Sunday, February 24, 2008

Rosita Boland's "A Secret Map of Ireland" Book Review

A longtime journalist for the Irish Times, Boland's narratives move along generally with efficiency, detail, and organization. Her style, honed at the newspaper, tends more towards that of the personal feature granted by her employer than that of her poetry. The imagery's less potent and the facts more present than I expected. The best of these short chapters, one for a sight seen in each of the thirty-two counties, reveal Boland's ability to employ synecdoche-- in which a quirky or overlooked part stands for the whole nation.

For instance, the border in the Armagh visit to the Tayto factory at Tandragee Castle reveals a great detail, in impressively subtle observation and comparison, about the cultural differences on each side of the frontier. Similarly, the Fermanagh example of the border hamlets at Pettigo-Tullyhommon & Belcoo/Blacklion show the daily idiosyncracies of phone service, postal delivery, and commercial trade across a sturdy if nearly invisible divide. Another rift she enters in the Meath visit to the Columban missionary fathers' nearly empty but once filled former seminary and the graying and diminishing ranks of the Trappists at Waterford's Mount Melleray opens up deftly the fading echo of retreating Catholicism in an era of declining vocations and secularized lifestyles.

At Malin Head in Donegal, I liked her treatment of how visibility for weather forecasting still depends in a technological era on a human observer looking at the sky and checking gauges on the hour no matter what. This attention for the telling detail is Boland at her best. When she gets to the Sligo "fairy theme park" run by one "Melody, Baroness of Leyne, Ph.D.," all Boland needs to place the dreadful place in its kitschy niche is a deadpan recital of its plastic (or "resin") figurines. The edge the author reveals in her portrayal, however, avoids cruelty and she manages out of a depressing sight to conjure up the appeal of how it's not what we see that makes it inspiring or tawdry, it's what we do with the sights we see that manages to transcend the banal. A tricky point, and this moment, perhaps due to its depth of meaning, makes for me the highlight of this collection.

Yet, many other attractions she locates do not, in her telling, rise above the dutiful depiction of accumulated statistics or information. Staying three days on "Great" Skellig Michael, she transmits little of the gales and the sheer drops and the exhilarating vertigo that must be part of every lucky visitor's memory. How she got there by navigating Irish bureaucracy takes up much of her account; the stay's anticlimactic. Dan Donnelly's long arm in Kildare, carols sung in Laois, a cluttered Temple of Isis in Carlow, or a Raggedy Bush in Kilkenny are examples of the topics she discusses, but while all of these are admittedly interesting, they do not leap off the page or remain long in the memory.

A long recital of the intriguing journey to Africa's Mountains of the Moon by Surgeon Major Thomas Heazle Parke 1887-89 appears better suited to a non-Irish account. A monkey's afterlife fame in Cork, a cabinet of curiousities in Tyrone, or Derry's immense Lough Neagh all intermittently engage you, but the energy dissipates. I suppose the sad fate of the Millennium Tree that Boland had been issued in Wicklow may prove a metaphor for this gathering of attempts at surprising one's self with the hidden but accessible corners of one's own native land. The destination may disappoint or remain stubbornly elusive, but the sense of wonder and mystery still pulls Boland, and you, along to the next stop.

Posted review above today to British and U.S. Amazon; image, as the cover of that book merely faded the original "Educational School Map of Ireland" is not of the original, which deserved its elegantly delineated reproduction, after all. Unbelievably, I cannot find a depiction of that map on the Net. Here's an earlier, late 19c. map from a handsomely stocked site, "Heritage History: old-fashioned history straight from your great-grandparent's bookshelf." You can view a much larger, scanned, version there. I love maps!

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