2014's great non-fiction as Christmas present ideas
Books Editor John Spain looks back on a year dominated by history books as the 100 years since the outbreak of the Great War were marked and the Rising centenary came into view.
It was the year of the history books. As the centenary of 1916 approaches, books on the formation of the state are multiplying and some superb titles appeared this year.
But 2014 was also the centenary of the outbreak of World War I and several very strong books appeared on that theme, two of which are reviewed in the following pages. It's worth remembering that 200,000 Irish men and women died in the Great War, many times the few thousand who were killed between the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. Yet, as we know, they were written out of our history.
He Lost Himself Completely
Brendan Kelly, The Liffey Press, €16.95
Apart from the outstanding books by Kevin Myers and Turtle Bunbury, this small book gives a real sense of what World War I did to people.
It's a reminder that many returned from the front physically unscathed but mentally shattered. Written by one of Ireland's leading psychiatrists, the book charts the treatment of 362 shell-shocked soldiers in Dublin's Richmond War Hospital between 1916 and 1919. The accounts in the final chapter include Gay Byrne on his father's nightmares which continued sporadically throughout his life - and that was not unusual.
Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923
RF Foster, Allen Lane, €25
We tend now to think of those involved in the movements that led to the Easter Rising as steely militant activists, nearly all male. In fact, as Roy Foster shows in this extraordinary book, they were mostly Celtic utopia dreamers from colleges, theatre groups, vegetarian restaurants, Irish-language summer schools, alternative newspapers and feminist collectives - a lot of them were female and quite a few of them were Protestant. The book covers the 25 years or so before the Rising and gives a completely fresh insight into the idealistic, middle-class young people whose dreams became, somewhat by accident, the catalyst for a revolution.
Sinead McCoole, Doubleday Ireland, €24.99
This is another sideways look at our past, the stories of seven women whose husbands were executed following the 1916 Rising. Some of the widows broke under the strain of their experiences. Others emerged from the shadows to become leaders themselves.
Down the Crooked Road
Mary Black, Transworld Ireland, €26.99
Refreshingly honest, and written with great warmth and humour, Mary Black's autobiography is head and shoulders above other musical memoirs.
She writes really well, as in her account of her early childhood living in a couple of rooms in what was not much more than a tenement in inner-city Dublin. Poor they were but it was a family full of love and, of course, music.
She was one of five children and began singing with her siblings at a very early age, going on to become one of Ireland's best-loved artists and winning international acclaim.
TK Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot
Anne Chambers, Doubleday Ireland, €33.60
Regarded as the architect of modern Ireland, TK Whitaker's story is also the story of how the country moved from the miserable state we were in in the 1940s and 50s to the modern country and open economy we are today.
His meteoric rise in the civil service saw him, at 39, become the youngest Secretary of the Department of Finance. His inspirational Programme for Economic Development advocated an end to the isolation and protectionism of the de Valera era and became the blueprint for Ireland's regeneration in the 1960s.
He went on to be Governor of the Central Bank. And as adviser to Taoiseach Jack Lynch and other political leaders, he also played a crucial role behind the scenes in the movement towards peace in Northern Ireland.
The Legendary 'Lugs' Branigan
Kevin C Kearns, Gill & Macmillan, €24.99
A biography of the famous garda (known as 'Lugs' because of his big ears) who kept order in Dublin 60 years ago by dispensing his own brand of instant justice on the streets. An accomplished boxer in his youth, his mere presence in a disorderly crowd was enough to restore calm.
He was best known for smashing the vicious 'animal gangs' of the 1940s who engaged in open warfare on the streets of Dublin. He never needed a baton and believed a clip on the ear was better than bringing youngsters to court, thereby saddling them with a criminal record. Those were the days - these days young thugs taunt gardaí and film themselves being "assaulted" on their mobile phones.
Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin
Karl Whitney, Penguin Ireland, €20
This entertaining book takes a fresh look at Dublin, exploring the hidden places tourists, and even locals, rarely see.
Whitney tells the stories of the underground rivers of the Liberties, the 20 Dublin homes once inhabited by Joyce, and the beach at Loughshinny, where he watches raw sewage being pumped into the sea. Food for thought even for True Dubs who think they know it all.
An Education - How An Outsider became an Insider
John Walshe, Penguin Ireland, €14.99
After over 40 years in journalism, Irish Independent Education Editor John Walshe thought he had seen it all. That was until he got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work in government. This behind-the-scenes account of his time as special advisor to Education Minister Ruairi Quinn takes the reader into the corridors of power where the country's decision-makers operate. Heady stuff.
