Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2022), Volume 30

By Joe Culley

One of the little pleasures of writing this column has been getting a chance to get my hands on each tranche of the Maynooth Studies in Local History series. These brief but sharply focused studies, often the by-product of a postgraduate thesis, regularly throw up little gems. The long-time editor of the series—and, it would seem, often the inspiration behind the contributions—has been Professor Raymond Gillespie, who recently retired from his post at the university. We offer the good doctor congratulations and best wishes for his future endeavours.

The good news is that the series’ publisher, Four Courts Press, already has a fresh tranche in the works. The books are limited-edition and regularly sell out in their locality, but they are generally available in the library system.

In the current batch under review, a number stand out, including Tom Hunt’s Peadar Cowan (1903–62): Westmeath GAA administrator and political maverick. The title actually sells its subject a bit short, for Cowan is a fascinating character, and I would argue that his GAA career is the least interesting thing about him. Born and reared in Cavan, Cowan was just old enough to be in the IRA by 1920 and spent thirteen months in prison in Belfast. He supported the Treaty and joined the nascent National Army. As an officer stationed in Athlone, still in his early twenties, he drifted into a senior administrative role with the GAA, and over the next decade transformed both the county’s structure and its on-field fortunes.

But here is where it gets interesting, for Cowan was a dedicated socialist and republican at a time when neither was popular or profitable. He retired from the army and became extremely active in far-left (at least for Ireland) politics, while also studying to become a solicitor. In the mid-1930s he found some sort of home in the Labour Party, but his politics were always more radical. (The Church, of course, called him a communist.) He ran unsuccessfully for office several times, and left the party in 1944 to establish the Vanguard. He was then a founding member of Clann na Poblachta and was elected to the Dáil, but managed to be expelled by the party within months. He again served as a TD, was declared bankrupt, served more time in prison and died in poverty. Hunt’s clear study demands a full-length Cowan biography.

Another character emerges in Michael V. Hanna’s Denis Brenan Bullen (1802–66), Inspector of Anatomy for the Province of Munster: the controversial career of a Cork surgeon. Or perhaps I should say two characters, for not only is Bullen interesting in his own right but also in Hanna’s study we are again reminded of what a condensed hotbed of intellectual, scientific and artistic life Cork was in the nineteenth century (including the Protestant ‘Friendly Club’). It is the tale of how Cork’s élite medical establishment evolved from the days of the ‘resurrection men’ through the Famine workhouses and on to more modern practices. And it doesn’t end well for Bullen, either.

Most of the students at TU Dublin in Grangegorman wouldn’t believe that, in the 1960s, just a few hundred yards away 5,000 cattle were penned up in an open market each week. Agricultural journalist Declan O’Brien focuses on oral history in his entertaining exploration of The Dublin Cattle Market’s decline, 1955–73. One of the most telling aspects of the story is how class played such a role. The market was run by ‘sales-masters’, or livestock agents, who operated stands in the market. They looked down on the farmers, and everyone looked down on the local Dublin drovers. What eventually killed the market was the emergence of the local rural mart, where farmers were guaranteed a fairer price, and the emergence of a food-processing industry.

Mayo is the location for the final two Maynooth issues. David Byrne was a Dublin teacher who died in 2019, but I’m sure his family are pleased to see his work The impact of the Great Famine on Sir William Palmer’s estates in Mayo, 1840–69 finally in print. Spoiler alert: Palmer was the archetype absentee landlord, and his tenants suffered only eviction and starvation. And retired food science lecturer Frank Mayes touches on more general themes in Rural tensions in nineteenth-century Knock, County Mayo.

Staying west of the Shannon, John Burke in Roscommon, his contribution to the Irish Revolution, 1912–23 series, makes the compelling argument that despite a decade of upheaval little had changed in the midlands. ‘Politically, the Roscommon of 1923 had much more in common with the Roscommon of 1912 than men such as [former IPP MP] J.P. Hayden would have liked to admit. Political parties and personalities had changed, but little had happened that could truly be described as revolutionary. Throughout those twelve years, the desire for change in Roscommon was repeatedly restrained by a conservative localism that prioritized one issue above all others: land.’

The county had, of course, provided one of the turning-points of the decade: the election of Count Plunkett as the first Sinn Féin MP in 1917. But it seems that the reverberations of that vote, however strongly they were felt elsewhere, left little mark on the structure of Roscommon society.

In recent months I have had reason to become quite familiar with the Spitalfields area of Dublin, so I was particularly interested in that chapter in the excellent Building healthy homes: Dublin Corporation’s first housing schemes 1880–1925 by urban geographer Joseph Brady and DCU geography professor Ruth McManus. Planning for the scheme was being debated right through 1916—Alderman Kelly offered some opposing, even threatening, views a fortnight before the Rising—and the initial building phase was completed by 1918. Although the handsome hardback has a somewhat academic appearance, the authors tell their story in clear and simple prose, which makes what could have been a difficult work highly accessible to the general reader.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the same recommendation can be made for Brady’s Dublin from 1970 to 1990: the city transformed, when the ‘suburban trend in housing, shopping and jobs made the problem of decline and decay in the city centre even more acute’. This eighth volume in the Making of Dublin City series is also well illustrated, with telling ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos and truly useful maps and charts.

Turtle Bunbury’s The Irish diaspora: tales of emigration, exile, and imperialism is published by Thames and Hudson in London and, particularly in this case, New York, which tells us about its target audience/market. Bunbury, of course, does this sort of thing quite well, and this is a nicely designed hardback. In some 40 entries the usual suspects can be found—St Brendan, James Hoban, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Bernardo O’Higgins and Violet Gibson—but Bunbury also stays current, with ruminations on the significant role played by the Irish in the slave trade and general British imperialism. And he introduced me to ‘Hercules Mulligan, Washington’s Spy’, whose story was recovered by Lin-Manuel Miranda for his musical Hamilton.

Tom Hunt, Peadar Cowan (1903–62): Westmeath GAA administrator and political maverick (Four Courts Press, €9.95 pb, 64pp, ISBN 9781846829703).

Michael V. Hanna, Denis Brenan Bullen (1802–66), Inspector of Anatomy for the Province of Munster: the controversial career of a Cork surgeon (Four Courts Press, €9.95 pb, 64pp, ISBN 9781846829697).

Declan O’Brien, The Dublin Cattle Market’s decline, 1955–73 (Four Courts Press, €9.95 pb, 64pp, ISBN 9781846829727).

David Byrne, The impact of the Great Famine on Sir William Palmer’s estates in Mayo, 1840–69 (Four Courts Press, €9.95 pb, 64pp, ISBN 9781846829734).

Frank Mayes, Rural tensions in nineteenth-century Knock, County Mayo (Four Courts Press, €9.95 pb, 64pp, ISBN 9781846829710).

John Burke, Roscommon: The Irish Revolution, 1912–23 (Four Courts Press, €22.45 pb, 224pp, ISBN 9781846828072).

Joseph Brady and Ruth McManus, Building healthy homes: Dublin Corporation’s first housing schemes 1880–1925 (Four Courts Press, €25 hb, 312pp, 9780950051260).

Joseph Brady, Dublin from 1970 to 1990: the city transformed (Four Courts Press, €35 pb, 464pp, ISBN 9781846829802).

Turtle Bunbury, The Irish diaspora: tales of emigration, exile, and imperialism (Thames and Hudson, £19.99 hb, 304pp, ISBN 9780500022528).


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