bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
For the centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising, a lot of new books on the subject are being published. One major set of new releases I saw pretty much all over Ireland when I was there was a series of biographies called 16 Lives, the lives in question being the sixteen leaders of the Easter Rising who were executed in its aftermath. I was tempted to buy all sixteen, but a) that would have been expensive and b) trying to get them all home on the plane would have been awful, especially considering how much other stuff I bought. So I settled for just getting the one on Padraic Pearse -- simply titled 16 Lives: Patrick Pearse, because for some reason they thought the English name was better -- by Ruan O'Donnell.
The book is both well sourced and written in a straightforward, accessible style, but I still bounced off it a bit more than I was expecting to, which was disappointing. I pretty much only have one gripe with the book, but it's a pretty significant one, in that it's "the structure of the entire book." I wanted more material on the development of Pearse's life and career before all the Rising stuff that has been so amply covered elsewhere. My favorite sections of the book were the first two chapters, one on "The Young Pearse" and one on "Republican Politics" that covered the establishment of his career, but after that it slowed down for me a lot -- there are three chapters on the planning and the events leading up to Easter Monday, then a chapter on Easter Week and a chapter on its aftermath, then it ends. The aftermath chapter is gruesomely interesting, but I definitely felt like the story that was being told had far too much middle and not enough setup.
That said, the picture of Pearse that develops in the book is fascinating and human -- committedly idealistic but with a strong pragmatic streak; progressive but devoutly Catholic; a future-oriented man with a strong (if hilariously romanticized) sense of Ireland's history. Buried under the shmaltzy Edwardian dramatics of his writing, there even lurks an occasional sense of humor. He also managed the trick of being highly accomplished in a number of different fields, all of which manage to come together into seeming like one big project. He must have been a very, very interesting person to actually meet.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Soooo the most recent book I read is probably more properly a pamphlet, but it has an ISBN so it's a book for my book-counting purposes, especially since I am running behind. This is not cheating.
The book is called Dublin After the Six Days' Insurrection and it was originally published in 1916. It is a collection of photos taken in and around central Dublin by a chap called T.W. Murphy, who was apparently a fairly in-demand newspaper photographer back in the day (and whose nickname/pen name/something was apparently "The O'Tatur"? I don't know, but it's on the front cover). The photos are in black and white, but are pretty crisp for photos of that era.
The photo selection seems to be organized by least bombed-out buildings to most bombed-out buildings, and then a chunk of photos of people at the back. While I am sure this was not the point when the book was first put together, it has the effect of aiding any modern reader who has been to Dublin, by situating them among the still-existing buildings before introducing the areas that have since been rebuilt.
The booklet also contains a mostly-illegible handwritten note in the inside front cover, which serves as a useful reminder that people in history were, in fact, at least as bad at doing most things as people are now.
While the booklet's price has been the victim of severe inflation over the past century, costing five euro ninety-five instead of its initial price of sevenpence, it was still a good, cheap souvenir for being in Dublin during the centenary commemorations and is a very worthwhile set of pictures to have on hand for anyone interested in the Rising.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Last summer I began studying Irish, and when I went looking for study materials in addition to what was given to us in class, I bought a tiny little pocket dictionary and phrasebook titled simply Irish Dictionary and Phrasebook. The book is about the size of a large index card, and the dictionary portion and the phrasebook portion are each about 70 pages. (The dictionary includes both an Irish-English and English-Irish section, so it is functionally more like two 35-page dictionaries.) I would read this a few pages at a time when I arrived to class early, just to learn and reinforce my basic vocabulary and practice pronouncing things. Because of its brevity, it is not entirely useful for looking up words when reading very often, but it still provides a decent chunk of solid 101-level information in a familiar and easy-to-understand format.
I could quibble a bit with the pronunciation guides provided, but quite frankly, since sounds in Irish are often different sounds entirely from the sounds in English, I can't really be mad that they didn't use the same written approximations that I tend to. I'm also finding that as I try to be more accurate in my pronunciation notes for myself, I am finding it increasingly difficult to figure out how to write down what sounds I should be making. And if I want to write the broad "dh" sound as "rh" because it sounds like a French "r" to me, that doesn't mean the dictionary is wrong for not catering specifically to people who know French sounds.
I think it's a bit cute that the phrasebook adheres so closely to the usual travel phrasebook standards, with phrases for how to book a hotel room and go through customs and all that, when everywhere you go in Ireland you can do basic travel stuff in English. But that's not really the point, is it?
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
For my vacation reading while I was in Ireland, I wanted to stay with the Irish theme (since I was in Ireland) but perhaps deviate slightly from the history books (since I would be going to a million museums, and also I was running short on Irish history books), so I instead packed — among other volumes — the copy of Nuala O'Faolain's My Dream of You that I rescued from my aunt's Irish lit collection over the summer. It turned out to be a perfect choice for reading on the plane, and sometimes in the car while driving around the picturesque sheep pastures of Western Ireland, and at breakfast in cute little B&Bs while eating porridge with honey and cream, and (possibly best of all) in the lounge at the Hotel Aisling in Dublin on a sunny Good Friday afternoon while drinking tea. It's not an especially long book — by my standards at least, clocking in at 544 pages — but most of these reading sessions were fairly short, as we had a pretty busy vacation schedule.

