The ability to tell stories holds unmatched power, a distinct ability to mine any experience — from the meaningful to the mundane — and unearth a magic within. Nobody understands this more than the Irish.
The Emerald Isle has produced generation upon generation of skilled storytellers. Whether they’re strumming a fiddle, putting a pen to the page, or turning a camera on the lush, green hills of the island’s drizzly countryside, these voices are instilled with unrivalled talent for spinning a great yarn.
Here are the books, films, and music that will connect you to such storytelling. Check them out before you embark on your next Irish adventure.
Frank McCourt was 66 when he published “Angela’s Ashes,” his first book, but from the breathtaking prose on the opening page that seamlessly blends the beautiful and the tragic, you’d think he’d been practicing the craft his entire life. The memoir is anything but cheerful, as it recounts the author’s rough upbringing in Limerick, Ireland. Among other things, it details his family’s immense poverty, his father’s struggles with alcoholism, and the deaths of several of his younger siblings. That said, it is an absolute must-read for anyone seeking to understand what it’s like to live and grow up in Ireland. The often bleak tale is saved by periodic uplifting moments, staggeringly gorgeous descriptions of the Irish countryside, and an overarching tale of strength and perseverance. If you enjoy it, check out McCourt’s sequels, “’Tis” and “Teacher Man.”
To understand the Irish, you have to spend some time in their most vibrant cultural hubs — their pubs. This is an idea that author Pete McCarthy took to heart when he traveled to Ireland to explore his mother’s homeland. On his journey from Cork to Donegal, along the country’s western coast, he stuck to the old rule of “never pass a bar with your name on it” — and with a name like McCarthy, he ended up in a lot of bars. From eccentric locals to famous celebrities (such as Frank McCourt), McCarthy bumped into a variety of personalities over a pint of Guinness, or four, and ended up on a host of quirky side journeys in the process. Most intriguing, however, is his personal journey, as he uses his humor and eye for detail to discover a lot about his own heritage.
It’s impossible to discuss Irish literature without mentioning the country’s most famous voice, that of James Joyce. The novelist, short-story writer, and poet is known not only as a great Irish author, but as one of the most influential scribes of the 20th century. Born and raised in Dublin, Joyce made the Irish capital the focus of a much of his work and set out to capture the heart of the worldly city through his writing. If you’re looking for a set of short stories that depict the city’s nature, check out “Dubliners,” but if you’ve got a good deal of free time before your trip, pick up his landmark work, “Ulysses,” a massive tome that follows a day in the life of a Dubliner named Leopold Bloom.
Movies and TV
“Brooklyn” stars Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Lady Bird”) as Eilis Lacey, an Irish woman who leaves her home to travel to America in search of a better life. Though the title suggests a focus on her adopted city, the film is truly a tale of two countries, as Eilis battles homesickness and contends with dueling love interests across the Atlantic in order to figure out where she truly belongs. With staggering performances and beautiful cinematic storytelling, “Brooklyn” is at once a compelling love story and a deep look at the meaning of home.
The technology-focused anthology series has a tendency to construct dark and unnerving plots that leave the viewer with a pit-in-your-stomach feeling as the credits roll. However, like the Emmy-winning episode “San Junipero,” also directed by Owen Harris, “Be Right Back” takes a softer approach, grounding its plot with an emotional love story and resounding score while still initiating a thought-provoking turn of events. This stand-alone episode stars Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson, who play a newlywed couple who move to a quaint cabin in the Irish countryside. When Ash (Gleeson) dies in a car accident, Martha (Atwell) employs a new technology to bring him back to life through his social media presence. Set against the beautiful backdrop of the cliff-lined coast, the episode will fill you with a longing to explore the Emerald Isle, and maybe keep your phone in your pocket while doing so.
The winner of the World Audience Award at Sundance, “Once” opens with a serendipitous meeting between an Irish street musician and a Czech immigrant. From there, it develops into subtle, yet powerful tale of friendship and fleeting romance as the two bond over a mutual love of music. Director John Carney is known for his musically infused films, such as “Sing Street” and “Begin Again,” and he uses this starring couple’s indie-folk collaboration to paint the streets of Dublin with a realistic and transcendent beauty. The entire soundtrack is fantastic, leading off with the duet “Falling Slowly,” which won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2007.
Folk music is as ingrained in Irish society as shepherd’s pie and Guinness, and few bands embody the spirited genre as well as the Dubliners. Since they first performed together at Dublin’s O’Donoghue’s Pub in the 1960s, the band has felt right at home in the city’s pub scene with their scraggly beards and hard-drinking behavior. With an extensive discography that includes a mesmerizing mix of drinking songs, sea shanties, and traditional ballads, the Dubliners have crafted a unique sound that captures the essence of the Irish spirit. Before your trip, turn on one of their greatest-hits albums and jig along to upbeat tunes like “the Lark in the Morning” and “Mcalpine’s Fusiliers,” as well slower croons like “the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.”
With over 30 million records sold, five multi-platinum albums, and multiple sell-out world tours, the Script is far from an indie folk band. However, this sensational pop group embodies just as much Irish pride as the Dubliners, hitting chart-topping success with hits such as “Breakeven,” “Superheroes,” and “the Man Who Can’t Be Moved.” If pub songs aren’t your thing, but you still want to experience some spectacular Irish music, check out their popular records, such as their self-titled 2008 album or their more recent “Freedom Child.”
It’s hard to categorize Enya’s distinct style. Her music inhabits an ethereal space, mixing traditional Celtic folk melodies with synthesized sounds and classical patterns. The result is an otherworldly experience that flows fantastically through various emotional realms. Even if you’re not familiar with her work (which is unlikely, as she has sold an estimated 80 million albums worldwide), you might recognize her hit “May It Be,” which was written for “the Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring,” and for which she was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
As a Boston native, I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention this hardcore Celtic folk group out of Southie. But despite their Bostonian pride, the rough-and-rowdy band is true to its distinct Irish roots, taking inspiration from and having collaborated with folk legends such as the Dubliners and the Pogues. You’re sure to be familiar with their hit “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” which was featured in the 2005 film “the Departed,” but be sure to check out some of their other notable tunes, such as “Tessie,” which chronicles the rich origin story of a Red Sox chant, and “Rose Tattoo,” a mandolin-heavy sea shanty written as a testament to the people who inspired the lead singer’s body art.