“The Story of Ireland: A History of the Irish People” by Neil Hegarty

March 16, 2012

The collapse of the Celtic Tiger four years ago, in a spectacular collision of private and public corruption amid a wildly inflated real estate bubble, was a dreadful blow to the people of Ireland, who with some justification thought that after centuries of poverty and disappointment, their country had at last come into its own. As Neil Hegarty writes in “The Story of Ireland,” however, the implosion was easily explained by Irish history:

“There are specific cultural reasons why such a situation evolved. The history of Ireland had propagated a sense of failure and of inferiority, encapsulated in the forced emigration of generation after generation of young people in search of opportunities that their homeland simply could not provide. The economic boom seemed to put this traumatic history firmly in the past: it belonged in another era — virtually in another country. The ongoing moves towards resolving what had seemed an intractable conflict in Northern Ireland, moreover, served to copper-fasten this sensation that Ireland had indeed left its scarred past behind. The result was exuberance and confidence on a widespread scale.”

Unfortunately, though, “the political and administrative structures of the country remained rooted firmly in this ostensibly banished past.” The “power of patronage and of local connections ruled supreme; and a small political and economic elite, with guaranteed access to bank officials and ministers, ran the country in its own interests.”

Hegarty’s analysis of this calamity, though astute, occupies only a few paragraphs at the end of this book; readers who want a more detailed (and far more pungent) analysis should turn to Fintan O’Toole’s “Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger” (2010). But Hegarty does place the present state of affairs in historical context, which in Ireland’s case is a history of religious hatred and discrimination, endemic violence, suppression and exploitation at the hands of England, all this taking place in a small island nation of incomparable natural beauty and with a cultural heritage far richer than that of almost any larger nation.

“The Story of Ireland” is the companion book to a television series of the same name that was broadcast by the BBC’s Northern Ireland arm a year ago; no plans have been announced for airing in the United States, but let us hope that will change. For all the tragedy and fierce contention with which it is charged, the history of Ireland is dramatic and, as a human story, utterly engaging. The themes that Hegarty detects in it include “persistence and consistency”; the “disenfranchised or otherwise put-upon exile seeking foreign aid — with potentially momentous consequences”; a relationship between Ireland and England that is “close and mutually significant”; a “fusion between religious and civil authorities”; and a “connection between faith and nation indivisible in the minds of its people.”


’The Story of Ireland: A History of the Irish People’ by Neil Hegarty (Thomas Dunne Books)

All of this is familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the Irish past, but Hegarty takes a significant step beyond the conventional wisdom when he argues that Ireland is not a cramped, inward, provincial place isolated from the rest of the world by the sea and by its hermetic character, but rather a place with a powerful “international dimension.” There is, he argues, “a long-established tradition in Irish culture: one of porousness, of openness to overseas influence — a tradition that sprang from long years of inward migration, travel, and human and economic relationships.”

The Norse invaders in the 10th and 11th centuries were violent and cruel, but they left their positive marks as well: “In Dublin, as in the other Norse seaports, cultural mingling became increasingly the order of the day: in the decorative work that survives from the period, for example, Norse symmetry and interlacing begins to replace the Anglo-Saxon detail that had previously influenced Irish design.” Though the lower social orders remained rooted in the places of their birth, “a great many merchants, soldiers and politicians were well acquainted with the wider world.” As Hegarty says in conclusion:

“Ireland has always been open to the world, its population from the very beginning bolstered, its towns shaped and its gene pool widened by newcomers. . . . Ireland has donned the garb of many cultures over the years: its Gaelic kingdoms cheek by jowl with Norse city states and later with an English colony slowly taking root in the land; its post-Cromwellian Ascendancy estates living with a growing Catholic middle class. And for almost a century, two states in Ireland have been divided by a border that was once heavily policed but has now essentially vanished. Ireland has always been ‘incorrigibly plural’ — and, as part of a wider European culture, it remains so today.”

The great and not-so-great names of Irish political, military and religious history march through these pages: Saint Patrick, “a complex and compelling character” whose interesting peculiarities have been lost in a fog of myth; Brian Boru, bold soldier of the 11th century and “Emperor of the Irish”; Robert Emmet, executed in his mid-20s, famous through the centuries for “idealism, enthusiasm, oratory and youthful energy,” albeit fame based in “slender achievements”; Daniel O’Connell, whose Catholic Association was “one of the first popular democratic organizations in the modern world”; Charles Stewart Parnell, a heroic figure ultimately disgraced; Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera and others of more recent vintage who in their differing ways shaped the Irish republic and brought the Troubles to an end late in the 20th century.

Along the way there are secret societies too numerous to mention, battles of a mostly ferocious character and almost unceasing acts of violence, many of them perpetrated against the innocent. That Ireland has been bitterly divided between Catholics and Protestants for as long as those denominations have existed requires no elaboration here; no theme in Irish history is stronger than this one, and none has had more painful consequences. The terrible potato famine of the 1840s of course gets its due, but I find it odd that there is no mention, in the text or even the “further reading list,” of Cecil Woodham-Smith’s “The Great Hunger” (1962), in the view of many the definitive book on that terrible subject and a vastly more compelling account of that great human tragedy than Hegarty’s brief overview.

This is doubly odd because Hegarty, a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, clearly knows his Irish history well and has done admirable research. As a one-volume guide to political, military and economic matters, “The Story of Ireland” can be read to useful effect. It is considerably less useful, though, on Irish social and cultural life. We are told, for example, that in the early 19th century, “social distress, vagrancy and destitution became part and parcel of the lives of the poor; agrarian crime, want and hunger grew following a disastrous collapse in agricultural prices,” but we really don’t get much sense of what quotidian life was like for those at the bottom of the ladder, i.e., for most of the Irish.

By the same token we are told that beginning with medieval monastic writings, “a literary tradition evolved in Ireland centuries before it appeared elsewhere in Europe,” but the subsequent development of that tradition is only scantily attended to. You would hardly know from Hegarty’s narrative that Ireland — the land of Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, Maud Gonne, James Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen, Sean O’Faolain, Edna O’Brien and too many others to mention here — has in fact a literary tradition so deep and rich as to be the envy of the rest of the world. He quotes Yeats — “We are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke, we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell” — but is content to leave it pretty much at that.

Nor are we told anything about Irish music, which from medieval balladeers to U2 has expressed the temper of the land and has become widely known, and loved, throughout the world. Ditto for other aspects of Irish culture and life, from food to architecture. How can the book be called “A History of the Irish People” with all that left out?

Which is to say that so far as it goes, “The Story of Ireland” is fine, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

yardleyj@washpost.com

THE STORY OF IRELAND

A History of the Irish People

By Neil Hegarty

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 380 pp. $27.99

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