My Dream of You is not the sort of book I tend to read too much of, in that it's a contemporary realism/litfic piece that's mostly about middle-aged people and sex, but if I'm going to read a depressing litfic book about middle-aged people and sex, I think this was a good pick for me in that it also has a lot of stuff about writing and history and travel and feminism (sort of) and being perpetually single, all of which actually are relevant to my everyday interests. And barring some unexpected tragedy, I will be middle-aged someday (I hope!).

Our narrator and protagonist is Kathleen de Burca, a 49-year-old Irishwoman living in London where she has a successful career as a travel writer for a small company that is part of a larger company. When she is not traveling to glamorous locations for work, she lives alone in a basement apartment in London. Kathleen has been single since she broke up with her J-school boyfriend almost thirty years ago, but has a dedicated habit of having unfulfilling sexual encounters with every boring-ass traveling businessman or married douchebag who makes a pass at her in the course of her travels. O'Faolain's writing is engaging enough that I actually felt sympathy for Kathleen's transparently useless quest to find human connection via hooking up with randos in suits, instead of doing what I'd normally do, which is stick my nose into the air and harrumph that a fully independent, nomadic lifestyle is CLEARLY WASTED ON SOME PEOPLE. Part of this is because Kathleen's character is well-developed enough to make it clear that this lifestyle isn't actually totally wasted on Kathleen; she actually very much values her independence, especially having been raised in the stagnation and conservatism of mid-century Ireland by an authoritarian father and a chronically depressed mother. The tension between her desire to love and be loved and her desire to stay way the hell far away from the trap that was Irish domestic life when she was growing up provides a lot of the internal conflict for the book.

When Kathleen's colleague and best friend dies unexpectedly, it precipitates a midlife crisis. For Kathleen, a midlife crisis looks like retiring early and returning to the Irish countryside to do research on an 1840s divorce case that she'd been interested in since J-school, known as "the Talbot affair," in which the young wife of an Anglo-Irish landlord was accused of adultery with a groom. While she is here, she has a brief affair with a married Irish man who also lives in England, named Shay (short for Seamus), and does a lot of musing over her life — both her unhappy childhood in Ireland and the various dramas she's gotten into in England and around the world — and visits what family she has remaining in Ireland (a brother, a sister-in-law, and a niece). But the most fun bits are her interactions with the people of Ballygall (the little town she's doing research in) and the historical stuff she finds and the general low-grade absurdity of her time in the country. The hotel she checks into, the Talbot Arms, is a family-owned affair, and Kathleen quickly befriends the little clan that runs it. They keep putting her up into other accommodations for the weekend due to hosting various larger events: in a little thatched cottage during a teacher's convention, and in a very modern lakeside house belonging to some guy named Felix for a wedding. Kathleen meets Nan Leech, the ferociously judgmental and ancient local librarian, and interviews a couple other elderly locals about what they remember being told about the Talbot affair by their own elders. She pokes around the library and the old grounds of the estate, and writes a draft of what appears to be a historical romance novella about the case, the chapters of which are included within the book as she writes them. (The novella, in my opinion, is pretty good.)

Some people might find the ending of the book not particularly satisfying, since it's a bit anticlimactic from what I think a traditional sort of ending would be, but I liked it. So much of the book is dedicated to Kathleen's mental rehashing of her terrible decision-making throughout her life, and I think she makes a non-terrible decision at the end, so I think it represents her growing up more (there is still growing up to do at fifty) and moving into the next phase of her life where hopefully she will continue to make better decisions.

There are a lot of things in this book that I feel like I ordinarily would complain about, but in this case I think all work for the O'Faolain is telling (see above re: Kathleen's terrible decision-making skills). However, there are two main complaints I actually have. One is that the printing that I have has a big chunk of pages missing and replaced with a duplicate of the next chunk of pages instead — so the book goes from pages 1 to 277, then page 300-something to 330-something, then page 300-something again to the end. Obviously this is not the author's fault, as I am entirely certain she did not write it this way. My other complaint is that the novel eschews the use of quotation marks (although, interestingly, Kathleen does not in the excerpts from her novella). I'm decently used to reading things without quotation marks — French writing conventions universally use the em-dash to introduce dialogue, and My Dream of You is hardly the only English novel to forgo traditional quotation marks — but I still think it's unnecessary and a bit pretentious.

