When descendants of Irish immigrants wear green next Sunday and tip a glass to Ireland, they’re likely doing so in a bit of a party atmosphere. What they might forget is that many of them are in the U.S. because an ancestor fled the Irish Potato Famine in the late 1840s.
In Jeanine Cummins’ new novel, “The Crooked Branch,” the plot alternates between a new mom in Queens, named Majella, and her ancestor in Ireland, Ginny Doyle, as the famine begins. Both stories are essentially about motherhood, but in very different ways. In present day New York, Majella is isolated as a mother of a newborn with a husband working long hours, no family nearby and for awhile no friends, either. She’s in those first few crazy weeks and starts to wonder about her own sanity. She’s very funny, too, and Cummins makes Majella and her neighborhood come alive. Cummins herself lives in New York and is married to an Irish man.
Majella finds excerpts from Ginny’s diary, written in New York after the famine, which only give her pieces of Ginny’s story. Readers get that in full, from the deaths of children to the arrival of the crop-poisoning blight to the raw pain of desperation and loss. In hopes of a future, Ginny’s husband heads to America, only to die like so many others on the “coffin ships.” Her children starving, she has to leave them to work for an aristocrat, resulting in food, more sorrow and eventual survival. In “The Crooked Branch” (Penguin Group/NAL Trade, $15), Cummins draws readers into this world, too, so convincingly you can see the cairns and taste the horror of the famine. It’s a part of Irish history integral to Irish-American history, and well told through a novel. Cummins is a master storyteller, drawing together emotions and details in a fictional work that could as well be real. The characters stay with you.
-- Want more ways to celebrate Ireland this month? There’s another Ireland-set novel just released, by the well-known author of the novel titled simply, “Ireland.” Frank Delany has written the conclusion to his Ben McCarthy trilogy with “The Last Storyteller,” set in 1950s Ireland. (Random House Trade Paperback, $16).
For music, fans of the longtime Celtic punk band staple, The Pogues, will enjoy the compilation CD “The Very Best of the Pogues,” which was released earlier this year by Shout! Factory with the band’s input. It indeed features the best of The Pogues, with “Dirty Old Town,” “Fairytale of New York,” “Rainy Night in SoHo” and “The Sunnyside of the Street,” among others.
Boston-born Celtic punk band the Dropkick Murphys also have a new CD out, “Signed and Sealed in Blood” released by Born and Bred Records. An album of all new songs, Dropkick Murphys come out of the gate with the arena charged “The Boys Are Back.” One particularly rousing song is “A Rose Tattoo,” and some of their loyal fans got tattoos of the album art. Every song on “Signed and Sealed in Blood” gets your blood going. Dropkick Murphys’ songs are the kind you quickly learn to sing and shout, whether while drinking a pint in a crowd or doing a jig at home.
If you want to experience Irish music live, Casbah (1007 W. Main St., Durham) is holding a concert of cover bands, “St. Paddy’s Day Cover Up!” at 9 p.m. March 16. John Howie will perform as Thin Lizzy, Stephanie Stewart and her band as The Cranberries, and Salt to Bitters as The Pogues. Doors open at 8 p.m. The show is an hour and it’s free. Details at casbahdurham.com.