Bookworm

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

Lotteries, according to Voltaire, were ‘a tax on idiocy’. Judging by the recent media frenzy generated around the Irish winner of the Euro Millions lottery, it is an idiocy that shows no signs of abating. According to Rowena Dudley in The Irish lottery 1780–1801 (Four Courts Press, 166pp, €40 hb, ISBN 1851829164), lotteries have long been a feature of Irish life, although the first one for which there is evidence—an extension of the English Queen’s Lottery in 1568—generated very little enthusiasm in Ireland. The first truly Irish one—to raise funds for the repair of a ‘very ruinous’ Christ Church Cathedral—was in 1619 and was typical of the private schemes that operated up to the establishment of the state-controlled lottery, which is the main subject of this book. Interest in the Irish lottery, at fever pitch during the draw (which took several weeks to complete), was stimulated and sustained throughout by the newspapers and agents whose ingenious schemes bolstered ticket sales. Plus ça change . . .
One of the great landed estates of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lying just to the west of the Wicklow Mountains, has had its history charted by Kathy Trant in The Blessington Estate, 1667–1908 (Anvil Books, 240pp, €16.99 pb, ISBN 1901737519). Michael Boyle, lord chancellor of Ireland and later archbishop of Armagh, bought into the area in 1667 and soon afterwards was granted a royal charter to found the town of Blessington. He began his mansion in 1673 (it was burnt down in 1798). St Mary’s Church, the only surviving building in the town connected with him, was dedicated in 1683. After the male line died out, Boyle’s great-great-grandson Wills Hill, later first marquis of Downshire, inherited and revived the neglected property. The book ends with the transfer of the property to the Land Commission in 1908. Trant tells the story in great detail, putting it into the context of the wider history of the times.
While the compilation of catalogues is an activity (duty?) that is usually the preserve of public institutions, there are still private individuals out there dedicated enough to engage in this arduous task. Not only have Andrew and Charlotte Bonar Law compiled the two-volume A contribution towards a catalogue of the prints and maps of Dublin (422pp, €95, ISBN 0953224120) but they have also published it themselves (available from The Neptune, Shankill Castle, Shankill, Co. Dublin, +353 (0)1 2822139, abl@nep.ie or de Burca Rare Books, 51 Dawson Street, Dublin 2, +353 (0)1 6719609, deburca@indigo.ie). Volume 1 (prints) contains 1800 entries and 1200 illustrations, while volume 2 (maps) contains 400 entries and 400 illustrations. In spite of the very handsome dust-jackets, the authors are very keen to stress that these are not coffee-table books but works of reference, and the rather unwieldy title arises from their modest assertion in the preface that

‘It is not a particularly scholarly book. It is simply a long, rather tedious, and sometimes confusing listing of as many prints, maps and charts of the City and County of Dublin, from the inception of print/map production up to the end of the 19th century, that we have been able to find.’

They certainly have a lot to be modest about! While the authors are very generous in their acknowledgement of assistance from various institutions and individuals, they are not sparing in their criticism of institutions (but not staff) where they encountered problems. Thus no prints from the National Gallery of Ireland are reproduced because of the prohibitive charges insisted upon by that institution. They are also critical of the gallery’s cataloguing system, which may be suitable for paintings but not for prints.
Another self-published book is John Colgan’s Leixlip, County Kildare (268pp, €55 hb [inc. p&p], ISBN 0950748919), available from the author (The Toll House, Leixlip, Co. Kildare, +353 (0)1 6244631, johncolgan@iol.ie). Produced in a large format, the book eschews a chronological approach and opts instead for an encyclopaedic one, with short cross-referenced topics (the preface acknowledges the influence of S. J. Connolly’s The Oxford companion to Irish history). Entries range from the writer Leland Bradwell to the Wonderful Barn, now visible from the M5 motorway.
A different type of local history is John Cunningham’s ‘A town tormented by the sea’: Galway, 1790–1914 (Geography Publications, 408pp, €45 hb, ISBN 0906602327). Given Galway’s position today as one of Ireland’s most vibrant urban centres, both economically and culturally (with house prices second only to Dublin), it is hard to imagine that a century ago its population was falling, its economy in decline, its buildings collapsing. This is a history of that difficult period and, as you would expect from such a noted labour historian, is very much a ‘history from below’, in which the attitudes and experiences of working people and of the marginalised poor are always kept in the foreground.
The cover blurb of Sinéad Joy’s The IRA in Kerry 1916–1921 (Collins Press, 180pp, €15 pb, ISBN 190346479X) claims to dispel ‘some of the myths and gives an alternative profile of the rebels active in Kerry during the War of Independence . . . it questions their reasons for joining and their commitment to the notion of a republic’. Are we about to witness another eruption of controversy in the ‘Kingdom’ similar to that provoked by Peter Hart’s work on the Cork IRA (see pp 12–17, this issue)? Possibly, but it is significant that the author privileges an IRA veteran interviewee, Edward Quirke, with an introductory quote: ‘The people of Ireland today should not forget the sacrifices made by the men and women of the 1920s . . . [they] made Ireland what it is today’, while in her concluding sentence she observes that ‘Glorious beginnings are essential for any country’s sense of self, but there remains the need for a more critical examination of the period, so that the folklorists’ version will not dominate popular perceptions of the rebel war’.
First published in hardback in 2000, Seán Duffy’s The concise history of Ireland (Gill & Macmillan, 256pp, €12.99 pb, ISBN 0717138100) has been reissued in paperback. An expansion of the best-selling Atlas of Irish history, which he edited, this large-format book is lavishly illustrated, with excellent maps and diagrams, and was described (Reviews, HI 9.2, Summer 2001) as ‘a model of what a good general history should be’. His assessments of the Celtic Tiger, both positive and negative, and the Good Friday Agreement (‘imperfect . . . [but] . . . the only show in town’) have proved remarkably durable. Not so the final electoral maps, based on the 1997 Dáil and Westminster general elections. Surely it would have been possible for the publishers to have updated them to the 2002 and 2005 elections respectively? But this is a minor quibble in a book that is excellent value at the price.

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