I probably won't dip back into the world of depressing realistic fiction for another several months since I do have an extremely limited tolerance for reading about people who aren't enjoying their sex lives but keep goddamn having sex anyway (JUST GO DO SOMETHING ELSE WITH YOUR TIME, THE WORLD IS LARGE AND FULL OF INTERESTING THINGS), but if all Irish women's fiction comes with such a big dose of tragic history stuff — which I suspect it might — then when I do, that's probably where I'll go. Alternately, I might read O'Faolain's memoir, a copy of which I also stole from my auntie.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In preparation for my imminent trip to Ireland for the centenary of the Easter Rising, I finally picked up a freakin' book about the Easter Rising. Tim Pat Coogan's simply titled 1916: The Easter Rising promised an accessible and decently comprehensive overview of this critical event in Irish history. What I didn't immediately realize was that it was so accessible and overview-y because it is actually a coffee table book, but whatever. I've learned quite a lot of Irish history from coffee table books in my day. And this one was certainly more recent than the last Irish coffee table book I read, Jill and Leon Uris' Ireland:  A Terrible Beauty, which was published in 1978. Coogan's book was published in 2001, which is still 15 years ago, although it doesn't seem dated until we get to the epilogue, which talks about the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

I think the book has a good balance for the sort of history book that covers one major event: the first quarter or so is runup to the conflict, providing the "backstory" to the main action and situating it within Irish history generally and the context of its time period more specifically. The middle 50% or so of the book goes into the events of Easter Weekend in enough detail to be compelling, with a lot of pictures and primary documents from the period, eyewitness accounts, excerpts from letters and legal testimonies, etc. The last quarter or so of the book deals with the aftermath, including the infamous executions, and the way in which public opinion turned against the British government and led to the war for independence.

One thing this book does not do is pretend to be neutral in viewpoint. While the editorializing is limited and confined largely to the beginning and end of the book, and while I have no particular reason to doubt Coogan's scholarship, Coogan is clearly 100% on the side of the various factions of Irish nationalists, and has some pretty harsh words for the Orangemen. The parallels between the political rhetoric and behaviors of the Orangemen in the 1910s and the current American Tea Party movement are pretty striking, especially considering the large Scottish and northern English constituencies in both demographics. Apparently, clannishness and the "banding" notion of loyalty are all well and good, but when they combine with settler paranoia in British or formerly British colonies, it morphs into a mind-bendingly Orwellian strain of anti-native, self-absorbed viciousness in which treason is loyalty, authoritarianism is freedom, violent revolution is required to maintain the status quo, and governments listening to their subjects is an abdication of leadership. (Basically, listening to any of those OTHER people who live here besides US is perceived as an act of betrayal. Fuck you, Tea Partiers and Orangemen. You want to be the only people in a country, move to the fucking moon.) (Also, sadly, in the US, the Irish contributed largely to the same sorts of cultural douchebaggery, even though they were the victims of it at home.) Anyway.

I only had one real complaint about the book: the copy editing. More specifically, the commas, although there were a handful of straight-up typos that had apparently been missed during the editing process. But the ways this book uses commas were obsolete by 1916, let alone by 2001. Parenthetical clauses would be set off by commas on only one side. Commas were inserted between subject and verb. The book might as well have been copy edited by the ghost of Charles Dickens. This was enormously distracting to me as a copy editor.

Considering my previous knowledge of the 1916 rising had come in bits and pieces through family, cultural osmosis, mini-lessons from various Irish cultural groups, etc., I'm glad I read this book--it gave me a good deal of new information and helped me organize the information I already did have much better. I do think I would like to track down a lengthier, more scholarly, less coffee-table-ish book on the subject someday soon, though. I'm sure I'll find a bunch of books to buy when I get to Ireland next week...
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Occasionally, I pick up books in odd places.

It's not necessarily odd that I got a book from my Dad--he's not a huge reader (we think he's dyslexic) but he does read--but it's a bit odd that I got this book from my dad, since he rarely reads fiction. In fact, the last time my Dad really bothered to read fiction, he tells me, is when he was working in London shortly before I was born, and for a while had to work the graveyard shift so he could be on the same time frame as his colleagues on the U.S. eastern seaboard. This is how, when Dad was cleaning his house out last year, I ended up with his rather yellowed mass market paperbacks of Walter Macken's historical fiction trilogy about "the dark periods in Irish history," which isn't very specific if you know much about Irish history. The three dark periods covered in the trilogy are the Cromwellian conquest, the Famine, and the War of Independence/Civil War (in Irish history, those two wars happened right on top of each other). One famous dark period not represented in this trilogy is the Troubles, because these books are older than I am, and the Troubles were still going on around the time my Dad was working in the U.K., at least according to the stories he tells of being Randomly Selected for extra scrutiny every time he got on a plane out of there, being a young 6'4'' ginger man with a name like "Fitzgerald." (I think being Randomly Selected back then was not as invasive as getting Randomly Selected is now though.)

Anyway, I digress. So far I've only read the first book in the trilogy, the Cromwellian one, titled Seek the Fair Land, a reference to the main characters' quest to flee the ever-encroaching Puritan English and eke out a more-or-less independent existence in the mountains of Connacht.

