Published in Book Reviews, Reviews, Volume 18

According to the foreword by Kevin Myers to The Wexford war dead: a history of the casualties of the World Wars (Nonsuch Publishing, 336pp, Ä20, ISBN 9781845889647), compiled by Tom Burnell (who co-edited two similar works on Wicklow and Tipperary) and Margaret Gilbert, ‘the only axe being ground in the pages that follow is that of the steel of truth, tempered as it has been by decades of falsehood and neglect about the Irish involvement in the Great War’. This is a very user-friendly list (in alphabetical order) of short biographies (and some photos) of the 874 Wexfordmen (including 14 Byrnes and 36 Doyles) who lost their lives in the two World Wars. Given the recent torrent of books on Irish involvement in the Great War (many of which have been reviewed in the pages of HI [see ‘Reviews’, this issue, p. 65] or brought to readers’ attention by Bookworm), one wonders for how long the axe of the charge of ‘falsehood and neglect’ (certainly justified in the past) will continue to be ground.
Many of these books have taken the form of diaries or correspondence, such as Captain David Campbell’s Forward the Rifles: the war diary of an Irish soldier, 1914–18 (Nonsuch Publishing, 160pp, Ä14.99, ISBN 9781845889661), edited by his son, David Henry Campbell. Captain Campbell, from Crinstown near Ardee, Co. Louth, survived the Dardenelles and later fought on the Salonika/Serbian front (now there’s a really forgotten war). He observes how, in June and July 1916, the Salonika Army was attacked ‘not by the Bulgar, but by a far deadlier enemy, the mosquito’. A far weightier tome is World War I and the question of Ulster: the correspondence of Lilian and Wilfrid Spender (Irish Manuscripts Commission, 536pp, Ä55, ISBN 9781874280124), edited by Margaret Baguley. This has the full academic Monty of a comprehensive index, appendices and footnotes. But the general reader should not be put off. Although large (based on 2,750 letters), this is a very accessible and readable work, with Captain Spender giving his wife almost daily accounts of the horrors of total war on the Western Front. Not surprisingly, as a former quartermaster of the Ulster Volunteer Force, Spender is not shy about expressing his unionist opinions in a forthright manner or of sketching withering portraits of the major political figures of the day.
Closer to home, another ‘forgotten war’ is the ’50s border campaign (see ‘Reviews’, this issue, pp 56–7). One wonders for how long, in the light of Barry Flynn’s Soldiers of folly: the IRA border campaign 1956–1962 (Collins Press, 224pp, Ä24.95, ISBN 9781848890169) and last year’s The insider: the prison diaries of Eamonn Boyce, 1956–1962, edited by Anna Bryson and reviewed in HI (16.3, May/June 2008, p. 63) by Ruan O’Donnell, who himself has a major work in the pipeline on this heretofore neglected topic.
A war (or rather wars) in which interest has never gone away is the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War, particularly studies that tease out a local angle. The latest in that genre is Terence O’Reilly’s Rebel heart: George Lennon, flying column commander (Mercier Press, 287pp, Ä19.99, ISBN 9781856356497), which focuses on the IRA’s youngest flying column commander, who was briefly effective military governor of Waterford City and led its unsuccessful resistance to Free State forces in July 1922. The story is taken up to Lennon’s death in 1991 aged 91, including his conversion to pacifism and Zen Buddhism. Michael Harrington’s The Munster Republic: the Civil War in North Cork (Mercier Press, 190pp, Ä16.99, ISBN 9781856356565) moves the Civil War story further west along the Waterford–Limerick line briefly held by anti-Treaty forces to its epicentre, and in particular to the fighting at Killmallock in summer 1922, the closest the Civil War came to a pitched battle.
Bookworm, like many readers I’m sure, grew up reading comics like the Eagle, Victor and Hotspur, but, like soccer and pop music, such interests were frowned upon in some circles as unpatriotic: all the heroes were British. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but where could we read comics featuring Irish heroes? The wait is over with the publication of Gerry Hunt’s graphic novel, Blood upon the rose: Easter 1916—the rebellion that set Ireland free (O’Brien Press, 48pp, Ä12.99, ISBN 9781847170897). Bookworm is not sure what to make of this, but check out Edward Madigan’s thoughtful review on the Irish history blog Pue’s Occurrences, posted 2 November 2009.
The Easter Rising features too in Niamh O’Sullivan’s Written in stone: the graffiti in Kilmainham Jail (Liberties Press, 100pp, Ä11.69, ISBN 9781905483723). Not least of the author’s problems was distinguishing between the ‘old’ graffiti written by prisoners (or British soldiers billeted there pre-1916) before the jail closed in 1924 and more recent additions of the ‘Kilroy was here’ variety added since the jail opened to the public as a museum in the 1960s. Sadly, many of the images featured here are no longer visible: they have either faded or were accidentally removed during renovation. Not all the ‘old’ ones are overtly political. One prisoner, perhaps anticipating the vandalistic graffiti of more recent times, wrote: ‘A man’s ambition must be small if he writes his name on the wall’. Included in this large-format book is an audio CD by the author and Maurice O’Keefe, producer of the Irish Life and Lore Series of oral history that has featured previously in Bookworm. While this has a flavour of Din Joe’s ‘dancing on the radio’ to it, there’s no mistaking the dark and dank atmosphere of the jail in the background.
Readers of this issue’s ‘Sidelines’ (p. 6) will note an addition to the list of Oliver Cromwell’s crimes in Ireland: the extinction of the wolf, gleaned from Kieran Hickey’s essay in Lost and found II: rediscovering Ireland’s past (Wordwell Books, 332pp, Ä40, ISBN 9781905569267), edited by Joe Fenwick. This is the second of Joe’s miscellanies (28 articles here) by archaeologists taking time off from digging holes in the ground. Frank Myles gives an account of the dig at the stump of O’Connell Street’s Nelson’s Pillar, before the ‘spike’ was erected in 2002/3, including the time-capsule-that-wasn’t, and quotes from the Evil Gerald (a satirical website sadly no longer with us): ‘Time capsule reveals “same old shit”’. Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin gives us the lowdown on Gormlaith, who first married Olaf, Viking king of Dublin, then Brian Boru (who divorced her), and finally his rival for the high kingship, Mael Sechlainn. She had at least one son by each of them (who fought on both sides at Clontarf) and outlived them all. This is a rattling good read by contributors who are clearly wasted on archaeology.  HI


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