Some books for the Christmas season

A selection of titles for adults, both secular and religious, fort he Christmas season

At Christmas time the shops fill up with a vast range of books. Following on from our suggestions for children’s books last week, this week the books pages present a selection of titles for adults, both secular and religious, drawn from many subject areas.


The Church of Mercy

by Pope Francis

(Darton, Longman and Todd, €12.60/£9.99)

Here is a book which is a very suitable expression of the true message of Christmas. 

Subtitled “a message of hope for all people”, this carefully edited selection of teachings from the writings and speeches of Pope Francis, unlike so many other books rushed into print, is a book (prepared originally by Loyola Press in the US) which really and truly provides insight into the man, and to his teachings for the Church today. Like the man himself, it is a very approachable book, filled with inspiration. An essential adjunct to Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer.

Blueprint for the Church, by Eamonn Conway with Cathal Barry (The Irish Catholic, €12.99) also packs a great deal into a small space. Specially prepared by The Irish Catholic, this book is a guide to the Pope’s encyclical, making it also essential reading for the coming time. (To purchase directly contact Geraldine 01-687 4094, or email

Once again this year, the Sacred Space Prayer Book for 2015 (Messenger Publications, €10.99/£8.70) is already proving a popular read. Gathering together material from the website, this is a book that provides for every day of the year in a special way. This title has proved in an earlier edition to be a New Year gift of the best kind. It is extraordinary to think that this book in its annual editions has sold some 400,000 copies since its creation in 2005.

Seasons of Hope, by Sr Stanislaus Kennedy (Transworld Ireland, €12.46/£9.87) gathers together offerings by a host of well-known names who provide both wisdom and reflection for the reader. It provides a mixture of the new and the old, mixing insights from the past with reflections for the present. Her contributors include writer and playwright Michael Harding, poets Theo Dorgan and Eavan Boland, and social campaigner Ruairi McKiernan.


The Monogram Murders

by Sophie Hannah

(Harper Collins, €9.99/£7.99)

A dedicated fan of Agatha Christie, whose novels have recently been explored by a French philosopher for the insight into the crisis of modern man in the 20th Century, might wonder just why a new Hercule Poirot book is needed, when so many already exist. But the readers are out there: this has already been sold to some 30 countries. Sophie Hannah is an accomplished crime writer in her style; but that is not the style of Dame Agatha. Still for crime fans this novel, which recalls to mind the perplexities of the very early Poirot books such as The ABC Murders, would be an ideal Christmas treat.


Chestnut Street

by Maeve Binchy

(Orion, €18.99/£14.99)

A set of stories of varied characters and their tumbled lives by one of Ireland’s favourite authors, the late Maeve Binchy. This is a sort of follow up, on the street next door, to Minding Frankie. With the author’s usual human warmth, but also a realistic eye – and ear – for our all too human foibles.  


A very human book Man on the Bridge: The Story of Arthur Fields

by Arthur Fields and Ciaran Deeney

(The Collins Press, €24.99/£19.99)

Dubliners of a certain age will be well acquainted with Arthur Fields. But in many memoirs and biographies, some of his street photos will be familiar. He stood on O’Connell Bridge for half a century taking snapshots of passers-by and then handing them a ticket to collect the finished photograph later.

This is a very human book, filled with real people in a way that many photo books are not. These photos were often the only ones that some families ever had. Among them is a snap of Beatle George Harrison at the age of seven, far from stardom, taken on a visit to Dublin with his family. For others, the occasion might have been a special day or an evening out.

The photos all come with their stories of the individuals shown, provided by their owners. Ironically, this recorder of Dublin’s street life was not a Dubliner, but a refugee from anti-semitism in the Ukraine.

A superb piece of nostalgia for Dubliners and many of Dublin’s visitors.


Selected Poems 1966-1987 and New Selected Poems 1988-2013

Seamus Heaney

(Faber & Faber, €20.00/£15.90 each)

These two collections provide an overview of the career of the Nobel Prize laureate across the whole span of his career. So it is possible to follow the development of his technique and his changing moods, in relation not only to his native Ulster, but to themes of life in modern times. Admirers of the poet might also like to know that the journal Poetry Ireland is publishing a special “Heaney Issue” (Poetry Ireland, €13.50) edited by Vona Groarke. The issue contains 46 poems by Seamus Heaney himself, with essays on the poems from 50 other distinguished poets.  