Our protagonist is Dominick McMahon, a merchant in the city of Drogheda, a bit north of Dublin. (If I recall correctly, he was originally from Ulster and displaced sometime during the Plantation or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Dominick really can't catch a break.) When Drogheda is razed and his wife dies in the attack, Dominick takes his daughter Mary Anne, his son Peter--now mute as the result of a head injury sustained in the invasion--and the kindly priest Sebastian and flees west, on the advice of a big Gaelic warrior named Murdoc who he'd saved and befriended in another invasion of Drogheda a few years earlier, when the Gaelic Irish took the city from an earlier wave of English.

The book takes place over several years, during which a specific antagonist appears: Coote, who is made Governor of Galway City. Coote is fanatically supportive of Cromwell's goals of either converting or exterminating the Irish, using a combination of political promises, economic pressure, and sheer brutality to subdue all resistance from a people he sees as being heathens and therefore basically not human. His job is to be Cromwell's arm in Galway, and his characterization is basically that he is, indeed, Cromwell's arm in Connacht, which is more characterization than you'd expect. The Cromwellian invasion was pretty fucked up. Coote was a real person who eventually died of smallpox in Dublin, but this version of him is better because Murdoc stabs him in Galway City, which is quite satisfying for the reader, after spending 200 pages reading about people being starved and tortured and hanged and imprisoned and sold to the sugar plantations in Barbados (something like 40% of the Irish population was killed or displaced during the Eleven Years' War, so there was quite an ugly variety of things that could happen to them).

Murdoc and Sebastian essentially represent two different and often conflicting ideals of native Irish manhood, with Murdoc being the paganistic, man-of-the-land brehon warrior sort and Sebastian embodying the importance of Catholic identity as a basis for Irish identity. Dominick spends much of his emotional and mental energy navigating between the two and their equally strong, if often opposing, convictions, wrestling with despair, self-doubt, self-interest, compassion, hatred, and all the other emotions that those of us whose sense of self is somehow damaged or underdeveloped have to deal with. (Most of his physical energy, obviously, goes into fighting, hiding, tracking, hunting, digging graves, and rescuing people).

This book was written in the mid-twentieth century and bears some of the stylistic flaws of genre fiction in the time before word processors, namely, clunky sentences that really could have used a few more rounds of line editing; relatively flat female characters with limited roles who could have used a few more rounds of beta-reading by a female beta reader; and an annoying affinity for using the word "rape" when discussing ravages of towns, cities, the land, and other things that are places rather than people.

As far as my limited research will allow, the historical aspects of this book seem pretty accurate, at least in terms of places and dates and people and things that happened in the war. Culturally, I dunno! One thing that I noticed that I am now really intrigued about is that this book still portrays a fairly sharp distinction between Gaelic Irish (Os and Macs) and the Anglo-Normal families as late as 1650, whereas I had thought they had pretty well assimilated by then ("more Irish than the Irish themselves and all that.) But it turns out that may have been exaggerated later for nationalism reasons (although as a Fitz I want to be like NO DEFINITELY THEY'RE IRISH!) (Note: Wikipedia calls the Fitzgeralds a "notable Hiberno-Norman family" and lists Hiberno-Normans as distinct from both Normans and Gaelic Irish) and it was really the Protestant suppression the beginning of which this book chronicles that led to the "Old English" becoming considered actually regular Irish people.

Um, anyway. If you like lots of history nerdery and you want some Game of Thrones-level violent fuckery but only 200 pages of it instead of 2 million, you could do worse than following Dominick on his starving-in-the-mountains adventures.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
For some Halloween-y reading, I decided to read a book that I'd picked up over the summer in Maine: True Irish Ghost Stories, by St. John D. Seymour and Harry L. Neligan. It is now, as you can see, nearly December. This is because of NaNoWriMo. The most embarassing thing here is that True Irish Ghost Stories is barely a hundred pages long.

A thing I did not realize at first is that this book is a reprint of a work that was originally published shortly after the turn of last century, when Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom. Once you start reading it, it's wildly obvious, because it's written in such an earnestly Edwardian manner. The book is a collection of short anecdotes, organized into categories, interspersed with a lot of arguments about why they are credible and that the fashionable skepticism about their validity is arrogance, arrogance I tell you. The two men who compiled this were obviously smart and well-educated men, who are actually quite vocal in their defense of the Irish populace from charges of "superstition" (a popular anti-Catholic stereotype), but who are entirely convinced that it makes prudent scientific sense to believe in "psychical phenomena" and stuff. It's really kind of adorable. The stories themselves are sometimes sort of short and weird--like "there was a Mrs. S and she lived in this house and saw a figure, and then her sister came to visit and she saw it too" and nothing else really happens--but some of them are quite imaginative and interesting, particularly the ones that are less generically haunted-housey and get into banshees and the like. The banshee stories are particularly awesome. Most of these stories aren't that scary, although there are one or two that feature images that managed to get weirdly under my skin anyway, but that may be because I am a highly suggestible wimp (a bad trait for a Goth, but oh well).

