With the green shadow of Saint Patrick’s Day looming, my thoughts have turned to whether Los Angeles has produced any novels with Irish themes and characters. We’ve got hordes of stories set in New York and Boston (Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River immediately comes to mind) but I couldn’t think of any stories involving Irish immigrants set in the City of Angels. If you do, dear reader, enlighten me.
And yet L.A. must have hundreds of thousands of Irish-Americans. Is the problem that there’s no traditional Irish neighborhood in L.A. where layers of culture, adversity, crime, personalities, assimilation, tragedy, comedy, booze, music and lore could accrete the way they did the big East Coast cities? I mean, I attended Saint Patrick’s Elementary School in North Hollywood, and while we had a fair few Irish students and some Irish nuns and priests, we also had the usual polyglot jumble from all over. Like me.
My mother was Russian-French and we spoke French at home. My father was second or third-generation Irish-American, did a fine rendition of “Galway Bay” and wanted potatoes with every meal. He was a big reader and always had a book or magazine or newspaper in his hands after he came home from his job as a roofer for the Los Angeles Unified School District. (He’d also bring home pockets filled with the odd and sometimes precious stuff that kids threw onto the roofs each day – superballs, rings, troll dolls, necklaces, pendants, caps, keychains, baseball mitts. Some of my most precious childhood treasure came from those scavenged roofs).
I grew up to become a reader and a writer too, so today, in honor of Edward Joseph Francis Xavier Hamilton, I list a few of my favorite Irish tales and urge you to pick up one and give it a try.
“At Swim, Two Boys” by Jamie O’Neill. An achingly beautiful, haunting and lyrical novel about coming of age poor, devout and the son of a shopkeeper in 1915 Dublin, at the dawn of The Troubles and realizing you’re gay in a place and time that had no language to even conceive of such a thing. Absolutely brilliant.
Anything by Irish novelist Edna O’Brien.
Anything by Adrian McKinty, including the noir crime novel, “Dead I Well May Be” about a young illegal immigrant Irishman’s modern day sojourns in the Bronx as he hooks up with a crime mob.
“Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman” by Nuala O’ Faolain, a journey toward discovery by a onetime Irish Times columnist that will make you laugh, cry and yelp with sheer joy. O’Faolain’s humor and exuberance in describing her poor, rural upbringing, alcoholic mother, philandering father, her struggle for acceptance in a male-dominated literary world and her search for love and absolution left me breathless.
Any poem by William Butler Yeats
“Haunted Ground” a mystery novel by Erin Hart. When the preserved body of a young, red-haired woman is pulled out of a peat bog, no one knows whether the corpse is 4,000 years old or four months old. So saturated with traditional Irish atmosphere - music, dance, landscapes – that you can practically hear the cowbells and fiddles.
Rhys Bowen’s Molly Doyle mystery series. These are traditional mysteries featuring a plucky young Irish immigrant woman private investigator in early 20th century New York and The Emerald Isle. Titles include “Oh Danny Boy” and “In Dublin’s Fair City.”
“Mystic River” the book or the movie. Author Dennis Lehane is the bard of tough working-class Irish-American neighborhoods in Boston and the close and intricate family ties that both bind and blind us.