A Brief History Of Ireland, by Paul F. State
This book is one that lives up to its name. To be sure, any one volume book of a nation that has been historically known for 2000 years and has a history as dramatic as that of Ireland is by necessity going to be selective and brief. There is no fault in being brief, so long as one has the right kind of approach and balance to one’s subject matter. And in the many books I have read about Irish history, this is really the first of the general books on Irish history I have read that does offer that sort of balanced account. A measure of its balance can be suggested in the fact that it includes a brief discussion about C.S. Lewis as being a writer of the ascendancy of Belfast and also includes a brief discussion of the Corrs as being Irish musicians who represent Irish culture. To be sure, the book does not spend any great amount of time talking about either C.S. Lewis or the Corrs, no matter how fond I am of them, but the fact that both are mentioned demonstrates the book’s goal of being as complete as possible given the brevity of the approach of the subject. And it should be remembered as well that the author strives for an even-handed approach that avoids victim and villain tales and points out the very human complexity of Irish history and the way that Irish division has often been as much of or even greater a problem to Irish well-being than English oppression. And that is something a lot of books fail to manage.
This book is about 400 pages long and can be divided into eleven sections with a lot of appendices as well. The book begins with a list of illustrations and maps as well as acknowledgements and an introduction. After that comes a look at Ireland’s prehistory to the end of pagan Ireland (1). This leads naturally into a look at the early Middle Ages before the Viking invasions (2) as well as a look at Irish history from the beginning of the Viking invasions to the royal confrontations over the high kingship that literally invited English intervention (3). Naturally then, the next chapter covers the period of from the Norman invasion to the Anglo-Irish administration of the Tudors (4), and then after that we get a look at the planting of Protestant power between 1534 and 1691 (5). Then, after that, comes the most peaceful period of Ireland’s history aside from the present-day, the Protestant ascendancy (6), and then the period that took place from the Act of Union to the end of the Great Famine in 1849 (7). Then after that we get a look at the period of Home Rule and Independence agitation (8). From here we look at the making of Modern Ireland from 1922 to 1969 (9), the two Irelands in collision up to 2000 (10), and then a discussion of Ireland in the 21st century (11). The appendices of the book include a discussion of basic facts about Ireland (i) and Northern Ireland (ii), a chronology of Irish history (iii), Irish leaders from 1922 to 2008 (iv), a bibliography (v), and suggested reading (vi), after which there is an index.
By and large, this is a book whose balance I can well appreciate. That is not to say that the book could not have used more information of the past, but its balance in that regard is certainly better than most. The author’s division of topics is sensible and practical and based on the events going on in Ireland at the time, and the author is obviously interested in both the good and bad sides of different developments. He recognizes the complexity of the English involvement in Ireland, the results of trying to command and control on the cheap, and the ways that the Irish were simply unable to get out of their own way when it comes to presenting a unified front that would have discouraged external invasion. Alas, the author feels it necessary to talk about history as it happened rather than as one might have wished it to happen, and the result is a compelling one-volume history of Ireland that I can highly recommend if one wants a balanced account that isn’t trying to simp for Ireland. Ireland has enough advocacy, and a history like this one which looks at the good that resulted from the Vikings and even the English is certainly well worth paying attention to.