Anne Marie McNally (above) and her book choices, clockwise from top left: ‘Emerald Square’; ‘The Spirit Level’; ‘Snakes And Ladders’; ‘The Van’; books by John Connolly, and ‘Democratic Left; The Life And Death Of An Irish Political Party’.
What with it being traditional holiday season I’ve been mulling over the non-fiction books that have shaped my thinking over the years and which influenced both my politics and my career choices along the way!
From the outset I’m going to declare that I’m very much a fiction fan and at the moment because I spend so much time in work reading lengthy policy documents, analyses, speeches and debates (never mind the time I spend writing them!) that when I do have leisure time the odds are I’m sticking my head into a good thriller with a serial killer or two on the rampage!
But undoubtedly many books and papers over the years have helped shape my general philosophy and my political compass. Mostly those were non-fiction but it’s worth noting that some semi-fictitious works have mattered to my outlook too.
In this regard I would point to Lar Redmond’s ‘Emerald Square’ and Roddy Doyle’s ‘The Van’ (the whole Barrytown trilogy counts in this context but The Van is particularly poignant whilst still being ‘snot yourself’ hilarious!)
Both ‘Emerald Square’ and ‘The Van’ give a visceral sense of the dehumanising effect of poverty on a person and their family life. There’s a piece in The Van where the main protagonist talks about the feeling of helplessness he experiences because he’s unable to buy his granddaughter an ice-cream while out for a walk.
Anyone who has experienced poverty first hand can’t help but feel the pain of that helplessness and one of the main reasons I became engaged politically was to try and keep as many people as possible from experiencing such helplessness.
On the purely non-fictional side, but touching on the same theme, is The Spirit Level. The Spirit Level is a fantastic analysis of countries around the world and the levels of inequality in their society.
In analysing many key quality of life factors it very clearly draws a link between why in those societies which are more equal, everyone (of all socio-economic demographics) fare better across a number of key indicators including actual life-span!
For serious political theory I’d always point someone towards anything by Philip Pettit, an Irish political theorist and scholar. An easy way to dip a toe into his work is with one of his papers called ‘Towards a Social Democratic Theory of The State’… (I mean, c’mon, you have to know I was going to recommend that one didn’t you?! But honestly it’s well worth a read!)
Another great book, which really continues to be a reference point for me is Fergus Finlay’s ‘Snakes and Ladders’. I had to read this for a module on my MA in Political Communication and initially I wondered why – I mean it seemed like yet another behind the scenes political memoir. It is, but it’s so much more.
When I read it first I hadn’t worked in Leinster House and frontline politics. Once I started here I immediately found myself realising just how real the book is. It’s by far the closest you’ll get to experiencing what it is like to be a political staffer/adviser in Irish politics unless you actually do the job. (For those who prefer a bit of telly ‘The Thick Of It’ is not too far from reality either – humour and swearing included!!)
Speaking of my MA, the person who got me to read ‘Snakes and Ladders’ was [Dublin City University’s] Professor Kevin Rafter, someone I now consider a political mentor, inspiration and friend.
Any of the many political books he has written would be a fantastic way to spend a summer but my particular favourite would have to be ‘Democratic Left: The Life and Death of an Irish Political Party’.
There are copious amounts of political theory books out there or biographies of all the greats (and not so greats) and I’ve read most, but the books listed above are ones that immediately spring to mind when I think of things that have directly influenced me.
As an aside I always say that The West Wing, for all its overly sweet American stuff, is a real insight into the passion that goes into being a political staffer to a politician you genuinely believe in – when it’s way more than just a job.
And no book list of mine would be complete without mentioning my all-time favourite author (and fellow Rialto, Dublin 8-native) John Connolly. Fiction though it may be, his unique genre of thriller/horror/supernatural is indescribable and simply unputdownable!
Now…given that I’m currently on holidays, excuse me while I go in search of a good serial killer or two!!
Anne Marie McNally is Social Democrats Political Director and General Election candidate for Dublin Mid-West. Her column appears here every Wednesday.