Bookworm

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 2004), Reviews, Volume 12

Not since Karl Marx planned to write a short pamphlet on the nature of capital, which eventually became his multi-volume opus, has a publication project expanded so spectacularly. Billy Colfer’s The Hook Peninsula (Cork University Press, pp260, €40 hb, ISBN 1859183786) started life in 1997 as one of six short case-studies in CUP’s The atlas of the Irish rural landscape, edited by F.H.A. Aalen, Matthew Stout and Kevin Whelan. This is the second of the case-studies to be given the full publication treatment: Geraldine Stout’s Newgrange and the Bend in the Boyne was published in 2002.
For such a compact area, the story of the Hook has intersected frequently with the wider narrative of Irish history. The first region to be conquered by the Anglo-Normans in the twelfth century, the Hook figured prominently in the Confederate wars of the mid-seventeenth century, the Williamite war of the 1690s and the 1798 Rebellion. Because of the insatiable demand for holiday homes the Hook continues to be in the frontline of the contemporary heritage war, an issue dealt with sensitively and even-handedly by the author. Like the microscopic sub in the 1966 science-fiction movie, Billy Colfer brings us on a ‘fantastic voyage’ through the very veins and capillaries of the Hook. With 450 illustrations, including 50 maps, historical sketches and aerial photographs, the volume lives up to the high production values of its parent publication.
An equally handsome publication is Tim Carey’s Croke Park: a history (The Collins Press, pp200, €30 hb, ISBN 1903464544). At first glance this would appear to be a glossy promotional coffee-table publication to coincide with the completion of the new stadium later this year. (And why not?) But there is much more to this deceptively accessible book. There is a detailed and source-based treatment of the events of Bloody Sunday 1920, originally published here (HI 11.2, Summer 2003), for example, and some surprising nuggets of information. According to a 1930s map of the stadium (p. 75), published in newspapers to assist radio listeners to follow the action, Hill 16 was not the area behind the goals (referred to as the ‘railway end’) but was to the side, the northern end of what later became the Cusack Stand. My favourite illustration is a 1941 ‘artist’s impression of the future Croke Park’ (p. 88) that, despite its flights of fantasy, compares favourably with the current stadium. Amongst the author’s more pithy observations (especially for Mayo supporters!) is that
‘Probably the most potent of the sporting emotions are those distilled by lack of success. There are none more powerful than the deep yearnings embedded by years of humiliating defeats and might-have-beens.’
Scattered throughout the narrative are the personal reminiscences of the famous and not-so-famous, including the editor of this journal, involving a rainy 1982 Kerry–Offaly football final, an obstructing umbrella and a first-half Kerry penalty. Martin Furlong of Offaly saved the penalty. And the umbrella? That’s another story. There are a few unfortunate typos in an otherwise excellent production. Supporters of Galway will be pleasantly surprised that they beat Dublin in the 1974 football final (p. 151). Hopefully these can be sorted out in later editions (as there surely will be).
In marked contrast to these glossy publications is the most recent volume of Irish Historical Studies (Vol. XXXIII, No. 132, November 2003, pp127, ISSN 00211214). Ahead of its time in the areas of power-sharing and parity of esteem, IHS has been the joint journal of the Irish Historical Society and the Ulster Society for Irish Historical Studies since its foundation in 1938 and represents the most enduring legacy of the ‘historiographical revolution’ of T.W. Moody, R. Dudley Edwards et al. from the 1930s onwards. A measure of its success is that it is now taken for granted by academic historians but it never really succeeded in achieving one of its originally stated aims: to reach the wider history-reading public. This has not been helped by its rather conservative production values and over-indulgent production and copy deadlines. Thus the November 2003 volume has only just reached subscribers (nearly a year later), and of the fourteen (very useful) ‘reviews and short notices’ only three were of books published in the previous year, 2003. One of them was published in 1994!
This is a pity because inside the dowdy covers there lurk scholarly and well-written articles crying out for a wider readership. This issue is a case in point: Ivan F. Nelson restores a military perspective to the Irish Militia riots of 1793 and questions the current orthodoxy that they represented ‘the first chapter of 1798’; Paul Darby deals with ‘Gaelic sport and the Irish diaspora in Boston, 1879–90’; Philip Bull looks at the formation of the United Irish League, 1898–1900; in a rare illustrated piece Joseph P. Finnan looks at Punch’s portrayal of Redmond, Carson and the Irish question, 1910–18; and finally Emmet O’Connor, in a meticulously researched article, outlines the relations between the Comintern and Ireland’s emerging Revolutionary Workers’ Groups, 1927–31 (forebears of the Communist Party of Ireland). Given recent advances in desktop publishing, is it not time for the editors of IHS to consider a revamp? In the meantime readers are encouraged to subscribe to what is the journal of record of the Irish historical profession. (Yearly subscription [biannual], €44 [students half-price], Irish Historical Studies, c/o Dept of Modern History, Trinity College, Dublin 2.)
The latest of the Maynooth Research Guides for Irish Local History (No. 7) is Jacinta Prunty’s Maps and map-making in local history (Four Courts, pp344, €24.95 pb, ISBN 1851826998, €60 hb, ISBN 1851828702). As usual with this series, this is more than just a ‘how-to-use’ guide for the local historian. It also explores the theory and practice of map-making generally, with a particularly good chapter giving a historical overview of the subject in Ireland. Part of the introduction deals with the thorny issue of naming and renaming. She cites the example of five-foot Ordnance Survey sheets used by the Valuation Office for the south Dublin workhouse campus (now St James’s Hospital) and the way these were amended by hand in line with emerging notions of ‘respectability’. Thus Cut Throat Lane became Mount Brown Lane; Murdering Lane became Cromwell’s Quarter; Dirty Lane became Bridgefoot Street Upper; and Pigtown became Ewington Lane. However, it is a pity that the high quality of the text is not matched by the quality of the (73) maps and diagrams reproduced.
Yet Four Courts have done a much better job in reproducing the maps and diagrams in Peter Connell’s The land and people of County Meath, 1750–1850 (pp266, €55 hb, ISBN 1851826211), another offering from Maynooth, this time from its Historical Studies series. Connell challenges the simplistic characterisation of a rich county dominated by cattle-ranchers and paints a much more complex picture of the ‘Royal County’. He explores the geography of the thousands of mud cabins that disappeared and how a lost, and largely forgotten, generation succumbed to the workhouse, death and emigration.
And finally back to the contemporary heritage war and a related skirmish—the proliferation of one-off rural housing. In The disappearing Irish cottage: a case-study of north Donegal (Wordwell, pp160, €17.95 pb, ISBN 186985778X) Clive Symmons and Seamus Harkin outline the opposite process. In the Dunfanaghy area 40 years ago, single-storey vernacular buildings (‘longhouses’) were abundant and many were still lived in. Today very few remain intact, most having been either demolished or allowed to fall into ruin.

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