Richard Kearney’s Salvage is one of the best novels on the market right now, according to Irish singer and writer Nóirín Ní Riain.
“The—and I’m using that superlative carefully—the most powerful and prophetic book to come out recently,” Ní Riain said.
Kearney, Boston College’s Seelig Chair of Philosophy, recently published Salvage, which focuses on the tension between progress and tradition. At an event promoting his book at the Boston Public Library on Tuesday, Kearney revealed the process of writing his novel and the inspiration behind it, while also discussing Celtic traditions and their prevalence in modern society.
The evening started with a video from Ní Riain, who sang a Celtic song and described the significance of someone writing about the Celtic tradition.
“[It’s] a gripping novel, lyrically set against the backdrop of a stunningly researched old Ireland,” Ní Riain said.
While many people view Celtic traditions as lost, Kearney said they are seeing a resurgence among young people due to their emphasis on nature.
“There is a new interest in the young generation now, in ecological spirituality,” Kearney said. “Even if we’re not going to have everybody speaking Irish again in Ireland—that’s not going to happen … this spirit I think will continue and is undergoing a revival.”
Kearney said the novel’s title, Salvage, is an ode to the fact that this book is the sole way to recount the stories of some of the people he discussed the Celtic tradition with, as they have died.
“I found myself saying, it’s also about salvaging the language, and salvaging the local names in Gaelic and to salvage that memory … that I was able to record in the book,” Kearney said.
Kearney also said that through music, tradition, and now, hopefully, his novel, the Celtic tradition will be preserved in the modern world.
According to Kearney, his main character—Maeve O’Sullivan—is torn between practicing the traditional Celtic healing methods of her father or studying modern medicine on the mainland.
“[O’Sullivan is] caught in the between of these different conflicts,” Kearney said. “The Orthodox Christianity versus Celtic Christianity, modern healing versus vernacular, folk, natural healing, the English language versus the Irish language, and the warring parties in the Second World War.”
According to Kearney, the pressure to assimilate to new cultures while also acknowledging the deep history and culture of the past was a struggle many Irish citizens faced in 1939, when the book takes place.
“[1939 was] sort of a transition year, because the war is on, and the Irish are very divided in the first world war, and the second,” Kearney said. “So there’s that sense of neutral Ireland in this transitional space.”
Because this book honors Celtic traditions, Kearney discussed the most popularized Celtic tradition in American society—Halloween. The timing of this talk was no accident, Kearney said, as Halloween has its roots in the culture Kearney is trying to restore.
“This was constructed by the Celts, millenia ago, and it has survived through the millenia right down to the present in the case of Samhain, [a Celtic religious ceremony], and it became Halloween,” Kearney said.
To wrap up his talk, Kearney said he has faith in the resurgence of interest in the Celtic tradition due to modern migration patterns and interests of the younger generation.
“I don’t think I’d have written a book called Salvage if I thought it was irredeemably lost,” he said.