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This review is taken from PN Review 96, Volume 20 Number 4, March - April 1994.

CIARAN CARSON, First Language (Gallery Books) £5.95 pb
CONOR O'CALLAGHAN, The History of Rain (Gallery Books) £5.95 pb
BRENDAN CLEARY, The Irish Card (Bloodaxe Books) £6.95 pb
NUALA NÍ DHOMHNAILL, The Astrakhan Cloak: Poems in Irish with translations into English by Paul Muldoon (Gallery Books) £6.95 pb
MEDBH MCGUCKIAN, The Flower Master and Other Poems (Gallery Books) £5.95 pb

Walk into any bookshop in Dublin or Belfast and you will probably be surprised (if, like me, you are English) by the number of shelves devoted to 'Irish interest' books. The Irish love of words - stronger even than their love of music, inspiring more passion than a pint of black velvet - goes right back to the Dark Ages. In the sixth and seventh centuries AD, it was the Celtic monasteries of Derry, Kells, Durrow and Clonfert which were responsible for preserving the Latin and Greek classics in the West. They even created their own Odyssey - the Navigatio Brendani, which tells of St Brendan's adventures as he and his fourteen disciples wander the northern seas in search of the island that they believe will be a terrestrial paradise. Its rip-roaring account of fantastic sea beasts and miraculous escapes was so popular that it was translated into Norman, French, German, Provencal, Italian and Norwegian.

The notions of wandering exile and of cultural preservation against a foreign threat run like golden threads through Irish writing - nurtured, no doubt, by the island's traumatic history. Literature also serves as a means of retreat - of escape from the harsh realities of the daylight world. In a recent interview in The Guardian, we learnt that Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, prefers talking books and authors to politics (at least when doing interviews). He revealed that he writes fiction himself - small-town domestic studies - 'to celebrate a people ...

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