Published in Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

By Joe Culley


During the Six Nations rugby championship we are regularly—even tediously—asked to contemplate battle with our ‘Celtic cousins’, yet a recent genetic study of Britain revealed no common link between the ‘Celtic’ peoples of these islands. As Caomhín De Barra explains in his intriguing The coming of the Celts AD 1860: Celtic nationalism in Ireland and Wales, the Irish and Welsh did not self-identify as ‘Celtic cousins’ in 1800, but by 1860 they did. Why so?

The first part of this readable study—De Barra’s prose is clear and free of any academic obfuscation—looks at the emergence of a Celtic identity within the political and cultural nationalisms of the countries. ‘An ethnic identity that simply didn’t exist in 1700 was claimed by millions of people less than two hundred years later.’ In the mid-nineteenth century, ‘Over a twenty-year period, linguistic scholars gave the Celts a sense of prestige, scientists gave them a racial categorisation, archaeologists gave them a glorious past, and littérateurs gave them easily identifiable characteristics’.

He then looks at the Pan-Celtic movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and finishes by comparing the nationalist movements during the Irish Revolution, including the various attempts in Wales to evolve a ‘Sinn Féin’ appropriate to their ambitions. He even concludes by speculating that changing demographics may make the Celtic identity obsolete. Maybe some university ‘Celtic Studies’ departments should have a rethink.

Retired garda Jim Herlihy, who has published two books on the RIC, has now focused his attention on the lesser-known Irish Revenue Police (IRP), which was in part a precursor to and then a subset of the former. In The Irish Revenue Police: a short history and genealogical guide to the ‘poteen hussars’, Herlihy outlines the steps taken by the authorities in the early nineteenth century to tackle the problem of illegal distilling. Single men under 25 and of average height were enlisted into the force and organised into ‘parties’ to hunt down and destroy the hidden stills. It was not a popular force.

By 1836 there were eighteen divisions of the IRP, and though in theory it was nationwide its efforts seemed largely confined to Ulster and Connacht. The Cork and Kerry mountains remained unscathed. In a neat (whiskey) irony, one of the force’s barracks was in Teeling, Co. Donegal. Much of the colour in the book comes from an extended extract from the reminiscences of one Matthew Power, an ex-lieutenant who recalls his nights chasing semi-naked miscreants across the dark bogs of Donegal.

David McCullagh’s widely praised De Valera, Vol. I: Rise (1882–1932) has been described as ‘vividly readable and at times gripping’. Chief among the accolades for a book about such a divisive figure is that it is ‘dispassionate’. It is also quite handsomely produced.

Denis Marnane refers to Dan Breen’s My fight for Irish freedom as ‘self-serving’ and Desmond Ryan’s biography of Seán Treacy as ‘hagiographical’, so it seems that we are in good hands with his (along with Mary Guinan Darmody) The 3rd Brigade: a history of the volunteers/IRA in South Tipperary 1913–21. This can only be described—in the best sense—as exhaustive. From the Rising to Soloheadbeg to the Treaty, every aspect of the brigade’s activity is detailed. It is in no sense all guts and glory, however; everything is observed with a steady eye. One quibble: the type is small and hard on the eyes.

We have regularly enthused about Quinnipiac University’s beautiful Famine Folio series, which includes Niamh Ann Kelly’s Ultimate witnesses, addressing the rituals of death at the time. Now the lecturer in Visual Culture at DIT has produced a greatly expanded treatise, Imaging the great Irish famine: representing dispossession in visual culture. It’s an exceptional work. Nevertheless, it’s beyond my comprehension why the publishers will charge you £72 to get it.

Another Quinnipiac issue is Children and the Great Hunger in Ireland, a collection of essays that tackles the issue from a variety of perspectives, including literature, visual representations—though there’s not a single image in the book—and folklore.

Daniel Renshaw’s Socialism and the diasporic ‘other’ ‘examines the sometimes turbulent relationships formed between Irish Catholic and Jewish populations and the socialist and labour organisations’ that were agitating in London’s East End around the turn of the twentieth century. This is an academic treatise, not aimed at the general reader. ‘Employing a comparative perspective, the book analyses the complex relations between working class migrants, conservative communal hierarchies and revolutionary groups.’

Using Bureau of Military History witness statements and pension applications, Heuston’s fort: the 1916 battle of the Mendicity Institution tells the often-overlooked tale of Seán Heuston and his men during their three-day stand on Usher’s Island, just up the Liffey quays from the train station which now bears his name.

For 30 years George Cunningham has overseen the biannual Roscrea Conference at Mount St Joseph Abbey. What has been described as a ‘carnival of learning’ has finally come to an end, and 60 at Roscrea commemorates that milestone and recalls some of the essence of the conference.

Caomhín De Barra, The coming of the Celts AD 1860: Celtic nationalism in Ireland and Wales (University of Notre Dame Press, $45 hb, 372pp, ISBN 9780268103378).

Jim Herlihy, The Irish Revenue Police: a short history and genealogical guide to the ‘poteen hussars’ (Four Courts Press, €24.95, 260pp, ISBN 9781846827020).

David McCullagh, De Valera, Vol. I: Rise (1882–1932) (Gill Books, €24.99 hb, 336pp, ISBN 9780717155866).

Denis G. Marnane and Mary Guinan Darmody, The 3rd Brigade: a history of the volunteers/IRA in South Tipperary, 1913–21 (Tipperary County Council Library Service, €30 pb, 450pp, ISBN 9780955369032).

Niamh Ann Kelly, Imaging the great Irish famine: representing dispossession in visual culture (I.B. Tauris, £72 hb, 256pp, ISBN 9781784537104).

Christine Kinealy, Jason King and Gerard Moran (eds), Children and the Great Hunger in Ireland (Quinnipiac University Press, €24.80 pb, 328pp, ISBN 9780990468691).

Daniel Renshaw, Socialism and the diasporic ‘other’: a comparative study of Irish Catholic and Jewish radical and communal politics in East London, 1889–1912 (Liverpool University Press, £85 hb, 296pp, ISBN 9781786941220).

Helen Kelly, Eamonn McHale and Jimmy Stephenson (illus. Jimmy Wren), Heuston’s fort: the 1916 battle of the Mendicity Institution (Odnem Publishing, €15 pb, 190pp, ISBN 9780995594500).

George Cunningham (ed.), 60 at Roscrea: celebrating the Roscrea Conference at Mount St Joseph Abbey 1987–2017 (Roscrea People, 184 pp, ISBN 9780955546969).


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