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Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and was the Irish Book of the Year for 2011. I first read it in Ireland during a visit home — where it was displayed prominently alongside the big names in supermarket book displays, a reflection of its popularity — and loved it. On rereading, Solace proved even better, richer and more nuanced.

Solace by Belinda McKeon (Irish cover -- Picador)

Solace by Belinda McKeon
(Irish cover — Picador)

At its core, like all great fiction, Solace is a family story, a tale of disfunction and inter-generational misunderstanding.  Mark Casey is a graduate student in literature at Trinity College in Dublin; approaching thirty, he teaches dull undergrads and has grown bored by his dissertation subject. He needs a kick in the pants, and his father is all too willing to give him one.

Mark’s father, Tom Casey, is a small farmer from Co. Longford; a practical man, he struggles to accept Mark’s seemingly never-ending student life. Constantly badgering his son to come down to the farm to help him with the “real work” of running the place. Mark’s mother, Maura, runs interference between them and keeps the peace. It’s a family dynamic that will be familiar to anybody who ever left their hometown or resisted joining a family business.

In the novel, Mark’s life is jolted from his comfortable rut by Joanne, a trainee solicitor he meets in a dingy pub. Before they have time to fall in love properly, she is pregnant, and they’re setting up home together and learning how to raise a baby. Joanne has her own issues with parental pressure and expectation, but it’s the story of Mark and his father, that dominates this novel — although their passive-aggressive arguments, quintessentially Irish, may seem alien to readers from other backgrounds. Solace is a book about home, and the inevitable struggle to escape it and to define yourself in your own terms; but, McKeon knows that the struggle is at best illusory, and eventually we have to reconcile ourselves with that home. The fight is not so much to escape it, but to come to terms with it.

Solace also captures an interesting point in Irish life: it takes place as the economic boom was at its peak, and ends just as everyone was waking up to the bust. The main characters in Solace, students and small farmers, were not reaping the benefits of the Celtic Tiger, nor do they initially notice the bust making much difference to their lives. But they display a reticence about the stability of the good times that perhaps many felt during those years, but did not articulate. In the pub one night Tom Casey reflects that nobody wants to reminisce about the old days: “There were things nobody thanked you for reminding them of. There were years that had slipped so far into the past that it was better not to mention them…. they acted now as though they had been happy in a way that they would never be happy again.” This in the middle of an unprecedented economic boom! In passing, McKeon seems to sketch a pub full of people who should be on top of the world, but who harbor this unmentioned dread. The old refrain of things being better in the old days feels completely out of place among the triumphalism of land exchanging hands for millions, houses going up like they were made of Lego, and everyone spending like there was no tomorrow. But it remained in people’s mind, unsaid perhaps, but present.

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Mark’s mother Maura reflects that other parents have the same experience of their children not visiting enough, only those children’s distance was ostensibly because of their high-pressure jobs, their new financial success, rather than because they were working fitfully on a dissertation and avoiding their father. She sees the trappings of these children’s material success, fancy suits, big cars, foreign holidays, but wonders uneasily if “she should want those things for Mark, whether she should feel disappointed in him for not having them”? Again, the rural perspective in Solace reflects a distrust (but perhaps it’s only the typical Irish melancholy) of the flashy new world, coupled with the outsider’s feeling of powerlessness — who were they to articulate their doubts in the face of the official narrative of prosperity?

Towards the end of the novel, Tom Casey is prevailed upon to make a very unsound investment, and you realize that McKeon has been slowly sowing the seeds of a financial enmity throughout the book. Tom has been a small farmer all his life, instinctively distrustful of financial institutions and big talk. Now — like Jude in Julian Gough’s recent novella “Crash” — the steady Celtic Tiger drum beat of investment and prosperity has slipped under his skin, and he makes a poor decision. It’s a decision that forces Mark to grow up once more, a decision that makes him realize his father is aging, and the push-pull of the parent-child relationship has shifted, perhaps irrevocably.

McKeon is excellent at writing Irish men, particularly older men. Both Mark and Tom are alive and fairly leap off the page — even though Mark can be a frustratingly passive character, rent with indecision and content to bumble along in his laddish ways. To be fair, Mark is a very representative example of the twenty-something Irish male singleton, and the passivity is not so much a lack of imagination on the author’s part, but an accurate reflection of her source material. Children in Ireland are taught early on that it’s not good to stand out, not advisable to go first, or risk failure. Mark is a typical clever plodder, trusting to slow work and fulfillment of basic expectations to take him inoffensively to where he hopes to end up. Tom is wise in practical ways, reflective if not expressive, and can be wryly humorous, but his outlook is curtailed by the limits of his experience.