I'd really only recommend this to people who are particularly interested in weird folklore; the lack of a narrative thread and the pseudo-scientific tangents would probably make it a bit of a dry read for people who prefer reading regularly-structured books.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In my quest to read all of the weirdo coffee table books on Ireland that are older than I am that my family owns—this is an entire collection, by the way—I rescued a copy of Ireland: Past and Present from my mother’s To Be Thrown Away After The Realtor Is Done Using It To Stage The House pile. Edited by Brendan Kennelly, a professor of something at Trinity College, Dublin, and containing essays by him and by other professors of various things at Trinity College, this book gives an interesting peek into Ireland as it was in 1986, including the lamentable state of its typesetting technology. Seriously, the uneven bolding and spacing gave me a headache.

As it is a coffee table book, the bulk of the volume is given over to beautiful, picturesque, full-color spreads in a slightly eighties degree of fuzziness but which are nonetheless quite green and lovely. Ireland seems to be a country well-suited for making coffee table books about, because while the history itself is completely fucked up, the landscapes are breathtaking and the ancient art is gorgeous. (The obligatory section on sport is somewhat less picturesque, consisting mostly of action shots of red-faced men in awkward shorts, but it’s definitely amusing.)

One major theme in both Irish literature and Irish coffee table books that I have noticed is that any Irishman or Irishwoman intelligent enough to write a book has Opinions about the failings of the Church and the government and the stupidities of his fellow countrymen, and they all seem to be basically the same opinions. Like, 95% of twentieth century Ireland is either blowing people up in Derry and Belfast or being prudishly Catholic, and the other 5% is writing about how terrible it all is. If anyone since Eamon de Valera has written anything about how no, the political and social order is JUST FINE, THANKS, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of it. (Needless to say, inasmuch as I get to have opinions on what Ireland was doing when I was fetus, I’m on Team Writers here.) Brendan Kennelly’s article on “the closed mind” is actually quite moving, both cutting and optimistic at the same time, laying out a portrait of a proud, wounded, and contradictory people trying to develop and maintain a national identity in an increasingly globalizing world. There’s also some great commentary on the tension between the idealized Irish Mother and Ireland’s actual tradition of turning out strong-willed, intellectually badass ladies.

Different sections of the book move seamlessly between well-researched historical and sociological commentary and the personal narratives of the authors, giving a pretty decent overview of the shifts and contradictions of Irish life over the centuries.  It definitely leaves the reader wanting to do further research into a lot of these subjects, or at least it does if the reader is me. ::makes mental note to track down good versions of all the Irish myth cycles:: ::and to pick up an annotated Yeats one of these days:: ::and to go to Ireland::

No joke, my biggest complaint about this book really is the typesetting. And that’s not even because the rest of the book is so good, even though it’s pretty good, it’s because the typesetting is just that awful.  Partly it’s super eighties looking and partly it’s just poorly formatted. Like, I was compelled to go and Google the publisher to see if they’re still around—they are—and if they look like they’ve gotten their shit together at all in the past 28 years—which it looks like they may have. (Actually, I’m looking through their website and now I kinda want to check out their book about Tom Gilmartin.)

Anyway, I guess this book is going back in my stash until I am enough of a real grown-up to have a coffee table to put it on.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
John Kelly’s The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People first came to my attention when my father sent me a New York Times article about Paul Ryan, Paul Ryan’s Irish Amnesia. I got all excited when I saw that it was the same author as The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (of all time!), which I read back in college and which was absolutely fascinating. And then one day, there it was, staring up at me from the bargain nonfiction table at Brookline Booksmith which I should probably never be allowed to walk past again, all in hardcover with nice thick ivory pages and a lovely engraving of starving people in rags picking moss off the rocks on a beach.

The Graves Are Walking is just as fascinating as The Great Mortality, and it is notably more political. This is unsurprising, as the Great Hunger has always been highly political event—doubly so in the minds of the Irish and their descendants, and I will eat my copy of the book if a dude named “John Kelly” isn’t at least partly Irish.  (The British at the time considered the famine to have been sent by Providence, but the Irish have always been quite steadfast in maintaining that Providence only sent the potato blight; the famine was England’s fault.) While Kelly gives credit where credit is due, debunking various conspiracy theories that inevitably cropped up in the wake of mass devastation and taking note of the strengths and weaknesses of all the involved historical notables, he also has no qualms about straight-up judging various policies and policy ideas as good, or bad, or ridiculous, or disastrous, or downright insane. It’s fairly hard to argue with his conclusions, though, if you have any belief that mass death is indeed bad and that government has any responsibility to try to rein it in.

The book, it must be noted, doesn’t cover the whole famine, which is generally considered to have lasted for about eight years, from 1845 through 1852. Instead, it gives a very thorough and detailed account on a wide range of topics up through “Black 47”— the worst year of the famine, 1847 (and also the name of a New York Irish rock band, because of course) (please note that I have no idea if they’re actually any good or not so if anyone wants to check them out and report back, that’d be great). This gets us through most of the story about policy formulation, which is the heart of the book. By 1848, the British basically had their new Poor Laws in place and just stuck to their policies regardless of what was happening for the next several years, so we really only get a cursory look at that time period.

