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warrenstrand, co. cork

Photo: Warrenstrand, Co. Cork. All rights reserved.
Text: Copyright © Suzanne Barrett. All rights reserved.

Book Reviews by Your Guide


Grace Gifford: Tragic Bride of 1916

grace gifford plunkettBy the light of two guttering candles in Kilmainham Gaol’s Roman Catholic chapel, Grace Gifford married her fiance Joseph Mary Plunkett hours before his execution by firing squad. In doing so, Grace became forever linked with Ireland’s struggle for independence, because her husband was one of the signatories of the Proclamation of Independence. So begins Marie O’Neill’s biography of the woman who “became a powerful symbolic figure of the republican ideal for which her husband had given his life.”

Twenty-eight-year old Grace, the daughter of a Dublin solicitor, was second youngest in a family of twelve children. Born into a prosperous home, Grace and her siblings were surrounded with comforts, a wide circle of friends, and educational opportunities. Grace, a gifted artist, chose to study at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, then continued her studies in London, and finally returning to Dublin to begin a career as a caricaturist. A chance meeting with an Irish journalist in London introduced grace and her sisters to a broadening circle of friends, including the poet and painter known as AE, William Butler Yeats, Constance Markievicz, and Maude Gonne. The opening of St. Enda’s brought them in contact with the future leaders of 1916.

Raised a Protestant, Grace’s increasing interest in her father’s faith also led to a deepening friendship with Joseph Plunkett, whom she met at St. Enda’s in late 1914 or early 1915. By winter 1915, the couple was secretly engaged and planned an Easter wedding following Grace’s baptism into the Catholic faith.

Through the War of Independence and the Civil War, Grace barely made ends meet. A lifelong Republican, Grace was never a member of Cumann na mBan, the women’s auxiliary organization that worked to support the Volunteers. Still, she was arrested and served time in Kilmainham Gaol, along with other Republican women.

After her release, Grace, who remained a widow for the rest of her life, struggled to make a living from her art. Many times she was reduced to poverty, and life only became easier after Eamon deValera and his party came into power and she received a civil list pension. Grace continued to draw, and her cartoons showed an incisive wit. Quiet and moody, she remained in Dublin, working until her health began to fail. She died in 1955, presumably from heart failure. She was accorded a funeral with full military honors.

O’Neill’s biography is a sensitive portrayal of a little known woman in a generation of extraordinary Irish men and women. Her history is important so the world can remember Grace Gifford Plunkett, a quiet woman whose immense talent and charm make her more than simply the “tragic bride of 1916.”


The New Irish Table

the new irish tableThe New Irish Table is a treasure of a book featuring gorgeous photos of Ireland taken by Ms. Johnson and 70 recipes from Irish hoteliers, country house chefs and others, both in Ireland and the States. An introduction explains Ms. Johnson’s Irish heritage and her first trip to Ireland in 1984. Food, she explained was the last thing on her mind, however, in subsequent visits, a culinary revolution had ensued, and the entire country was clamoring for traditional foods served in exciting new ways.

Ireland has always had an abundance of the world’s finest dairy products, meats and fish, but the food suffered from poor cooking and poor presentation. That began to change in the early eighties. Myrtle Allen was a pioneer in the Irish Country House B&B trade with an emphasis on fresh, local food. Since then, superb cuisine has taken the country by storm. In this colorful volume, Ms. Johnson offers recipes to bring Ireland to your own home with staples such as Colcannon, the potato and cabbage treat, to brown bread creme brulee to smoked salmon. Many of the dishes use Farmhouse cheeses. One I’m particularly interested to try is a potato pancake with Cashel Blue.

The book covers appetizers, starters, meats and fish, side dishes and sweets. You’ll find recipes using black pudding and pork belly, but also wonderful roast breast of duck and lamb shanks.

The photography is superb, both for the dishes and the scenery. Apparently Ms. Johnson has tastes similar to me as many of the photos are of pplaces I’ve been, restaurants where I’ve eaten (The Farm Gate in Midleton, County Cork and McDonagh’s in Galway.)

While the emphasis is on the foods of West Cork, there are also recipes from other regions including Northern Ireland. Besides an index, there’s a section in the back of the book telling where to get some of the specialty foods listed. Ms. Johnson also offers suitable substitutions for foods only available in Ireland.