Solace is a book that haunts the reader in its assured power. It demonstrates the raw emotions and fierce clashes that are played out under the surface when families gather, and captures the way that youth is an essential process of fleeing from then returning to a family with clarity, nuance, and understanding. I have a feeling that Solace is a book I will delve into again and again over the years.




Buy Solace in the UK from The Book Depository… (free shipping worldwide)

Buy Solace in the US from Barnes & Noble…

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Like most of Hollywood’s Irish romantic comedies, 1997’s “The Matchmaker“, starring Janeane Garofalo, David O’Hara and Milo O’Shea, is a love-it-or-hate-it affair. The usual broad Irish stereotypes are on display as Marcy, a young American political aide (Garofalo) unexpectedly lands in the middle of a matchmaking festival. The film, however, has a lot of charm and humor, and the filmmakers’ obvious enjoyment of all things Irish saves the day.

matchmaker posterSo, where should you go if you want to capture the authentic “Matchmaker” experience?

The village: Roundstone, Co. Galway

Unlike many movies set in Ireland, most of “The Matchmaker” was mostly shot in and around one location, the picturesque village of Roundstone in Co. Galway. The main street we first see as the bus gets wrapped up in a large sign and careens down the boat ramp is one of the famous picture-postcard images of Connemara. The real pubs and hotels of the village served as locations for the fictional town of “Ballinagra” (trans: “the town of love”), and visitors can stroll around the village and imagine themselves in many scenes from the film. (Just don’t start drunkenly dancing on top of any Mercs parked on the main street…)


Roundstone from Flickr

Roundstone, Co. Galway. (Photo credit: marianone via Flickr creative commons license)

The Island: Inishmore

In the film, the main characters make an overnight trip to the Aran Islands, and this was indeed shot on location on Inishmore (at least the exteriors were). The little airport where Jeanne Garofalo nearly missed the bus to Ballynagra is actually Inishmore Aerodrome on the Aran Islands. There’s not much to see at the aerodrome in real life, but the short trip from Connemara Airport to Inishmore is a wonderful sightseeing opportunity, and may spare you what can be a very rough ferry crossing.

"Will ya have some coffee? Ya will, ya will, ya will.... Cappuccino?"


Inishmore is a wonderful place to visit, its pubs bustling and noisy in the summer months. If you visit in the winter, the weather will generally be worst, but the life of the island goes on and you have a greater chance of actually meeting a bunch of locals in the pub, not just fellow tourists.

Going through Flickr, I noticed that some people get excited to find the cottage where “Ned Devine” (Jimmy Keogh) pegs stones at Marcy & Sean. I can’t say I was interested enough in finding that exact cottage to prowl the island in search of it (at a certain point all whitewashed cottages look the same), but that was the scene of the funniest bit in the movie (at least for me): when Marcy tells Sean to say something in Irish to Ned Devine to get him to stop throwing stones at them. Sean reaches into his memory for the one phrase every Irish school kid knows: An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas? Which translates as, “Can I use the bathroom?” In national (elementary) school, this is the magic phrase every kid has to say in order to go to the restroom, and as Sean says “if you don’t say it, you have to go in your pants. And, it’s not very nice to go in your pants.” Indeed not!

Inishmore (Photo credit: viennaherby via a creative commons license from Flickr)

Inishmore (Photo credit: viennaherby via a creative commons license from Flickr)

The large airport where Marcy arrives and transfers to the “wee baby planelet” (the same plane that does the short hops to and from the Aran Islands daily, is Shannon Airport, which should be familiar to most travelers flying transatlantic to Ireland.

So, that’s a short and sweet roundup of where to go if you want to wander the streets seen in “The Matchmaker.”



Like Irish movies? You may be interested in “Where was Amy Adams’ Leap Year Filmed”…

Ah gwan, sure why not treat yourself to “The Matchmaker” on DVD… You will, you will, you will…

Metal detecting has a checkered history in Ireland. Recent government guidelines highlight its all-but illegal status.

no detectingMillions of people visit Ireland every year, and some of them may pack a metal detector, thinking of enjoying a little stroll and hoping to find some trinkets from the past. Those people should think again, because as revised guidelines from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht make clear, metal detecting is all but illegal in Ireland. While it is not illegal to own a metal detector, the guidelines make clear that unless you have a permit from the Department, or are working under the supervision of an archaeologist who has the appropriate permit, it is illegal to use a metal detector to search for historical artifacts (a very broad legal definition that includes most conceivable metal objects that might be under the ground including relatively recent metal trash).

