Book Review: O’Brien Pocket History Of Ireland

O’Brien Pocket History Of Ireland, by Breandan O hEithir

When you are writing a small book about Irish history or any other subject, it makes sense to ponder the extent to which one’s coverage is going to be biased by a problem like chronological snobbery. In the case of this book, the midway portion of the book’s contents comes at the period of World War I, meaning that half of the entire book covers the century after 1914 and the other half of the book covers everything that happened in Irish history before 1914. This is a staggeringly bad division of contents, and it was presumably requested by the author. It seems impossible to correctly understand something as complex and contentious as Irish history if you are mostly looking at the recent past and are spending hardly any time discussing the greater past that sets the content for the present. One wonders why it is that the author and publisher so grossly misappropriated the space in a book, especially considering the word limits that are involved in writing a short book. Did the publisher really think people wanted or needed to know details about the politics of interwar and postwar Ireland but needed next to no context of the Normans–covered in a page–or the entire eighteenth century, which is covered in four pages, or less than 1/10 the space that the 20th century gets? If so, the publisher is a moron.

Given how bad this book’s coverage of Irish history is, it makes sense that the about the author information lets us know that he was an Irish jorno. The book begins with a discussion of the first settlers, Newgrange, the Iron Age forts, as well as the coming of the Celts. By the time that the Christians arrive we are barely a dozen pages into the book, and then we quickly move on to monasteries, the Vikings (in one page), the treasures of the monasteries (two pages), missionaries (another page), the Normans, the Statutes of Kilkenny (another page), and Norman influence over centuries that is covered in a couple of pages. This is followed by a couple of pages on the Ulster Plantation and Cromwell, a page on the penal laws, the eighteenth century, a couple of pages on Daniel O’Connell, very little on Young Ireland (less than a page), a couple pages on the famine and its effects, a couple of pages on the Fenians, and then a few pages on Parnell. This is then followed by more than half of the book covering the 20th century, including a discussion of the Gaelic revival, the volunteer forces in World War I, the 1916 rising, the War of independence, negotiations, the treaty, the Civil War, the pro-treaty government, the career of Eamon de Valera, the 1937 constitution (5 pages), the clann na Poblachta, the declaration of the Irish republic (two pages), De Valera’s contribuation (2 pages), Sean Lemass, Jack Lynch, the Northern troubles (4 pages), the growing conflict in Northern Ireland, the Irish entry into the EC, the economic crisis, the growth of the Northern Conflict (3 more pages), hunger strikes (2 pages), the financial rectitude of the Irish, Southern policies on Northern Ireland, the Good Friday agreement (5 pages), and some information on Ireland today.

It is admittedly a good thing to have a short book on Irish history to the extent that one wants to become familiar with a subject that one might not know particularly well. That said, this book handles its subject matter in a particularly poor fashion, demonstrating the author to be someone who reads and cites headlines more than being familiar with the warp and woof of Irish history to begin with. The extremely narrow coverage of Irish history means that most of what we do get is the most tired and familiar aspects of Irish history covered extremely briefly and superficially until one gets to the contemporary period. This means that those who read this book will likely be confirmed in whatever partial or narrow understanding they have of the past and will be reinforced in their bias to think better of the present and of the recent past than of the larger context of the past that still strongly influences life in Ireland (and elsewhere). The book obviously has some use, but is extremely disappointing because it could have done a much better job at presenting the context of Irish history rather than merely a superficial coverage that mostly focuses on the recent past.

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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