Books of the Year

Looking back over the past year of their reading and reviewing some of our regular contributors have selected what seem to them to be the best reading of 2013, a varied and wide-ranging choice.

Mary Kenny

Christianophobia: A Faith under Attack (Rider Books, €11.99/£9.99) by Rupert Shortt, which was published in paperback and by e-book this year is a very important study of just how persecuted Christians are throughout the world. As Rupert Shortt (religion editor at the Times Literary Supplementand a biographer of Pope Benedict) writes:  “There is scarcely a single country from Morocco to Pakistan in which Christians are fully free to worship without harassment.” Sudan, East Timor, Syria, Nigeria, China, India, Vietnam, North Korea, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cuba and Israel have all shown hostility to Christians. A most dismaying aspect of this picture is the apparent indifference of so much of the West, which bends over backwards to be tolerant towards Islam, lest there be accusations of ‘racism’. He does highlight, perhaps paradoxically, that secularism is receding in many societies and religious belief generally is gaining ground: by 2050, three-quarters of the world will have a faith-based society.

I believe that human beings can only be equal in the sight of the Lord – no society has ever achieved social or material equality. But there are limits, and Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich (Penguin, €12.60/£10.50) really opened my eyes to way in which inequality is quite dramatically increasing. The figures are staggering – in 1970, the top 1% of Americans had 10% of national income: by 2005, the top 1% of the rich owned over 33%. And this trend towards more inequality is everywhere: Sweden, Finland, Germany, Israel (which was founded on socialist principles), New Zealand. The global ‘high rollers’ are unbelievably rich and they mix with one another – the billionaires look down on the millionaires. Among Churchmen, only Desmond Tutu is mentioned as having access to these golden circles. The super-rich are, by the way, usually socially liberal – people like George Soros are in favour of drug legalisation, gay marriage and liberal abortion. And the richer these folk are, the more covetous – anyone surprised?

Collections of journalism seldom retain the freshness of the everyday, with the exception Maeve’s Times (Orion €17.99 / £16.99) – a selection of Maeve Binchy’s pieces from The Irish Times, edited by Roisin Ingle. Many are hilarious – Maeve’s self-deprecating account of how she discovered she needed reading glasses – if one or two have been overtaken by events (Maeve thought the Irish unpunctual: but notions of punctuality have been altered completely by the mobile phone). A delightful read, and also, for any rookie journalist, a master-class in how to make text readable.


John Wyse Jackson

This year there’s no contest for my book nomination – it’s The Islander by Tomás O’Crohan(Ó Criomhthain), translated by Garry Bannister and David Sowby (Gill & MacMillan, paperback, €9.99, also available as an ebook.)  An tOileánach was first published in Gaelic in 1929, but both this edition and Robin Flower’s acclaimed English version (1934) lacked certain more ‘sensitive’ passages in the original manuscript. These, once deemed inappropriate, are now restored, and the whole has been furnished with intelligent introductory material, and textual appendices.

But it is not for its completeness that makes me choose this new translation for my book of the year, but for the flowing, natural, English prose in which the author’s words are rendered, words that may be as witty as they are touching and at times tragic. It’s a wonderful book, and an astonishing record of a part of our past that we should all be proud of.


Felix M. Larkin

In his novel TransAtlantic (Bloomsbury, €22.75 / £18.99), Colum McCann writes about the intersection of individual lives and history. He focuses on three moments when America intrudes on Ireland – the flight of Alcock and Brown (1919), the visit of Frederick Douglass (1845-46) and George Mitchell’s negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement (1998) – and he juxtaposes them against the story of a fictional Irish-American family over several generations. In particular, McCann’s treatment of Senator Mitchell’s juggling of his private and public lives is one of the finest pieces of historical fiction that I know, and all the more remarkable for the fact that the subject is still living. TransAtlantic is a magnificent achievement – not without its faults, but the best book I read in 2013.


Aubrey Malone

I became a devotee of Barbara Pym during the year and gobbled up a half dozen of her re-issued novels from Virago. Excellent Women (Virago, €10.80/£8.99) is a good (in fact an excellent) place to start. She’s been called the new Jane Austen and indeed she shares the same droll humour but she seems warmer somehow and more subtle. She writes about an admittedly restricted world (vicars, church fetes, stunted emotions, academia, domesticity) but it’s conveyed with great grace and style.

Another re-issue was Desmond Hogan’s The Ikon Maker (Lilliput, €9.60 / £7.99). I was as enthralled by Hogan’s minimalist style as I was when I first read the book way back in the 1970s. I also enjoyed Running, the second autobiography of the snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan from Orion. The title means two things: first the fact that athletics has replaced drink and drugs for this mercurial man, and second the fact that he’s spent a lot of his life running away from things and now that he’s got himself sorted he’s running towards them.  It’s an uplifting read for anyone who’s been burned in the furnace of fame.