The catch is, you have no idea what the metal object is that makes your detector beep. If you dig it up (even on private land, and with the permission of the landowner) and find it’s a rusty tin can, you might be in the clear (I’m not a lawyer, so consult a professional if for some reason you do plan on a little metal detecting on your Irish vacation). But, if it turned out to be an old coin, you’d probably have just committed a crime (actually, more likely two crimes: using a metal detector to search for antiquities and excavating an historical artifact without permission). Other countries have much more permissive regulations, so metal detecting enthusiasts coming to Ireland from abroad may be accustomed to a very different regulatory environment.

Possession of a metal detector on a protected historical site is completely prohibited, whether or not you’re using it. As there are over 130,000 registered historical sites in Ireland, and the boundaries of some of these sites may be ill-defined — that’s a large area.  Many, if not most, protected areas have no signs posted to that effect. Metal detecting on private land without permission would make one guilty of trespass, and even if you received permission, it’s still illegal to knowingly search for antiquities.

The Derrynaflan Chalice. Discovered with metal detectors on a protected historical site. The legal arguments over ownership of the Chalice and other discoveries led to new legislation to outlaw treasure hunting in Ireland. (Photo credit: Kglavin via wikipedia commons)

The Derrynaflan Chalice. Discovered by two men using metal detectors at a protected historical site. The legal arguments over ownership of the Chalice and other discoveries led to new legislation to outlaw treasure hunting in Ireland. (Photo credit: Kglavin via wikipedia commons)

The reason for these laws is a history of professional treasure hunters who pillaged Ireland’s historical sites in the 1970s and ‘80s, damaging the sites by disturbing and destroying any adjacent non-metal artifacts and archaeological evidence, and selling many rare ancient treasures on the black market. (And, long before that, amateur archaeologists did untold damage to many sites in the 18th and 19th centuries — excavating with dynamite, among other bad ideas.) It took a great deal of coordinated government and Garda effort in the 1980s and ’90s to catch these gangs, recover the treasures, and amend the laws to prevent future looting of historical sites that are of international interest.

There are of course mechanisms in the laws to cover the accidental discovery of artifacts in the course of normal agricultural or construction work. All ancient artifacts are the property of the state, and must be turned over to the authorities within 96 hours, regardless of the method of discovery.

So, leave the metal detector at home when you travel to Ireland.



The complete guidelines for metal detector use can be accessed via the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht…



Julian Gough’s Crash: How I Lost a Hundred Billion and Found True Love is a satirical novella about a serious subject, the EU/IMF bailout of post-financial-crash Ireland. After five years of austerity and hand-wringing, most people’s eyes glaze over at the mention of banks or bailouts. But, Gough does something very subtle and effective in his ebook-original novella, he provides a better lesson in austerity economics than most journalists and professors have been able to come up with since 2008.

Julian Gough's CRASH! Julian Gough is a poet, dramatist, novelist, and once upon a time was the lead singer for cult Irish rock group Toasted Heretic. His short stories have won the BBC short story award and irritated the biggest multinational corporation in the world. He’s already poked fun at the financial sector in his play “The Great Goat Bubble,” but clearly he hasn’t ceased to find the world of politics and high finance ridiculous. While everyone else has been wailing and gnashing their teeth over austerity, he’s been writing a satirical novella. Perhaps he’s been insulated slightly from the fatalism of the “we have no option but austerity” so-called debate about the financial crisis in Ireland by virtue of living in Berlin? But enough background info, it’s time to meet Jude…

Gough’s regular everyman, Jude (a slightly different character than the Jude in his novels Jude: Level 1 and Jude in London), has the distinction of being the last person in the country of Squanderland to purchase property. He preferred to avoid the credit economy because he “didn’t understand how everyone could get richer by increasing their debt.” He finally succumbs to an insistent bank official because he admired the man’s tenacity (this banker, of course, ends up in the government). Naturally, this last undeveloped piece of real estate is staggeringly expensive. It’s also a wooden henhouse, with no roof. (“‘Ah, now,’” said Jude. “‘There are a number of planks still in place, and not all of them are rotten.’”) For this bottom rung on the property ladder, Jude finds himself the most indebted man in the world. Thankfully, Jude has a sunny disposition, and doesn’t let this prey on his peace-of-mind. From his point of view, things are not too bad. His chickens are laying, so he has food, and water (i.e. rain) is plentiful. Compared to his previous life living rough in a bog, things are looking up.

