John-Paul McCarthy: Writers who speak volumes about our past and present
Published 23/12/2012 | 05:00
IN Breandan O Buachalla's famous study of Irish Jacobite poetry, he explained that the Gaelic poets were very taken by a French author called La Popelimere who said all good writing had three traits: "stil", style, "insint leanunach", a continuous thread, and "fealsunacht", philosophy. These pegs will do nicely as we divvy up the books of 2012.
On the question of style, Robert Tobin's handsome book on Hubert Butler carries off the gold. Fintan O'Toole and John Banville have pushed Butler hard in recent times, but Tobin is the real deal.
The Minority Voice: Hubert Butler and Southern Irish Protestantism, 1900-1991 is elegantly written and packed with resonant arguments.
If Butler's beautiful essay on the plight of his profoundly disabled granddaughter, "Little K", tell us anything today, it's not to take moral dictation from elderly virgins.
Butler's doctrine of "total secularisation" of Irish political life along the lines of the First Amendment of the US Constitution remains a beacon to follow and a hope to attain.
But we are not yet freemen of that city, though.
What of insint leanunach then or narrative verve in 2012?
Mary Robinson's memoir pushes to the front of the pack here, what with her eagle eye for detail and her natural ability to tell a great story.
She gave us some deft portraits. She recalled Professor JM Kelly's haughty disinterest when she asked his advice about importing the insights from the Hart-Devlin debate about law and morality in postwar Britain.
She remembered the tears Garret FitzGerald shed the day she was inaugurated as Uachtaran na hEireann and she remembered Justice Seamus Henchy's eloquent dissenting judgement in Norris v AG, a Butleresque essay in many ways on the "subtle but insidiously wounding and intrusive ways" Catholic dogma demoralised helpless minorities.
Robinson also lingered over the mysterious Eoghan Harris and his "stunning intellectual analysis" of her presidential bid. She recalled his "breakneck pace, the wit, the revelatory insights that had us going, 'ah yes, of course'." There was genius in it."
This was a rather different portrait, of course, than that offered by John Bowman when summarising an important column by John Waters on Robinson's victory in 1990.
In his RTE book, Bowman famously wrote: "At no stage in a lengthy article did it state that Robinson and her team had used Harris's advice, or had given him any official position ... "
Robinson's absorbing book put that kind of prose out of business, hopefully for good.
Nobody is putting Tim Pat Coogan out of the narrative business though. His reworking of the John Mitchel thesis about the Famine was certainly gripping, but probably for all the wrong reasons.
Coogan's The Famine Plot defined culpability so airily that his bill of indictment against the Whig "genocide" must surely net all the strong Irish-speaking farmers who were glad to see the land cleared of the poorest of the poor. It must also net Daniel O'Connell, a very conservative fellow on issues surrounding State intervention in economic affairs.
Coogan's Nazi subtext – he actually used the term Untermenschen at one point – will play very well at the more lurid end of the Irish-American Christmas market.
It won't survive long though when put up against The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, edited by John Crowley, William J Smyth and Mike Murphy and published by Cork University Press.
I'm still ploughing my way through the 700-odd pages of this, but suffice it to say that this book doesn't need Nazi phraseology to structure its sophisticated and nuanced critique of Britain's administrative inadequacies.
Reading this book made me think of Robert Peel's famous remark in the House of Commons in 1849 when he called the Famine "almost the greatest calamity which in the history of mankind ever visited a country."
What of philosophy then or fealsunacht in 2012?
WJ McCormack's recent book on the 1916 Rising wins hands down here. Dublin 1916: The French Connection speaks softly but carries a big stick.
The theme is the link between Irish nationalism and radical right wing politics in pre-1914 France. While unfurling these complex cultural and intellectual connections, McCormack tosses out various sequins to delight us.
Did you ever actually 'see' the steps outside the GPO where Pearse stood as he read out the Proclamation?
No? Well that's because there aren't any, then or now.
Ever wonder about Pearse's English father?
McCormack suggests that he may well have been a Unitarian Protestant before converting to Catholicism well before young Patrick's birth.
Think about that for a moment and savour the irony.
It might well account for a fair bit of Pearse's mania in later life, but it also throws a sharp light on Pearse's legacy.
The Irish Constitution is dedicated to something called "an Trionoid ro-naofa", literally, the too-holy Trinity.
Unitarians have always gagged when asked to subscribe to the three-in-one business. Might Bunreacht na hEireann have made Pearse's father reel somewhat?
That image alone is worth the price of McCormack's marvellous book.
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