A wonderful book for the photos and the recipes. You’ll not want to be without this one.


An Irish Country Christmas

irish_country_christmasAn Irish Country Christmas is the third book in Patrick Taylor’s series that features new doctor Barry Laverty and his senior partner Dr. Fingal O’Reilly. Set in the rural Northern Irish village of Ballybucklebo, Barry looks forward to his first Christmas in the little village. However, when his girlfriend Patricia informs him that she may not be coming to spend the holiday with him, his disappointment mounts. At the same time, Dr. Fingal, who has vowed not to fall in love again, finds himself enormously attracted to the lovely Kitty O’Hallorhan. Meanwhile, Barry has his hands full with seasonal ailments and the occasional medical emergency. Still, they find time to play Santa to a needy mother with a sick child and make the rounds of rugby parties and kiddie Christmas festivities.

When a new doctor arrives in the village, Barry wonders if there can possibly be enough business to support three doctors, but that’s not his only worry. It seems Dr. Fitzpatrick, in spite of apparent quackery and questionable cures, is quite adept at stealing Barry’s and Fingal’s patients. The charm of rural Ireland shines in this story of these two engaging doctors who find time to help the villagers in many ways. Ballybucklebo is rife with interesting, comedic characters. The story is chock full of humorous episodes, an array of odd village ailments, and romantic troubles. Despite a tendancy to over-explain, Taylor’s wit and charm shine through. An Irish Country Christmas has all the ingredients for a satisfying winter’s read. Enjoy.


Darling Jim

darling jim Jim Quick roars into the West Cork town of Castletownbere on an ancient Red Vincent Comet motorcycle and is noticed by all the girls in town. “Darling Jim”, a seanachai, both sinister and magnetic, moves from pub to pub with his tales of love and murder, and beguiles the townspeople, particularly Fiona, Roisin, Aoife Walsh and their aunt. While I found the attraction each girl felt to Jim an integral part of the story, it felt a bit over the top, however, this story within a story is compelling, intense and stops just short of being too chilling. Told through the diaries of one of the sisters, we learn part of the story. Niall Cleary, the postal clerk who discovers the diary in the dead letter bin, soon finds himself on a mission to West Cork to learn what actually happened.

Despite the above-mentioned item, I found myself mesmerized by an intriguing tale, beautiful prose and the writer’s gift for the language. Darling Jim grabs the reader on page one and doesn’t let go until the last page. Author Christian Moerk so deftly weaves his tale of the wolf into the fabric of the Walsh sisters that the supernatural seems as believable as the physical. Recommended.


Discover Ireland

discover ireland My travel book of choice has usually been Frommer’s, however, I am very excited about Lonely Planet’s full color Discover Ireland guide book. While it contains the usual top sights to see, history and orientation of each major venue, there are many added pages of information such as Dangers and Annoyances (many of them in Dublin drink related). The chapters start with touring Dublin and move on in a clockwise circle to Eastern Ireland, Kilkenny and the Southeast, the Southwest, Galway and the West, the Northwest and finally Northern Ireland. In addition to general sights, each section has a “best of”, Things you need to know (for example: how far in advance to book hotel accommodations, each county in a nutshell, when and where places will be the busiest plus several online resources and travel modes.)

Opening and closing times for many attractions are listed as well as pricing for accommodations and some select eateries. I was pleased to find some of my favorites from past trips still mentioned. Among those I can personally recommend: the Farmgate in Midleton, Co. Cork; McDonagh’s in Galway City (honest, they serve the world’s BEST fish and chips!); Edward Langton’s in Kilkenny (one not on the list: the cafeteria at the Kilkenny Design Centre).

Another item not mentioned in the book but worth pursuing if time permits is the self-guided walking tour of many of the cities and villages. Maps can be purchased at several shops for pennies and give lots of information on each area’s sights. I’ve personally done walking tours of Kinsale, Kilkenny, Galway, Dungarvan and Skibbereen.

Maps abound on nearly every page as do fantastic color photos. Each area is highlighted in a special color to make accessing the information easy.

This is a high quality book with heavy pages and a wealth of information. No matter what your taste: gourmet food, ancient ruins, traditional music, pub crawling, coastal splendor, recent Irish history–it’s all listed right here. If your taste runs to Irish revolutionary history, I suggest you check out the online links for Dublin, Clonakilty, Sam’s Cross, Bealnablath, Rosscarbery.

