Storyteller Delaney holds his audience captive
"Ireland," Frank Delaney's grand sweep of a novel, is a story about a storyteller -- or a "seanchai," to use the Gaelic word for those yarn-spinners who have roamed the "auld sod" since the days of the Druids.
Delaney's itinerant storyteller captures the heart of a 9-year-old boy with tales of Ulster's King Conor and St. Patrick driving out the snakes.
When the High King reigned at Tara, the seanchai held forth for seven days and nights as an honored guest at the royal palace. (These days, like Delaney's wandering dispenser of folklore and history, he'd be lucky to get two nights' bed and breakfast at a farmhouse or pub while playing to an overflow audience of neighbors bored with the telly.)
As the boy's father tells him in this novel bursting with Irish legend and lore, storytellers "possess brilliant powers to bring the long-gone past to life vividly without the interference of scholars." A visit from one, as he roamed the countryside from Donegal to Kinsale, often gave a remote village "its brightest moment of the year."
Midway in this tumultuous mixture of heroes, poets, politicians and saints are stories about Brian Boru, St. Brendan the Navigator, Oliver Cromwell, Jonathan Swift and Daniel O'Connell.
The parlor bard frankly reveals what his tales are made of:
"Some are history, reported by those who were there, and embroidered by me. Others are myth, from deep in our souls, handed down by word-of-mouth. And I make up yet others because I like the power and the fun of creating words."
This job description could easily fit Delaney, a former BBC correspondent born in County Tipperary and now living in Connecticut. He is having a whale of a time here telling how the skeleton of a whale found on a beach inspired the invention of the harp, how the ancient monks illustrated the Book of Kells, how a Dublin bloke named Hanly coaxed Handel into composing his "Messiah," and similar audacious yarns.
There is some sad, serious history here, too, about invasions by the Danes, the Normans and the British, the "plantation" of land-grabbing Protestants and the anti-Catholic penal laws, the great hunger of the potato famine, the fall of Charles Parnell and the Easter Rising of 1916.
The novel is a bit flawed by a subplot involving the boy's complex family relationships that interrupts the tales and makes the book too long. Ah, but then again, a storyteller, once given the floor, tends to go on long past the melancholy cry of "Time, Gentleman."
All in all, "Ireland" is worthy of so grand and comprehensive a title because, as the author confesses, "The Irish like to talk: small island, big opinions."
Author: Frank Delaney
Publisher: HarperCollins, $26.95, 559 pages