| 12.3°C Dublin

Review: History: Kilkenny Families and the Great War by Niall Brannigan and John Kirwan

The quality of books by amateur historians has improved beyond all recognition over the past decade. Both the research and the books themselves are usually in a completely different league to the sort of books produced 10 years ago.

One example of this local history renaissance is the recently published Kilkenny Families in the Great War by Niall Brannigan and John Kirwan.

Brannigan works for the Pentagon in Washington, while Kirwan is a popular and well-known historian and man of letters from the Marble City who often contributes to local newspapers and the proceedings of the famous Kilkenny Archeological Society.

While Kilkenny Families in the Great War may sound like a book of strictly local interest, the subject matter is universal and the authors have performed a national service by reminding us that the bulk of the fighting in the second decade of the 20th Century took place in Flanders and the rest of the continent rather than outside the GPO for a few days in 1916.

It would require a heart of stone to read through the 2,900 short biographies contained within the book's 500-plus pages.

Most of the names are pure Kilkenny. Butlers, Cantwells, Commerfords or Delahuntys populate the early pages just as they populated the early pages of the 056 telephone directories for decades afterwards. All of Kilkenny is here and all of Ireland too.

This would not be important if there were other memorials to the dead but Kilkenny, like most Irish towns and cities, has no real memorial to those who died in the two European wars other than the portals of St Canice's Cathedral which commemorate the names of some of those who died.

This stands in stark contrast to the MacDonagh railway station and flashy new MacDonagh Junction shopping centre which both commemorate the 1916 leader from neighbouring Tipperary who spent just a few months in the county as a teacher in St Kieran's College.

Kilkenny has always been a martial county and a large portion of the city is taken up with a barracks to this day.

While the city and surrounding towns were centres of support for Home Rule, it was also a fertile recruiting ground for the British army during the Boer War and both world wars.

The book concludes that many of those who returned from the war were forced to emigrate because they were not given work.

Where they went is not recorded and luckily the trend does not appear to have continued in World War Two which saw many veterans return to positions of power and influence in the city.

If there is one criticism of this book, it is the reluctance of the two authors to draw conclusions from their labours.

The bulk of the text simply lists those who died in the conflict, from 16-year-old Jeremiah Purcell who fell in Macedonia to Gunner John Fitzpatrick who enlisted at the age of 68 and survived.

This book presents a paper monument as moving as the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington but there is little effort to join the dots.

However, this sort of granular analysis, which took the authors 15 years of work, is invaluable. The authors are to be admired for their reluctance to draw general conclusions but it would have been fascinating to learn more about what they learned while working on this magnificent labour of love.

Kevin Myers will speak at the launch of the book at the Hibernian Club in Dublin on September 13

Indo Review