Lines of Vision

(Thames & Hudson, €25.50 /£19.95)

This is an excellent dip into book in which a wide variety of Irish writers is inspired by individual works of art in the National Gallery of Ireland to reflect, create and recreate idea and images inspired by the artists’ vision. This will enhance a future visit to the gallery, even for young people.


The Finest Music: Early Irish Lyrics

ed. Maurice Riordan

(Faber & Faber, €18.99/£14.99hb)

These collections of old Irish poems, by a variety of translators old and new including Frank O’Connor and Kuno Meyer, John Montague and Robert Graves, Auden and Flan O’Brien, are all distinctive but capture something of the clipped beauty of Irish poetry at its best. This collection would make a fine present for the literary-minded person in the family. The editor himself adds his own versions, making this perhaps the most interesting anthology of its kind for some time.


Art and Architecture of Ireland

Yale University Press, in association with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Royal Irish Academy (individual volumes €95; complete 5-volume boxed set, €475/ £400).

This is the most important work of the year with respect to the whole sweep of Irish civilisation. It is in five volumes, dealing with the medieval, edited by Rachel Moss; painting by Nicola Figgis; 1600-1900 architecture 1600-2000, by Rolf Loeber and others; sculpture by Paula Murphy; 20th century by Catherine Murray and Peter Marshal. Edited and written by the leading scholars in the fields, this is essentially – with each volume running to upwards of 600 pages – a reference work, and the sort of reference work which will be enjoyed by the ordinary reader as well.

As book prices go these days, these volumes are a bargain. Not perhaps for every home, but certainly a set to seek out in the local library.


David Dickson’s Dublin; The Making of a Capital City

(Profile Books, €37.90/£30.00Dublin has many histories: for a thousand years a modest urban settlement on the quiet waters of the Irish Sea, for the last four hundred it has experienced great – and often astonishing – change.

Once a fulcrum of English power in Ireland, it was also the location for the 1916 insurrection that began the rapid imperial retreat. That moment provided Joyce with the setting for the greatest modernist novel of the age, Ulysses, capping a cultural heritage which became an economic resource for the brash ‘Tiger town’ of the 1990s.

David Dickson’s magisterial survey of the city’s history brings Dublin to life, from its medieval incarnation through the glamorous 18th Century, when it reigned as the ‘Naples of the North’, through to the millennium.

He reassesses 120 years of Anglo-Irish union, in which Dublin – while economic capital of Ireland – remained, as it does today, a place in which rival creeds and politics vied for supremacy. 

Dublin reveals the rich and intriguing story behind the making of a capital city.


This Glorious Madness: Tales of the Great War

Turtle Bunbury

(Gill & Macmillan, €34.00/£26.99)

The popular genealogist explores the personal individual stories of the Irish who marched away to the Great War. Who were the Irish men who went to war? What did they think, feel and believe? And how did war change the course of their lives and our own?

Pushed to the wrong side of Irish history by the struggle for independence, the extraordinary stories of the men and women who risked – and, in over 30,000 cases, lost – their lives as a consequence of the Great War have never gained the recognition they deserve.

On the eve of that conflict’s centenary, as public interest turns once again to the dormant battlefields of the Somme valley and Ypres, it’s time to reconsider the remarkable human experiences that defined Ireland’s experience of the war.

Based on first-hand accounts of the conflict, this collection of character portraits and stirring anecdotes brings to life the hopes, fears and ambitions that defined Ireland’s “lost generation”.


The Last Armada; Siege of 100 Days – Kinsale 1601

Des Ekin

(O’Brien Press, €14.99/£12.99)

Here is a popular account of the siege of Kinsale told with all the skill that characterised Des Ekin’s earlier book about the infamous Barbary raid on Baltimore. Here, three very different military commanders prepare for a battle which many think decided the fate of Ireland.

The Spaniard General Juan del Águila had been released from prison to take command the last great Spanish Armada. The scheme was to seize a bridgehead in Queen Elizabeth’s Irish kingdom and make it a foothold for a larger conquest.

Defending the town was Charles Blount, a brilliant English strategist, a man who had also run into trouble with those employing him. He had become involved with a woman and through her in a treasonous plot – a common enough thing in the England of the day. He had escaped the gallows, but at Kinsale faced a great test.

