THE DARKNESS ECHOING: EXPLORING IRELAND’S PLACES OF FAMINE, DEATH AND REBELLION

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2021), Reviews, Volume 29

GILLIAN O’BRIEN
Doubleday
€16.99
ISBN 9781781620502

Reviewed by John Gibney

John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series.

Gillian O’Brien’s new book could be described as a travelogue of Ireland’s ‘dark tourism’—those sites associated with the titular famine, death and rebellion, explored here by the author with assorted family and friends in intermittent tow. While the blurb makes it sound like a slightly morbid version of McCarthy’s Bar, O’Brien has written an engaging and striking commentary on modern Irish history and heritage that anybody with an interest or a stake in either field should read.

The book organises itself thematically around various categories (sieges, rebellion and revolution, maritime disasters, famine, emigration, incarceration and, inevitably, death), each of which gets a chapter to itself, generally with a good deal of latitude: death, for instance, ranges in scope from Glasnevin Cemetery to the ‘bog bodies’ of the National Museum. Yet O’Brien explores more than the specific topics in the subtitle; The darkness echoing is a panoramic journey through both the Irish heritage industry and modern Irish history. The chapters unfold in an easy, discursive style; it is easy to forget while reading them that O’Brien is traversing the entire island, visiting a heroic number of locations, from high-profile sites such as Glasnevin Cemetery to hidden gems like the Michael Davitt Museum in Mayo.

The book is written in a very fluid and readable style, one that is personalised by anecdote and recollection to an unusual degree in a work by an Irish academic. This isn’t a bad thing and it warrants some consideration, for the style of The darkness echoing is worlds away from the traditional mode of academic historical writing in and about Ireland. O’Brien’s almost conversational prose enables her to impart a huge amount of information and detail without overwhelming her narrative, which is studded with various nuggets of detail—many of which relate, as she says herself, to stories arising from the sites she visits but which are not always related to those sites—and occasional moments of unexpected poignancy.

The central concern of the book is how history is presented to the wider public. O’Brien’s exploration of this is underpinned by her credentials as a scholar and as historical consultant to the development of Spike Island and the redevelopment of Kilmainham Gaol. At the core of the book is an engagement with heritage sites that are accessible to the public. The book’s stated focus on the macabre underplays the more general preoccupation with how the multitude of sites she visits present history to their audiences, and what happens to it along the way. She is alert to the issues that can be raised by this: the selection of particular stories or narratives to make matters intelligible, or the commercialisation of the past in occasionally crass ways (such as the Shelbourne Hotel’s 1916 whiskey tumbler, complete with embedded bullet). Then there are artefacts that speak to the past in other ways, such as the box of chocolates in Kilmainham Gaol given to IRA Volunteer Thomas Whelan by a friendly Black and Tan while he was imprisoned for his role in Bloody Sunday in 1921. Having assured his family that he would only open them if reprieved, he was executed in March 1921; the box remains unopened, a testament to ‘the callousness and humanity of conflict’.

People encounter the past in innumerable ways. While there is undoubtedly a place for specialised knowledge when exploring the past, heritage sites offer diverse ways of engaging the public, and perhaps one should not be too fussy about how they do so. If presenting visitors—or, as some might have it, ‘customers’—with a real or imagined figure who is supposed to encapsulate historical experience, as often seems to happen here, manages to engage their awareness and illuminate the past, then such are the tricks of the trade. But the medium, as O’Brien rightly knows, is not necessarily the message: a key criterion should be that any exposition of the past be done accurately. O’Brien does not pull her punches when it comes to distorted or incomplete versions of the past within the heritage sector: the slick experience of Titanic Belfast, for example, in which ‘sectarian employment practices’ in the shipyards ‘are entirely glossed over’. She also gives credit where it is due to initiatives such as the Kilkenny Famine Experience, in which a powerful and accurate audio tour through MacDonagh Junction shopping centre explores the workhouse that stood in the same location.

The darkness echoing is provocative without being polemical. O’Brien is unafraid to offer both laconic asides and trenchant critiques, but as she writes as both a practitioner of public history and an academic her book has a refreshingly open-minded tone that offers historical complexity without hectoring. She has tried to do something different and has succeeded admirably; in doing so she has written as significant a commentary on Irish history as any that has appeared in recent years. The darkness echoing is a hugely enjoyable, thought-provoking and informative work; for anyone involved in Irish history or heritage it is an essential read.

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