Bookworm

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2008), Reviews, Volume 16

Is nothing sacred? Apparantly the Blarney Stone kissed at considerable risk to life and limb by over 300,000 visitors every year is not the stone. Most of the legends refer to a stone ‘high up in the tower’, a reference to a date-stone that was once visible on the north-east angle of Blarney Castle, with the inscription ‘Cormach MacCarthy Fortis Mi Fieri fecit AD 1446’. The first use of the present stone was mentioned in 1888, when for safety reasons a new stone was chosen on the north face. So say Mark Samuel and Kate Hamlyn (spoilsports!) in Blarney Castle: its history, development and purpose (Cork University Press, 164pp, 39/£25 hb, ISBN 9781859184110). There are various legends about the origin of the stone (whichever one it is). Some say that it’s ‘Jacob’s Pillow’, brought back from the Holy Land after the Crusades, others that it’s a piece of the Stone of Scone given to the Mac Carthys by Robert Bruce in return for the provision of 5,000 kern. A third story claims that Cormac Laidir Mac Carthy, the reputed builder of the castle, rescued an old woman from a river; she turned out to be a witch and instructed him to kiss a certain magic stone in the wall of the keep. This is a beautifully produced book, copiously illustrated with colour plates, engravings and diagrams. In particular it discusses the cult of the picturesque in nineteenth-century Ireland, which, together with the development of the railways, transformed Blarney from a derelict ruin into a major tourist attraction.
Over the years Bookworm has banged on about journals whose cover dates bear no relation to when they appeared. Total absolution can now be granted to Irish Historical Studies (Vol. XXXV, No. 140, ISSN 00211214) and its editors, David Hayton and Mary Ann Lyons. The November 2007 issue arrived on my desk just before Christmas (yes, December, but let’s not quibble). This volume contains the usual mixture of concise reviews (17) and articles (7). A particularly interesting one is Paul MacMahon’s ‘British intelligence and the Anglo-Irish truce, July–December 1921’, which opens with considerable understatement: ‘Conspiracy theories have always accompanied the shadowy and ambiguous interventions of British intelligence in Irish affairs’. No arguing with that.
Long-time readers may recall a spat in the pages of History Ireland back in 1999 between Steven Ellis (HI 7.1, Spring), who questioned whether the ‘Anglo-Irish’ (his inverted commas) really did become ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’, and Kenneth Nicholls (HI 7.2, Summer), who characterised this as ‘the Ellis two-nation theory on late medieval Ireland’. This was in the days when History Ireland was a smaller and less frequent publication, and unfortunately there wasn’t the space to allow the debate to run any further. But it has raged elsewhere in the meantime, often in publications beyond these shores. A case in point is a 2006 German publication, Frontiers and the writing of history, 1500–1850 (Wehrhahn Verlag, 318pp, 29.50 hb, ISBN 9783865252517), edited by Steven Ellis and Raingard Esser, which has articles not only on Ireland but on other ‘frontier zones’ in Europe. One, by Wendy Bracewell, is about the ‘Triplex Confinium’, where the territories of the Venetian Republic and the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires met, subtitled ‘Conflict and community on a triple frontier’. And we thought we had problems!
Two more of UCD Press’s ‘Classics in Irish History’ series (general editor Tom Garvin) have just been published. In Michael Davitt: from the Gaelic American, edited and introduced by Carla King and W. J. McCormack (168pp, 24/£16.95 pb, ISBN 9781904558736), the veteran Fenian John Devoy sheds particular light on the period 1878–80, when the New Departure was initiated. Richard Twiss’s A tour in Ireland in 1775 (144pp, €24/£16.95 pb, ISBN 9781904558903), edited and introduced by Rachel Finnegan, was so controversial, such was his contempt for the locals, that chamber-pots bearing his likeness (‘Twiss Pots’) were manufactured. What particularly upset people were his comparison of peasant cabins to pigsties, his condemnation of Irish table manners, his claim that Connacht was inhabited by savages, and his comment on the unusual thickness of plebeian women’s legs (surely the origin of ‘beef to the heel like a Mullingar heifer’?).
Speaking of Mullingar, the recent death of Joe Dolan has stimulated a certain nostalgia for the showband era—a phenomenon and a period that have still not received the academic analysis they deserve. Jimmy Higgins’s Are ye the band? A memoir of the showband era (Mentor Books, 236pp, 14 pb, ISBN 9781842103920) is not such an academic treatment but is just what it says on the tin: a memoir, and a very interesting one at that, with plenty of showband publicity shots, an index of the various bands and lead singers, and a ‘where-are-they-now?’ list. Higgins joined the Paramount Showband as a fourteen-year-old trumpeter in 1960; he is now a DJ on Galway Bay FM, where he specialises in ’50s and ’60s nostalgia.
In our ‘Sources’ section in the last issue Vera Orschel wrote about the correspondence of Paul Cullen and Tobias Kirby in the Pontifical Irish College in Rome. Still available is a 2003 College publication, Collegium Hibernorum De Urbe: an early manuscript account of the Irish College, Rome, 1628–1678 (228pp, hb, ISBN 889016929X), believed to have been written by Fr James Reilly SJ, a student of the college 1662–7. As well as the original Latin, there’s an English translation and contextualising articles by Thomas O’Connor and John J. Hanley. Not the type of book in which you’d expect to find any sex, but one of the college’s alumni was the rogue Terence O’Kelly, who complained a lot as a student and later, as vicar apostolic of Derry, ‘took to himself a mistress and lived publicly with their children’.
Institutional histories by academics, especially of universities, are usually a bit of a yawn, even when written by ones of proven accessibility of writing style, like John A. Murphy and his 1995 The College: a history of Queen’s/University College Cork, 1845–1995. Now, however, the professor and former senator has produced an abridged version for the general reader, Where Finbarr taught: a concise history of Queen’s/University College Cork (UCC, 106pp, ISBN 9780955222917). This is a beautifully produced book that also takes the story up to 2006, including the clash of cultures provoked by the corporate governing style of college president Gerard T. Wrixon in the early 2000s. Murphy also makes reference in passing to another row in 1994 between the then president, Michael P. Mortell, and registar Michael A. Moran, observing that it was ‘as distracting and divisive as it was, in retrospect, incomprehensible’. A bit like the recent dispute between Cork hurling and football players and the county board . . . or Roy Keane in Saipan . . . There’s no doubt that no-one else rows with the same intensity as Corkonians.

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