Whether or not I’m about to get on an airplane, books enable me to travel to all my favorite destinations. As I look forward to a trip to Scotland and Ireland this summer with University of Redlands Alumni and Community Relations, this is what’s on my shelf.
For many of us, the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Ireland is the rich faerie lore of the island and the legendary Celtic otherworld of Tir na nOg. You could do far worse than to start with William Butler Yeats’ collection of Irish Folk and Fairy Tales. The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde are equally whimsical, and both collections are tinged with a uniquely Irish poignancy. Every gain comes with a loss, and choices are blessings and burdens.
The staunch resilience of this culture is all the more striking given how much the country has suffered in its long history. The English are among the best-known antagonists, beginning with their colonial rule of the island centuries ago. Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800) tells the story of the “absentee landlord” phenomenon, in which wealthy Irish landholders drained their homeland to pursue an aristocratic life in England. Filled with brilliant caricatures and grim humor, this short volume is a window on the past.
Ireland’s rich literary tapestry is central to contemporary Ireland as well: the largest wooden rollercoaster in the country, at Dublin’s Tayto Park, is called Cu Chulainn after the demigod. The myths and fairy tales make their way into contemporary literature as well. The New Policeman by Kate Thompson (first of a trilogy) is a young adult title that follows a young man, J.J., as he tries to unravel family mysteries, including a trip into Tir na nOg. Each chapter begins with the sheet music for an Irish reel, and the details of the story are firmly grounded in the culture of Irish ceili, a social event with music, singing, dancing, and storytelling. The Book of Lost Things, by John Connelly (like Wilde, an alum of Trinity College Dublin), is a haunting reworking of the European canon of fairy tales, a dark, fantastical spin on familiar narratives like Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty. Set in England during the first World War, the book is still Irish at its core in the melancholy joy that glimmers through the gloaming.
Along with Wilde and Yeats, James Joyce is a towering literary figure who has immortalized Dublin and been immortalized in return through Bloomsday, the birthday of his fictional character Stephen Bloom, who spends the whole of Ulysses wandering through the city. In contrast to this notoriously difficult modernist read is Joyce’s short story collection, Dubliners. The final story in this collection, “The Dead,” a novella in its own right, is a haunting meditation on the complexities of community and our pasts.
The Irish ambassador to the United States was queried about what book he would recommend to those visiting the country, and he suggested Transatlantic by Colum McCann, so of course I had to read it. Following multiple interwoven stories set in different time periods—from young country girls headed to the big city of Dublin to the first Transatlantic flight, Irish immigrant families in the United States, and the effect of The Troubles on an aging Irishman—the book is a sweeping overview of a complex history and a gripping read. Another recent title that gives a grand overview of Ireland’s prehistoric past and The Troubles is the young adult title Bog Child, by Siobhan Dowd. Fergus, a teen trying to make sense of his brother’s political activism and hunger strike, discovers a body preserved in the bog where he and his uncle are poaching peat. As the prehistoric bog child begins to speak to him in his dreams, the past and present unfold in another gripping narrative that wraps you in the landscape of Northern Ireland.
And, while not books, I cannot resist including four movies on this list. Once, now a touring musical, features the city of Dublin as a central character in the gentle, melancholy musical romance. With a soundtrack full of haunting harmonies, this film will make you fall in love with Dublin, and soothe the ache of leaving once you’ve visited. Two animated films, both by the same production companies, round out the viewing recommendations: The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. Both are enchanting accounts of the legends and myths that shaped Irish culture. Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan, tells the lyrical story of a young Irish immigrant, and would pair beautifully with Transatlantic.
As another Celtic country, Scotland partakes in some of the same lore as Ireland, with witches and fairies and magical beasties (including Selkies, a central figure in the Irish film Song of the Sea). Scotland also shares a turbulent relationship with neighbor England, and some of the historical conflicts profoundly shaped Scottish identity. While everyone wants to find a family tartan linking them to Highland culture, that culture was decimated in the mid-18th century when Scotland backed “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” claimant to the English throne. Around that same time, the more cosmopolitan city of Edinburgh was producing writers who would shape English thought for centuries through the intellectual phenomenon known as the Scottish Enlightenment.
For folk tales, you can begin with An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales or the less colorful, more scholarly Scottish Tales (there is overlap). And while thinking of Scotland and the mythic, it is hard not to include Shakespeare’s “Scottish play,” Macbeth. First performed for King James I (who was simultaneously King James VI of Scotland), the play touches on the difference between the rugged Scots and refined English. If you take the play as an Englishman’s account of how the Scots began the process of becoming English, it sheds an interesting light on the relationship between the two countries. A different take on that relationship is presented in the movie Braveheart, set two centuries after Macbeth.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s “boys’ book” Kidnapped and Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly both take the Scots’ support of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, known as the Jacobite Uprising or just “the 45,” as a touchstone event. Some scholars identify Waverly as the first historical novel, while others suggest a debt to Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. Both Kidnapped and Waverly explore the tensions between the Scots and the English, setting the personal costs of their protagonists in sweeping historical context. Cinephiles can opt for the film adaption of Scott’s Rob Roy, set just before the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion (both the ‘15 and the ‘45 ultimately failed, but the ‘45 came far closer to success).
A broad overview of the lasting effect of the Scottish Enlightenment, How the Scots Invented the Modern World is a riveting read that makes you wish you were Scottish. The book details how Scotland recovered from failed trading ambitions to become an intellectual center, producing thinkers celebrated in England and France and still influential in our contemporary world. Foremost among the cast of characters is Adam Smith, moral philosopher and one of the founders of the field of economics with his Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. While The Wealth of Nations is a commonly (mis)quoted text in economic discussions to this day, the Theory of Moral Sentiments has enjoyed a resurgence of scholarly interest among literary scholars and philosophers. Smith’s English prose set a stylistic standard for intellectual treatises, although his spoken English retained a heavy Scots accent. You can find excellent introductions to his moral philosophy and economic thinking on the website Adam Smith Works.
David Hume, Smith’s close friend, was another titan of moral philosophy who wrote his later works in a format that engaged non-scholars. David Hume’s Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary covers a range of topics from the benefit of foreign trade to how taste is formed. He distills his philosophical thinking into lucid, bite-sized essays.
For the seedier side of these high ideas, you can check out James Boswell’s Edinburgh Journals. Boswell, perhaps most famous for his biography of Samuel Johnson, rubbed shoulders and bent elbows with most of the literati of his age. These journals detail his life in the city, where he sought out companions both high and low. Not quite an 18th-century Trainspotting, perhaps, but an indication that the city has always held temptations.
Combining the past and present is Val McDermid’s reimagining of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Sharing the same title, this contribution to Borough Press’s The Austen Project sets the action in the modern UK, with Edinburgh standing in for Catherine Morland’s original destination of Bath.
I’m eager to explore more contemporary Scottish fiction as well—I had better leave room in my suitcase!
Register for the Celtic Highlights travel trip (July 18 – 31), on which King will be the featured faculty traveler; learn more about alumni events or studying English at the University of Redlands; or check out the U of R English Department’s Facebook page.