Anne Cunningham of First Chapter book reviews looking for something to read.

This week: a beautiful book about a sean-nós singer, offering more than her story

Hot on the heels of Mullingar’s magnificent Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann comes a beautiful book about a Donegal sean-nós singer, offering a lot more than just her story. Down the road from Donegal, it’s destination Sligo for a small clutch of French people anxious to see Yeats’ grave. There’s a book about Meath’s most notorious murderer, a close personal friend of a certain ex-attorney general, and there’s Lorrie Moore’s new novel, a feast of literary elegance and sleight of hand, although I admit I’m left scratching my head.

Amhráin Anna John Chiot, Ed by Dr Pól Ó Seachnasaigh, Four Courts Press, €25

As part of the National Folklore Collection, sean-nós singer Anna John Chiot from The Croaghs in Donegal was visited, firstly between 1935 and 1937 and then again in the late 40s. She had much to give to the collection by way of stories, riddles, poems and songs and it is the song words that are recorded here. In addition to the 100-plus songs printed in this exquisite book, there’s a CD of 21 of them sung by leading contemporary Irish singers, including Altan’s Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Máire Ní Choilm and Lillis O’Laoire, with a recording of Anna and her husband rounding it off.

For those still high on the vapours of another extremely successful Fleadh Cheoil held in Mullingar, this book is a must. It’s an important book for anyone studying Irish music, the Irish language and culture, or with an interest in the Irish Folklore Collection. Besides that, the book itself is sumptuously produced and the CD being part of the package makes it a real treasure.

A Thread of Violence, Mark O’Connell, Granta, €16.99

In 1982, murders in Ireland were not the daily occurrences they are now. When Malcolm Macarthur firstly bludgeoned nurse Bridie Gargan to death and later shot Donal Dunne with his Dunne’s own gun, the news rocked the nation and kept us rattled for days. And then the fact that he turned up in the attorney general’s plush south Dublin pad (they were friends) just blew us out of the water altogether. Macarthur has since done his time and has been a free man for some years. He agreed to talk to Mark O’Connell about it all, and this book is the result.

The history is detailed and the writing – because O’Connell is such a very good writer – is impeccable. But if you’re looking for rhyme or reason from Macarthur himself, then I’m afraid this “high-born savage” will leave you wanting, as he did the author. There is very little, if not nothing at all, by way of an emotional or psychological reckoning on Macarthur’s part. That said, the book is a fascinating insight into this poor little rich boy’s life, even if it provides us with no satisfactory answers.

Scattered Love, Maylis Besserie, trans Cíona ní Ríordáin, Lilliput Pressm €16

Last year, Maylis Besserie’s debut novel Yell, Sam, if You Still Can was a personal standout for this reader, an imagining of Beckett’s final days in a Paris nursing home. It was sublime. This year Besserie has produced another work of stunning beauty, a novel built on the reasonable assumption that whoever is lying in Yeats’ grave in Sligo, it ain’t him. Or, at the very least, he’s got company. Due to a monumental French cockup, supported ably by a monumental Irish coverup, the remains of the great poet are probably still in the original cemetery in the south of France. Besserie runs with this idea and invents three elderly French characters who fly to Ireland, suspecting that they have relatives buried in Sligo that belong back home in their own place.

The contemporary leg of the story is told by Madeleine, a relative of one of ‘The Scattered’ seeking to reclaim her grandmother’s remains. And the other narrator is the great poet himself, giving nothing and yet everything away. These Yeats chapters are strewn with multiple allusions to his work and his life. Maud Gonne is here, and Iseult and his Golden Dawn days in London, his political activism, his eventual marriage to Georgie, his final days in France, but it’s the stitching together of these dual narratives, of Yeats with his ghosts and of the French ‘scattered’ with their own ghosts, that enraptures and compels the reader. It is, like its predecessor, a work deserving of infinite superlatives, a true reader’s banquet, brought luminously alive in English from the French through the immeasurable talent of translator Cíona Ní Ríordáin.

I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, Lorrie Moore, Faber, €16.99

Orpheus and Eurydice, Lot and his wife (what was her name?), Tarzan and Jane, the tales of men rescuing women, successfully or otherwise, are as old as the written word itself. Finn saving his dead – and rapidly decomposing – ex-girlfriend Lily is funny, wise, absurd and horrific all at once. While Finn’s brother lies dying in a New York hospice and desperately wants to live, Lily desperately wants to die. Her most recent suicide attempt is finally successful, her death wrenching Finn from his beloved brother’s bedside.

The novel begins in the 19th century with Elizabeth writing to her dead sister about her new lodger, a man whose sideburns she admires. There are enough clues to identify this lodger as John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. The chapters telling Finn and Lily’s story are set in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. One thread is set against the time of a great president being shot down, the other against the time of an evil president on the rise. Lily and Finn are on a road trip to donate Lily’s ghostly (and ghastly) remains to science, and meanwhile the US is on a road trip to ruin. That’s the best I can do in a short review, you’ll just have to read it. It’s a very strange (and very funny) novel, turning all conventions on their heads, but since this is the great Lorrie Moore, you at least get to savour every blessed word.


The first Thomas MacDonagh Hedge School takes place on September 20-24 in the Thomas MacDonagh Museum in Cloughjordan, County Tipperary, and aims to be one of the highlights of the museum’s 10th anniversary programme. Advance tickets are on sale now. See for details.