Book Review: The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Irish History And Culture

The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Irish History And Culture, by Sonja Massie

Although I am generally fond of the Idiot’s Guide series [1], I found this book to be somewhat dissatisfying on at least a couple of grounds that are worthy of comment. This book seems to assume that the reader is Catholic Irish, for even though the authors claim that those of us, myself included, who spring from Scot-Irish Protestant ancestry are to consider ourselves Irish, the book ignores some of the surnames that were a part of the Ascendancy and the book ignores any discussion on one of the foremost Irish writers and thinkers of the 20th century, namely C.S. Lewis, whose father was a noted Ulster Protestant barrister and whose mother was one of the more important pioneers in Irish university education for women. When added to this is a tendency of the author to promote blarney about St. Patrick from Catholic sources that downplay his Sabbatarian roots [2], the book itself shows itself to be unreliable because it contains a great deal of strident editorializing against the English and Scot-Irish, as well as against Christian morality in general (namely in moral opposition to divorce, abortion, and gay marriage) while not including key aspects of Irish history and culture that are simply inconvenient to the author’s agenda.

That said, for those who do have Irish ancestry and are proud of about it, this book has much to offer in spite of its biases and its omissions. In terms of its contents, the book contains five parts with twenty-five chapters that take up a bit more than 250 pages of material. Part One introduces Ireland as a mystical land of magical people and looks at the way that the Irish celebrate life, death, and marriage with music and dancing. Part two introduces Irish history, beginning with the hazy prehistory of Ireland, including the time when Ireland was only inhabited by animals, before its chapter on Celtic culture full of stereotypes and its chapter on St. Patrick. The next twelve chapters after this contain a long litany of complaints about various invaders and various difficult times in Irish history, starting with the Viking Invasion, the beginning of the Norman invasion, the early period of Anglo-Norman rule in the Pale of Ireland, the battle between the Earls and the English crown over domination of Ireland, the Tudor and Stuart period, the atrocities of Cromwell [3], the oppression of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Great Hunger, Irish emigration abroad, the Irish revolts of the early 1900s, the birth of the Irish Free State, Irish history since independence. The next three chapters give the author’s highly selective picture of Erin’s hall of fame, with a look at politicians, soldiers, police, and boxers, then a look at Irish bards, and a chapter on Ireland’s controversial theatrical history. The last four chapters point out what the author thinks Ireland still has to offer, including the lore of Ireland, tourism, Irish music, sports, and crafts, and a list of a few representative surnames from Ireland’s counties to aid Irish-Americans in searching their family roots. Sprinkled throughout the book are various insets that give advice on how the reader can “speak plain Irish,” say something that “tisin’t so,” or give random information with the “gift of gab.”

This book, for all of its gab and the obvious love of the author for the subject, is a prime example of what happens when people who have an ax to grind end up spending a great deal of time that could have been spent celebrating the history of the Irish instead participating in a lengthy litany of complaints about others. All throughout Irish prehistory, the division of Ireland’s own peoples and their general backwardness have prompted invasion after invasion–one has the Tuatha de Danaan, the Milesians, the beaker folk, the Celts, the Vikings, and then the Norman-English and Scot-Irish over the course of many millennia. A great deal of this book consists of a great deal of whining and complaining, and given the book’s major omissions, it clearly is telling a bias and incomplete story. By celebrating crooked politicians, murdering revolutionary “freedom fighters,” and decadent peddlers of debauched culture, the author shows herself to be no friend to the moral or ethical well-being of the Irish people, and someone more interested in holding a grudge than in encouraging a genuine appreciation of what is best about Irish culture, like its rule of law and respect for women. All too truly what the author says about the Irish is true of the author as well, in a way that makes this book a lesser achievement than it could have been: “The Irish have been accused of being a melancholy people, and we often are. It has been said we hold a grudge, and we sometimes do. We have a reputation for being pensive at times, for having a black sense of humor, and for embracing the dark side of life; that reputation is well-earned. We are a people who appreciate contrast. We know that good shines brightest when surrounded by the darkness of evil. A spring morning is all the sweeter when it follows a harsh winter. We laugh so heartily because we have wept so bitterly (25).” This book would have been better had it not been filled with so much evil, especially evil praised by the author because it was against Protestant Ulstermen, against the unborn, or against the English.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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