Birds of the Homeplace
Anthony McGeehan and Julian Wyllie, Collins Press, €24.99
We all love stories of ingenuity, escape from danger and intrepid travels to foreign lands - birds provide this derring-do in spades!
From birds who grow brain tissue to enlarge their memory capacity of where they hide food to peregrines who encounter G-forces strong enough to make a human pilot black out, birds are extraordinary creatures. And they're right on our doorsteps. No matter where one lives, there are birds: in gardens, on farms, in towns or cities.
James Barry's Murals at the Royal Society of Arts
Cork University Press, William Pressly, €49
This is bound to be the art-book of the year. The Cork-born Barry painted six murals in the Great Room of the Royal Society of Arts in London between 1777 and 1784.
They are huge - 42ft long by 12ft high - and unquestionably the greatest work of art by any Irish artist in any museum outside Ireland. But they are still little known, mainly because they are not easily accessible to the general public. This book, written by an American professor, unlocks the paintings' hidden meanings: Barry was an Irish republican and a Catholic at a time when anti-Catholic riots killed hundreds of people in London. The book is lavishly illustrated and even at €49 is cheap at the price and a great present.
Judging WT Cosgrave
Michael Laffan, Royal Irish Academy, €30
WT Cosgrave is neglected in comparison with some of the other founders of the nation but this book puts that right. A superb production, this is the third in the Judging series that began with the bestselling book on Dev.
They combine authoritative text with a scrapbook-style approach giving documents, illustrations, newspaper cuttings and great photographs which together bring history alive. This biography examines WT's career as local politician, rebel, minister, head of government for nearly 10 years and opposition leader. In particular it assesses his role as a state-builder and a key figure in the Irish democratic tradition.
Ivan Yates, Hachette Ireland, €19.99
Ex-government minister, bookmaker and broadcaster Ivan Yates has lived three lives in one.
This is a fascinating story - and very personal as it recounts the impact of the collapse of business and his bankruptcy. It's also an indictment of the shocking way AIB officials treated him. A great read for anyone interested in politics or business.
Shackleton - By Endurance We Conquer
Michael Smith, Collins Press, €24.99
This is the first comprehensive biography of the great explorer in a generation. It brings a fresh perspective to the heroic age of polar exploration dominated by Shackleton's compelling and fascinating story. There are so many instances of derring-do on his four expeditions to the Antarctic that it's hard to comprehend how he achieved all he did without any of the technological support we now take for granted. And all on a diet of penguin, biscuits and fish.
Irish Country Houses - Portraits & Painters
David Hicks, Collins Press, €24.99
While researching his last boom Irish Country Houses - A Chronicle of Change, David Hicks encountered beautiful portraits of former residents in aging mansions.
He collected these wonderful stories, tales of happiness and misfortune, of royalty, politicians, literary and artistic figures, of scandals and hunt balls.
The portraits capture a way of life that no longer exists and each chapter paints a picture of a bygone age.
It's Not Yet Dark
Simon Fitzmaurice, Hachette Books Ireland, €14.99
In 2008, filmmaker Simon Fitzmaurice was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given four years to live. In 2010, with his lungs collapsing, he began ventilation to stay alive.
In this moving memoir, the father-of-five young children brings us into his inner world, in beautifully stark prose in the vein of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It's a story of extraordinary determination and courage, the story of a life which, though compromised, is being lived to the fullest degree possible.
Written using an eye-gaze computer, It's Not Yet Dark is an unforgettable book about relationships and family, about what connects and separates us and, ultimately, about what it means to be alive.
Frank Connolly, Gill & Macmillan, €16.99
This was the outstanding non-fiction book of the year and it should have won that category in the Irish Book Awards 2014 a few weeks ago. (Instead the award inexplicably went to Graham Norton's memoir, which is funny but hardly ground breaking and probably should have been in a different category.)
A man who broke a lot of ground in his time, Tom Gilmartin was the property developer from Sligo who had made it big in England and came home to do business here. He had ambitious plans for major retail developments in Dublin in the late 1980s. . . that was until he was surrounded by senior Fianna Fáil types with their hands out. In return for "helping" him with permission and support, everyone wanted a slice of the action. . . in cash.
Frustrated beyond belief he blew the whistle on the corruption in politics and planning system, starting the process which led to the Tribunals and changed our recent history. Frank Connolly's meticulously researched book is an eye-opener, a terrific read and a fitting tribute to the man himself.