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Young Irelanders 
Gerard Donovan

With one glance across time she saw the skull, the shoulders, the spine curled in two short strands that wove through shallow muck. A mother had cried for a long time after this child died. Three thousand years ago was yesterday: she was buried here, scantly as she lay."

Reviewed by Majella Cullinane

Since the early 1990s, Ireland has experienced unprecedented change and development, not only in terms of its economy, but also on a socio-political level. A country once known for mass emigration and unemployment, Ireland has evolved from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the wealthiest. Gerard Donovan’s collection of fourteen stories, Young Irelanders, [published in the UK as Country of the Grand] deals with a variety of themes: bereavement, infidelity, relationships, and the conflict between the demands of the present and the past in this new, affluent Ireland. 

The underlying thread that runs through many of his stories is: nothing is as it seems. In the first story, Morning Swimmers, an overheard conversation forces a man to not only re-evaluate friendship, but also his relationship with his wife, whom he discovers has been having an affair. The theme of infidelity is explored again in How Long Until when on a journey across Ireland a man asks his wife how long after he was dead would she wait before being with another man. 

The dialogue-driven narrative Shoplifting in the USA also finds a man confronting uncomfortable truths about his wife, and discovering that ambiguity, though often appealing, can also be precarious. In Another Life, a woman travels to a house in Galway after the death of her husband and realises that in order to reconcile her memory with recently uncovered secrets, she will need to "see what had been true in their lives." 

Country of the Grand centres on a solicitor, who despite living in an Ireland of economic success feels displaced and yearns for the past. “He remembered gathering hay one week when he was nine and the summers seemed longer than they were now.” The desire to reconnect with the past is also the focus of the story Archaeologists. This story centres on the conflict between recording the past and the frantic pace of development in Ireland, a theme which is reflected in the relationship breakdown between the two characters; one who has an overwhelming desire to preserve the past, and the other who believes it sufficient to catalogue it and to ultimately move forward. 

The theme of bereavement and loss are central to the stories Glass and The Summer Birds. In Glass, a young boy loses his father and finds comfort for his grief in silence. In this story, Donovan shows a deftness for poignant and subtle emotion and ends: “I returned to my room, undressed, turned out the light and listened to the silent white storm heave against the evening.” 

The two stories which stood out the most for me were By Irish Nights and Harry Dietz. The first is a story inspired by a newspaper story read in a café, and unusually, it is written using the 3rd person plural "they", in order I think to embody how "they," the dead, haunt the living, and how "they" are also haunted by the living. With honed and lyrical prose, it is a moving and emotionally wrought story. Harry Dietz is a strangely gripping tale of an old man whose lost memory and sense of disconnectedness see him travel across an American city and meet a range of characters which catapult the story to its climatic and memorable ending. 

Using a variety of narrative techniques, Young Irelanders is an evocative and fine collection, which has not only faithfully captured the changing face of modern Ireland, but also the human condition.

Majella Cullinane was born in Ireland and currently lives in Glasgow. Writing awards include a Sean Dunne Poetry Prize, a Hennessy for Emerging Poetry, an Irish Arts Council Award, and in 2007 she was long-listed for the Fish Short Histories Fiction Prize. More recently, she’s worked as a Writer in Residence in Scotland.

Majella's other Short Reviews: Tim Jones "Transported"   


PublisherThe Overlook Press

(published by Faber in the UK as Country of the Grand)

Publication Date:July 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?: Yes

Author bio: Gerard Donovan was born in Ireland and currently lives in New York. He is the author of the novels Sunless, Julius Winsome and Schopenhauer’s Telescope, which was nominated for the Booker Prize.

Read an interview with Gerard Donovan

Buy this book (used or new) from:

The Publisher's Website: Overlook 

The Publisher's Website: Faber

Author's recommended bookseller: Guardian bookshop





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