We get some history of Ireland before the famine, which is pretty essential to understanding why Ireland was so incredibly fucked up that a crop failure that occurred worldwide would turn into the largest loss of life in the 19th century in just the one country. At the time, everyone had their own ideas about why Ireland was such an ungovernable mess, some of which boiled down to simple racism and ass-covering—there was a popular idea in England that the “Celtic temperament” meant that the Irish were “incapable of self-government,” which I guess was a justification when it came to Britain owning Ireland but a complaint when running it turned out to be work—but a surprising amount of which all converged on one opinion, a theme which pervades the whole book, which is that the Irish landholding system was fucked and its landlords were fuckers. There are politer ways to say that, but I’m not sure any of them can concisely describe quite how nonsensical this system was nor how maliciously and willfully useless and whiny the entire landowning class was. They don’t do a single thing in the whole book that doesn’t manage to piss off everybody. The landowners were mostly members of the “Protestant Ascendancy,” ethnically English Anglicans who had been awarded land in Ireland when the Penal Laws in the centuries earlier destroyed the native Catholic gentry by barring Catholics from owning land, living in incorporated towns, etc. The Penal Laws had since been repealed, but not until a small class of now “Anglo-Irish” Protestants had taken over everything the Catholics had been dispossessed of and were firmly ensconced as the top rung of society. Most of the aristocratic landowners resided more or less permanently in England and subcontracted the actual running of their farms to a rapacious class of middlemen, and their goal was basically to get as much money out of their estates as possible so they could continue to afford to live in London or wherever year-round and never have to actually go home. While the British had installed these people into power, after a century or two, their unending reluctance to actually administrate their land or do right by their tenants in any way was earning them the ire of those elements of British political society who wanted Ireland to be a functioning and well-run part of the Union. The Anglo-Irish seem to be considered English—or at least, a tool of British oppression—by the Catholic/Gaelic Irish, and Irish by the frustrated English. By the summer of 1847, even the Canadians hated them!

In addition to history, we get some really quite interesting science and medical reporting—the author is actually a medical journalist by trade—about the potato blight, the effects of starvation, the various pestilences that began to ravage the island in 1846, when the weakened immune systems of a malnourished population met a spate of terrible weather and a stupid and cruel public works system that had people outside, building and breaking up (ugly, useless, badly planned, and leading-to-nowhere) roads, in all conditions. Seriously, don’t read this book unless you’ve got a strong stomach, because you’re going to learn all about typhus, relapsing fever, scurvy, dysentery, and starvation. We also get a lot of human-interest anecdote type pieces—the stories of individual peasants, officials, landlords, doctors, policemen, people from all walks of life who either recorded what they saw or whose stories were recorded by others. From the farmer in Skibbereen whose wife’s head was dug up out of her grave by a starving dog, to the peasant John Costello, whose cabin was torn down without warning on the orders of a landlord he hadn’t even seen in nine years, we see the devastation of the famine through the eyes of the souls that lived it—or, in many cases, that didn’t live through it. These anecdotes are well spaced, seamlessly woven around discussions of bills, laws, finances, food aid, political theorizing, and demographic statistics, so the academic stuff is never presented too far from the people it affected. It gives the whole book a moving narrative quality that I really appreciate.
About halfway through the book, we leave Ireland, following the path of the famine emigrants as they fled Ireland in droves, often penniless and half-dressed, packed onto tight, unseaworthy “coffin ships” that exacerbated all the health problems that had broken out in the population as a result of starvation, bad weather, and social instability. Illiterate, many of them Irish speakers with little or no English, often lacking in any sort of marketable skills due to the extreme poverty and low standard of living in Ireland even before the famine—we’re talking about people who couldn’t scrub a floor because they’d never seen a non-dirt floor before—the famine Irish overwhelmed the immigration infrastructure in Liverpool, in Quebec, in New York, everywhere they went, bringing with them the squalor, disease, and social upheaval they’d been fleeing from just as much as the starvation. (This is the bit where the gentle Canadians hated the Anglo-Irish landlords—many landlords, while unwilling to provide employment for their tenants, were willing to front the cost of a ticket to Canada in order to clear out their “excess” tenants and turn their land into large commercial farms. With droves of dispossessed former tenants showing up on their shores and causing a typhus outbreak all along the St. Lawrence river, the Quebecois, doubly unhappy between sympathy for the peasants that had been tossed away like garbage and fear of the actual effects of huge numbers of fever-ridden people turning up and dying on their shores, excoriated the Irish landed classes in the press in a way that I’ve never seen Canadians excoriate anybody.) We learn how the Irish were received abroad—not well—and their bumpy journey towards establishing themselves, particularly the development of the Irish-American community in major U.S. cities.

