Books, films, places to go, things to do if you’re into Ireland

Video of Ireland’s Glorious Atlantic Coast

The slightly schmaltzy narration on this video, courtesy of FailteIrelandTV, can’t take away from the incredible beauty of western Ireland. Of course, I fear that if this catches on too much, the result could be the whole western seaboard (now rebranded as “The Wild Atlantic Way”) of the country turning into what The Ring of Kerry has long been: an endless traffic jam of tour buses belching fumes. Sorry to play the grinch, but I love visiting these places and having them all to myself! Please enjoy this pleasant visual diversion:

Recommended: A Splendid New Tour Of Ireland To Take On Your iPad

A new “interactive book” called “Ireland In A New Light” offers photos from all 32 of Ireland’s counties, drawn from a National Geographic photographer’s two and a half year sojourn across the Emerald Isle. It’s a testament to the spectacular variety of landscapes in Ireland, and to the ability of the iPad to present color photos with great immediacy and intensity.

Photographer Chris Hill has taken subtle and beautiful photos of ancient dolmen, beaches, quiet pathways, castles and more, including familiar spots like the Cliffs of Moher and Giant’s Causeway, but also focusing in on many less-known locales. There’s enough text to explain what’s in the pictures. But mostly, you’ll find yourself just scrolling along in a pleasant and very colorful Irish daydream. I personally liked the fact that County Roscommon, where my grandmother came from, is nicely covered here (along with Kerry, my grandfather’s birthplace, which always gets tons of love in Irish photo books).

A well put together table of contents allows you to search by provinces, and then drill down into any of the individual counties. Northern Ireland is included. The iPad book is actually a boil down of four print books about Ireland Mr. Hill published previously. All in all, he and designer Colin McCadden have chosen the very best from over 30,000 photographs to produce this digital version. At $14.99, it seems like a bargain.

“Ireland In A New Light” is published by eBooks Ireland, and is available in the Apple iTunes store.

A Scottish Singer To Stir Any Celtic Soul

Irish Traditional Singer Julie Fowlis
Irish Traditional Singer Julie Fowlis

While we generally stick to things Irish on this site, it was great to find Scottish singer Julie Fowlis recently. Ms. Fowlis, who hails from the Hebrides Islands off Scotland’s northwest coast, is what you’d have to call a hard-core traditionalist. She sings 100% in Scottish Gaelic, a language that’s understood by far fewer people in her country than Irish Gaelic is in Ireland. Nonetheless, she’s reached outside the traditional sphere more than most artists, with rocker KT Tunstall, actor Ricky Gervais and other lights of pop culture praising her work. The most obvious reason is her letter-perfect voice, which seems to project a sweet, smooth power across every step of her range. But Ms. Fowlis also has that special ability to dramatize a song that defines the very best — she needs it when she sings in a language which, to our untrained ears, sounds even more eccentric than Irish. You may not understand the words, but Ms. Fowlis will make you hear that Celtic voice inside you stir to life.

She recently did a wonderful album with our current favorite Irish singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh called “Dual” – that you can find on iTunes.

Pictures Of Inisheer

I’‘ve always had a soft spot for Inisheer, the smallest of the three Aran Islands off the coast of Galway. It’s a wonderful spot, still a bit remote even though it’s become a bit more of a popular summer vacation spot than it was when I first visited there in the 1970’s. “Click here for a nice gallery of photos of the “eastern island.”“:

Wonderful Gallery Of Photos Of Ireland

CNN’s “IReporter” invites people to submit stories and photos, and this month the folks at CNN asked people to submit photos from their trips to Ireland. Here’s the gorgious result.

A Young, Bright Light Of Irish Traditional Singing

Irish Traditional Singer
Irish Traditional Singer

There’s no getting around the fact that we’re a bit behind the curve in discovering Irish singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh (pronounced MWI-ren Nick OWL-eve). A native of the Irish islands of Inisheer (one of our favorite spots on earth) and Cape Clear, Ms. Nic Amhlaoibh has been the lead singer for Danu, a well-known traditional group that’s toured the world and won numerous awards, since 2003.

We were lucky enough to stumble across her on iTunes, while searching for recordings of “The Parting Glass,” one of the oldest tunes in the Celtic lexicon. A lot of singers have taken a crack at this song of leaving, which is thought to be Irish or Scottish in origin (it sure sounds Scottish to our ears). But Muireann’s version of it, from her debut solo album “Daybreak” released in 2006 (Compass Records), is a recording of almost indescribable sadness and beauty, probably the best thing we’ve come across since Solas’ great arrangement of “The Newry Highwayman.”

Nic Amhlaoibh is possessed of a silky-smooth voice that reminds one of Niamh Parsons, and an ability to apply traditional Irish singing styles in a way that’s understated and original. “Daybreak” includes an interesting mix of old songs, some sung in Irish language, and more modern pieces like Richard Thompson’s “Persuasion.” There’s very little instrumental backup on many of the tunes here. That’s good, because her voice is so expressive it’s best to hear it without much else in the way. “Daybreak” is an outstanding piece of work by an artist stretching the boundaries of traditional, without losing the sense of her musical roots. The artist’s website is at

Ireland’s Fantastic Castle Leslie

Enjoy this very nice CNN video about Castle Leslie, a great estate and an equestrian center (supposedly the largest in Europe) still run by the Leslie family.

A Drive Over The Beara, On Video

My grandfather grew up on the north side of the Healy Pass, a winding mountain road that cuts across the Beara Peninsula. Here’s a simple video I came across of a trip over the pass, that gives at least some sense of what a pretty place it is.

