Bookworm

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

Michael Foley, The bloodied field: Croke Park, Sunday 21 November 1920 (O’Brien Press, €16.99 pb, 296pp, ISBN 9781847173188).
John O’Callaghan, Con Colbert (O’Brien Press, €12.99 pb, 256pp, ISBN 9781847173348).
Róisín Ní Ghairbhí, Willie Pearse (O’Brien Press, €12.99 pb, 256pp, ISBN 9781847172679).
Joe Good, Inside the GPO: a first-hand account (O’Brien Press, €11.99 pb, 320pp, ISBN 9781847177186).
Studies, Vol. 103, No. 412, Winter 2014/15 (Messenger Publications, €10, 602pp, ISBN 9770039349043).
Tim Horgan, Dying for the cause: Kerry’s republican dead, 1916–23 (Mercier Press, €35 hb, 478pp, ISBN 9781781172780).
Robert Lynch, Revolutionary Ireland, 1912–25 (Bloomsbury, €27.99, 192pp, ISBN 9781441186898).
Baron József Eotvos, Poverty in Ireland, 1837 (Phaeton Publishing, €19.99, ISBN 9781908420206).
Paddy O’Leary, The way that we climbed: a history of Irish hillwalking, climbing and mountaineering (Collins Press, €19.99 pb, 220pp, ISBN 9781848892422).
Jim Murphy, Passage to Everest and beyond (selfpublishbooks, €35, 290pp, ISBN 9781910097274).
Vandra Costello, Irish demesne landscapes, 1660–1740 (Four Courts Press, €50 hb, 272pp, ISBN 9781846825064).

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Bookworm missed out on what turned out to be an unlikely Christmas bestseller last year: Michael Foley’s The bloodied field: Croke Park, Sunday 21 November 1920. ‘Bloody Sunday’ remains the most notorious event of the Irish War of Independence: the killing of actual and alleged British officers and the subsequent reprisal killings in Croke Park and Dublin Castle claimed 32 lives, according to Foley. The day receives comprehensive treatment in this well-researched and enormously readable book. By singling out Bloody Sunday for detailed attention, rather than just moving straight on to Kilmichael or the burning of Cork, Foley is able to explore the background and aftermath of the day’s events in remarkable detail. He also brings the GAA and the Dublin–Tipperary match into the heart of his account, rather than just treating the latter in almost incidental fashion as the setting for the killing of civilians by British paramilitaries. The bloodied field is as much a sports book as a history book (after all, it was written by the deputy sports editor of the Sunday Times). Who could say no to that?

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Foley’s publishers have staked their claim to the imminent centen-ary of the Easter Rising with the 16 Lives series, and O’Brien Press have recently released the latest, and impressive, instalments: John O’Callaghan’s Con Colbert and Róisín Ní Ghairbhí’s Willie Pearse. Neither name automatically trips off the tongue, but what makes this series particularly useful are the studies of the lesser-known figures who were executed, of which these are two. O’Callaghan’s clear-eyed account of Colbert explores the life and world of a mid-ranking conservative cultural nationalist. Willie Pearse is usually seen as an unfortunate adjunct to his more prominent brother, but Ní Ghairbhí paints a fascinating picture of his life and career. Willie Pearse was a sculptor who took over the family business, and this biography reveals a far more cosmopolitan figure than might be assumed. The whole point of this series is that it explores sixteen lives that were ended prematurely. Colbert and Willie Pearse left no memoirs of their involvement in the Easter Rising, for obvious reasons, but O’Brien have also republished the London-born Volunteer Joe Good’s first-hand account of his participation in the Rising and much else besides: Inside the GPO: a first-hand account. This new edition comes with a preface by Robert Ballagh that contains some curious assertions, worth reading alongside Brian Hanley’s piece on 1916 in our last issue.

Indeed, 1916 seems to be everywhere already. The current issue of the venerable Jesuit periodical Studies concentrates on the bicentenary of the suppression of the Jesuits, as touched upon in a recent article in these pages by Damien Burke, but it also contains a piece on Father Francis Shaw (the original reviser of the Rising!) by Patrick Maume. The very mention of 1916 may induce wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the general public, but hopefully, gentle reader, not before our own special issue on 1916 comes out next March. Other aspects of the Irish revolution are explored in Tim Horgan’s Dying for the cause: Kerry’s republican dead, 1916–23, which does exactly what it says on the tin: it is an exhaustive and comprehensive biographical anthology of republicans killed during the years in question (the Civil War naturally looms large). Finally, for a brief, lively and up-to-date overview of the entire period, you could do worse than Robert Lynch’s Revolutionary Ireland, 1912–25, which works as a textbook as well as an account for a general audience.

Everest

Amongst many visitors to pre-Famine Ireland was the Hungarian Baron József Eotvos (a campaigner for the freedom of serfs who went on to be a major literary and political figure in his homeland); he was horrified by what he witnessed here and castigated Ireland’s British and/or Protestant rulers for exercising, as he put it, their ‘unlimited and self-serving power over the people’. His account of his travels has now been published as Poverty in Ireland, 1837. This is a dual-language production, with the original Hungarian text facing the English translation.
The title of Paddy O’Leary’s The way that we climbed: a history of Irish hillwalking, climbing and mountaineering is an obvious nod to Robert Lloyd Praeger’s classic The way that I went, but O’Leary and his subjects are going up as well as over. It makes for a novel and fascinating account of how Irish men and women have gone up the airy mountains and down the rushy glens both at home and abroad from the 1870s to the present. The author is a veteran hillwalker himself, and can write with authority. There are fascinating vignettes and stories within its pages, not least those from O’Leary’s own life: in the 1960s detectives visited his father (himself a retired Garda) to ask why his son was wandering around the hills of Donegal with known republicans; the obvious response is to note that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. O’Leary led the first Irish expeditions to Everest, but he was not the first Irishman to make it to Everest’s slopes. Jim Murphy’s Passage to Everest and beyond (endorsed by no less a figure than Wade Davis) deals with one of O’Leary’s predecessors. It is an edition of the journal of R.W.G. Hingston, who grew up and was educated in Cork; a veteran of the Great War, he served as the medical officer on George Mallory’s fatally inconclusive expedition to conquer the mountain (a subject explored in our Sept./Oct. 2011 edition).

Finally, the history of gentler outdoor pursuits is the subject of Vandra Costello’s Irish desmesne landscapes, 1660–1740, which looks at how elements of the Irish landscape were remoulded in the period under study. One can argue very plausibly that this could be seen as smoothing out the rough edges of conquest. There is no doubt, however, that the sophistication and beauty of many of the surviving ‘demesne landscapes’ examined by Costello should be valued as public resources in the 21st century, irrespective of their origins; her work is a valuable account of how some of them came into being.

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