Bookworm

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

Bookworm is always on the lookout for publications that appeal to a particular type of (usually desperate) reader: Leaving Cert and A-level students, lazy undergrads, or general readers whose enthusiasm for history is not matched by the necessary leisure time to plough through academic monographs (although with the deepening recession that could change). A case in point was the ‘Life and Times’ series published by the Historical Association of Ireland in the 1990s, which aimed ‘to place the lives of leading figures in Irish history against the background of new research’. (Tom Bartlett’s Theobald Wolfe Tone was particularly insightful.) The good news is that the series is back, with the same mission statement, this time published by UCD Press. James Quinn’s John Mitchel (108pp, €17/£14, ISBN 9781906359157), Senia Paseta’s Thomas Kettle (108pp, €17/£14, ISBN 9781906359133) and Peter Costello’s Denis Guiney (124pp, €17/£14, ISBN 9781906359140) have already been published, with Arthur Guinness, John Charles McQuaid and Isaac Butt in the pipeline.
Ecclesiastical histories can often fall into the ‘worthy but dull’ category. An exception is Pádraig S. Ó Baoighill’s self-published Cardinal Patrick O’Donnell 1856–1927 (486pp, €45 hb/€30 pb, ISBN 9780955670206/13), available from Foilseachain Chro na mBothan, Baile na Finne, Co. Donegal, Ireland (p&p €10 RoI, €15 rest of the world). A possible explanation for O’Donnell’s relative obscurity (to the more general reader, at any rate) is that his time as archbishop of Armagh and cardinal (1924–7) was very short, and overshadowed by his long-serving successor, Joseph MacRory (1927–45), and his even longer-serving predecessor, Michael Logue (1887–1924). But O’Donnell himself had been bishop of Raphoe since 1888 (he was the youngest Catholic bishop in the world at that time) and presided over a prodigious building programme in Letterkenny: St Eunan’s Cathedral and Diocesan College, the Presentation Monastery and an extension to the Loreto Convent. A staunch activist for social justice, he was a member of the first committee of Sir Horace Plunkett’s Irish Agricultural Organisation Society.
Bookworm has the greatest of respect for anyone who can successfully publish (i.e. more than one issue) a magazine in Ireland on any topic. The latest to come to my attention is Scope, a monthly glossy aimed at the medical profession. But there was significant historical content in the issues I perused (September and November 2008): ‘Hunt for the last Nazi doctor’; ‘Captain’s Log: how a Mayo emigrant altered the history of South America’; ‘Inside the mind of Dr Radovan Karadzic: did the war criminal’s training in psychiatry influence his genocidal practices?’; ‘Train Gang: was it cholera or murder that claimed the lives of 57 Irishmen working on a US railroad?’. The last-mentioned refers to Duffy’s Cut (named after the Irish contractor involved) in 1832 on the Philadelphia and Columbia railroad, and which was recently the subject of a book (see Bookworm Jan./Feb. 2007) and TV documentary. Scope (€4.95) may not be available in your local newsagents but the publisher, M&C Group, can be contacted at 7 Lower Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin 2, +353 (0)1 7995800, rlove@mandcgroup.ie.
In spite of decades of revisionism, Oliver Cromwell’s reputation in Ireland has remained stubbornly unrehabilitated. Micheál Ó Siochrú’s recent God’s executioner (Faber, 2008) and TV documentary has confirmed Cromwell’s role as Ireland’s favourite villian. But how is he viewed across the Irish Sea? There’s no shortage of material. John Morril’s Oxford DNB entry reckons that there are at least 160 full biographies plus more than 1,000 separate publications bearing his name. The latest is Oliver Cromwell: new perspectives, edited by Patrick Little (Palgrave Macmillan, 278pp, €52.50 hb/£17.99 pb, ISBN 9780230574205/12), who charts his reputation’s rollercoaster ride from Machiavellian villain of the Restoration, through non-conformist hero of the nineteenth century, great dictator of the 1930s and ’40s, betrayer of the revolution of the 1970s, to the religious zealot of more recent interpretations.
Books on Irish traditional music always call to mind Dinjo’s ‘Take the floor’, which generated a mass listenership for dancing on the radio. Helen O’Shea’s The making of Irish traditional music (Cork University Press, 300pp, €39/£30 hb, ISBN 9781859184363) claims to be the subject’s first critical study and concludes that any notion of its being expressive of an ethnically pure, geographically bound, national culture is wide of the mark, a conclusion with which Bookworm would concur in the light of exhaustive research at music festivals as far afield as Milwaukee and Tonder (Denmark).
A growing publication genre are local studies focused on the revolutionary period, 1916–23. Unfortunately, owing to meagre resources some of these fall into the ‘worthy but badly produced’ category. This is not the case with Kathleen Hegarty Thorne’s They put the flag a-flyin’: the Roscommon Volunteers 1916–1923 (Generation Organization, Eugene, Oregon, USA, 544pp, €45 hb, ISBN 0963356542), a beautifully produced, large-format illustrated book (to describe it as ‘coffee-table’ would do it an injustice), now in its second edition (first published in 2005). As well as a narrative of the War of Independence and Civil War in County Roscommon, there is a detailed chronology of events in the county from 1913 to 1923 (sometimes day by day), an alphabetical listing and biographical details of over 2,000 Roscommon Volunteers, intelligence reports from military archives, over 350 photographs and a detailed index.
Peter Crooks’s (ed.) Government, war and society in medieval Ireland: essays by Edmund Curtis, A. J. Otway-Ruthven and James Lydon (Four Courts Press, 407pp, €40.50 hb, ISBN 9781846821059) is notable not just as history but as a study of historians, three successive holders of the Lecky chair of history in Trinity College, Dublin, from 1939 to 1993. Many readers will be familiar with the work of all three, but the unique selling point of this volume is that it brings together between a single set of covers a collection of essays that otherwise would not be readily accessible. Plus there is the editor’s marvellous ‘warts and all’ introduction. We learn, for example, that the original endowment—in 1913 from the widow of W. E. H. Lecky, the great historian of the eighteenth century—was for a chair of modern history. ‘Modern’ was interpreted broadly and in 1964 disappeared entirely when Otway-Ruthven—while head of school T. W. Moody was away on sabbatical—engineered the establishment of an autonomous department of medieval history, described here as ‘a palace revolution’. Unfortunately there is no happy ending: since James Lydon retired in 1993 the Lecky chair has been vacant.
A few years back the editor in his wisdom decreed that History Ireland would no longer carry obituaries, a service better provided by newpapers with greater resources and greater frequency. Nevertheless, Bookworm must mention the passing of Michael Adams, founder and managing director of Four Courts Press (see p. 00), described in his Irish Times obituary as ‘a model of publishing integrity’, an observation that must be taken at face value since traditionally obituaries are factual, frank in their judgements and anonymous. The acme of the genre is, of course, the London Times obituary, and Charles Lysaght has made a selection of Irish people featured in The Times Great Irish Lives (Harper Collins Publishers, 302pp, €12.99 hb, ISBN 9780007284269), ranging from Henry Grattan and Daniel O’Connell to Tommy Makem and Nuala O’Faolain.

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