Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (BOLLI)

A Language So Familiar, and So Foreign: The Distinctive Voice of Contemporary Irish Prose

Course Number


Study Group Leader (SGL)

Lois Ambash


This course will take place virtually on Zoom. Participation  requires a device (ideally a computer or tablet, rather than a cell phone) with a camera and microphone in good working order and basic familiarity with using Zoom and accessing email.

10-Week Course

Sept. 11-Nov. 27. No class Sept. 25 or Oct. 9


In James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," Stephen Dedalus listens as his dean speaks, and contemplates his own relationship to the English language. Stephen thinks, "His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech." The Irish acquired English over centuries of colonial domination, but never entirely accepted it. Instead, they adapted it into a uniquely Irish set of dialects that continues to yield a sumptuous literary bounty.

In this course, we will read five novels and a play that reflect shifting Irish cultural narratives around family relationships, the Catholic church, gender, nationality, war and history itself. Sebastian Barry's play "The Steward of Christendom" and his novel "The Secret Scripture" are two of several works inspired by his own ancestors' place in Irish history. Colm Toíbín's "Brooklyn" traces a young woman's journey to America and the conflicted meanings of home. Anne Enright's "The Gathering" portrays a family that comes together to mourn a tragic death. Colum McCann's "TransAtlantic," a work of the Irish diaspora, intertwines historical and fictional narratives to explore connections between Ireland and America. Claire Keegan's "Small Things Like These" explores moral issues at a time before Ireland began coming to terms with abuses perpetrated by the Catholic church.

"The Gathering" was awarded the Booker Prize. "The Secret Scripture," "Brooklyn" and "Small Things Like These" were shortlisted for the Booker, and "TransAtlantic" was longlisted. Like "The Steward of Christendom," all are masterful, moving, and gorgeously written..

Course Materials

"The Steward of Christendom" by Sebastian Barry, "The Secret Scripture" by Sebastian Barry, "Brooklyn" by Colm Toíbín, "The Gathering" by Anne Enright "TransAtlantic" by Colum McCann, and "Small Things Like These" by Claire Keegan. Note: Total cost to buy new on Amazon is $80, but all are readily available used. Total cost to buy used, in good or very good condition, is under $55. All are readily available in libraries.

Preparation Time

100 to 150 pages per week.


Lois Ambash has been a reference librarian, a dean, a professor and a consultant. She holds a bachelor's degree in English, master's degrees in public policy and library science, and an interdisciplinary PhD in American culture. Her most fulfilling professional endeavors have involved working with adult learners, whether college students, new speakers of English or colleagues here at BOLLI. She doesn't have a drop of Irish blood in her, but feels pretty sure she was Irish in another life.