However, for the first time visitor, there’s enough information in Discover Ireland to keep you very busy and very happy. Two thumbs up for this one.


The Whisper

the whisper I received this book by author Carla Neggers for review from the Vine program. Here's my take on it:

Briefly, it's a tale of a find by archeologist Sophie Malone and her encounter with Boston detective "Scoop" Wisdom who is convinced Sophie is not telling all she knows. As events begin to unfold, it becomes clearer that there might be a connection to Sophie's scare, some missing artifacts and a bomb plot that nearly cost Scoop his life. They must join sides to uncover the mystery.

As an Irish travel guide and one familiar with West Cork, Kerry and Kenmare, I was prepared to like the book based solely on the setting. That it was a romantic suspense penned by a well-known author in the genre was an added bonus, however, I found it tough reading for a number of reasons. First, I did not know this was a fourth book in a series, so the plethora of characters from previous books had my head spinning. Way too many characters who got in the way of Scoop's and Sophie's story and who seemed peripheral to the mystery of this book. The constant jumping between Kenmare, Boston and Dublin made it difficult to follow the story because it seemed like different sets of characters were all doing things that were only loosely related to the main plot. I never did learn what Will Davenport's, Simon's or Myles' roles were in relation to the main plot; in fact, I wondered what the main plot actually was. Was it what Sophie found on the island? What Keira saw? How did these incidents relate to Norman Estabrook, the man who died in prison or to Scoop's brush with death? And what was Lizzie's purpose to the plot? Why the references to Abigail Browning since she is never onstage? All these characters and all these questions. As for Kenmare, I would like to have read more detail so I actually felt the characters were in Kenmare. Ms. Neggers' description was pretty generic. I don't know of a pub that close to the Kenmare pier, and as for the pier, it's small, antiquated, and with maybe five or six boats moored at any given time.

The story is more mystery than romance, though Scoop and Sophie share a moment of intimacy, however, the mystery builds slowly up to the last quarter of the book. Why Sophie can't discuss what she saw on the island is a mystery to me; I kept waiting for something bigger to be happening. When finally it does, it came out of nowhere, because the reader had no lead-in. And the villain's modus operandi seemed contrived.

I wondered why many characters were described as having West Cork accents since they were in County Kerry.

To Ms. Neggers' credit, her (Sophie's) descriptions of early Celtic artifacts and customs was well done.

I feel I would have appreciated the book more if I had read the prequels and had an understanding of how each character was relevant to which portion of the plot. As it was, I found myself wanting to skip large chunks of the story.


Down to Earth

down to earth Down to Earth is my third Helen Dillon book, and to my mind, the best yet of her wonderful gardening books.

In addition to glorious photographs of the Dillon Garden at 45 Sandyford Road, Ranelagh, Dublin, in Dillon's introduction the reader is treated to a story of her garden's evolution with a chapter on acquisitions that turned out badly. (The type of things that happen to us but we don't think ever happen to the EXPERTS.) The Dillon's have been gardening in their Sandyford Road plot for over thirty years, while the garden has been open to the public for twenty.

The book is nicely divided into three sections: Beginner's Stuff, The Middle Ground (for the more experienced), and Fancy Stuff. Herein you'll learn about techniques for structure, choice of shade, watering, weeding, planting for sunny spots and difficult places, then on to potting sheds, the best roses, deadheading, how to hide neighboring structures for your private bit of Eden, container planting, raised bed planting and more. The expert gardening section deals with exotic plants, gardening for seasoned gardeners (aka "old"), greenhouses, growing orchids and colored, themed border plantings.

Dillon's writing style is lively and enjoyable. She informs without talking down to the reader, and each chapter is an unexpectedly interesting adventure as her humor is both sharp and subtle. Her eye for placement is impeccable as is her no-nonsense approach to ripping out anything that doesn't fit the design. Lastly, Helen Dillon is always helpful, be it in her books or in advice she has freely given in workshops and online. (I have a hardy geranium garden with plants personally recommended by Ms. Dillon.)

This is a book to read for ideas, then re-read for sheer enjoyment. Highly recommended.

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