The real center of the book, however, is the bumbling-arse efforts at relief and emergency control put forth by the English and Irish political classes, and particularly the ways in which ideological commitment to various political fashions—free-marketeering, Moralism, Malthusianism, etc.—got in the way of the relief effort’s ability to be either compassionate or effective. Sir Charles Trevelyan doesn’t come off here as quite the callous genocidal monster he’s generally portrayed as in the Irish folk memory, but he’s certainly an asshole, and his condescension, lack of sensitivity, arrogance, and commitment to Moralist beliefs meant that even his most genuine good-faith efforts to mitigate the crisis frequently come off as almost willfully misguided. A number of the British political elites, mindful of the political truism that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, tried to use the crisis generated by the crop failure as a mechanism to modernize the Irish economy—ending the barter economy and potato dependence, and getting the Irish peasants onto a cash wage so they could purchase their food instead of growing it—and to teach the Irish peasantry good work habits, personal responsibility, end their “dependence on government,” all that sort of thing. As someone whose Baby’s First Irish History narratives and general family milieu growing up were all informed by the opinion that the British government was never a legitimate government in Ireland and was always a foreign occupation, every mention of Irish “dependence on government” reads like abuser logic to me—pissing and moaning that the victim isn’t doing stuff that you’re actively preventing them from doing, acting like they’re stupid that they’re making it sooo hard for you to control them—it was actually quite difficult for me to put myself into the minds of the British statesmen who honestly and legitimately believed that the “Union” was actually one Kingdom and the Kingdom should be administrated in a nice efficient freedom-maximizing way. I kept thinking “If you want to see how they self-govern you could maybe give them their country back…” although subsequent Irish history has shown that it might actually be true that the Irish are politically skilled at everything except running a country. Anyway, between ideological rigidity, some really stupid administrative clerking mistakes (REALLY stupid, not minor mistakes, stuff you should have multiple people look at and sign off on), various incompetent people overselling their experiences and getting stuck in jobs way too big for them, Nature herself seeming quite determined to make the job as hard as possible, and the stone-cold recalcitrant stupidity and whining of the large landowners, the crop failure was practically guaranteed to turn into a full famine.

A lot of this had to do with “Indian corn,” or what we in the U.S. just call corn (in England, “corn” refers to all cereal grains, apparently). I’d heard before that corn was part of the issue because Ireland had little experience with it, and I assumed it meant the populace didn’t know how to cook it. This could certainly be a problem, since improperly prepared corn can cause digestive issues. This turned out to not be correct—any idiot can boil up cornmeal and water into an unappetizing but more or less edible mush, once you have properly ground cornmeal. No, the issue here was the merchants and government officials who ordered whole kernel dried corn from the U.S. and didn’t have the knowledge or infrastructure to mill it, since corn has to be ground differently than wheat or barley. Yet the government continued to rely on corn in a deliberate attempt to have corn replace potatoes as the staple food of the Irish, planning that it would stay this way even when the famine was over. One of the reasons they did this was due to a weird Victorian belief that cereal grains were “higher” foods than potatoes, that they had more nutritional content (corn, at any rate, doesn’t), and that they “encouraged thrift” and other weird shit that food doesn’t do. The other reason is that you can’t grow corn in Ireland, so it would have to be purchased, thus forcing the Irish to work for cash wages so they could buy it. It takes some serious ideological commitment to look at the situation of the Irish peasant in the mid-1800s and determine that the issue was that they didn’t have enough middlemen in their lives getting between themselves and their ability to acquire life basics, and what they really needed was a whole supply chain inserted between themselves and their food. It takes double ideological blinders to do this while simultaneously complaining that the Irish weren’t self-sufficient enough.

Overall, this book is an amazing work of nonfiction, and I recommend it to… well, people who like Game of Thrones, really. It’s got similar levels of squalor and violence and horror, the cast of characters is about as big, and there are ample opportunities for getting really hopped up on hating on people saying and doing stupid things and a couple of satisfying moments where other people call them out on it (“The landlords in England would not like to be shot like hares and partridges … [but] neither does any landlord in England turn out 50 people at once and burn their houses over their heads” –Lord John Russell, regarding several murders of landlords). It’s quite difficult to write a truly boring book on Irish history, because it’s been so weird for so long, but The Graves Are Walking looks at one of the most messed-up times in a long messed-up history and really pulls no punches.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I picked up Jill and Leon Uris’ Ireland: A Terrible Beauty with the intention of giving it a quick skim; the book is part of my dad’s motley collection of old Irish stuff that he’s decorated the “camp” in Maine with. Much of this stuff is at least as old as I am; it includes a collection of VHS tapes about Irish emigration, and a lot of signs and wall hangings that I recall as fixtures in the basement of our first house, the one in which I shared a room with my little brother.

Ireland: A Terrible Beauty was published in 1979, right in the middle of the “Troubles,” after Bloody Sunday but before Bobby Sands’ hunger strike. The book is largely, though not entirely, a photo book, almost as big as a coffee-table book. The photos are gorgeous, some in color and some in black and white, taken all around Ireland during the seventies. There are breathtaking landscapes and shots of Ireland’s numerous ancient ruins and old castles; there are also pictures of and interviews with locals of various areas of the country.