Joe Carroll

In Solitary and Wild: Frederick MacNeice and the Salvation of Ireland (Lilliput Press, €40.00), Trinity College historian, David Fitzpatrick, gives the non-Protestant reader a marvellous insight into the history of the Church of Ireland from famine times up to the middle of the last century. This picture emerges through the life and times of Bishop Frederick MacNeice, father of the poet, Louis MacNeice. It is not a history of Anglicanism in Ireland for that period but through the MacNeice family the story begins on Olmey island in the west where the bishop was born and extends to Carrickfergus and Belfast where he served as a young clergyman and later as Bishop of Down.

The author’s research corrects some misconceptions about the bishop which Louis fostered such as that he became a closet Irish nationalist by the end of his life inspired by his courageous stance in publicly refusing to sign the Ulster Covenant while serving in Carrickfergus in 1912.  The author carefully analyses Frederick’s political views which were basically all-Ireland unionist. He had memories of his evangelising family being driven out of Olmey by a mob stirred up by Catholic priests and witnessed raw sectarianism from the other side in Belfast slums but worked hard to preach the Gospel message of universal fellowship.


Ian D’alton

My ‘Book of the Year’ has got to be Ronan Fanning’s Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution, 1910-1922 (Faber & Faber, €18.99/£16.99).  It is a splendid, forensic and gripping analysis of how ‘high politics’, precisely because it is ‘high’, is dominated by personal ambition and narrow party advantage.  Ireland between 1910 and 1922 is the almost Shakespearian stage upon which this tragi-comedy is set.  It shows that, in essence, the Irish political leaders, whether those of the old Parliamentary Party or Sinn Féin, were completely out-manoeuvred by the British side on the way to independence; and that the ‘Irish Question’ was always the ‘Ulster Question’.  You don’t have to have deep historical knowledge or interests to enjoy this book – the superb quality of the writing, and the elegance of the argument, are immensely pleasurable in themselves.


Anthony Redmond

Fr Benignus O’Rourke gave us a superb new translation of St Augustine’s Confessions (Darton, Longman & Todd, €15.50/£12.99), which is perhaps the most important spiritual autobiography ever written. Augustine’s story is well known. Having lived a somewhat dissolute and licentious life and being totally obsessed with his career, he reached a crucial moment in his life where his reflections and his mother’s constant prayers helped him to change his life and turn to God. He went on to become the greatest theologian and doctor of the Western Christian Church. There is so much in his Confessions to reflect upon. It is a deeply moving and searingly honest book. There is so much searching, self-analysis and remorse in his writing and it is so full of psychological insight. I was particularly moved by his account of his mother’s death.  Fr O’Rourke’s superb, meticulous translation of this masterpiece is a joy to read. It will renew the appeal of St Augustine for generations to come.


J. Anthony Gaughan

The Wreck of the Neva: the horrifying fate of a convict ship and the Irish women aboard (Mercier Press, €14.99/£12.99)was the most interesting and informative book I read this year. It recorded the greatest tragedy associated with Irish emigration to Australia.  The Neva sank off the coast of Tasmania in May 1835. On board were 182 female convicts, 30 other passengers and a crew of 27.  When the ship foundered it was ‘every man for himself’. Of the female convicts only 6 survived, while the captain and 8 other members of the crew managed to scramble ashore.

The author provides a detailed account of the logistics involved in the preparations for the voyage, the daily routine on the voyage and the background and court appearances of some of the female convicts. He describes the subsequent lives of the survivors and records interviews with some of their present-day descendants in Australia.

There was a great deal of official obfuscation with regard to the loss of the Neva. Eventually, at the insistence of William Moriarty, a native of Dingle and former admiral in the Royal Navy, an investigation was held which found the captain responsible for the loss of his ship.


Peter Hegarty

In a searing, poetic book of remembrance, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, Israeli academic Otto Dov Kulka recalls his childhood in Auschwitz, a vastness governed by an ‘immutable law of death’. Reminders of the primacy of that law were everywhere: the smoke continually issuing from the chimneys of the crematoria; the bodies lying in heaps outside the barracks where he slept.

Such were the sights and sounds of the writer’s childhood. Auschwitz, a place where mass killing was part of the order of life, and violence a quotidian ritual, was all the boy knew. With the violence and horror there was also an element of mystery. Kulka terms the Holocaust ‘perplexing’. He finds attempts to depict or approach it through art unsatisfactory, for they do not reflect what he saw and experienced. Auschwitz is inexplicable.

Even in the metropolis of death life offered moments of uplift and relief, and the inmates savoured these when they came. In one of many passages that linger in the mind Kulka describes prisoners singing Schiller’s Ode to Joy within sight of the smokestacks.