Malachy McCourt’s History Of Ireland, by Malachy McCourt
Ultimately, this book is hindered by the fact that it is not really a historical work so much as it is someone’s thoughts and stories told in a generally but not necessarily chronological fashion. It is not merely that this work lacks the sort of scholarly apparatus that would allow the work to be taken seriously as a history, or that it lacks the tone that demonstrates even the attempt at an impartial view, but rather that this book is so blatantly partisan in favor of radical Irish thinking and politics that unless one is a dyed-in-the-wool partisan of that cause then this book will have very little to offer. The book skips over large sections of Irish history and consists mostly of whining and complaining and hostility against the English. The author even manages to forget, as is common, how many people could be counted as Irish writers, including C.S. Lewis, who seems to be generally forgotten when Irish writers are given their proper due, and is a sign of the author’s anti-English blindness. The end result is a book that has some sparkle but fails terribly when it deals with political matters, which is all too often.
Coming in at nearly 400 pages, this book has 40 generally short chapters that are linked together by theme based on the author’s interests in talking about them, and there is no pretense or reality of dispassionate nonpartisanship here. Two chapters cover Irish prehistory, and the first relates to the author’s own personal teacher of Irish stories and her life, and the second to various popular myths of Irish prehistory. After that another three chapters look at the entire period from Patrick through Brigid and then to Columcille up to the Viking invasions. Two chapters then look at the Vikings and the native Irish high kings before two chapters cover the Norman Invasion and the Earls of Kildare. Two more chapters discuss the Tudor conquest, four chapters discuss the chaos and destruction of the 17th century, including one tiny chapter that is devoted to Oliver Cromwell which does not even mention his son-in-law Henry Ireton. Three chapters then discuss the author’s view of Great Patriots of the 18th and early 19th century, after which the Great Hunger itself is largely skipped, perhaps as being too traumatic. Fully half of the book is devoted to Irish history over the past 150 years or so, including three chapters on Irish political leaders of the mid-to-late 19th century, three more chapters on the birth of the Republic, three more on Irish writers, two chapters on the birth pangs of the Irish republic, three more on Ireland in the modern world, a couple of chapters for various “people of passion,” another for people of peace, and three for the reconciliation efforts of the late 20th century and then two on contemporary Irish people of importance.
There are at least a few areas where this book is notably defective. For one, the author speaks openly in favor of socialist and terrorist Irish leaders, justifying their use of terror because of a perceived lack of progress concerning Irish freedom. Then the author expresses a dislike that lower-middle class Irish people abandoned Parnell when he demonstrated poor moral conduct in his relations with a married woman, not realizing the fundamental importance of personal character to good leadership. After that we have the chronological snobbery of the author in focusing on the 19th and 20th centuries to such a large degree, and then the author’s interest in vapid celebrity and cultural history rather than more serious and weighty elements. The author’s lack of interest in critiquing the disloyalty of Ireland during World War II and its persistent lack of good faith in its dealings with the English suggests that the author is too interested in being a partisan of the Irish side to be worthy of being taken seriously as a historian. The end result is that this book is written by and for those whose blind favoritism towards the Irish perspective is the chief determination of whether a book on Ireland is to be appreciated, and that is simply not my cup of tea.