The text, bless it, does not pull any punches. The Uris’ have OPINIONS about how shit was being run in Ireland and they are going to tell you about them. While the Uris’ aren’t Irish, they really did seem  to fall deeply in love with the country and its people, and most of their strongest opinions are disdain and ire for those parties that they deem to have been oppressing the Irish people and subverting their ability to prosper—the historical British government, the authoritarian, sex-phobic  Catholic Hierarchy, and the Protestant Ulstermen. Their descriptions of the “Orangemen” or “Orange Order,” as is the common name for Ulster Unionists, sound very like some analyses of the Tea Party that I’ve seen around on progressive sites. Most of their judgments seem to square pretty well with what I already did know of Irish history (the Church giveth and the Church taketh away…), so I am inclined to give them credit for putting their biases out in the open and to figure that they are a trustworthy enough source on factual matters.

The first half of the book is about the Republic of Ireland, and it’s alternately sweet and sad, full of lovely lovely pictures and detailing Ireland’s weirdly mixed history of glory and oppression, of poets and warriors, of art and of famine. The second half of the book is about Ulster, and features a lot of pictures of graffiti-covered ghettos patrolled by military and paramilitary men with big guns. There are some sections about awesome historical things and the beautiful geography in Northern Ireland as well, but most of it focuses on the Troubles, both the history leading up to them and the situation as it was when the book was written. My favorite bit is a short interview with a very young pIRA leader named Martin McGuinness, talking about him living on the run and his hope to one day have a steady job. Martin McGuiness is now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

While it’s obviously not the most current source of information on Ireland and her many woes, it’s still very informative, both as a solid introduction to the geography and older history of the island and as a snapshot of the island in the mid-seventies. I’m very glad I read it.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
This Father’s Day weekend, I gave my Dad a book, and he gave me a bag of books. This seems a bit backwards to be but I am not complaining.

One of the books was a little old pocket-sized book of quotations about Irish stuff, straightforwardly named The Irish Quotation Book: A Literary Companion, edited by Mainchín Seoighe. It is a very delightful little book, with an array of quotations about Ireland and the Irish throughout history. Many of the quotations are by very famous Irish writers like Oscar Wilde and W. B. Yeats, others are by less-famous Irish writers; some are by non-Irish writers who traveled into Ireland and wrote about it (Anthony Trollope says “The Irish people did not murder me, nor did they break my head”). They are arranged sort of by theme, although there are no section headings or chapters. Usually this is fine, with history gently progressing and thoughts meandering tangentially from subject to subject, but there is one section where there’s a quote about how all true Irish love horses and then the next quote is about families shutting themselves up in their tiny destitute cottages so no one could see them die during the Famine. It was a very jarring transition.

The overall picture that this paints is that Ireland is a beautiful green land filled with cows and history, and its people are friendly, witty in a rather silly way, Catholic, prone to extreme moods, and frequently very miserable due to everything in the country being run shitty from about 1600 onwards. They also write a lot of poetry. All of this is more or less consistent with the picture I had of Ireland and the Irish previously, although I learned some amazing new jokes.

Like a lot of “literary companions” and quotation collections, the thing I got most out of this book was a long list of longer works that I now want to check out. I’ve realized my Irish history is actually embarrassingly spotty, mostly half-understood stuff picked up sort of through osmosis and generalized nostalgia from growing up in an Irish-American family.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Nonfiction reading for March was Granuaile: Ireland’s Pirate Queen by Anne Chambers, a biography of Grace O’Malley aka Granuaile aka fifty million variant spellings. Going into this I mostly knew that Grace O’Malley was a sixteenth century Irish pirate queen who had met with Queen Elizabeth and is supposedly buried on Clare Island, which I take as a message from the universe that I need to go visit at some point.

This is a slim book, largely because not very much is known about Grace O’Malley’s life. A lot of the book details the political shenanigans in Ireland that the O’Malleys were dealing with, including rivalries between Gaelic chieftains, administrative tightening by Tudor England, and occasional interference from Spain. The book contains a good selection of maps and family trees, and explains the different factions and developments in a way that’s easy to read for someone unfamiliar with Irish history. It’s also pretty good about presenting the oddly spelled, wordy Tudor primary sources in a way that’s easy to decipher but still shows off the delightfully weird writing style.

My biggest issue with this book is that the edition I was reading (revised American edition from 2003) seems to have been rushed to print without so much as a single round of proofreading. For such a short book there were dozens of random misspellings, sentences missing words, and punctuation strewn about.

Granuaile herself comes across as a fascinating, complex, and shrewd historical character, highly political and nigh impossible to keep down for long. The family drama aspect of her life—all her relations were also political chieftains, making deals and alliances and factions and things—makes me think there could be a great serial drama made about her life. She was fighting and pirating and politicking, leading men into battle by land and sea, all the way up until at least her mid-sixties. She had an arch-nemesis—Sir Richard Bingham, the Puritan English governor of Connaught—and reading about her manipulating Queen Elizabeth herself into getting Bingham to back off is deeply satisfying.

Overall I’d really like to learn more, both about Granuaile and about the world she lived in, but this makes a very good primer for both.


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