Ireland of my childhood was almost entirely white. Living in a rural area, I rarely encountered anyone who didn’t look like me. Growing up in Dublin, Emma Dabiri was having a very different experience. Through the lens of black hair, she writes movingly about how being different meant living under constant surveillance. Ireland’s identity as the “land of saints and scholars” dates back more than 600 years. In that time, it has almost always been associated with Christianity and classical learning. Dabiri’s work as an academic, broadcaster, and author expands this narrow interpretation. This piece is an extract from her book, Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture, which explores how black hair has been appropriated and stigmatized throughout history.

As a black child with tightly coiled hair, growing up in an incredibly white, homogeneous, socially conservative Ireland, I certainly wasn’t considered pretty, but that started to change in my midteens. I remember being told that I was “lucky I was pretty,” which meant I could “almost get away with being black.”

No Shelter (Caelainn Hogan, The Stinging Fly, Winter 2017–18)

In recent decades, Ireland has become home to an increasing number of asylum seekers. Migrants seeking asylum in Ireland are forcibly housed in a series of Direct Provision centers which are often located in dilapidated buildings in isolated parts of Ireland. Asylum seekers receive a meager daily allowance and many live in shared rooms without access to a kitchen. Caelainn Hogan speaks to several people caught up in Ireland’s inhumane asylum system, which sees a small number of companies profit from human misery. Her reporting on individual stories illuminates the details of how the lives of asylum seekers are warped by a merciless bureaucratic system and shows just how difficult it is for them to establish safe and independent lives in Ireland.

The first reception centre Joy was sent to was Balseskin, the entry point for most asylum-seekers to the direct-provision system. It is known by many as the ‘camp’: a maze of Portacabins hidden off a narrow road, near to a sparse expanse of industrial estates in Finglas, close to IKEA and the airport. Most people would only pass near to it to buy furniture or to go on holiday.

Troubles in Quinn Country (Kit Chellel and Liam Vaughan, Bloomberg Businessweek*, June 2020)

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Sean Quinn’s name is ubiquitous in Ireland. In 2008, he was the richest man in the country, with business interests across health insurance, construction, and hospitality. His status in the local community was almost messianic. But by 2011, following a series of risky investments, he had filed for bankruptcy. What followed was a campaign of torture, terror, and revenge that rarely made the national news. As The Irish Times noted, if the same thing happened in Dublin, it would have been treated as a national emergency. This deeply reported story deftly reveals the complicated dynamics of rural communities, particularly in regions suffering from historic under-investment.

There has been a Mafia-style group with its own ‘Godfather’ operating in our region. Behind it all is a powerful paymaster and his criminal gang.

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Clare Egan is a queer writer based in Dublin, Ireland. Her writing has appeared in The Irish Times, TheJournal.ie, and others. She is currently working on her first book.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands