08 February, 2008

'Ireland' - Frank Delaney

Historical fiction comes in various guises. At times the balance between the two elements - history and a story - is uneven, resulting in a novel overly-concerned with dates and analysis; or, in the opposite case fact is so far removed from the story that the only relevance of 'history' is that the book is set in the past.

When I saw this book in the country of its title, I expected the balance to sit on the side of history. Something along the lines of a Robert Hughes epic, perhaps. The reality was quite different, however. Delaney hits upon an engaging and enticing way of entwining fiction and factual details of Ireland's past. His cause is helped by the Irish culture itself, as it is one of storytelling, the crux of this novel.

Ronan O'Mara is nine years old the first time he sees the Storyteller. Tall, in cap and boots, this man wanders 1950s Ireland receiving board and food from villagers in exchange for his entrancing stories about Ireland's history. The visit changes Ronan's life, which from then on is dedicated to two pursuits: finding the Storyteller again and his own study of history, which takes him to Trinity College in Dublin. Alongside this runs the emerging story of Ronan's own family history, which harbours secrets he never suspected.

The Storyteller keeps in touch with Ronan through occasional visits and, more frequently, through letters or stories told by other people who have known and heard him. Ronan's eccentric history lecturer also fills in part of the story with passionately delivered lectures. The stories flow through the historical record from the majesty of the Architect of Newgrange, to the coming of Strongbow, the battles of Brian of Boru, the famine and the climax of Connolly, Pearce and their followers' bravery and sacrifice for Irish indepedence in the Easter 1916 uprising.

Delaney makes effective use of the Storyteller's tool - language - to subtly distinguish between the exposition and the tales, and also on occasion to differentiate style when someone is recounting a story they have heard. Notably, the stories, no matter how apocryphal or mythologised, contain fact: normally the year, date and sometimes even day of the week or time that a centuries-old event took place. Within the modern day elements of the novel, the timeframe can shift, for example jumping forward to explain a consequence, then back into the chronology of Ronan's life. This effect is a necessity when one recounts a history, whether of a man or a country: events and consequences do not always step along a perfectly linear path.

Delaney mentions several times that the art of storytelling is a native trait of the Irish. Whether their skill comes from the depth of material available in their past, or if this historical richness is a result of it being kept alive through verbal tradition is hard to know. Delaney certainly possesses great skill in his country's national artform and in this novel does a great service to any reader wishing to be truly entertained and informed.

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