Irish Literary Figures Talk About Religion, Writing and Intermarriage

By Marlena Thompson


It is almost impossible to think of Ireland without noting that small country’s uncanny propensity for producing a disproportionately large number of brilliant writers–in our own time and throughout history. It is, unfortunately, also difficult to think of Ireland without being mindful of its past inclination toward fiery religious conflict, the embers of which are still smoldering in the North, despite significant strides made toward peace of late.

David Marcus and Ita Daly, who have been married for almost thirty years, are each distinguished, contemporary Irish writers whose works have been lauded both within and beyond Ireland’s emerald shores. But Cork-born David, who is Jewish, and County Leitrim-born Ita, who is Catholic, defy the idea that religious differences play a consequential role in modern Irish life–or, I should say, in their shared life in Ireland.

Appporaching the Marcus/Daly home in Rathgar, a pleasant, residential neighborhood in south Dublin, I feel more than the usual “eagerness tinged with a tad of trepidation” that I sometimes experience before an interview. I am about to meet not one, but two major literary lights–writers whose work I (along with many others) had long admired. David has been an important figure in the world of Irish literature for almost half a century. He founded and edited the prestigious literary quarterly, Irish Writing, which brought him into regular contact with such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Frank O’Connor, and James Stephens, to name a few. David was also the literary editor for The Irish Press. Besides all this, he’s written three acclaimed novels, a collection of short stories, and numerous poems.

Ita Daly’s resume is no less impressive. She’s written five adult novels, three children’s books, and a collection of short stories, and has received several literary awards. Confronted with such weighty and impressive credentials, it’s no wonder I am more than usually star struck. But I soon discover that, for all their attainments, one would be hard pressed to find two more modest and unassuming individuals.

As we start conversing, Ita and David talk about religion–their own, each other’s, and attitudes toward intermarriage in Ireland.

Ita admits that Judaism is still “a mystery” to her, and, in her opinion, in terms of “morality,” very different from Catholicism: “I think that Catholicism offers an accommodation with God. He’s there to bail you out. Judaism shows you a way to live–in this world, not the next.”

It’s possible that aspects of Judaism have remained cryptic to Ita because, although David feels profoundly Jewish from a cultural perspective, he is a non-practicing Jew: He says, “I lost religion at an early age. It happened when I was reading the Pentateuch–the Torah. It says somewhere that the innocent must suffer along with the guilty, and at that point, I became an atheist. But I never lost the ‘racial grab.’ I am intensely Jewish–and intensely Irish.”

David’s powerful identification with both parts of his dual identity are evident in A Land Not Theirs (Bantam Press, 1986), an historical novel focusing on Cork’s Jewish community in the early 1920s, during the Irish war of independence against the English. In the novel, the Jewish community regards intermarriage as an abomination–something to be avoided at all costs.

David, Ita and I then discuss the extent to which the antipathy to intermarriage has–and has not–changed in Ireland over the years:

“I actually don’t think the attitude has changed so very much,” said Ita, as David nodded his assent. “Jewish parents still send children of marriageable age to Israel–or to London or Manchester–in hopes that they’ll meet and marry other young Jews. Of course, Irish Jews tend to be very Orthodox.”

David adds: “There’s no doubt that things will change. Ireland itself has undergone tremendous social changes in the past decade. But the Jewish community here is tiny and very closely knit, so attitudes toward intermarriage are not what they are in America, which, after all, is a melting pot. Here, intermarriage is seen as a cause of community hemorrhaging.”

And how do non-Jews feel about marrying Jews?

“I think there is still hesitancy on that side as well,” says Ita. “Ireland is a very Catholic country, as you know. When two peoples believe very strongly in their respective religions, it’s difficult for the ‘twain to meet.'”

In one of Ita’s novels, Unholy Ghosts (Bloomsbury, 1996), a young girl comes to Ireland as a Jewish refugee from Germany and converts to Catholicism in order to become a “real Irish girl.” Ita acknowledges that the book was inspired by an actual experience: “A woman around the corner with a thick German accent approached me and said, ‘Is your husband Jewish? I, too, was once a Jew.’ Apparently, during the Holocaust, Franciscan monks had taken in this woman and her family–and the entire family converted to Catholicism afterwards. Her story started me thinking about how religion affects a person’s entire identity–in general, and specifically, in Ireland. So I explored that theme in Unholy Ghosts.”

David’s autobiography (just published in the UK and Ireland, but not yet available in the US), called Oughtobiography: Leaves from the Diary of a Hyphenated Jew (Gill & Macmillan, 2001) is a fascinating read for anyone with a serious passion for contemporary Irish literature.*

Ita’s most recently published children’s book, Irish Myths and Legends (Oxford University Press, 2001), is available in the United States. She has also just completed a sixth novel.*

Though each comes from different cultures within Ireland, they both succeed in greatly enriching Irish culture–and the English-reading world–with their work.

*For those interested, here is a listing of books by David Marcus and Its Daly.

Books by Ita Daly
Irish Myths and Legends, Retold by Ita Daly (Oxford University Press, 2001 – $19.95 (Currently available in bookstores in US)
Unholy Ghosts,(Bloomsbury), 1997 (paperback edition) – First published 1996
All Fall Down, (Bloomsbury), 1992 (Hardback edition)
A Singular Attraction, (Black Swan) 1988 (paperback edition)
Ellen (Poolbeg) — paperback edition, 1995 (1st published by Jonathan Cape in 1986)
The Lady With The Red Shoes (short stories) (Poolbeg – paperback edition, 1995) First published 1980.

Books by David Marcus
Oughtobiography: Leaves from the Diary of a Hyphenated Jew. Gill & Macmillan, 2001
A Land Not Theirs, Poolbeg (paperback edition, 1993) First published 1986 by Bantam Press
A Land in Flames, Corgi Paperback edition, 1988 (First published 1987, Bantam Press)


About Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at