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The collected wisdom of Helen Dunkel, the Chancellor of Frugalia, the rational nation of compulsive savers, and Bertrand Plastique, the President of the European Bank of Common Sense and Stability, aided by the banker who sold Jude his henhouse, arrive in Squanderland intent on mobilizing “the financial firepower of Europe to put a roof on this henhouse, and stabilize its debt,” so that “the markets will be reassured.” There follows a ludicrous scheme to build a roof over Squanderland and harvest its water to pay its debt, leaving environmental and social ruin, rampant emigration, and a string of bankrupt business in Frugalia. This provides a good chuckle until you reflect on it and see just how closely the satirical roof scheme mirrors the broad strokes of the actual European bailout and austerity policies currently the Band-Aid of choice for Europe.

As usual, Jude meets whatever life throws his way with plain common sense, and a positive attitude, which only serves to throw the bad ideas the so-called educated elite offer as a panacea into starker contrast. No matter how bad the idea is, the markets must be reassured.

Crash is a timely and witty reminder that as usual the Emperor has no clothes on, and the courtiers have been smoking something harmful to their intellect. Jonathan Swift would surely pause for a moment in his ceaseless spinning and feel a moment of pride that Irish satire is alive and well, even if, like its money, it does reside in Germany now…




Crash is available as an eBook for the Kindle…

Rumor has it that physical copies can be printed by the excellent Harvard Book Store on their fancy book-making robot machine thingy. But, I couldn’t find corroboration of that fact online, and can’t remember where I heard that piece of info.

Crash is published by DailyLit. Learn more about their project…

Julian Gough maintains a website at but is more likely to be found on Twitter…

I reviewed Julian Gough’s hilarious novel Jude: Level 1 yonks ago…


newgrange, bru-na-boinne

A side-view of Newgrange passage tomb.
(Photo credit:

The Brú na Bóinne complex of three neolithic tombs (Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth) on a ridge in the middle of the Boyne Valley is perhaps the most-famous archaeological site in Europe, and Newgrange is its poster child. Built around 3200 BC, Newgrange is a huge passage tomb on top of a small hill overlooking the river. On each side stand two other huge passage tombs, and numerous smaller mounds. Excavated and controversially restored in the 1970s, both Newgrange and Knowth contained numerous cremated remains and are decorated with a marvelous array of carved boulders; the interpretation of the images on these boulders still eludes archaeologists — so visitors can play amateur archaeologist trying to make a story out of the characteristic symbols and patterns.

Entrance stone, Newgrange

The entrance to the Newgrange tomb. The wooden steps were added to protect the carved kerbstones from wear and tear. It’s thought that the druids and elders would originally have climbed over them to access the tomb.
(Photo credit:


Visitor Center

Access to Newgrange and Knowth is via the Brú na Bóinne visitors center only, where you can watch an informative film about the history of the mounds, explore exhibits on the theories about the construction of Newgrange, and see various artifacts found on-site. After that, visitors are driven by minibus up to either site and a guide escorts the group on a tour. Visitors to the unrestored mound at Dowth are free to give themselves a self-guided tour.

Unlike most of the “ruins” and ancient sites in Ireland, access to and exploration of the Brú na Bóinne complex is highly supervised. Both mounds feature a long passage giving access to a central chamber where cremated remains were interred by stone age people. These passages are narrow, and access to Newgrange is in small groups only. The passage in Knowth is even more difficult — requiring crawling at one point — and visitors are not allowed into it for safety reasons. However, controversial renovations have been made to the edge of the largest Knowth mound to allow some access into an antechamber and to reveal some of the secrets of the mound’s construction.

Newgrange Kerbstone

Have fun interpreting this kerbstone. Is that a face formed from the spiral patterns? Are those lozenge shapes a form of the chalice and the blade symbols for male and female?
(Photo credit:

Carved Kerbstones

Both Newgrange and Knowth are surrounded by a ring of carved kerbstones; in fact, most of the neolithic art in Europe is found at sites in Co. Meath. The walk along the narrow passage and into the central chamber in Newgrange is an errie and memorable experience which gives one a taste of the awe and reverence with which the ancient builders must have viewed Newgrange. The central chamber features an immense corbelled roof of overlapping flat stones — still water-tight after 5000 years. Three side-chambers contain large bowl-like rocks, which have been scooped out to hold remains (although the remains have now been removed). An impressive tri-spiral carving is the only decoration inside the chamber. The guide will explain some of the history of the site and then use electric lights to recreate the central wonder of Newgrange: the sun’s illumination of the chamber on the winter solstice.

