Armchair Travels in Ireland: A Review of A Few Wee Books

Somehow lately I have found myself reading a string of books about Ireland. It wasn’t an intentional direction, however it is one I am glad I fell upon. By reading a few books about a country, it gave me a much greater understanding of the people and culture than any one book would have given me on its own. Ireland is not a country with a light and fun history, but nonetheless my armchair travels have revealed to me a fascinating place and people who have generated a wealth of literature.

My most recent read was Patrick Taylor’s An Irish Country Doctor. This is the story of a young doctor fresh out of school who takes a job in a fictional small village in Ulster (that is Northern Ireland) working for an older doctor. It has several stereotypical characters that make for many amusing situations, and is full of great one-liners. Set in the 60’s, it doesn’t really talk about the political climate of the time, and the doctors manage not to kill anyone despite the old doc’s unconventional methods, so the book stays light throughout. This is a perfect read for when you need a heart-warming and funny book that won’t keep you up at night. And as a bonus it has an Ulster glossary at the back that will help you understand what the locals are trying to tell you should you find yourself in Northern Ireland. Taylor, although originally from Ulster, has spent much of his life living in British Columbia.

My favourite Canadian humour writer, Will Ferguson, released a book about Ireland last fall. The book won the 2010 Leacock Award for humour, a third win for Ferguson. Beyond Belfast: A 560-Mile Walk Across Northern Ireland on Sore Feet chronicles Ferguson’s trek along the Ulster Way. Unless you really want to “feel the bogginess of Ulster’s bogs”, it is unlikely this book will convince you to walk the Ulster Way. With a compassionate voice Ferguson manages to address the darker parts of Irish history and politics, while pulling out the fun and quirky aspects of the people and culture. From his good-natured rants about the food (apparently in every pub in every Ulster village “Today’s Soup du Jour” is vegetable often accompanied by a variety of creative flavours of potato chips), to his descriptions of the architecture (“the buildings in the village of Portbraddan were “flattened against the cliff walls like prisoners trying to avoid a searchlight”), and the weather (“this was Northern Ireland; up here even plastic rusted eventually”) the book will often have you in stitches and will leave you with an appetite to travel vicariously through Will Ferguson again.

Denman Island’s Des Kennedy has also written a recent work about Ireland called Climbing Patrick’s Mountain. This book is in a much darker and edgier vein of humour than the two previous titles. In this book Patrick Gallager, a horticulturist and Irish ex-pat living in Vancouver, finds himself rather unwillingly leading a tour of Irish gardens. Having left Ireland for personal reasons, he finds that the troubles he left behind are waiting for him when he returns to his home country. Rather than being a chance to escape to Ireland’s gardens, this is more of a drama about a man coming to terms with his past. For the gardener, there are descriptions of Patrick’s horticulture, which are steeped in both science and eroticism. Although this book might not have as wide an appeal as Ferguson or Taylor’s books, Kennedy’s attention to details evokes vivid images of people and places. Set in Dublin, Climbing Patrick’s Mountain provides a literary trip to the city after some much needed time in the countryside.

So next time you want to take a little vacation, but don’t want to spend the time, money or carbon footprint of travelling to the far reaches of the planet, I highly recommend choosing a few titles set in your country of choice and really taking in the flavour of the setting.


Erika Anderson is the manger of Coho Books, where she is always happy to be able to tell you about her favourite reads.  She is an Aries and was born in the year of the Monkey.