Published in Book Reviews, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2012), Reviews, Volume 20

BOOKWORM 1Bookworm’s eye was caught recently by a stunningly beautiful book—Rural Ireland: the inside story, edited by Vera Kreilkamp (University of Chicago Press, $45, 204pp, ISBN 9781892850188). It is based on an exhibition of the same name hosted at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art, and consists of a catalogue of over 60 paintings of Irish rural life—all interior scenes—painted between 1800 and 1950. But most of the book is an anthology of high-quality essays, based on the exhibition and written by a range of distinguished authors. Let’s hope that the exhibition, which was recently showcased in the Irish Times, makes its way to Ireland at some stage.
The 2012 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin was a low-key affair, a far cry from the huge celebrations that accompanied the same event in 1932.
Explanations for this are close to hand in the form of theBOOKWORM 2increasing secularisation of Irish society and the rapid collapse in the moral authority of the Catholic Church. Yet one cannot discount the importance of Christianity in Irish history. The Christian tradition—at least, the Catholic version of it—is the subject of Treasures of Irish Christianity: people and places, images and texts, edited by Salvador Ryan and Brendan Leahy (Veritas, €19.99, 288pp, ISBN 9781847303646). This is a beautifully produced anthology of 80 short essays on a vast array of topics germane to Irish Christianity and Catholicism, from St Patrick to the present. Written to accompany the 2012 Eucharistic Congress, it has contributions from a wide range of clerics, scholars and lay Catholics, and would certainly repay a browse regardless of one’s beliefs.
Bookworm has previously noted a burgeoning level of interest in the Easter Rising, as reflected in the books that are starting to roll off the presses. Yet sometimes the afterlife of an event has a story of its own that is worth telling. There is a commonly held assumption that the 50th anniversary of the Rising in 1966 was an orgy of glorification. But, as Roisin Higgins argues in Transforming 1916: meaning, memory and the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising (Cork University Press, 288pp, €39.00, ISBN 9781859184868), while the government of Seán Lemass tried to use 1966 to present a bright shiny face to the world, there was no shortage of voices dissenting from the official version of the rising. A wide range of groups and individuals took the opportunity to argue that the ideals of 1916 remained unfulfilled, and they also get a mention in this lively book.
BOOKWORM 3Speaking of misunderstandings about 1916 brings us to the much-maligned figure of Patrick Pearse. He is often characterised as little more than a shrill fanatic intent on ‘blood sacrifice’, but Pearse was a far more complex and interesting figure than that. When in doubt, return to the source, and Mercier Press are to be commended for reissuing The coming revolution: the political writings and speeches of Patrick Pearse (Mercier Press, 288pp, €12.99, ISBN 9781781170649), originally published within a year of his execution. As Gabriel Doherty notes in his introduction, the collection is heavily weighted towards the intensely politicised final years of his life, but even within that time-frame readers might be surprised at what they will find.
It is ironic that the ‘decade of centenaries’ will end with an event that can hardly be the subject of celebration: the Civil War of 1922–3. T. Ryle Dwyer concludes his trilogy on the life of Michael Collins with Michael Collins and the Civil War (Mercier, 320pp, €12.99, ISBN 9781781170328), which deals with perhaps the most controversial period of Collins’s career: the run-up to the Civil War. During these months Collins, amongst other things, went to considerable lengths to try and circumvent the Treaty that he had signed, while also providing virtually unconditional support to the IRA in Northern Ireland, whom he readily supplied with weapons. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this part of the ‘Big Fella’s’ career is rarely dwelt upon by his legion of admirers!
One of the most recent of our History Ireland Hedge Schools was in the National Library of Ireland in May, and it dealt with the thorny topic of ‘Irish Army deserters and the morality of neutrality’. A rather lively discussion ensued, to say the least (see it on-line at, and given that the Hedge School dealt with the subject of Irishmen who fought in the Allied forces during the war, curious readers might want to get a sense of what those Irish soldiers experienced. A striking (if unrepresentative!) example is provided in Gearóid O’Dowd’s He who dared and died: the life and death of an SAS original (Pen and Sword, 192pp, £19.99 sterling, ISBN 9781848845411). It is the story of Chris O’Dowd, the author’s uncle, who was born in Mayo but became one of the first recruits to David Stirling’s Special Air Service (SAS) and was killed during the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943.
One of the many topics touched upon at the Hedge School was whether or not Irish neutrality had a bearing on the Battle of the Atlantic. Readers who want to know more are directed to Mark McShane’s Neutral shores: Ireland and the Battle of the Atlantic (Mercier, 352pp, €19.99, ISBN 978185635934), which, as befits its author’s background in the merchant navy, deals with the Emergency from the point of view of the sailors and airmen—of all nationalities, civilian and military—who experienced World War II in the Atlantic waters off the Irish coast.
Finally, a less sombre but no less interesting first-person account of life on Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard in the 1930s and ’40s is provided in Janet T. Marquardt (ed.), Françoise Henry in Co. Mayo: the Inishkea journals (Four Courts, 176pp, €35 hb/€17.50 pb, ISBN 9781846823749). Born in Paris in 1902, Henry spent most of her academic career in UCD and was a world authority on early Irish art, and this beautifully produced edition of her journals offers a wonderful account of her encounters with the landscape and people of west Mayo and its islands.  HI

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