Bru na Boinne, solar alignment

The entrance to the Newgrange passageway, with the roof box shows overhead.
(Photo credit:

Solar Alignment

At sunrise on the solstice, the sun rises above a hill on the other side of the Boyne Valley and enters the passage via a special “roof box,” a window built above the entrance to the mound. A beam of sunlight slowly works its way along the passage until it lights up the central chamber. The sun illuminates the chamber for about 20 minutes on the solstice and the two days immediately before and after (all weather permitting, of course). This is the only time all year that natural light enters the central chamber. We don’t know exactly what the ancients believed this symbolized — rebirth, the New Year, or ascension to the afterlife, perhaps — but we can appreciate the phenomenal feat of engineering the mound represents, and marvel at the successful continuation of its function thousands of years later.

The recreation of the solstice effect plunges the chamber into darkness for a brief few seconds before the beam can be seen working its way up the passage. This does not appear to be very frightening for most children (although I’ve seen a few adults get spooked). The chamber is large enough to hold about 15 people, so everyone’s packed pretty tight, and the kids don’t feel alone in the dark. It’s really a magical experience that allows us a glimpse into how these ancient ancestors honored their dead, and gives us plenty of food for thought as to why they might have built this mound.



Another part of the complex: Dowth the untamed corner of Brú na Bóinne

News: Archaeologists search for hidden passages at Newgrange…

A new theory about the construction of Newgrange…



Mary Costello’s debut book of short stories, The China Factory, is a contemplative collection of inward-looking characters that seem almost too sensitive for this world. When the stories work (which is most of the time) they are beautifully written, sensitive portrayals of individuals at the end of something: a marriage, a life, or their rope.

china factory largeA representative example is “Sleeping With a Stranger,” the tale of a man who has let his marriage drift and stagnate. He lives in a reverie of lost possibility: remembering a brief affair that charged his soul, but that he feels caused him to abandon his marriage emotionally, as the everyday can never capture the emotional highs of the unique, the once-off, the unexpected. This situation represents the knife edge many Mary Costello’s stories walk in the reader’s mind: whether or not to damn the protagonist for wallowing in self-pity and regret, or be carried along by Costello’s ability to pull us into her character’s worlds so completely that it’s only in retrospect that we begin to harbor the uncharitable thoughts that if we knew some of these people in real life we’d probably slap them and tell them to pull themselves together.

As a writer, I always want to work out how an author succeeds, how she can manipulate our emotions, have us rooting for even unsympathetic characters’ tentative steps. With Costello is seems to be her ability to evoke a character’s emotional state that speaks to us as readers and makes us forgive them anything. The title story, “The China Factory,” is a perfect example. A young girl goes to work in a big factory making porcelain crockery during the summer before she goes off to university. While there, she is a stew of emotion: excitement at mixing with a range of people she clearly wasn’t let mix with before, confusion at the class and religious barriers she has to navigate, anxiety that she is there under false pretenses (she has not told anyone she’s leaving for university in the autumn), and a slight embarrassment over a distant bachelor cousin who gives her a lift to work every day in his car, but is a figure of ridicule for the girls she now works with. Costello evokes the atmosphere of the factory floor and the anxious excitement of the girl at her first job soaking everything in so beautifully I found myself simultaneously enjoying the story and reminiscing about my own first job, remembering my own anxiety and excitement.

“All day long the radio churned out the pop hits of that summer and the sun spilled in through skylights and fell in yellow pools on the factory floor. I would sigh and think of home and the farm work and when the thoughts grew lonesome and the small ache began to surface, I would carry my basin over to the big steel sink near the entrance and spill out the cloudy white water. I smiled when I passed the other girls these first days, and longed to speak, but feared that words would betray the yearning for friendship that I felt inside.

This is Costello’s skill, this ability to set a scene so well, so evocatively, that the reader can’t help but find common ground within our own memories and feel the truth, the accuracy of her words. This is in contrast to other short story writers who shock us with new and unfamiliar situations and carry us along on a wave of wonder at the unexpected; Costello carries us on a wave of joy for her honest observation and understanding of human nature. Mary Costello has clearly been there, she know the human heart in all its weakness and treachery. This is why it was only later, when I could look at the stories from the outside, with emotions undisturbed by her prose, that I began to reflect that I wouldn’t want to be best friends with some of her characters. But as many writers have reflected, unsympathetic characters are the most interesting.



