The Irish: A Character Study
By Sean O’Faolain
This acclaimed analyst initially published this wonderful introduction to both the Irish themselves and their troubled history in 1947. The only way to truly comprehend Ireland is to dissect its many distinct population groups — their religious, social, political, and allegiance peculiarities — and then to see how the confluence of these complex streams shaped the country’s history, with both positive and negative outcomes over many centuries. O’Faolain discusses the indigenous Celts, the invading Normans, and the increasingly acquisitive English, and how their turbulent interactions shaped the core of Irish society: the peasantry, the Anglo-Irish nobility, the clergy, politicians, rebels, writers, and visionaries. The Celtic Tiger’s emerging, and now dominant, middle class was the one thing O’Faolain missed out on since he didn’t live to see it. This is a brilliantly written book.
The Norman Achievement
By David C. Douglas
It may seem odd to include a selection that makes no mention of Ireland, but the Norman invasion, which began in 1167, is crucial to comprehending the country’s subsequent history. For the most part, the early Normans in Ireland were vagabonds, a restless, grasping underclass of the French-speaking wave of freebooters that conquered England beginning with William the Conqueror in 1066. Because they were denied an outlet for their boundless ambition, these often renegade adventurers, many of whom were younger sons or rebellious underlings of the ruling Norman aristocracy, wreaked havoc on the Celtic kingdoms they invaded, both militarily and socially, and often in daring excursions. Douglas does a fantastic job of introducing and describing the distinctive nature of these intrepid soldiers and administrators as they trekked through much of the known European globe before heading to Jerusalem for the Crusades.
The King’s Peace, 1637-41
By C.V. Wedgwood
Wedgwood was a master of nonfiction storytelling, and The King’s Peace shows her at her most powerful as a historian. It covers King Charles I of England’s disastrous reign from 1637 to 1641 (the second volume, The King’s War, is also excellent; the planned third volume, covering the king’s fall and execution, was never completed). Again, Ireland isn’t fundamental to her story, but this is typical of the Irish experience, which is often overshadowed by developments in the United Kingdom. When a desperate Charles tried to use the “Irish card” in his conflicts with Parliament, he did so callously and without consideration for his subjects in Ireland, a theme that has resurfaced frequently in the dealings between these two countries. In this case, the eventual outcome was Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in 1649, a disastrous phase in the Irish drama. In every aspect, this is a fantastic history.
The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849
By Cecil Woodham-Smith
When this book was first published in 1962, it hit the market like a bomb, quickly becoming a worldwide best seller. The famine was not “invented” by Woodham-Smith; every historian of the time was well aware of the tragedy and its implications for Ireland’s future (mass emigration, smoldering indignation in the Irish diaspora, seeds for future rebellion), but many readers were unaware of the governmental machinations in London that contributed so greatly to this humanitarian disaster. Successive historians have questioned some of Woodham-conclusions Smith’s and judgments, but her story is engaging, well-researched, elegantly written, and relevant to the problems that plagued the island long into the twentieth century and beyond.
By Brian Moore
Some may object to my selection of a work of fiction, but I have always admired this talented author’s work. The transitional period from the economically bleak 1930s to the often-painful thrust of Ireland into the modernity of a European Union and expanding national affluence is best depicted by Catholics. Moore’s plot device is a story about a faith crisis, in which monks living in virtual medieval isolation on an island off the coast of Kerry (and indulging in the now illegal Latin mass) are brought into conformity by a Vatican plenipotentiary seeking to break them. In the process, he shatters their customs and ruins the underpinnings of their entire spiritual life, all while showing little remorse. I’m not sure if Moore, who died in 1999, intended his work to be a metaphor for the New Ireland, but it does a good job of depicting a country turning its back on a rich but tragic and difficult past and marching into an uncertain future.
A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man
by James Joyce
The literary culture of Ireland has had a significant impact on Irish intellectual life. In Ireland during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, there was a lack of committed intellectuals and, by contrast, the image of the writer, in a more classic literary sense, played a dominant role. This probably has much to do with the subtle hegemony imposed by priestcraft in Ireland, as well as the long-term decline in philosophical inventiveness within Catholic thought. Joyce, Yeats, and Heaney, for example, have all left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape. They didn’t view themselves as intellectuals, philosophers, or political thinkers, thus their contributions were meant to fulfill a solely literary program. As a result, every study of Irish history and culture must begin with an iconic person from the early twentieth-century literary renaissance, in this case James Joyce.
“Poetry, theater, and the book all served as vehicles for negotiating the past while also promising to transcend it.”
Joyce creates a vision of literature’s vocation within the novel itself. As he sees it, part of the purpose of literature is to bring escape from history. A vision of history is contained in that aspiration in order to reach that aim. It’s no coincidence that the most visible and successful forms of Irish intellectual culture are avowedly literary cultures. Poetry, theatre, and the book all offered ways to deal with the past while also offering to transcend it. They worked with an immediate historical situation in order to understand the past’s legacy.
One of the things that appears to irritate Joyce–especially when thinking of the hero’s father–is the sentimentality that comes with a lot of nationalism. Joyce’s point is that it’s an indication of a juvenile argument. That can also be applied to his feelings against the Catholic hierarchy to which he is exposed. Do you agree, and if so, how does it align with your own intellectual knowledge of how Irish people view their roots?
You’re referring to the book’s depiction of Stephen Dedalus’s father, the elder Dedalus. The work, in my opinion, is primarily about the youngster breaking free from his father’s legacy in numerous ways. The idea that he is rescuing himself from his father’s shadow combines with the book’s greater plot, which depicts Stephen breaking free from his own ancestral culture. As a new opportunity arises, this requires a shift of viewpoint. There is talk of passing the torch to a new generation, from father to son, but the son continues to be a prisoner of the father’s environment. The father’s world is more than just his point of view; it’s also a reality in which he’s had to strive to manage.