Monday, April 14, 2014

A Playful Provocation?

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine on 13 April 2014

The Books that Define Ireland
by Bryan Fanning and Tom Garvin

The definite article in this book's title is either an indicator of presumptuousness or a playful provocation. The appropriate response therefore is to scoff at the selection and to come up with a better one of your own. So let's get started. Most people seeking out books that define Ireland would probably look to literature first and supplement it with historical and political works. The authors, an historian and a political scientist, have taken the opposite tack in selecting books that they claim "have had an impact on Irish opinion." Their selection is heavy on their own disciplines and light on the literary front. The literary works they have selected we are told were "chosen for the social and political arguments they provoked". So where is O'Casey? And the absence of Joyce seems particularly perverse. His protean novel Ulysses in all its colour and garrulousness surely meets these criteria. Despite their protestations about being non-literary the authors have included Jonathan Swift, Frank O'Connor, John McGahern, and Flann O'Brien - the latter for that most literary of novels At Swim Two Birds.

Another limitation is the seemingly arbitrary decision to confine the selection to post-Reformation publications. In fact of the 31 books mentioned in the table of contents all but six are 20th Century or later. Where's Goldsmith's Deserted Village? Where's The Táin from the 12th century? Where are Diarmuid and Gráinne? Cúchulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill? Or if we accept the time constraint why not include Samuel Ferguson and Standish O'Grady's later popular versions of these Irish myths? Olivia O'Leary in a characteristically incisive and polished speech launching the book gently chided the authors for omitting such texts as these - surely formative for the Irish psyche. They are also crucial indicators of a thriving civilisation pre-dating that of our subsequent oppressors. The book was launched in the Royal Irish Academy where, ironically, many of these old Irish manuscripts are housed.

Many would be surprised to see a book by Todd Andrew's in a list of 30 books that define Ireland. I suspect that joint author Tom Garvin's family connection with Andrews rather than the intrinsic merit of Dublin Made Me prompted its inclusion. If they wanted old-IRA memoirs, Dan Breen or Ernie O'Malley would have been better choices. However it does give Garvin the opportunity to suggest the real reason for the controversial closing of the Bray-Harcourt railway line. In an unbuttoned moment Andrews told him that: "I got fed up of watching those Freemasons going in to Trinity from Foxrock at the taxpayers expense".

While applauding the inclusion of Cecil Woodham-Smith's The Great Hunger you could simultaneously bemoan the exclusion of Patrick Kavanagh's The Great Hunger published 20 years earlier. This epic poem depicted the sexually arid lives of the priest-ridden and mother manacled farmers who worked our fecund land:

"He was suspicious in his youth as a rat near strange bread,
When girls laughed; when they screamed he knew that meant
The cry of fillies in season."

But if your stifle your quibbles about the selection and go with the flow there's plenty of enjoyment to be had from the book. Don't be put off by the academic background of the authors. This is entertainment with erudition rather than a dry and worthy tome. Its 30 self-contained chapters of about 10 pages are ideal for reading in short chunks. Each chapter gives some biographical data and a summary of the relevant book and related works. The authors have an eye for a telling quote that will encourage you to revisit many of the books mentioned. One such is Noel Browne's Against the Tide. His descriptions of the luxurious lifestyle of his namesake Cardinal Michael Browne, all champagne and hand-rolled cigarettes, and of the Labour Party leader William Norton pigging out at a state banquet, are worth the price of admission. Here's a flavour:

"Like a hungry suckling piglet, frantically probing the fat sow's belly, spoon and fork were followed by his chubby fingers and last of all his thumb, each of them lovingly and lingeringly licked dry. Fingers licked clean, he would hold a lighted scarlet and gold-labelled Havana in one sticky hand and caress his well-filled brandy glass in the other. Norton lived Larkin's 'Nothing is too good for the working classes'."

There's a strong sense of plus ca change about many of the entries. These books may or may not define Ireland but it's certain sure they didn't change anything. Fintan O'Toole's excoriating critique of Larry Goodman and beef industry is one of the best pieces of forensic investigative journalism in the history of the state. The Government's connivance in using the tax payer to rescue a flawed operation run by its supporters has obvious contemporary parallels. We seem not to have taken much heed of O'Toole's dire conclusions. And of course Nell McCafferty's Kerry babies saga uncovered a culture within the Gardai that preferred to proclaim biological miracles (twins with different fathers) rather than accept they might have been over zealous in their investigative methods.

There are many tasty morsels to be extracted from this Irish stew. Who would have known that Wolf Tone was such a good writer and such a conniving lady's man? Does this side of him get an airing amongst our prim republicans every Easter I wonder. Of his many liaisons with English ladies he prided himself on his discretion:

"Not one of those to whom I had the good fortune to render myself agreeable ever suffered the slightest blemish in her reputation on my account."

The book was planned and developed over copious pints of Guinness (according to one of the authors) and I'm sure they had great fun arriving at their conclusions. Their enthusiasm for the selected texts is infectious and you'll leave their company well entertained and better informed.

274 pp

John P. O'Sullivan