Another such standout story is “And Who Will Play Charon?” A man looks back at his life and considers a women he could have loved, could have married, but circumstances separated them and he settled into a life of self-satisfied bachelorhood. The woman came back to the village some time later in mysterious circumstances and he never made any real effort to see her, to rekindle the flame of their relationship. Only now, decades later, after her burial does his curiosity get the better of him and he takes steps to discover her story. In retrospect, he’s a pathetic example of humanity, but his regret, his anxiety, and his slavery to habit and convention are so well drawn that he’s wonderfully human, completely real.

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The final story, “The Sewing Room,” also shows the smothering power of convention, how societal expectation has been allowed to trump individual desire so often in Irish history (although is it any different anywhere?). An old schoolteacher has retired. On the occasion of a parish function to thank her for a lifetime of dedication she reflects on the story that nobody knows, how she had a child out of wedlock and gave up that child for a cousin to adopt. She has lead an exemplary life as a pillar of her rural community ever since, but it’s not enough, not nearly enough. She’s a sad image for the Ireland in the twentieth century: huddled in her sewing room making glamorous dresses that she has no place to wear, while in public she acts the role expected of her.

Is life in Ireland very much different today? The young may be told to follow their bliss, and be true to themselves, but is the societal expectation of conformity still as strong as ever? After this impressive first book of short fiction, I look forward to seeing what Mary Costello turns her attention to in future stories.




Interview with Mary Costello on… 

Readers eager to read Mary Costello’s stories for themselves can buy The China Factory from The Book Depository <affiliate link> (free shipping worldwide) or support the Irish economy by purchasing it from (also free shipping worldwide). 

The China Factory is also available as an ebook for the Kindle.

I bought my copy at a branch of Easons.



Traveling around Ireland

Ruairí McKiernan
(Photo credit:

There’s a fascinating project underway in Ireland at the moment. It has nothing to do with politicians, banks, or multinationals, there are no celebrities or sports stars involved, no meetings or committees were convened to plan it, nor is there going to be a shiny new product for sale at the end. One man, Ruairí McKiernan, is hitch-hiking around the country talking to people about their life, about their experiences during this recession, and of their hopes and ideas for the future, all for the basic reason that he hopes to learn something. At the end, Ruairi will be speaking at a conference about what he’s learned and what it might say about Ireland in 2013, and will share any great ideas that he’s heard on his journey.

Ruairi is interviewing people as he goes, and shares those interviews and tells the stories of his adventures on his blog daily. The picture that’s emerging is a mosaic of the high and the low, the ambitious and the simple, and there are more interesting ideas and hopeful attitudes on display than you hear around Leinster House any day of the week.

Some of the updates that I’ve found the most personally interesting so far included:






Despite the challenges of life on the road, Ruairí is doing a fairly good job of keeping his blog updated as he goes. It’s heart-warming to read about so many ordinary people with positive outlooks and generous personalities — makes a refreshing change from greedy bankers and self-centered politicians. The picture of modern Ireland that’s emerging from this project so far is one of people struggling to deal with massive change as best they can. Some sound like they’re barely holding on, and other are rising to the challenge through retraining or doing what they can to get by. One gentleman commented that one thing the Irish as a whole seemed to lose during the Tiger years was a sense of concern for one another, but austerity has seen that return. It’s an interesting observation, and one that suggests the best aspects of our national character may be reasserting themselves.

I’ll be following Ruairí McKiernan’s travels for the rest of July and will be very interested to hear his conclusions.



You can follow the Hitching for Hope listening tour at or on Facebook






Most of the earthworks on the Hill of Tara are thought to have been dwelling or feasting places. A long depression runs up the hill from the road towards the Mound of the Hostages. The two sides are high, presumably man-made, earthen banks. This is known as the Banqueting Hall, and for years kids were told it may originally have had wooden walls and a roof. However, this interpretation may have been due to the existence of a seating chart for an ancient King’s banquet, and is likely a good example of people naming a feature to fit in with available relics. A more-likely explanation for this long earthwork is that it may be the remains of one of the five roads that were said to lead to Tara from the five corners of Ireland. It’s easy to see how it could have been a ceremonial entryway, with the high earthen embankments on either side, complete with “windows,” gaps that may have allowed views of significant local landmarks such as the Hill of Skryne on the other side of the Boyne valley, the various tombs of former kings, and possibly a few standing stones.

Artists' Impression of The Arena on the Hill of Tara c.

