Book Review: “A Short History of Ireland” by John Gibney

On my recent trip to Dublin, I loaded up on Irish history books that one generally can’t find in the United States outside the realm of Amazon, which I’m trying to use less often. The pile of books significantly increased the poundage of our luggage, but I always find it worth the effort. Also, the Butler’s chocolates contributed to the heft.

One of the books I picked up was John Gibney’s recent survey A Short History of Ireland 1500-2000.

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This book is a solid introduction to the politics and economics of Ireland, particularly as they relate to religion and Ireland’s relationship with England/Britain. Gibney begins with the Tudor era and control that powerful Gaelic-Irish men had over large areas of the island. He covers the impact of the English Reformation, especially how religion divided the Gaelic Irish from the English who settled there. He goes on to explain the Plantation of Ulster, the so-called Glorious Revolution, the emergence of an Irish identity in the 1700s, the Famine and the fight for Home Rule, and of course the major events of the Twentieth Century, especially the Easter Rising and War for Independence. Gibney definitely hits the highlights of the past 500 years of Irish history.

He doesn’t go into depth on any of these issues, so this book isn’t for seasoned scholars of Ireland. But, if you have an emerging interest in Irish history, you can definitely get a feel for the path that Ireland has taken in modern history (if we consider modern from about the year 1500, or at the earliest the beginning of the Renaissance about 100 years earlier). Gibney addresses a lot of issues that will have curious readers thinking, “I want to know more about that!” I really think he gave short shrift to Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, who towered over the first half of the 1800s in Ireland. O’Connell was a remarkable figure in Irish history, and he had an impact on people around the world, too–a fact that is not at all clear in this volume.

Still, the book left me with some questions that I now want to explore further. For example, Gibney writes, “…the period of economic growth in the later 1960s became a time of considerable educational reform, with a great emphasis on modernising an outdated system and making it as widely accessible as possible” (223). But, he doesn’t tell us what it meant to “modernize” the Irish educational system, and he does note that it was still dominated by the Catholic church. I’m eager to know how the system changed.

The author makes a claim that in 1966, “the [fiftieth] anniversary of the rising was also an opportunity to articulate a critique of a state that, for many, was an abject failure when judged by the benchmark of the principles of the rising (at least as contained in the famous proclamation)” (224). While it is true that Pearse’s proclamation of Poblacht na hÉireann offered “equal rights and equal opportunities to all [Ireland’s] citizens,” the Proclamation said little about the vision for a sovereign Irish republic. I think this is an important point that Gibney leaves out of his analysis–there was no clearly articulated vision for an Ireland free of British rule.

As a former history teacher, I appreciate that this book includes short sections titled “Where Historians Disagree” at the end of each chapter. These short sections give a lay audience a basic understanding of what historians do, and the concept of historiography. I wish more history books that are written for a lay audience would in some fashion teach the reader that history is not merely “what happened in the past.” A popular falsehood propagated in some circles (notably by is that the Famine was a genocide, and I’m glad that Gibney asserts that no serious scholar of Ireland would make that claim. He also notes differences in opinions among historians about the extent and nature of sectarian violence and discrimination in both Éire and Northern Ireland.

Gibney’s book fails in one key respect: its treatment of women in Irish history. Indeed, at the end of his book, Gibney refers to women’s history as “niche.” And my blood pressure spiked 20 points.  Niche? Really? I suppose if one is still inclined to follow the archaic “add women and stir” approach to women’s history, then it makes some more sense to omit women from this text. But that approach has been vanquished for a good reason–women are not somehow separate from history; they are an integral part of every era. In particular, Gibney should have discussed the role of women in the Protestant Reformation in Ireland (or their role in resisting it). Women have historically been guardians of the faith in many religions, and surely their part was relevant here. Thus, a better understanding of this book is “A Short Political History of Ireland,” as politics and the relationship between Ireland and Britain are the main focuses–and women were left out of formal politics until the mid-1900s.

So, if you have a burgeoning interest in Irish history, this book is a solid place to start. Just be sure to make notes along the way of topics you want to learn more about.

Celebrating Bloomsday

Bloomsday as you may or may not know is celebrated on June 16th, which was the day in 1904 in which Leopold Bloom took his (in)famous stroll around Dublin in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.

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If you haven’t read Ulysses, and most people haven’t but like to pretend that they have because it makes them sound erudite, this book was considered scandalous when it was first published. Whatever of the revolutionary stream-of-consciousness style, the book includes some passages that were considered quite salacious at the time, such as this one:

Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.

Quite tame by our standards in 2019 when every kind of kinky porn you can imagine is a few clicks away, but such words certainly garnered the attention of the morality police (censors) in the early 1900s.

There are a lot of ways to celebrate Bloomsday if you are so inclined:

  1. Possibly the most popular way is by getting drunk. Allegedly the first people to inaugurate this celebration attempted to retrace Bloom’s steps around Dublin, but only made it halfway because they passed out.
  2. Go on a first date! June 16th is the day that Joyce met his great love, Nora Barnacle. You never know who you’ll meet!
  3. Masturbate. Leopold Bloom did.
  4. Get a hand job. Ibid.
  5. Go to one of the multitudinous Bloomsday celebrations around the world.
    1. Symphony Space is hosting an event this year.
    2. Irish-American Bar Association of New York has its own event to remember the lawyer who represented Joyce’s publisher in the obscenity trial.
  6. Read a book by James Joyce or another Irish author.
    1. On this note, Joyce is frequently associated with the Gaelic revival/Irish cultural nationalism that blossomed around the time the book was written. Playwrights and authors worked to revive the Irish language and celebrate Irish works–hence the founding of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
    2. I’m not a Joyce expert, so I would have to do some further research, but my guess is that Joyce would be wary of being associated with some of the major figures of the Gaelic revival such as Lady Gregory. And I say that because Leopold Bloom, who is Jewish, encounters some antisemitism in Ulysses, and so I’m not sure how Joyce felt about the obsession with Irish identity. Could a Jew be Irish? Maybe this is not at all what Joyce had in mind, but it strikes me that he wasn’t fully on board with the obsession about what it means to be Irish as were the major anti-colonial figures such as Patrick Pearse.
    3. If you need a different Irish author, you might consider Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Maeve Binchy, Roddy Doyle, or Sally Rooney.
  7. Any other ideas!!? Let me know in the comments.

