Off the Shelf: Irish Books for St. Paddy’s Day

Officers from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention march in the St Patrick’s Day parade on 5th Avenue in New York City, March 17, 2017. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
From broad, sweeping histories to a focus on the revolutionary period.

Editor’s Note: Every week, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes an “Off the Shelf” column sharing casual observations on the books he’s reading and the passing scene.

In this space last week, I was sharing some grim German history, and this week I jumped into two books I’ve been promising myself I’d read soon. The first was The Great Deception by Christopher Booker and Richard North, which tells the history of the formation of the European Union, emphasizing how the architects of that project constantly hid their real aims from publics who would object to the castration of their national parliaments. The other, mentioned last week, was The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and Poles in the Second World War. I started both, but my son has been refusing to sleep through the night this week and some deadlines piled up, and my reading discipline broke down. So you must forgive me for taking the occasion of St. Paddy’s Day, which I’ll be spending on my Irish book, to take one final whack at the Irish thing for a good while.

Two years ago this week, I was overseas to spend a week with my father at his home, and during the day I had my own adventures around Dublin. It was just before the centennial of the Easter Rising, and I was walking around the sites. That week, I watched Ireland defeat Scotland in Six Nations Rugby, though the result was meaningless for the tournament. I caught Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars at The Abbey. On March 16, I stopped at O’Neill’s on Suffolk Street. I sat at a quiet corner and ordered Hop House 13, then a new beer from Guinness. Three science professors from Trinity College sat near me, telling each other old war stories from teaching. I bought them their second round and made fast friends. One of them was descended from French Huguenots, who converted (back?) to Catholicism after they arrived in Ireland. “They saw which side the bread was buttered on,” he explained. He and his friends bought me about five more rounds after that. I guess that’s my travel tip.

I was asked this morning for my best one volume history of Ireland. That has to be Thomas Bartlett’s Ireland: A History. It’s witty, and informative, and expansive. Bartlett gently takes sides in certain matters of historical controversy. Were the Anglo-Normans conquerors in the twelfth century more Anglo or Norman? He lands on the Anglo side. He comes to a moderate view about Éamon de Valera in the 20th century, which is a rare feat these days. One of the problems with Irish history is its partisanship. It’s a hazard of historical writing, to make the past fit the argument you’re having in the present. But I’m surprised how readers so expertly perceive it as well. In conversations like the one I had that day at O’Neil’s, people respond to the name of a historian with an assessment about the political or sectarian motives they think underlie his judgments. “Oh he’s a Blueshirt, so I never read him,” I’ve heard it said, extremely unfairly, of the historian Ronan Fanning.

But somehow the books that make the leap to American audiences suffer from these problems more than most. I cringed when a friend in the media said he was reading The Seven by Ruth Dudley Edwards. Scarred by the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Edwards tends to trace all the grostequeries associated with physical-force nationalism in Ireland since 1916 to the legacy of the men who led the Easter Week rebellion. She is a wonderful writer. My caution is only to supplement this one.

On the other side, there’s Tim Pat Coogan, who outsells just about everyone more qualified than he is. Coogan’s set of prejudices in history are almost funny. Coogan has lots to say in defense of the gunmen in Irish history, all the way through the Troubles. Naturally, in his book Ireland in the Twentieth Century, he is a partisan for Michael Collins, who led the counter-intelligence operation against Britain, including its effective squad of assassins. But Coogan becomes comically angry every time Éamon de Valera shows up in his pages. I’d have people read J. J. Lee’s magisterial and quirky Ireland, 1912–1985 instead.

And if you want an addition to Edwards’s book, try Vivid Faces by R. F. Foster, who treats the class of men and women who led the Irish revolution thematically. Unfortunately, his book lacks a chapter on religion, despite a wealth of interesting details and stories available on this. Foster is essential to read, even if he can be adjudged guilty of almost everything Terry Eagleton once said of him and his tradition of historical writing: “Throughout this Anglo-Irish lineage runs a vein of coolly sardonic wit thinly concealing a covert irascibility, part of both the class’s assurance and its insecurity, which Foster mines to the full.”

This is still just scratching the surface. How about some books that you don’t have to read all at once but that can sit attractively on your shelf and coffee table and tempt you to spend ten minutes with them at a time? Try the Atlas of the Irish Revolution, an enormous effort by Cork University Press. It is physically huge, but the maps, charts, and reproductions of newspapers, artwork, and propaganda of the Irish revolutionary period are sumptuous. All these are lined with essays by a small army of Irish historians focusing on their particular expertise.

Then there’s Don Akenson’s An Irish History of Civilization. Akenson is of Swedish Protestant extraction, and born in Canada. But he writes a history of the entire world through an Irish prism, using short bursts of prose that take on a variety of styles. Which is a shockingly Irish thing to do. And, it helps liberate the Irish story from the sense of being entirely this lamentable sideshow to British history. One of my favorite bits is his telling, through the perspective of a self-satisfied and too clever Chicago economist, the story of the invention of intellectual property by early medieval Irish monks.

Stephen Howe describes it rightly:

Akenson’s astonishing series of vignettes, mini-biographies and running jokes features Irish pirates, missionaries, colonial governors, slaves and slaveowners. We find Irish soldiers fighting for the English, French, Spanish, even the Russians; Irish priests, doctors, adventurers in Poland, Jamaica, the Congo, Australia, Polynesia . . . There are heroes, villains, victims, and oddities like the Irishman who, for a bet, walked all the way to Jerusalem and played handball against the ancient walls.

