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The Irish Story

Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland

R. F. Foster

Publication Date - January 2004

ISBN: 9780195168877

304 pages
5-5/16 x 8 inches

Retail Price to Students: $19.99

A trenchant look at the ways the Irish and others have told the "Story of Ireland," from W.B. Yeats to Frank McCourt


Roy Foster is one of the leaders of the iconoclastic generation of Irish historians. In this opinionated, entertaining book he examines how the Irish have written, understood, used, and misused their history over the past century.
Foster argues that, over the centuries, Irish experience itself has been turned into story. He examines how and why the key moments of Ireland's past--the 1798 Rising, the Famine, the Celtic Revival, Easter 1916, the Troubles--have been worked into narratives, drawing on Ireland's powerful oral culture, on elements of myth, folklore, ghost stories and romance. The result of this constant reinterpretation is a shifting "Story of Ireland," complete with plot, drama, suspense, and revelation.
Varied, surprising, and funny, the interlinked essays in The Irish Story examine the stories that people tell each other in Ireland and why. Foster provides an unsparing view of the way Irish history is manipulated for political ends and that Irish misfortunes are sentimentalized and packaged. He offers incisive readings of writers from Standish O'Grady to Trollope and Bowen; dissects the Irish government's commemoration of the 1798 uprising; and bitingly critiques the memoirs of Gerry Adams and Frank McCourt. Fittingly, as the acclaimed biographer of Yeats, Foster explores the poet's complex understanding of the Irish story--"the mystery play of devils and angels which we call our national history"--and warns of the dangers of turning Ireland into a historical theme park.
The Irish Story will be hailed by some, attacked by others, but for all who care about Irish history and literature, it will be essential reading.

About the Author(s)

Roy Foster is Professor of History and a Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford. He is the author of W. B. Yeats: The Apprentice Mage and Modern Ireland, and is the editor of The Oxford History of Ireland.


"Reading Foster will sharpen your wits, leave you less likely to be duped by a story simply because it's told with a brogue."--Chicago Tribune

"Erudite and acerbic"--Kirkus Reviews

"Interesting, suggestive, mostly urbane, sometimes scathing."--Wall Street Journal

"Foster is a formidably funny and exciting writer, and it is a joy to watch as he charmingly herds each sacred cow to the slaughter."--Craig Brown, The Mail on Sunday

"Foster's superb portrait of the essayist Hubert Butler evokes an Irish Orwell; someone who for 60 years, at times reviled and at others ignored, spoke subtle, lucid truth....Foster eviscerates what he sees as the cramping of the past in memoirs by Frank McCourt and Gerry Adams....What Foster is really going after is not politics but a way of thinking and writing 'for an audience in search of reaffirmation rather than dislocation--or enlightenment....Style is Foster's touchstone for truth. His disdain for McCourt's and Adams's writing, and the tradition of tale-telling, is more than literary."--Richard Eder, New York Times Book Review

"Roy Foster is one of the most elegant and probing writers on Irish topics and also one of the most controversial. In Ireland itself, where history matters, Foster attracts Cornel West-scale publicity. He's the leading figure in a generation of 'revisionist' historians who have chipped away at what they describe as Irish myths. American readers are about to get a fresh taste of his stiletto pen and icon-smashing habits when his latest book, 'The Irish Story' hits these shores."--Chris Shea, Boston Globe

"The outpouring of literature from Ireland has ever been enormous, and nothing seems to stem it, or to reduce the excellence of the best of it. Occasionally, amid that plenitude there emerges a book that startles and provokes to the point of demanding extraordinary attention. Such a book is The Irish Story....I can think of no book that more clearly, provocatively and intelligently delineates the important underlying contemporary truths of Ireland and the Irish than this insightful, courageous and splendid work."--Michael Pakenham, Baltimore Sun

"Foster is a graceful stylist, a droll wit, and a serious scholar. For the student of Irish history, this volume of revisionist history is often refreshing in its genteel insolence and polite polemics. It provides a dozen thoughtful essays, many blending biography and literary criticism with skeptical scrutiny of traditional historiography."--Richmond Times

"The whole book is written in lively, colorful, and exact prose....As Foster has ruefully reflected, his nation is 'too prone to mistake verbiage for eloquence, fanaticism for piety, and swagger for patriotism.' These are faults not particular to the Irish, although the Irish might be said to be especially spectacular in their use."--Margaret Boerner, Weekly Standard

"Interesting, suggestive, mostly urbane, sometimes scathing....Foster...despises most of the acts of commemoration. He speaks of 'commercialized theme-park history' purveyed by 'commemoralist historians.' He is offended by officially sponsored bad taste and by what he regards, on the part of many of his professional colleagues, as bad history. Some of the episodes he recounts make for painful reading, especially if you are Irish. It is exasperating to find tragic acts and sufferings turned to commercial use by the Irish Tourist Board, the government and local politicians."--Wall Street Journal

"Foster's writing, which is lively and unsparing, has already inspired much commentary in the UK and in Ireland."--Publishers Weekly