Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

By Joe Culley

Breasal Ó Caollaí, Niall O’Hagan and Ken Finlay (eds), The last voyage of the Leinster: remembering the Dún Laoghaire and Holyhead mailboat (Leinster Centenary Committee, €15 hb, 48pp, ISBN 9781909751767).

Patrick F. O’Donovan, Stanley’s letter: the national school system and inspectors in Ireland 1831–1922 (Galway Education Centre, €38 hb, 358pp, ISBN 9781999754006).

Sorcha O’Brien, Powering the nation: images of the Shannon scheme and electricity in Ireland (Irish Academic Press, €29.99 pb, 344pp, ISBN 9781911024675).

Conrad Natzio, Irish steam in the 1960s: end of an era (Colourpoint Books, £16 pb, 160pp, ISBN 9781780731469).

E.M. Patterson, Joe Begley and Steve Flanders, The Lough Swilly railway (Colourpoint Books, £18 pb, 192pp, ISBN 9781780731476).

Síle de Cléir, Popular Catholicism in 20th-century Ireland: locality, identity and culture (Bloomsbury Academic, £76.49 hb, 272pp, ISBN 9781350020603).

Noel Kissane, Saint Brigid of Kildare: life, legend and cult (Four Courts Press, €24.95 pb, 360pp, ISBN 9781846826320).

Tony Reynolds, Castleknock: memories of a neighbourhood (Carrowmore Publishing, €15 pb, 244pp, ISBN 9780995610835).

Gerard O’Rourke, Ancient sweet Donoughmore: life in an Irish rural parish to 1900 (Redmond Grove Publications, €20, 432pp, ISBN 9780993386718).

Donal Clifford, A flavour of Cobh: profiles of local people (Selfpublishedbooks, no price available, 440pp, ISBN 9781910097656).

As you are, evidently, the sort of person who reads History Ireland, you will likely be familiar with the tragic tale of the RMS Leinster. But the full story of the mail-boat sunk by a German submarine 100 years ago, just a month before the armistice and with the loss of over 500 lives, never lodged properly in the public consciousness. There were several reasons for this, not least official censorship: the Evening Herald made the mistake of running a brief report about the attack—which even suggested that there had been no casualties—and was promptly shut down for four days. The story was also quickly overtaken by other events at home and abroad: the armistice itself, the general election, the establishment of a (would-be) Irish government and the ’flu pandemic. Yet more Irish died on the Leinster than on either the Titanic or the Lusitania.

As part of the plans to commemorate the centenary of the disaster next October, a local committee has published The last voyage of the Leinster: remembering the Dún Laoghaire and Holyhead mailboat, a slim, coffee-table hardback. It tells, briefly, what happened on the day, and then investigates how the story was remembered by the few survivors and offers pen-pictures of some of the victims. It also recounts how Des Branigan bought the wreck in order to preserve it, and how one of its anchors was recovered to be displayed in Dún Laoghaire. Incidentally, we are planning to hold a Hedge School on the Leinster nearer the anniversary. Watch this space.

Two years after Catholic Emancipation, the chief secretary for Ireland, Edward Stanley, won approval from parliament to begin funding a new national system of education for the poor in Ireland, a system unique to the island. Right from the start the scheme was to be non-denominational, and right from the start the churches—all of them—made sure that that vision would not be realised. Nevertheless, the scheme was quickly up and running, and for a century provided a basic primary education for the vast majority. Of course, educating the masses would have a profound effect on the development of Ireland as a nation. Patrick O’Donovan, himself a national schools inspector, has published Stanley’s letter: the national school system and inspectors in Ireland 1831–1922. An impressive work, it wears its scholarly credentials lightly, and is likely to be required reading for students of the subject.

Sorcha O’Brien’s impressive Powering the nation: images of the Shannon scheme and electricity in Ireland is a fascinating visual history ‘of the greatest industrial initiative of the fledgling Irish Free State’. But the title is misleading, as this is far more than a picture-book; it is also an essay on nationhood and modern identity in the fledgling state. Chapter headings include: ‘National Identity and Electrical Technology in 1920s Ireland’, ‘German Technology and Propaganda’, ‘Siemens Industrial Photographs and Prints’, ‘German and Irish Worker Photographs’, ‘An Irish Project: ESB Advertisements’ and ‘The National Imaginary: Irish Tourist Photographs’. The book is beautifully produced, full of telling if unfamiliar images of the scheme, and the mountain of endnotes is testament to the exhaustive research behind O’Brien’s story. Excellent.

At the start of the 1960s Conrad Natzio, a student at Trinity, devoted all of his spare time—and much of it that shouldn’t have been spare—chasing round this island of ours photographing the last remaining steam locomotives at work. Nearly 60 years on, Irish steam in the 1960s: end of an era is a delightful collection of the results of Natzio’s dedication and perseverance. The gorgeous colour photos record not just the trains but also the built structure and landscape of an Ireland long gone. You can nearly hear the lonesome whistle blow.

On the same theme, Joe Begley and Steve Flanders have updated E.M. Patterson’s 1969 work, The Lough Swilly railway—a thorough history. As it happens, last September we held a Hedge School to mark the 60th anniversary of the last train from Bundoran. You can find a podcast of the event on our website.

In Popular Catholicism in 20th-century Ireland: locality, identity and culture Síle de Cléir focuses her attention specifically on Limerick between independence and the 1960s. (Many will be familiar with Frank McCourt’s particular take on the story.) While clearly an academic work, de Cléir’s prose is accessible to the general reader. Of course, because the subject is Limerick, the (in)famous ‘Archconfraternity of the Holy Family’ features. De Cléir has put a lot of work into her fine study, but I fear it will have a limited readership. Why? Because Bloomsbury is going to charge you £76 for the privilege.

After a career as education officer at the National Library, Noel Kissane has produced the very readable Saint Brigid of Kildare: life, legend and cult. As Kissane says, ‘this does not provide a “Life of Saint Brigid”’, not least because there is virtually no evidence of the actual woman. Instead, the book ‘reviews the history of her cult from her lifetime down to the present time, as manifested in folklore, placenames, holy wells … and the naming of girls after her’.

Last year Tony Reynolds turned 90, and, fortunately for all of us, he decided to set down his tale of a lifetime in Castleknock, the (now) west Dublin suburb. As he puts it, Castleknock: memories of a neighbourhood is ‘a sort of blurring of lines between memoir and social history’. Though the details are specific to the area, the story of a rural idyll subsumed into the metropolis is a familiar one in the development of modern Ireland. But Reynolds has a nice way with words, occasionally bordering on the poetic: ‘I hear the final ring of the till at cashing up time, the light goes off in the shop and the bolt is drawn across for the evening. Our front door opens and emits a fresh channel of light before it closes over.’

Gerard O’Rourke has put nearly a lifetime of research into Ancient sweet Donoughmore: life in an Irish rural parish to 1900. It is a comprehensive—nearly exhaustive—account of the region of mid-Cork. Chock-full of detail and telling illustrations, it runs from the proliferation of prehistoric monuments in the area right up to daily life at the end of the nineteenth century. There is, for example, a remarkable amount of detail about how the Famine affected the region.

Still in County Cork but down in lovely Cobh, Donal Clifford sat down to interview 24 citizens from across the social spectrum to build up a picture of life in the town. The result is A flavour of Cobh: profiles of local people. All profits from the sale go to support the restoration of the Mary Stanford, the Ballycotton lifeboat that carried out the Daunt Rock rescue in 1936 and saved 101 lives at sea during her time in service.



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