I keep switching between these wide looks at the whole of Irish history and then a tighter focus on the revolutionary period. Here are the five indispensable books on the revolution right now. Two by Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion and The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918–1923; Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution, 1910–1922 by Ronan Fanning; Fearghal McGarry’s The Rising: Easter 1916, and Diaraid Ferriter’s A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution. Briefly: Townshend is a wonderful writer, although, like so many Irish historians, he is completely uncharmed by the rhetoric of the revolutionaries. I’ve written elsewhere about Fatal Path’s virtues. It is an essential book because, unlike so many others, it doesn’t hide the British state and British men until the moment before Irish violence is about to strike them. McGarry makes use of extensive new archives to get inside the heads of the men and women who acted in these events.

Although, if you want the full flavor, there are many other books. Read the political essays of Patrick Pearse. Or the shockingly good autobiography of C. S. Andrews, Dublin Made Me. Andrews was a boy during the events of 1916, and fought on the anti-Treaty side of the Civil War. He later joined the civil service. His own voice is surprisingly adaptable to the country. He was a diehard nationalist, attuned to the follies of his enterprise. A skeptic, who nonetheless appreciably observed the beauty Irish Catholicism could put in a soul. He had the class prejudices of a certain type of nationalist, though he gave many of them up as he grew in personal comfort and stature in the civil service. Want deeper cuts? I’ve got them. Patrick Pearse and the Lost Republican Ideal, by Brian P. Murphy. Or F. S. Lyons’s Culture and Anarchy in Ireland 1890–1939. If you want to binge-listen instead of reading, try this very good podcast series of lectures from Professor Michael Laffan.

So, we’ve covered the books that take a full sweep. But what if you want a glimpse of Ireland as the lamentable sideshow? Ireland has been the supreme subject of those studying subjection. And so it interested the American ex-slave Frederick Douglass, whose speaking tour of Ireland, just at the start of the Great Famine, is documented city by city in Laurence Fenton’s book Frederick Douglass in Ireland: The Black O’Connell. The relationship between Douglass and Ireland’s “great Liberator,” Daniel O’Connell, was deeper than I knew. And Douglass’s own social activism in the Isles was wider than I realized, touching on temperance and the chartist movement.

Alexis de Tocqueville also toured Ireland in the 19th century, with his friend Gustave de Beaumont. It was Beaumont who produced the book on it. He doesn’t pull punches. The title of chapter 11: “A Bad Aristocracy Is the Primary Cause of All the Evils in Ireland. The Faults of this Aristocracy Are, That It Is English and Protestant.”

That chapter is what my peers would call “pure fire” today. After giving a picture of how an aristocracy might make their rule of a conquered territory seem tolerable, or even benevolent, Beaumont goes on to describe what he takes to be the true state of things:

Suppose, on the contrary, conquerors who, instead of arresting the violent outrages of conquest, should lend all their efforts to the perpetuation of them — should open a hundred times the wounds of the conquered country — instead of uniting with the vanquished, should force them to keep separate — refuse to adopt their laws or impart their own — suppose this conquering race to preserve its language, its habits, and to erect an insurmountable barrier between itself and its subjects, by declaring it a kind of high treason to celebrate a marriage between the descendants of the victors and the offspring of the vanquished; suppose that having been thus constituted in the face of the conquered people, as a faction distinct by race and power, the conquerors are still further separated by a deeper cause, difference of religion; that not content with having deprived a people of national existence, they should endeavor to wrest from it its creed; — that having spent centuries in despoiling it of its political independence, they should pass a second series of centuries in disputing its religious faith; suppose that these conquerors, political tyrants, despising the conquered nation because of its race, hating it because of its creed, should be placed in such an extraordinary position that it has no interest in the protection of the people, and no peril in their oppression; — it may well be conceived, that an aristocracy composed of such elements could only produce selfishness, violence, and injustice on one side — hatred, resistance, degradation, and misery on the other. Such is the picture of the aristocracy of Ireland.

I would deem the above mostly true, and mostly judged correctly. Though it doesn’t make room for the surprising exceptions, or for the creative ways that Irish people found to resist, even when brought to their lowest.

As one wag put it, Ireland sells a cheapened and flatted version of itself to the world and then resents others when they buy it.

What about Ireland after the revolution, or what is now called “modern Ireland?” Tougher nut to crack. One of the interesting things is the way Ireland’s modern historians have been subtly waging a war on a generational prejudice against the Ireland of Éamon de Valera, who dominated Irish politics in the 20th century. You see it in Diarmuid Ferriter’s project, Judging Dev. And in Ronan Fanning’s recent biography, Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power, which emphasized de Valera’s achievement of political sovereignty for the Irish state. In his review of Fanning’s book, Townshend furtively referenced the current mood of the public on this titanic figure.

Really, the options are endless, as Ireland is a small country with a surfeit of literate people who want to launch an argument about Ireland. A correspondent and budding friend, John Waters, wrote a book a few years ago, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Ireland, which gets at the strange and paradoxical attitude of the country as it exists today. The way, as one wag put it, Ireland sells a cheapened and flatted version of itself to the world and then resents others when they buy it. That’s plenty to start with, I suppose. I will try not to further exhaust readers on this subject until next year, when my own small book comes out.

I reviewed Ross Douthat’s new book on Pope Francis, To Change the Church, for the magazine. In a world where journalism judges events by their hour-by-hour effect, its been somewhat reassuring this week to see so many “Pope Francis at Five” stories trail off uncertainly at their close. They resort to the “Time will tell” cliché, one of those little phrases you find in journalism that seems only to exist because it can’t be disagreed with.

What’s coming up? This Paddy’s day, I hope to watch Ireland pull off the grand slam in the Six Nations tournament. Daylight-savings time blasted my last language class off my schedule. I’m still trying to figure out how to use the digital flashcard deck, Anki, effectively. If any reader has a good workflow for that, please do reach out. Hopefully, there is progress on my book this weekend, and some uninterrupted sleep. And we’ll get back to Poland’s glories and miseries, and to the EU, next week.