Revolution, Counter-Revolution and Union: Ireland in the 1790s, Jim Smyth (ed.). (Cambridge University Press, £35) ISBN 0521661099 The Concise History of Ireland, Seán Duffy. (Gill & Macmillan, £19.99) ISBN 071713055 The Timechart History of

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 2001), Reviews, Volume 9

Reading these histories of Ireland, I could not help wondering who they were written for. The writers’ fellow historians? Hardly! They know too much already to be interested in a brief general survey of our history. The general Irish public? Perhaps, though many of them know the outline already and are more likely to seek their historical fix in biography or in a more detailed narrative than can be fitted into a few hundred pages. That leaves the intelligent outsider—perhaps a tourist, business person or recent immigrant—who wants to understand the background to today’s Ireland. Such a reader needs a brief, well-organised and accurate narrative, written in lucid and easy-to-read prose, from which it is possible to understand in broad outline the major developments in Ireland over the centuries. How well do the three books under review meet that requirement?
Mike Cronin’s 270-page paperback seemed at first the most likely to fit the bill but alas it fails on every count. Instead of being clear and lucid, he writes a complex, dense prose which obfuscates more than it enlightens. He includes few of the details needed to make the story intelligible—whole paragraphs can pass in laboured explanations with no names, dates or statistics to ground the explanations in some kind of reality. Not all of us can be stylists and clumsy writing can be forgiven if the history was accurate and reliable. But it is not. I have seldom read a book so full of factual errors—many of the schoolboy howler variety. It begins with St Patrick ‘transforming what was essentially a system of religious orders, churches and monasteries, [into] a semblance of central ecclesiastical authority’ (p.5), and ‘St Columba’ undertaking ‘the evangelisation of southern Scotland and northern Ireland’, (p.6). Later the Geraldine ‘earl of Munster’ sets out for England as ‘Gerald Fitzgerald’ on page fifty-three but returns as ‘Desmond FitzGerald’ on page fifty-four.
Knowing that the author is a specialist on the 1930s, I skipped the rest of the early modern period for more recent times. But the errors continued. After encountering Wolfe Tone, the ‘northern Presbyterian’, I find one million forty shilling freeholders disenfranchised in 1829 (p.128), the Young Irelanders defeated in a ‘cabbage patch at Vinegar Hill’ (p.147) and four Manchester Martyrs (p.152). In the twentieth century, I find within a few pages that ‘the first shipment of arms into Ireland’ in 1914 was at Howth in July (p.185), that the IRA was organising prisoners in the Frongoch prison camp in 1916 (p.196), that partition in 1920 was applied to the ‘six Protestant-majority Ulster counties’ (p.202), that Erskine Childers was a member of the Dáil cabinet (p.202) and that the first round of the Treaty talks broke down solely because ‘Lloyd George was not prepared to compromise on the status of Northern Ireland’ (p.203). I could go on but why bother? The point is clear.
Errors aside, the book is not even a coherent narrative. There is no attempt at social or economic analysis, nor is the reader made aware of any of the historical revision and debate of the last fifty years. Conclusions, frequently outdated, are presented as indisputable fact. The eighteenth century for example, is still full of absentee landlords and downtrodden Catholic tenants, the latter all moving inexorably towards famine because the penal laws forced them to split up their estates. Only in Ulster, where the linen industry is being encouraged by the ‘British parliament’ is modern industry and agriculture developing. This difference between North and South continues to be emphasised up to the twentieth century as though nothing changed over two hundred years and there is no serious attempt to explain these differences or to analyse the gradations within them.
A major problem is imprecision in the use of language. ‘Britain’ and ‘England’ are used interchangeably, even before 1603. ‘The Irish’ crop up constantly, doing duty for the native Irish, the Old English and the New English in the seventeenth century, for Catholics, Presbyterians and Ascendancy in the eighteenth century, and for unionists, nationalists and republicans in the nineteenth and twentieth. ‘The people’ too make regular appearances. Add to this a focus on ‘great men’, so that almost all changes are attributed to the intervention of individuals from Henry II to Michael Collins and we have a very odd version of Ireland’s story. What our hypothetical intelligent outsider would make of it is anybody’s guess but I hope he or she does not take it too seriously.
After that it is a relief to turn to Seán Duffy’s book. This handsome volume is more suited to the coffee table than the pocket. It is lavishly illustrated with well chosen photographs, paintings and drawings, most of them in full colour. There are also some splendid maps and tables. Each illustration is accompanied by a well-written caption which relates the picture to the narrative. But the most important part of the book is the text and this is a model of what a good general history should be. Duffy tells his story clearly, using just enough detail to make developments intelligible while never swamping the reader. The early chapters which deal with the period up to the Tudor conquest are particularly good, drawing on the most recent archaeological and historical research and always making it clear when and why it is impossible to give a definitive judgement on some topics. The lavish illustrations add to the pleasure of this section.
All the way through historical research and debates are mentioned and the conclusions drawn are always balanced. The level of factual accuracy is high. In fact where my memory has doubted the author and I have checked, it was my memory which turned out to be unreliable. That is not to say that I agree with him on everything. There are some places where the need for brevity lead to interpretations with which I might quarrel, but these all lie within the parameters of debate. Definitely the book for our outsider!
The final book is an oddity. The publishers describe it as unique and for once this much-abused word seems appropriate. It is so far removed from the normal general history that describing it seems the best way to review it. The middle section consists of ten pages of chronological charts, each of which has a flap which folds out beyond the width of the book. These charts are divided from top to bottom into eight colour-coded sections labelled ‘culture and heritage’, ‘lifestyle’, ‘battle and conflict’, ‘politics, law and religion, ‘rule’, ‘agriculture and industry’, ‘people and personalities’ and ‘world events’. Dates run along the top of the page, usually divided into decades.
In the squares thus created are listed a wide range of events, some major, some minor. Reading down a dateline can produce fascinating juxtapositions. For example reading down the 1850-1860 block we find the publication of Grammatica Celtica by Johann Zeuss in Germany (1853), Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn (1860), the setting up of the Catholic University (1850), the ending of stamp duties on newspapers (1855), sectarian riots stirred up by ‘Roaring Hanna’ (1857), the Phoenix Society established by O’Donovan Rossa (1856), railway from Dublin reaches Galway (1850), submarine cable from Howth to Holyhead—the first telephone [sic] link between Britain and Ireland (1852), George Bernard Shaw born (1856).
These brief entries are illustrated with pictures, all the size of a postage stamp. That is not a problem when the pictures are of people. Quite enough of a face can be seen in that space. But when the illustration has detail which one would like to see, the pictures are too small to be of any use. Finally the fold-out section of the tables contain brief paragraphs about some of the topics touched on in the chronological tables. These provide accurate information on the chosen topics, though the basis on which topics are chosen seems totally arbitrary. The rest of the book consists of essays by the author. They cover a range of topics and include ‘Introduction to the Landscape’, ‘The changing face of power and domination’, ‘Peoples of Ireland’, ‘Towns and cities’, ‘Religion and culture’, ‘Gaelic games and sports’. The essays present a very brief but on the whole reliable outline of the topic and are well illustrated. The best of them is a lovely section on Irish maps with ten pages of full colour reproductions of historic maps. For that alone, the book is worth while.
The result of all this is a book that is more like a rather eccentric encyclopaedia than a narrative history. Anyone perusing it would come up with a hundred and one previously unknown facts about Irish history but whether they would have any better understanding of our island’s story is open to doubt. A book for the schoolroom or the reference library, perhaps, rather than for our outsider in search of enlightenment.

E.M. Collins


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