Monday, November 25, 2013

W47: A Short History of the Irish People

A few months ago I went drinking with an Irish friend and his football teammates. My only recollection of that night was being surrounded by drunken Irishmen recanting the history of their country and trying to convince me that the Irish first arrived to Isle of Man by riding flying rocks across the sea. Not a metaphor for something, but actual rocks that floated through the sky. Being heavily inebriated myself, it made sense at the time so this week’s Biblio-Mat book was an interesting follow-up to that history night.

It was fitting that A Short History of the Irish People had a green cover, but what was surprising was the presence of the dustjacket. Despite the sun-fading, the paper jacket was in amazing condition for a book published in 1921. In addition to stating that this was the second volume of the history, the cover also provided a synopsis on the book, which was an interesting idea since there was more than enough room on the inside flaps. Written by Mary Hayden and George A. Moonan, this was a scholarly look into the backstory of Ireland that sold me based on design principles alone. However, the title was a misnomer as my definition of a ‘short history’ is something that fits on the back of a pamphlet or restaurant menu, not a 572 page text.

Kind of wished this was the Mediaeval Ireland one.
Having studied Gaelic literature in my undergrad, I was familiar with the rich and very violent history of the Irish people so was therefore quite excited to dig into this book. Unfortunately, it turned out that part two of A Short History of the Irish People covered the years from 1603 to the ‘present’, which in this case meant 1921. Outside of the Great Famine and the establishment of Northern Ireland, I knew very little about this particular time period and even less on why this specific year was chosen for the volume split instead of a more rounded number.

CĂșchulainn this ain't.
It turns out that 1603 marked the end of the Nine Years War which drove out the Earls of Ireland and replaced them with a new government structure that essentially put them under English rule. From here it was a lot of hopscotching through numerous political events, culminating in the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921. It was pretty clear from the beginning that the authors had a bias to the history, as any scholar of their nation would, and at times there seemed to be some pretty heavy resentment and bitterness to the events that unfolded under British rule.

To be fair, he was actually insane.
The chapter on the famine itself was fairly short at four pages but presented a damning critique on not only how the government handled it, but also on how it was represented in the press at the time. For an event as significant as this, though, the entry in the book felt short and seemed to gloss over most of it, choosing to view the political landscape more than the cultural one, which seemed strange for a history book.

While the text wasn’t a dry read, it also wasn’t very exciting. Being written in the style of a school textbook, it was more informational than colourful. What was a fun read though, were the pencil scribbles and notes in the margins providing running commentary on the events as they unfolded. My educated guess would be that one of the previous owners of this book was an Irish nationalist of sorts.

Also reads like my love history...
Another entertaining deviation from the straight history were the sections on the literature of the period. Although these spanned only a few pages, they did provide some insight on what was big in each of the centuries A Short History of the Irish People covered.

Isn't 'War on learning' pretty much every high school class?
The biggest surprise, though, came halfway through the book where an envelope was lodged between the pages. Opening it up, it was a perfectly preserved subscription card, Christmas card order form, and envelope to The Atlantic Monthly Company from 1947! Founded in 1857 by a group of writers that included one of my most revered authors, Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Atlantic Monthly was a magazine that had been printed monthly for almost a hundred and fifty years before changing into The Atlantic, one of my favourite magazines. Still being printed today, it was quite amazing to find a piece of this history randomly in this book. 

Most awesome surprise I've had in any book to date.

Book rating: 8/10 (Interesting but nothing Wikipedia couldn’t tell you)

Random quote: “They still talk about it here in 1942” (written in pencil next to the section stating that future generations of Parnell’s countrymen will remember him)

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