Artists’ impression of The Arena on the Hill of Tara, c.1200 BCE
(Photo credit: RTE/Secrets of the Stones documentary)

“The Arena”/Ireland’s Stonehenge

Magnetic gradiometry and other non-invasive survey techniques have recently revealed the remains of a huge structure at Tara. Under the tall grass and several feet of dirt lies a deep ditch dug into the bedrock of the hill. The ditch runs in a circle around the site for about 170 meters (about the length of two football pitches!), encompassing the Mound of the Hostages (and probably the original site of the Lia Fail as well) and the present-day church grounds. This ditch seems to have been surrounded on both sides by an enormous “fence” of huge wooden posts. Circles of wooden posts are not uncommon at this time (1200BCE) — remains of one much-smaller circle have been found and partially reconstructed nearby at Newgrange — but the scale of this one is off the charts. Interestingly, the “banqueting hall” appears to terminate directly at the edge of this ditch, perhaps suggesting the hypothesis that it was a road or ceremonial entryway is more likely.

The exact purpose of this arena (or “woodhenge” as it has been dubbed) is unknown, but as it enclosed the burial chamber known as the Mound of the Hostages and then later the Christian church was built within its boundary, this would suggest it had deep spiritual significance to generations of people. It’s not known what, if anything, was placed on top of the wooden posts, but that hasn’t stopped fanciful artists depicting it as an Irish Stonehenge, with two concentric circles of wooden posts topped with horizontal wooden beams. It’s estimated that at least 500 immense (and old judging by the size of the post-holes) trees would have been required to provide the beams.

One theory holds that the remains of deceased Kings and nobles may have been left to rot inside the arena. Once the flesh was stripped from the bones by decay or birds, the bones would be separated and interred within the mound of the hostages. There is ample evidence of this practice of defleshing a body before burial from elsewhere in the country. Another interpretation is that the aspirant King needed to make a circuit of the arena as part of the spiritual journey toward kingship.

The RTE documentary "Secrets of the Stones" discusses The Arena on the Hill of Tara at length.

The RTE documentary Secrets of the Stones discusses The Arena on the Hill of Tara at length.

500 years later, around 700BC, an iron age ring fort — simply a large, thick wall of dry-stacked rocks surrounding a building or buildings — was built on the Hill of Tara. This was an advance over the old raths, which were simply a deep ditch with the earth removed and piled up in a bank behind. This represented the labor of many people working together to transport rocks from a larger area and construct the thick protective wall. By this point, the wooden posts surrounding the ceremonial ditch would have rotted away, and evidently the people of that time did not valued the structure enough to replace or maintain it, although the importance of the top of the Hill of Tara appears to have remained undiminished.

This new ring fort was every bit as large as the fenced ditch, but surrounded the top of the hill more exactly (the ditch and ring of posts was on a slight slope). It encircled the rath of the kings and also reclaimed the mound of the hostages. In light of this series of constructions on the Hill which all incorporated the mound of the hostages, it’s obvious how important the inhabitants considered their ancestors, regardless of whatever changes occurred in their mode of worship.



This is the final part of a series of posts about the Hill of Tara.

Part 1: A Brief History of the Hill of Tara…

Part 2: The Mound of the Hostages…

Part 3: The Lia Fail…



Editorial note: I take forever to get around to writing book reviews. This is because of many factors: I like to let a book sit and marinate (metaphorically) for a while; I have paid work to be getting on with; and sometimes I just need to read a book a second time to have anything interesting to say about it. I also read many more books than I ever review for the simple reason that many/most [delete according to how cynical you’re feeling] are pretty vanilla and impossible to remember a week after reading (even if you enjoyed them at the time). Now, I’m not knocking vanilla — it’s my go-to flavor when I fancy an ice cream — a well-told story is often a joy to read, but when I sit down to write a review a month or so later, the details of the vanilla story tend to have melted away. That’s partly why I don’t review more than one book a week.

A great new Irish novel: YOU by Nuala Ni ChonchuirBook review:

One novel I really want to highlight is Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s You. For the record, I think Nuala Ní Chonchúir is an amazing writer, mostly known for her short and flash fiction. I’ve read several of her short-story collections, and was blown away each and every time (check out Mother America, if you want to know where to start), but I’ve never reviewed her, so I need to begin putting that right.

