On the Shelf: April 2016

Michael Conaghan lays Ireland's claim to Shakespeare and rounds up this month's must-read releases

Was Shakespeare Irish? An assertion for which there is no real evidence or academic research, probably makes it one of the less crackpot theories of the Bard to come out of the last 400 years. Any evidence to support this would depend on believing that Shakespeare is not in fact Shakespeare, and therefore could be from anywhere other than Stratford. Which leaves us freedom to fillet all sorts of Irish allusions in the plays.

Hamlet, a Dane, swears by St. Patrick, a possibly Welsh monk, who ended up driving the snakes out of Ireland ('everybody alright in the back there'); Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream takes his name from Puca the Irish for ghost, and come to think of it not so far from Pooka, an ancient Irish mischievous spirit who manifested itself most famously as a six foot rabbit in the play and film, Harvey.

There is also the fact that some of the things said in Shakespeare's plays sound a bit Irish. 'A hundred thousand welcomes' is offered to Coriolanus by Agrippa in Shakespeare's great Roman tragedy. But of course, it's not just that we see echoes of ourselves in Shakespeare. Everyone does; that is his greatness. And it's not that Shakespeare speaks Irish, it's rather that we still speak the same English as he did.

Seamus Heaney in 'Traditions' declares: 'We are to be proud of our Elizabethan English.... Some cherished archaisms are correct Shakespearean.' Although it is possible that his tongue may have not been straying to far from his cheek here.

There is only one known Irish character in the plays: Captain Macmorris, from Henry V. He is of course, 'a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal' who asks ' is there throats to be cut?' On the understanding that it is always Irish writers who paint their fellow countrymen in the harshest light, this might be seen as definitive proof of Shakespeare's origins.

East Belfast director Kenneth Branagh made much of the scene in his version of the play. But it is more likely that Shakespeare was playing up to Irish stereotypes of his era, which are not alas that different it seems from Irish stereotypes of any other era. So we may have to hold off on that statue of the Bard of Randalstown for a while.

Five Books to Look Out for This Month

Wandering Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way, by Paul Clements (Collins)

The Wild Atlantic Way is that part of coastal Ireland which takes you from Inishowen in County Donegal all the way down to Kinsale in County Cork. In truth it is merely the Atlantic Way, but the addition of the adjective 'Wild' gives it the kind of bracing kick that attracts tourists and travel writers. And Paul Clements is not about to miss an opportunity to experience both the mythic and the human en route.

Waved off by the soon to be vandalised staue of sea god Lir, he encounters, everyone from the last man on the island of Omey to aristocratic relatives of the current Queen, not forgetting to the chase the spirit of famous 16th century woman pirate Grace O'Malley.

Paul Clements Wild Atlantic Way

The Voyage of the Dolphin, by Kevin Smith (Sandstone)

Dublin 1916. The hand of history weighs heavily on the city. In such circumstances, what's a young man to do? Why, embark on an apparently doomed voyage 'to the bloody Arctic' with some equally fired up chums to find the lost skeleton of an Irish giant.

Perhaps the subject matter could be seen as a grand metaphor for the folly that was about to befall Ireland, and the even greater one that was engulfing Europe. Or perhaps for our gallant trio of Fitzmaurice, Rafferty and Crozier, it is testament to an even greater truth, that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, quite like messing about in boats.

The Wasted Years / Full Circle, by Mary Larkin (Blackstaff)

Mary Larkin is the nearest thing we have to a Catherine Cookson figure, and Blackstaff are recognising her increased national treasure status by re-releasing some of her best loved titles. These two linked books play to her strengths.

Essentially a family saga centred on the relationship between two sisters, Rosaleen and Anne, and the man in both their lives, Sean Devlin, it shows how even the most innocent of actions can have devastating consequences, and also that we can never truly put the past behind us. The wartime backdrop shows us a Belfast even more vulnerable than during the worst of the Troubles, reminding us that Northern Irish history didn't just begin in 1969.

A Savage Hunger, by Claire McGowan (Headline)

One of the by-products of the peace process has been an explosion of fiction featuring ordinary, decent murders by ordinary, decent killers and psychopaths. Typically it is the women writers who have often chosen the darker path, and this is the fourth outing for McGowan's forensic psychologist, Paula Maguire, whose wedding plans are interrupted by the disappearance of School girl Alice Morgan.

The recent past intrudes via similarities with another disappearance during the Hunger Strikes, weirdly echoed by Alice' s struggles with Anorexia. As the tension mounts, will Paula make it to the church on time?

Claire McGowan

Louis MacNeice: In a Between World, by Christopher J Fauske (Irish Academic Press)

Some years ago at the Belfast Festival I was privileged to hear Clive James give an extemporized recitation of Louis MacNeice's Sunlight on the Garden. A book on MacNeice was the first book he was ever commissioned to write, and this was his response to a question on why he never finished it.

Who knows, if he had, perhaps it would be something like this study by Christopher J Fauske, which adeptly asseses the work of a great twentieth century poet whose reputation has waxed, waned, and waxed again, till it now stands almost equal to Philip Larkin.

He is good on the personal details too, especially on the importance of women in his life, like his sister Lily, who was there at his deathbed. An ideal companion to Macneice's momentous Collected Poems.