Irish Chimps Do A Bit Of The ‘ol Dance

Ok, this really isn’t the sort of thing we normally go in for here at The Irish Letter. But it’s hard not to have at least one good belly-laugh out of this Arby’s ad, where some talented chimps do a Celtic dance.

A Lightship of The Irish Soul

Colm Toibin’s “The Blackwater Lightship”
Colm Toibin’s “The Blackwater Lightship”

A highly recommended find in modern Irish literature is Colm Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship, a subtle picture of the very hardboiled relationships between women in an Irish family.

This book has been out since 2001, but it’s deserving of another look. Though Toibin is a little less known here in America than Frank McCourt, he’s one of Ireland’s most powerful novelists. The Blackwater Lightship is a display of his talent in full force.

Put together Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams and Jerry Seinfeld and you might approximate the tone of Toibin’s work. He has a way of making the odd internal worlds of ordinary people spectacularly interesting, and finding humor in the darkest places.

The Blackwater Lightship tells the story of a grandmother, mother and daughter forced to make peace with each other for the first time when they face a son’s coming death from AIDS. Accepting the boy’s homosexuality is almost easy for them, compared to the job of facing the jealousy and anger they’ve harbored towards each other almost their entire lives.

Sound like a downer? The surprise is the incredible stream of humor Toibin weaves into this sad story. These anxious, unselfconscious characters process the world around them in a way that’s classically Irish. They constantly say things that make you laugh your head off, though you know they don’t quite get the joke themselves.

But Toibin never goes for the cheap laugh. Every odd comment has a way of peeling back another layer of each character, showing you some unpleasant things, but at the same time giving you more and more sympathy for him or her.

Toibin’s more recent book, The Master, a fictionalized biography of Henry James, got a great deal of international praise and attention. Personally, I’ve been more moved by his stories of nobodies who lead lives of quiet desperation. The Heather Blazing, from 2002 is a wonderful example, but to me, The Blackwater Lightship is a book that ranks with the very best I’ve ever read.

The Blackwater Lightship is published by Scribner.

Traveller’s Lives, Captured

Ireland Tinkers Travellers
Ireland Tinkers Travellers

An absolutely outstanding find this month is Alen MacWeeney’s new book “Irish Travellers” about the itinerant people who’ve long lived on, and by the sides of, Ireland’s roadways.

Though it’s largely a photo book, “Irish Travellers” also contains sparkling writing by the photographer and even a CD of music by this unique group once known as the Tinkers. Mr. MacWeeney’s introductory memoir, even without the pictures, would make for a very good little book. It tells how he got involved in photographing Travellers from 1965 – 71 (an era before motorized caravans supplanted the old horse-powered wagons I still saw on the roads in Ireland in 1975) and became deeply drawn into to their culture – to a point where he began to see a certain hollowness in the way “normal” people lived in a single place.

Shuttling back and forth between nights at Traveller’s campfires in Ireland and trips to New York to work as an assistant for a major fashion photographer, MacWeeney gradually came to understand the breadth of the itinerants’ culture. Among the many legends he learned is the one that, because a Tinker made the nails for Christ’s crucifixion, the Tinkers are destined by God to wander the earth until the day of judgment.

Why Outsiders?

It’s ironic that the Travellers have always been “outsiders” in their own country, feared and disliked to a large degree by Irish people. Their intense love of music, storytelling, language and celebration all seem to distill the elements that define Irish culture and identity. What MacWeeney discovers, and conveys perfectly in his photographs, is a powerful flavor of life and an undeniable beauty in the Travellers’ hardscrabble existence. “When I knew them, the dirt was shaken off and ignored,” he says, “and their ragged clothes framed and added to their vitality and stature.”

This book is probably one of the last chronicles of a lifestyle that began to vanish right around the time Alen MacWeeney began his photo project, due to the Irish government’s efforts to get itinerant people to live in camps rather than endlessly roam the roads.

It’s a powerful epitaph. The journalist’s top rule is “don’t get too close to your subjects.” By disregarding it and becoming a part of the story he was observing (in the manner of Diane Arbus), MacWeeney has made a book that conjures up the Travellers’ culture, and leaves it lingering like a sweet, mysterious scent in the air around you after you’ve closed this excellent book.

“Irish Travellers, Tinkers No More” by Alen MacWeeney, is published by the New England College Press.

A Dublin Love Story That Rocks

A fine discovery this month is low-budget indie film “Once,” a story about a subtle, unusual love affair between a struggling Irish musician and a Czechoslovakian immigrant, filmed entirely in Dublin.

Not many love stories start with the guy saying he works in a Hoover shop and the girl replying “Perfect! I have a broken vacuum cleaner.” But “Once” spins eccentric little bits like this into a love story that has a ring of truth to it that hits your right in the chest, where that heart of yours is.

A real joy of this movie is Czech actress and musician Marketa Irglova, who doesn’t look at all like a Hollywood starlet, but projects more charm than a boatload of them. The songs that play a big part in this movie (it almost turns into a flat-out musical at times) sound a little too good to be written by a guy who sings on the street. That’s because he happens to be Glen Hansard, the lead singer for well-known Irish band The Frames. You may also recognize him as the guitar player from 1991’s “The Commitments” It would be unfair not to also mention the brief but marvelous performance of Bill Hodnett, who plays the musician’s father – the owner of said Hoover shop.

“Once” is a dead-on portrayal of the loneliness of going after something with passion – a life in a new country, a dream of succeeding in music, or anything else that requires a real risk. I can’t claim to be a major fan of The Frames, but their moody, almost spooky songs fit perfectly into this story line. This is a little film that plays big on the emotions.