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Dear Boston Irish: School Me

Posted by Robin Abrahams  March 13, 2013 11:08 AM

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I picked up a book on the Irish famine recently--John Kelly's The Graves Are Walking--and I've been off on a bit of a tear on Irish history ever since.

For some reason, I feel incapable of writing this post without apologizing for not having studied Irish history yet. I mean, I came to Boston in the fall of 1995. What on earth have I been doing all this time that was so important I didn't need to study Irish history? Such unconscionable negligence on my part.

Coming from the Midwest--and being initially preoccupied with other things, like surviving my statistics course and absorbing radically different norms of roadway courtesy--it took me a while to notice that being Irish was a thing out here. The Midwest was mostly settled by German/Scandinavian immigrants, and by the time anyone else made it that far into the heartland, they'd had some time to let historical grievances recede. There were a couple of Irish Catholic families in my school--the Christies and the Reillys--with a larger-than-average number of bright, outgoing kids who irritably explained that they didn't have "a smudge" to the rest of us on Ash Wednesday every year. It was another minor difference, like the kid with the peanut allergy or the twins or the kid whose family was from New York. Irish. Nothing special.

My first bit of schooling happened during jury duty several years ago. A fellow citizen was reading Michael Patrick McDonald's All Souls. I asked her if it was good, and she replied, "I've read it five times," in a voice and accent that clearly conveyed that books had not played a large role in this woman's upbringing, but this book, this --- wasn't even in that "more for other people than me" category that "books" always got sorted into, in her mind. This was simply life.

I had to read it, and devoured it in a day.

And now, absorbed in the horrifying details of the Great Hunger, I'm all but thinking of signing up for a Master's in Irish History. Next on my list is the historical novel Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl:

Kate McCafferty's searing first novel explores a little-known episode of seventeenth-century history when colonial England forced thousands of Irish to labor in the sugarcane fields of Barbados. McCafferty delves into this rich historical terrain through the eyes and voice and memory of Cot Daley, kidnapped by the English when she was ten and shipped to the West Indies.
(From the publisher's website, which also includes a fascinating interview with the author.)  

What other books would you recommend, dear readers, for a sense of Irish history and the Irish self-image and culture?
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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