The presentation of Irish culture as a commodity has developed into a remarkable world-wide phenomenon in recent years. The success of Irish writers, musicians and dancers on the global stage continues to surpass all expectations, and shows no signs of abating. In Ireland itself, the latest economic boom (however selective), combined with the evolving peace process, has contributed to an increased sense of self-confidence and cultural awareness, which a new generation of professional historians has proved particularly adept at exploiting. Traditionally considered the preserve of crusty academics, history is rapidly moving into the cultural mainstream.
As a result, historical debate is no longer restricted to a handful of ‘specialists’, but instead is engaged in by the public at large. For the past twelve months arguments about the nature of the 1798 Rebellion have dominated the airwaves, as well as the letters pages of our national newspapers. Shelves in the book shops groan under the weight of numerous best-selling studies, and a handful of talented historians have acquired celebrity status in the process. With the controversy over the causes and effects of the Famine of the 1840s still smouldering and the anniversaries of the Act of Union and Emmet’s rebellion fast approaching, there appears to be limitless opportunities to expand on this new found popularity.
It is interesting to note that the development of this broader more diverse audience has generally not been accompanied by a dumbing-down of historical writing, as scholars continue to maintain the highest standards of research. Previously neglected aspects of Irish history are at last being subjected to serious academic scrutiny, leading to a reassessment of many of the traditional assumptions about the past. Moreover, publishing houses in Ireland (and Britain) have of late displayed an admirable commitment to marketing a wide range of studies, both populist and specialist in nature, providing a greater choice of titles for public consumption than ever before.
The move from dusty archival obscurity to trendy coffee-table respectability is epitomised by The Oxford Companion to Irish History, a new single-volume compendium produced by one of the most prestigious academic publishers in Britain, Oxford University Press. The editor, Professor S.J. Connolly of Queen’s University Belfast, has assembled an impressive group of contributors, whose interests range right across the political, cultural, intellectual, religious and economic spectrum. The topics, dealing with Irish history from the earliest times until the present day, are arranged alphabetically, while a helpful system of cross-references provides momentum to what is essentially a series of independent, free-standing entries.
The format is an engaging mixture of pithy case studies (historians are not generally noted for their brevity) and sporadic forays into more colourful areas of research, like dietary habits, housing trends, the practice of magic and piracy. The unsuspecting reader delves into the volume, searching for a certain individual or event, only to be diverted time and time again into new areas of interest. I particularly enjoyed the passage describing the horror of the English colonists in the early modern period on witnessing the consumption of blood products by the native population, and their willingness ‘to devour animal entrails and to eat carrion and horse meat’—the outrage is all the more surprising given their own nation’s love of the greasy fry and mixed grill! A number of specialist essays intersperse the text, tackling areas of controversy, such as the interaction between literature and history, and the writing of history itself, in greater detail.
Moving from the general to the specific, I am reminded of the historian who, on reading a survey of Irish history, remarked acidly that it was a fascinating book until you got to a chapter you knew something about. From a strictly academic perspective, the entries for the seventeenth-century (my own area of interest) proved disappointing, with a worrying number of factual errors, especially in the dating. The short piece on the confederate general Thomas Preston, for example, although an excellent summary of his eventful career, contains three incorrect dates. Moreover, the desire of the contributors (encouraged by the editor), to ensure that ‘differences in interpretation are fully and fairly represented’, while exemplary on one level, often stifles opinion in favour of an insipid balance, and does little to inspire further inquiry.
Whereas the main themes of Irish history are clearly identified and well covered, the process of selecting individuals defies logic at times, although granted a consensus among historians on this issue would be impossible to achieve. In particular, the volume contains an over-abundance of religious figures, included apparently more because of their titles than any particular contribution they may have made. In this category is Bishop Luke Wadding, a rather obscure seventeenth-century Catholic cleric (not the illustrious Franciscan of the same name), really deserving of an entry ahead of, say, his contemporary, James Tuchet, the Earl of Castlehaven, a leading politician, general and author? Finally, a few more bibliographical notes, especially for the more obscure entries, would certainly greatly add to the value of the work.
These criticisms may appear harsh given the editor’s own acknowledgement in the preface that the book is by no means definitive, providing instead ‘the beginnings of an answer’ to the inquisitive reader. Undoubtedly, the constraints of space, time and money placed certain limits on this project, nonetheless some effort should be made, for reference purposes and in the interests of historical accuracy, to remedy the various faults before the inevitable paperback version appears. Overall, this neatly packaged volume acts as a useful and entertaining introduction to Irish history for the enthusiastic explorer, and will hopefully stimulate yet further debate into our fascinating but complicated past.
Micheál Ó Siochrú