Meanwhile, the Ulster rebel leader Hugh O’Neill desired to seize the opportunity, along with his Spanish allies, of freeing Ireland from England’s rule. The outcome was for the English a triumph, for the Spanish and Irish a disaster, leading to the eclipse of native rule for centuries.

The intrigues, the siege, the battle and the aftermath are brilliantly realised by the author.


Jack Kyle Conversations with my Father

as recorded by Justine Kyle McGrath

(Hachette Books Ireland, €17.50/£13.99)  

The shops are filled with books by sporting stars, but this one is different, and is the one really worth reading, and rereading. Jackie Kyle, who has just passed away, was a rugby legend, a Grand Slam winner in 1948 and a Lions Tour veteran.

But this book is really about the rest of his life. Kyle may have been a rugby giant of his time, but he is so much more than a sporting legend.

While he was winning a Grand Slam and touring with the Lions, Jack Kyle was also studying to be a doctor. After graduation, he went abroad, first to Indonesia, and then to Chingola in Zambia. There he worked until retirement, some 34 years in all. This is very much a human story of dedicated and courage, but also of kindness, human warmth and service to others.


Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

by Anya Von Bremzen

(Black Swan, €11.50/£8.99)

This memoir of her early life in the Soviet Union by food writer Anya Von Bremzen manages to combine a tale of ultimate survival with insights into the role of food in Soviet, or rather Russian life. Not exactly a cook book, but something more important, an evocation of a life where cooking and eating took on a special relevance to survival in the straitened circumstances of the day.


Fish and Shellfish

by Rick Stein

(BBC Books, €31.50/£25.00)

After a series of journeys through France and Italy and across the Med and on to India and the Far East, Rick Stein, celebrity chef with the human touch (as evinced in his autobiography Mackerel Sky this year) is back in Cornwall where he started with the seafood delights of our surrounding ocean.

But for those still hankering after his adventures in more exotic lands, there is Rick Stein’s India, which can be bought together with Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey (BBC DVD, €8.70/£6.90)


The Narrow Road to the Deep North

by Richard Flanagan

(Chatto & Windus, €20.99/£16.99hb)

This was the Man Booker prize winner, and is acknowledged as one of the best novels of the year. The Burma Railway survived – this book recalls in a way earlier books by a variety of writers attempting to come to terms with the Japanese love of beauty and refinement and the dreadful things done in war.

It brings to mind in its resonances earlier novels by Laurens van der Post, Pierre Boulle, and Fires on the Plain by Ooka Shohei. According to one critic, Flanagan’s book is “a savagely beautiful novel about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost”.


Sister Caravaggio

edited by Peter Cunningham

(Liberties Press, €14.99/£11.99)

This multi-handed tale is inspired in a small way by incidents in recent times in Ireland. A priceless Caravaggio mysteriously disappears from a rural convent. The silent order, however, are not to be outdone.

Two sisters set out, dressed as civilians, to track it down, through an increasing list of deaths such as Maeve Binchy and six other Irish writers to  add their complications to the plot. Reminiscent of The Floating Admiral which Dorothy L. Sayers and her friends in the Detection Club concocted back in the ‘30s, this is delightful fun.


Do You Remember?

by Alice Taylor

(Brandon, €16.99/£14.99)

Alice Taylor takes us through her home, reflecting back on the routine of her family life growing up in rural Ireland in the 1950s – a time when food was home-baked and everything was recycled – the original green economy.

“Like a tree, families put down roots that give support and stability to extended branches. The home family provides a shelter belt and that sheltering can encompass the extended tribe when life gets stormy.”

For all her many fans, this is a loving  account of a lost time, filled with nostalgia and wise words to treasure from one of Ireland’s best-loved authors.


All in My Head

by Majella O’Donnell

(Simon & Schuster, €18.99/£16.99)

This is a wonderful book. Daniel O’Donnell may be the nation’s favourite, but what a woman he is married to! This is a memoir of her life which must have been very hard to write. Early years of enthusiasm and a love of music were thwarted by a marriage that failed. She was shattered by depression.

However, she took herself in hand and remade her life. She met and married Daniel and began a new life, one of great happiness. That was in 2002.

But 10 years later she contracted cancer and a new struggle began. She came through this trial too, which climaxed with the shaving of her head on The Late Late Show which raised an astounding €600,000 for the Irish Cancer Society.