On the Shelf: March 2016

In the first of a new column, writer Michael Conaghan considers literature's link with upcoming centenaries and rounds up this month's best releases

'History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.' Stephen Dedalus' cri de coeur in James Joyce's Ulysses defines our national condition. In the era of constant anniversaries, the sleep of the innocent is often disturbed.

Two major events dominate this year, both with seemingly emotional tugs to both communities. Here of course, the political is always personal. My own relationship to the great creation myth that is the 1916 Rising is a series of family legends involving sundry great aunts smuggling arms hidden in prams to the GPO. British troops stationed there must have wondered at the sudden outbreak of fertility taking place in the troubled streets. But my favourite family legend has a suitably literary association.

My great uncle Charlie was among the famous rioters berated by Yeats during an Abbey production of The Playboy of the Western World. One of the reasons I would never seriously consider a genealogical investigation into my family would be the fear that it would place my great uncle somewhere else, a church perhaps, or distributing improving literature to the poor and needy. The waters should stay muddied.

In Lorcan Collins' estimable 1916: The Rising Handbook we learn that the famous 1916 Proclamation could not have been read out on the steps of the GPO, for the simple reason that the front didn't have any steps. But when in doubt, always print the legend.

As for the Somme, it has become a kind of Hades where the shades of the fallen young men of Ulster linger, becoming shadowy gods to those who follow. Both our cultures are seemingly united in their veneration of the violently slaughtered.

To get a sense of the Somme's centrality to Protestant heritage, drama is the best vehicle. Frank McGuinness' Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme may have set out to decontruct myths, but its effect was to give a voice to a kind of inexpressible yearning to be understood. 

A friend who mixed membership of the Orange Order with weekly bodhran sessions with the mountain men in a mid Ulster pub declared that it was the first thing he had seen that explained how he felt. That alone marks it as a key moment when art made a clear pattern out of the claggy mud.

Five Books to Look Out for This Month

Rain Dogs, by Adrian McKinty (Serpent's Tail)

I've always felt that what Irish crime fiction lacks is a maverick cop series where our tortured anti-hero battles impossible odds and a broken heart while coming up against arbitrarily imposed 24 hour deadlines. Adrian Mckinty's Sean Duffy ticks many of those boxes, including being a Catholic detective in Troubles-era RUC.

Here Mckinty makes good use of his native Carrickfergus with the mysterious death of a journalist at the castle. All indictations point to suicide, usually a sign in detective stories that the game is afoot. Sure enough, Duffy soon finds himself involved in uncovering a conspiracy of corruption and abuse which points to, where else? But the very top.

Adrian McKinty - Rain Dogs

Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone, Michael Bradley (Omnibus)

The Undertones always gave the impression of being a band who never realised how great they were. They had a glorious rush of records at the turn of the eighties before being eclipsed by the very art school boys they mocked in 'My Perfect Cousin'.

Bass player Mickey Bradley's account of their rise and fall is as vivid and personable as the man himself, aided by an instinctive diplomacy which means that the darker themes of the Troubles and inter-band tensions don' t intrude too much. As the man says 'I have kept this ability to change with the prevailing winds of opinion to this day'.

The Aeneid, Seamus Heaney (Faber)

In the brief introduction to this translation of The Aeneid Book VI, Seamus Heaney is frank about the journey of the translator from 'inspiration to grim determination' and indeed both are on view here. The underworld has been a constant presence in his work, and another voyage across the Styx would seem to be a fitting memorial.

There is the odd glitch along the way, however, a lapse into anachronisms and almost pastiche phrases like 'the fling and scringe ... of iron chains'. But when the poet reaches the underworld itself, 'this land of troubles', he mixes the earthy and airy in classic Heaney fashion, recalling his own epic 'Station Island' and creating, finally, 'a dream on wings'.

Westmorland Alone, Ian Sansom (Fourth Estate)

When you hit on a winning formula, how do you avoid becoming formulaic? This is the third of Ian Sansom's adventures featuring Swanton Morley and his sidekick and narrator, war veteran Stephen Sefton. Their task is to complete a guide for each of the murder rich counties of pre-Beeching England.

Morley is in the grand Holmesean tradition of looper detectives, but his intellectual curiosity and knowledge of the arcane bring a whiff of Flann O'Brien's mad professor De Selby. Sansom however cleverly sideswipes our comfortable expectations by introducing a horrific train crash early on. Three down, only 36 to go, chaps.

Westmorland Alone - Ian Sansom

How Many Miles to Babylon, Jennifer Johnston (Penguin)

It is worth remembering that the First World War was a catastrophe that claimed victims from all parts of Ireland. Jennifer Johnston's compelling tragedy tells of a forbidden friendship betwen two boys, Alec from the 'big house' and Jerry, the local.

They continue to meet in secret, fired by a mutual love of horses. But class and colonial conflict are never far away, and even in the supposedly levelling atmosphere of the Great War they are divided, until that other great leveller, death, brings them together at last