In Ireland, Frank Delaney's first book to be published in the United States, the well-known Irish author presents his nation's history by way of the oral tradition, through stories. Most of these are narrated by the skilled voice of a seanchai, a traveling Storyteller who wanders the land and offers a tale in exchange for a night's lodging. His traditional accounts are supplemented by folktales, myths, details of historic battles, chatty minutiae, and even a musical performance by triplets in country-western garb.
Linking these stories is a narrative thread that follows an eager twentieth century listener, Ronan O’Mara, at first a nine-year-old boy and later a university student, who spends years trying to find the nameless Storyteller but who always misses him. In the course of Ronan's search for the old man, he struggles to unravel the family secrets that his kindly father, aloof mother, and young aunt have hidden from him.
The original shaggy dog story must have been told by an Irishman, for these tales wander everywhere, revealing custom and superstition, delightful fragments of speech, and highlights of the countryside.
Included are accounts of the invention of the harp (the Republic of Ireland's national symbol), the mountain of women (or how the hero Finn MacCool chose his bride), and how Saint Patrick banished the Devil from Ireland, as well as the country's history of frequent invasions, the horrors of the penal laws enacted by England against the Irish, the potato famine, and the Easter uprising.
Does Delaney manage to bring off a history written as fiction? In truth, as the ambiguous Irish would say, he does and he doesn’t; nevertheless, he is a joy to read.