Review of “Say Nothing”​

When I lived in Belfast in the early 2000s, the city was beginning to recover from the thirty-year period of violence that the Irish somewhat euphemistically refer to as “The Troubles.” There was a shiny new shopping mall on Royal Avenue, tourists were trickling in and sipping pints at classic bars like the Crown and the Duke of York, and a growing international contingent attended Queen’s University. I was part of that international group, as an American earning a master’s degree in Irish Politics. I well knew the ins and outs of the Troubles–that’s why I was there.

The new book Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe covers a lot of familiar territory for scholars of the Troubles, but he presents it in an engaging fashion that reads like a crime novel. As Keefe covers the highlights of the Troubles, he weaves the lives of a few key players into the fabric of the larger history: Dolours and Marian Price, sisters who were major figures in the “armed struggle” of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (known as the Provos, or more simply as the IRA); the story of IRA operative Brendan “The Dark” Hughes; and the tragedy of Jean McConville, a mother of ten children who was disappeared by the IRA in the early 1970s.

Keefe’s engrossing narrative is difficult to put down because the reader wants the answers to the essential pieces of the mystery woven into the book: What happened to Dolours and Marian Price? How and why did Brendan Hughes have a falling out with the IRA? Do we know what became of Jean McConville and her ten children–and, importantly, who killed her? Keefe answers all of these questions, but you have to read to the very end to find out.

For a person with a casual interest in Ireland, this book is well written, informative, and compelling. Keefe explains Bloody Sunday, internment, the hunger strikes, the Good Friday Agreement, and the controversy surrounding the “Belfast Project,” a series of interviews with paramilitary figures that were intended to be kept secret until the deaths of the individuals.

But, for a scholar of Ireland, Keefe’s book has a few problems.

Say Nothing offers a selective narrative in order to tell a neatly packaged story, however, the arc of history in Northern Ireland has been messier than Keefe’s book suggests. The account proceeds cleanly from the birth of the Provos to internment to the hunger strikes to the Good Friday Agreement that ended the violence in 1998. At points, he suggests that Gerry Adams had been planning to take the IRA away from paramilitary activity for decades. Yet, this story leaves out many critical moments that could have ended the violence and suffering a lot earlier, if the leaders of the Provos had not been so committed to the “armed struggle.”

First among these omissions is the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, which included many of the same features of the Good Friday Agreement twenty-five years later. The accord from Sunningdale included a power-sharing executive, proportional representation at Stormont, and a cross-border Council of Ireland. This agreement was not supported by the Provos, who still believed that violence could force the British out of Ireland; it was also rejected by Loyalists, who staged a general strike that ultimately killed the Agreement. But if the Provos had accepted Sunningdale, thousands of lives may have been saved–including the ten men who died on hunger strike in 1981.

Yet the Provos fought on for another twenty-five years. They continued the armed struggle through the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Downing Street Declaration. Bill Clinton gave Gerry Adams a visa to visit the United States in 1994. There were a few ceasefires, but nothing stuck until 1998.

And Keefe misrepresents the key players in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement. He grossly exaggerates the role played by Sinn Féin in the negotiations. John Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) were the most important people responsible for the deal, even though Sinn Féin and the DUP quickly became the most prominent parties in Northern Ireland after the agreement. And that accord still has problems, as Sinn Féin and the DUP have found it difficult to work together since the deaths of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, who, despite years of animosity, exhibited interpersonal chemistry when they finally agreed to work together.

Say Nothing is an elegant story for people who don’t know the finer details, and a captivating narrative even for those who do. Historians of Ireland won’t learn much that is new, especially if they have read the interviews in Voices from the Grave. And, the IRA has a lot of open secrets. Although Keefe has a big reveal at the end with his assertion about the third person involved in the abduction and execution of Jean McConville, I remember thinking, “Wait, I thought everyone already knew that?”

Finally, Keefe suggests at the end of the book that the problem of Brexit might lead to a united Ireland. I think this claim naively underestimates the Unionist/Loyalist fervor to remain part of the United Kingdom. Unionists dislike the devolved assembly and the Good Friday Agreement a lot less than nationalists. The DUP supported Brexit because the party believed that leaving the EU would bring Northern Ireland closer to mainland Britain. Keefe seems to think that the economic benefits of EU membership will sway many Unionists to take up the cause of a 32-county Republic of Ireland. This point of view cannot hold up to scrutiny: Unionists have long been afraid that the British would abandon them to the Irish government. They will fight for their right to remain British.

I don’t think Brexit will lead to a united Ireland, but I do think it has the potential to lead to significant political violence. The DUP is keeping Theresa May’s majority in tact, and she can’t afford to alienate them if she wants to hold on to power. But, as the recent riots in Derry show us, she needs to tread carefully. A return to political violence in Northern Ireland would be tragic indeed.