Wednesday 7 December 2016

Review: Story of Ireland by Neil Hegarty

BBC Books, €15.99, Hardback

Published 19/02/2011 | 05:00

Presenter Fergal Keane in Dublin.
Presenter Fergal Keane in Dublin.

The Story of Ireland is the book that accompanies Fergal Keane's new and much trumpeted TV documentary series. But does it deserve such trumpeting?

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The book does not actually provide a fresh focus and an original interpretation. It is, on the contrary, a tame telling of a traditional tale and it ultimately reads as an old-fashioned narrative of elite political and military endeavour, with little sense of the people, other than that elite, at the heart of the Irish society.

Any project, whether book or television series, or both, that seeks to cover such an amount of history -- from the very earliest times up to the arrival of the IMF last year -- is ambitious indeed and potentially problematic on many fronts: what narrative style will hold it all together? What will be included and omitted? What tone should be taken? Just what is the central focus and how is it original?

In attempting to address these challenges, Neil Hegarty, who holds a doctorate in English literature, with the aid of an introduction by Keane, an experienced foreign correspondent, seems to promise that they will turn the story of Ireland inside out, by stressing the "role of events beyond our shores in creating the Ireland of today".

This, we are informed, will be not be a story with an insular focus, but a pluralistic narrative of a people, who, apparently, are "as pragmatic as they are poetic"; islanders not standing alone on Europe's edge "but part of the main -- shaped by and helping to shape the world around them".

The early part of the book dwells on the arrival of Palladius; the first Bishop of Ireland; the emergence of St Patrick, pragmatic and highly conscious of his status; and the literary tradition and appreciation of Europe as a cultural entity by Irish monks.

Attention is subsequently turned to the arrival of the Vikings; the Battle of Clontarf ("a specifically Irish civil war in which foreigners participated as minor players"); the Lordship of Ireland; the gradual assertion of colonial authority in the 13th century; and the waves of invasion and difficulties of governing Ireland.

A combination of all these led to gloom and isolation, but the country "was by no means wholly adrift from the shipping lanes and contact with other parts of Europe continued apace".

The reader is then taken through the Elizabethan wars of the 16th century, which had as their backdrop a wider religious turmoil in Europe, and there is also attention devoted to the ambitions and limitations of the plantations, and the impact of the 1641 Irish Rising, Cromwell and civil war in England. By 1660, famine, fighting and disease had wiped out between a fifth and a quarter of the Irish population.

The book underlines many well- known aspects of the history of subsequent decades, including the Penal Laws that "helped to make the connection between faith and nation indivisible in the minds of its people", the 1798 rebellion and the "totality of Tone's vision which could not fit smoothly into any of the dominant traditions of later Irish history".

In the 19th century, Daniel O'Connell, we are reminded, "fused Irish nationalism and Catholicism in a manner that was new and altogether defining" and the great Irish famine, which does not receive enough space here, was about "savagely bad luck combined with gross government inefficiency".

In later chapters, it appears there is a contrived attempt to return to what is supposed to be the book's main mission -- to emphasise Irish interest in the affairs of a wider world -- but this can lead to exaggeration. The notion that the Boer Wars of 1899-1902 "electrified Irish nationalism" is dubious; it certainly energised a minority but not an entire country and there is a tendency to overplay the idea of ferment and upheaval in the opening years of the 20th century, which was actually a relatively stable and conservative era.

The impression is created that the author is in a hurry to bring his narrative to a conclusion in the final chapters, which are littered with generalities such as "cycles of violence became the norm", "politics was marked now by a general fluidity" and "the future for both parts of the island of Ireland was daunting".

The book reads like a rushed and narrowly focused political and military narrative, without a distinctive or original style or thesis, which draws heavily on the already substantial amount of books that have recounted Ireland's story; books that cannot be accused of ignoring the wider international context of the Irish experience.

The Story of Ireland may prove useful as a competent and basic introduction for someone with little or no knowledge of Irish history, but it does not live up to its billing. It promises to be a search for a new national memory, but it seems to abandon the search early on and certainly does not find one.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History in UCD

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