Monks and queens

Staying In


Book review
Bríd Conroy

Irish fiction is still one of our top-selling categories at the bookshop. Two of our bestselling books this week – Emma Donoghue’s ‘Haven’, published by Picador, and Donal Ryan’s ‘The Queen of Dirt Island’, published by Doubleday – are also topping the charts nationally. Both novels are set in Ireland, with the feelings of familiarity that brings, yet both Donoghue and Ryan tell the stories with a beauty and intimacy unique to them both.
Haven tells of a fictional re-enactment of the first monks who landed on the Skellig islands in the 600s AD. I was always fascinated by the accounts of the medieval monks of Ireland and by page 5, I was sucked in to the world of the Cluain Mhic Nois Monastery. Three monks leave the relative safety of the monastery and seek out to find a ‘haven’ on a remote island, where they will be untouched by the evils of this world. Artt is the leader, Cormac is the older monk and Trian is the younger monk.
Artt is fanatical in his beliefs and challenges the reader to understand what drove him to seek out such an existence. (“We’ve journeyed here not to escape from Satan like cowards, but to fight him off like soldiers, with prayer as our weapon.”) This drive, he insists, is unique to neither the 7th century nor a small island off the coast of Ireland.
Cormac is warm and wise, inventive and beautiful. He converted from Paganism after his family died from the plague. In a scene in which he believes he may be dying himself, he laments them not being baptised. (“If only there was a heaven with room for them all.”)
Trian is young, having been left at the monastery at a young age. He is kind, in tune with nature and the prime finder of food for the trio. I am amazed at their innovation, how they live with nothing really, how they trust in their God to provide. Trian catches shearwater and drained the oil from their stomachs to make candles. Living on the west coast as we do, I found myself bracing for the winter that was approaching them. There is an unexpected twist at the end of the story.
‘The Queen of Dirt Island’ is a perfectly crafted story about four generations of women, set in the town of Nenagh in Tipperary. Each chapter is two pages long with a title.
The first chapter is the end and the last is the beginning. Saoirse is the main character, born to mother Eileen and her husband, who died on the day Saoirse was brought home from hospital.
The story follows the trajectory of her life, living mainly with women, as her nana moves in with them too. Life happens to them all. Each chapter gives voice to a time, an event, a person in their lives. As a reader, we watch from afar like a fly on the wall.
Mistakes are made, events unfold, but we don’t ever question their decisions or who they are. We see a beauty in life through their lives lived. And it is hard to let the characters go at the finish on page 242. In the acknowledgements, in a nice touch, Ryan sends love and thanks to the reader “for giving me the reason to continue down this winding road and to the people who toil in the book trade, keeping us writers afloat.”
Two just stunning books.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia  – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.