Monday 5 December 2016

Story of Ireland: bonkers, eccentric, and anachronistic

History: Ireland: The Autobiography, John Bowman (Ed.), Penguin Ireland, hdbk, 478 pages, €25

Published 11/09/2016 | 02:30

A suspected member of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein is searched at gunpoint by temporary constables of the British Black and Tans, during the Irish War of Independence in November 1920
A suspected member of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein is searched at gunpoint by temporary constables of the British Black and Tans, during the Irish War of Independence in November 1920
1958: Former Taoiseach Eamon de Valera with members of the clergy.
Ireland: The Autobiography, edited by John Bowman.
Gay Byrne presenting The Late Late Show in 1969.
Dublin Rose Roisin Lyons at the 2014 Rose of Tralee International Festival

The past 100 years in Ireland started with a bang, 50 years of hard slog followed and later years of enlightenment. Plenty of material, then, for an autobiography of our nation, says our reviewer, but it's not exactly an easy read

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In the introductory essay to this mammoth collection, editor John Bowman writes that the role of the anthologist is different from that of the historian. He adds: "The anthologist offers glimpses of history."

That, I would say, is an apt summation of both role and book. And on another level, it encapsulates both what is great about Ireland: The Autobiography, and why it doesn't always work (and, quite possibly, can't work). In a nutshell, there'll always be something to hold your interest; but on the other hand, and inevitably, you won't like everything.

There are, on a rough count, 166 pieces in this collection, subtitled "One hundred years in the life of the nation, told by its people". So, fittingly, we have a wide range of backgrounds and traditions represented in a wide range of literary formats: excerpts from newspaper articles, books, old journals, public speeches, personal letters, parliamentary debates, diaries, even a few advertisements.

Much of this material, Bowman attests, has never before been published. Ireland: The Autobiography really is a treasure trove for historians, be they professionals in the field or amateur enthusiasts (which, in this year of 1916 centenary, seems to be 99pc of the Irish population).

A collection of this nature is probably meant to be dipped in and out of: pieces picked at random, the reader hopping back and forth through time, revisiting the 1980s here, learning sometimes about the 1920s there, zipping back to 2014 for some contrast.

However, being a nerdy, mildly obsessive-compulsive sort, I read it chronologically, first page to last. Which means, since the book moves forward in a linear motion from 1916 to this year, I more or less read my way through the last century, up to today.

The editor chooses to start with a welter of material on the Rising and subsequent War of Independence and Civil War. Too much of it, in my opinion - we've gone past 100 pages and timewise we're still in 1923, as Meath farmer John Sweetman urges his son not to join the anti-Treaty side.

But Bowman, in the intro, makes a convincing argument for why he concentrates so much on that brief period, saying they "were formative - of the independent Irish state, of Northern Ireland, and of the political and social dynamics that have defined them - and so… are represented with a disproportion­ately generous selection here".

1916-22 doesn't really excite my interest, I must confess; probably suffering from some form of post-commemoration overload, and a lot of it feels very samey, historically. But those were exciting times, all the same: real all-or-nothing, destiny-in-your-hands stuff.

A shame, then, that the spirit of adventure, courage, daring and cheerful 'all in this together' optimism was crushed, almost to death, over the following half-century. God, Ireland was a depressing place in many ways, wasn't it?

Here we have a report, from this newspaper, on the dangers of dancehalls. A Danish ex-pat describes how Ireland is engaged in "a battle over short skirts". Both Dev and Sinn Féin, in different pieces, are wooing the Catholic Church/Vatican.

Ireland's first film censor explains why he cuts the bejesus out of just about every film within reach of his scissor-hands. Jazz music, for some reason, gets it in the neck from a Leitrim PP on a cultural jihad against "imported slush". (That hardly includes Miles Davis, I presume.)

Seán Ó Faoláin decries nationalism; one Alice Curtayne rhapsodies about the Eucharistic Congress. Letterfrack, more censorship, emigration, internecine struggles over the proper direction of the Irish language, yet more censorship, the Mother and Child scheme, "godless agitators", communism at the cinema, the threat to Irish souls of British telly, Dev again - this time moaning about Churchill - and yes, some more censorship.

As Harvard academic John V Kelleher puts it in a 1957 article for an American journal, Ireland truly was "a duller and deader place" than the republic founded in 1922. It's not until the late 1960s - kicked off here by Suzanne Breen reminiscing on a 1968 Civil Rights march in Derry - that the country began to slough off all that deadweight.

From that point (roughly the final third), Ireland: The Autobiography takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the seismic, seminal and explosive (sometimes literally) events which shaped the nation as we now know it.

Colm Tóibín waxing nostalgic about watching the Late Late as a child; June Levine on the Contraceptive Train; a fascinating interview with 21-year-old IRA commander Martin McGuinness; Des O'Malley's legendary "I stand by the Republic" speech; Nuala O'Faolain on a very Irish approach to religious faith…

It's all here, really, right up to John Waters' 2013 essay on shifting more in language, and Brenda Power's affectionate critique of/homage to the Rose of Tralee. The contest is, she wrote in 2014, "bonkers, eccentric, anachronistic… Like the Angelus, there's little reason for keeping it on the air these days, if it weren't for the sense that we'd be somehow poorer and more generic Europeans, and a little less eccentric and Irish, if we dumped it".

All of which could sort of do as an overall description of Ireland in the last 100 years. Yes, there were (still are) a lot of things wrong with this country; but on the flipside, there's a lot of great things, too, and always have been.

So while Kelleher was correct in his "deader and duller" summation, that's not the full picture. I didn't give the full picture either, in that long list, six paragraphs back, describing the gloomy, doomy country of roughly 1920-1970.

Ireland of the last 100 years was a pretty ok place. It wasn't Shangri-La, but it wasn't the seventh circle of hell either. For everything bad of that era, there was at least one thing that was good. Only an ideologue, or someone (perhaps understandably) embittered by experience, would argue that.

Like the Rose, we're bonkers, eccentric, anachronistic. We probably don't make that much sense to our neighbours. Self-styled sophisticates would probably prefer if we did away with all the quirks and tics of Irishness, and were more like the Danes or Swedes or whoever is the national benchmark.

But then, of course…we wouldn't be Irish, would we?

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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