Bookworm

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 3 (Autumn 2004), Reviews, Volume 12

What was an ‘angel’? ‘Castle chamber’? ‘Raskins’? A ‘Cunningham acre’? So asks the dust-jacket of Byrne’s dictionary of Irish local history (pp352, £20 pb, ISBN 1856354237), published by Mercier Press. The description on the cover—‘an extensive range of key local history terminology, a must for all local historians’—is far too modest and is qualified by the understatement: ‘also included are numerous entries relating to national and regional institutions such as parliament and the courts, administrative structures, religion, education, historical records, land law, lay associations, political movements, architecture and archaeology’. Nor is the international dimension entirely neglected. Thus there is a thoughtful and lengthy (one-page) entry for the (originally French) Annales school of historiography. Compiler Joseph Byrne is a product of NUI Maynooth’s excellent MA in local history programme. Incidentally, an ‘angel’ was a late fifteenth- to mid-seventeenth-century gold coin valued at 6s. 8d.; ‘castle chamber’ or Star Chamber was a juryless, inquisitorial court, popular because it was relatively speedy in its judgements and therefore less expensive to litigants than the regular courts (critics of our current tribunals take note); a ‘raskins’ was a wooden butter container made by hollowing out a log; and a ‘Cunningham (or Scottish) acre’, at 6250 square yards, was larger than the statute acre (4840) but smaller than the Irish (7840), and was employed in parts of Ulster.
A feature of the local history scene is the ongoing publication of journals (usually annual) by the larger and longer-established local history societies. While these publications vary greatly both in the quality of content and production values, at their best their articles shed light on otherwise obscure corners of the Irish historical experience, especially where they relate issues of national (and international) importance to the local situation. A case in point is Kieran McNulty’s ‘Revolutionary movements in Kerry from 1913 to 1923: a social and political analysis’ in the 2003 Journal of the Kerry Archaeological and Historical Society (pp182, £30 pb, ISSN  00852503). It is particularly good at teasing out the contradictions between the county’s burgeoning labour militancy and not only the emerging Irish Free State but also the anti-Treaty IRA. First published in 1968, the KAHS’s journal appeared annually up to 1996. Publication was resumed with the start of a second series in 2001 (enquiries: 066-7121200, kahs@eircom.net).
Another stalwart of the genre is the Clogher Record, the journal of the Clogher Historical Society, which has appeared annually since 1953. The 2003 issue (pp180, R15.87, ISBN 0949012203) contains a biographical article by Eamon Phoenix on Cahir Healy (1877–1970), Fermanagh Sinn Féin leader and Nationalist MP at both Stormont and Westminister. If only for Healy’s sheer longevity, this short biography provides a useful focus for the study of the political history of the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland from the onset of partition until the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s (enquiries: 047-71984, chs@eircom.net).
Entering the fray for the first time is the 2003 (No. 1) Laois Heritage Society Journal (pp108, ISBN 0863350496). In ‘Tory-inspired legislation that ended the power and privileges of the landlords’, Teddy Fennelly examines the impact of the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898 on the county, particularly from the point of view of the editorials and letters page of the pro-Tory Leinster Express.
Congratulations to Prionsias Ó Conluain, president of the O’Neill Country Historical Society, whose ‘Dutiful old knight’ and formidable foe: Tarlach Luineach Ó Néill, the man from Munterloney (pp42) was a prize-winner in the Northern Ireland Publications Resource’s ‘Celebrating Our Local History’ competition. Now available from the author in pamphlet form (The BARD Centre, Brantry, Dungannon, Co. Tyrone), it was originally published in 2000 in the society’s journal Dúiche Néill. Tarlach Luineach succeeded Shane O’Neill as ‘The O’Neill’ in opposition to the Castle-recognised baron of Dungannon, later earl of Tyrone, Hugh O’Neill. The complex twists and turns of his career were neatly summarised by Standish O’Grady as ‘chequered by expedient fits of loyalty and frequent desperate acts of independence’. Remarkably, for one who played such an important role in the labyrinthine politics of late sixteenth-century Ulster, Tarlach Luineach awaits a full biography.
Joyce enthusiasts who can’t make it to the National Library’s exhibition ‘James Joyce and Ulysses’ (reviewed in Museum Eye, p. 54) can do the next best thing and get a copy of the accompanying Wordwell publication A Joycean scrapbook (pp136, E15 pb, E30 hb, ISBN 1869857739). The Library has unearthed a treasure trove of vivid pictorial material from its archives relating to the popular culture of early twentieth-century Dublin, much of which is reproduced here. Nor has the exhibition or publication shied away from the darker aspects of that society: an advertisement for furniture-seller John S. Kelly, reproduced from the Irish Rosary of 1904, is at pains to stress (twice!) that it has ‘no connection with Jews’, while a 13 June 1904 programme for the Tivoli Theatre of Varieties lists as one of its ‘turns’ a Len Lever, ‘coon vocalist’.
Readers who were stimulated (either positively or negatively) by Tom Dunne’s Rebellions: memoir, memory and 1798, reviewed in the last issue, will find Peter Collins’s Who Fears to Speak of ’98?: commemoration and the continuing impact of the United Irishmen (Ulster Historical Foundation, pp196, £6.99 pb, ISBN 190368823X) essential reading. Not only does it have chapters dealing with previous commemorations (1898 and 1948) but it also includes a detailed almanac of commemorative bicentenary events held throughout the country in 1998, North and South. While the book is generally positive in its assessment of both the quality and quantity of the 1998 commemorations, its lively but even-handed epilogue outlines Roy Foster’s critique of the commemorations and Tom Bartlett’s equally robust riposte.
Finally, The story of Mayo (pp394, E30 hb, ISBN 0951962442), written and compiled by Rosa Meehan and published by Mayo County Council, is confirmation of the adage ‘If a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing well’. While the production values could be described as ‘coffee table’, this has not been at the expense of the scholarship of the content, which covers landscape, archaeology, history and people.

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