You is Galway-writer and poet Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s debut novel. While Ní Chonchúir offers a few historical cues to ground us in the year 1980 (the Olympics, Kate Bush on the radio, The Elephant Man, etc.), the story she tells is quite timeless. (You could be forgiven, glancing at the back of the book, for fearing that You might be a bit vanilla – the publisher’s try not to give too much away in the description. But, believe me, it’s anything but!) On the surface, You is a coming-of-age tale, narrated by a 10-year-old girl being raised by a single mother in poverty. Thankfully, those bare facts are as near to Angela’s Ashes-territory as we get, because for our 10-year-old narrator the family’s life is on-the-whole a happy one, their home a safe space. The father has left his wife and now lives in a Corporation flat with another woman, with whom he has a new family. In contrast, the mother, the narrator, and her siblings live in a small house by the river, with friends nearby, wild places to explore, and the girl feels the ineffable something, the spark, the charge of being alive that comes from being around a river. (The grown-ups, of course, fear it, fear change, and the violence of nature.) In contrast, the girl finds her father’s flat stifling, and is unsettled by the wildness and unpredictable danger of the gangs of local children who roam the estate.

The novel is told in the second person. We never learn the narrator’s name, her family mostly using the nickname “little Miss Prim,” but the second person has the effect of drawing us into her confidence, sharing her world-view. Unlike some novels that use child narrators to ironic effect, relying on adult perception to mock the child’s perspective as painfully naive, Ní Chonchúir’s narrative strategy makes the reader feel like a co-conspirator in her narrator’s interpretation of the world; an interpretation that makes Little Miss Prim feel uncomfortably disloyal to her mother and father, whose actions she is beginning to find wanting.

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The narrator’s mother is depressed, and bounces between being a loving parent focused on her children, and resenting them, making rash choices to pursue a little fun at the expense of leaving them to their own devices. It’s an impulse that any parent can relate to, and we easily feel the narrator’s tension rise as her mother falls in thrall to a showy boyfriend who’s not good parental material. Thankfully, her mother has a network of supportive friends, and I detected a mild reproach in the author’s contrast of the slightly-striving discontent of the flat dwellers with the essentially decency and spirit of camaraderie among some of the residents of the terraces by the river.

There’s a central tragedy in the novel, that motivates the narrator into drastic action. It’s perhaps better to say little about this in order to maintain the surprise and suspense for the reader, although the novel is not about shocks or surprises (but you will turn the pages of the second half in somewhat breathless haste). The central pleasure is the exquisitely drawn narrative voice, the viewpoint of the child developing an adult self-awareness, while retaining the innocent impulse to do the right thing even though she can’t think through the consequences.

You is a quiet, surprising novel, that captures a young girl’s growing perception of the world quite beautifully. And, even when you know the twist, this is a novel you’ll enjoy rereading.



Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s You does not have a US publisher (shame!). It can, however, be ordered (w/ free international shipping) from or the Book Depository <affiliate link> (I have used both many times, so can recommend their services.). I scored my copy in the fabulous Winding Stair Bookshop in Dublin.

Readers can learn more about Nuala Ní Chonchúir on her website…



From Falias was brought Lia Fail which is in Temair,

and which is used to utter a cry under every king that should take Ireland.”

Lebor Gabala Erenn


The Lia Fail with the Mound of the Hostages in the background. (Photo credit:

The Lia Fail with the Mound of the Hostages in the background.
(Photo credit:

On top of the Hill of Tara, in the middle of the rath known as An Forradh, “The King’s Seat,” there stands a large carved stone. This is the Lia Fail, the stone of destiny, one of the powerful totems the Tuatha de Danaan, the god-like ancestors of Irish Myth, are said to have brought with them to Ireland. Legend has it that when the kings of Ireland assembled at Tara to choose a new Ard Ri, or High King, the stone would shout its approval when the candidate touched it. This was one of what appear to be several trials a would-be High King had to pass.

Two standing stones in the  churchyard of St. Patrick's Church on the Hill of Tara. (Photo credit:

Two standing stones in the churchyard of St. Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara.
(Photo credit:


Standing Stones

Another was driving his chariot through two nearby standing stones which would jump out of the way if he was worthy. There were traditionally a number of standing stones around the hill, but few now remain (at least overground). Two still stand side by side in the adjacent churchyard — one featuring a very-weathered sheela-na-gig carving. However, there does not appear to be space between them to drive a chariot through.

The Lia Fail originally stood near the Mound of the Hostages, but was moved to its present position in 1798, to mark the graves of 400 rebels who were buried on the hill after a battle.



Whether this is the real Lia Fail or simply one of the other standing stones the annals tell us stood around the Hill of Tara is a matter of some conjecture. One theory holds that the original Lia Fail was stolen and brought to Scotland, where it became known as the Stone of Scone, and has been used to crown Scots and English monarchs ever since — Oh, we Irish never tire of bashing the English. Another story holds that the real Lia Fail was hidden away for safekeeping until Ireland is ready for a High King again — if so, it’ll have a long wait.

This is the third part of a series looking at the Hill of Tara.

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