“The IRA and its Enemies” by Peter Hart [New Year’s Resolution]
This is all about Cork during the War of Independence. It’s very engagingly written – despite a slight touch of “this was my thesis” about it – and I was really enjoying it until Mr. Waffle drew my attention to the controversy surrounding the author’s use of anonymous interviews. This, alas, does make one dubious about the author’s integrity and the reliability of his account.
It is very hard to swallow for someone from Cork. It presents a seriously revisionist view of the War of Independence. I don’t think it washes, he seems to treat as morally equivalent the shooting of someone by the IRA (outside the law) and the Black and Tans going into houses and shooting random civilians because they were under pressure. You must hold the police force and those upholding the law to a higher standard than those acting outside it. I spent my whole time reading the book saying mentally, “HOLD ON there a second now…”
Another drawback from my point of view is that, overall, it focuses much more on the county than the city and my own centre of interest is the city. There are a couple of good quotes early on about the city but much of the book is dedicated to what was happening in the county.
Here’s his characterisation of the city:
Cork city (usually simply “Cork”) itself stood out perhaps most of all in terms of its self-regard and self-absorption, its steep hills and island core adding to its insularity. Its industrial stagnation added to the occasionally passionate resentment of Dublin. This urban Cork was dense with its own particular accent, slang, characters, nicknames, dynasties, and local knowledge…there did exist an overarching sense of identity of Corkness. However stereotyped, this provoked strong characterization from outsiders and Corkmen and women alike. Among the adjectives applied: provincial, proud, boastful, sly secretive, dark, clever, clannish, grasping, brash, vain, domineering.
Later on in the same chapter he has a great story. When Harold Ashton, a Daily Mail correspondent, visited Cork in February 1917 he found:
The city was in a jumpy mood. Dublin may be the capital of Ireland but Cork is the city of Sinn Fein and its many ramifications… Sinn Feiners were out in platoons roving the streets in a spirit of high bravado. Explosions like revolver shots sent the crowd skipping and the girls screaming, and for an hour or so the warm night was very lively with detonations, explosions, and alarms, but the tall, quiet-eyed men of the R.I.C., moving always in couples among the press, cleverly broke up the demonstrators and never allowed any massed formation.
The author comments that in fact “to considerable local derision, the report actually described Patrick Street [Cork’s main street] on a Saturday night, after a football match between the Presentation [where my brother and father went to school] and Christian Brothers colleges.”
That said, despite the lack of city stories, I did find it very interesting. It’s a part of Ireland’s history I know relatively little about. However, I’m not sure, that I should have started here. It assumes a level of detailed knowledge about the Civil War and the War of Independence which I just don’t have. It’s taken as read that the readers knows the chronology of events in detail. Alas, this is not the case. Oh well, the next 10 years will see a slew of centenaries that will doubtless bring me up to date.
Updated to add: I wish I had known about this interactive map showing major incidents from Cork during the War of Independence.
“Absalom, Absalom!” by William Faulkner [New Year’s Resolution]
This is a brilliant book. I’ve never read anything by Faulkner before and I loved this. It’s hard going and sometimes it felt more like reading poetry than prose. Here’s a sentence taken at random:
She didn’t know when would come because he didn’t know himself: and maybe he told Henry, showed Henry the letter before he sent it, and maybe he did not; maybe still just the watching and the waiting, the one saying to Henry I have waited long enough and Henry saying to the other Do you renounce then? Do you renounce? and the other saying I do not renounce.”
Not a big believer in the full stop, Mr. Faulkner. And this, I assure you, is one of the shorter sentences.
I loved the language in this book and the ideas. At one point he says that Quentin (our narrator) knew something just by breathing the same air and hearing the same church bells as this figure from the past. Obviously, he didn’t say it like that but that was the gist of it. He beautifully expressed the idea of what you know unconsciously about the past in the place you’re from.
I would not recommend the Vintage edition which is the one I have. The blurb on the back gives away the entire story and it really ruins it because, clearly, the twists and turns were meant to be surprising. Maybe it’s so famous that everyone else knows what happens but it ruined it for me.
“The Pleasing Hours: James Caulfeild, Earl of Charlemont (1728-1799) – Traveller, Connoisseur and Patron of the Arts” by Cynthia O’Connor [New Year’s Resolution]
This was a present from my loving husband a number of years ago. He got it for me because I love the Casino at Marino which, though somewhat off the tourist trail is, in the view of many, including me, by far the best 18th century building in Dublin. This books is interesting in spots but it covers a lot of Charlemont’s grand tour which I found pretty dull. The author also has a deeply annoying habit of introducing people briefly once and then referring to them again 100 pages later without the slightest hint as to who they might be. I spent much of my time going to the index to find characters. I found the latter part of the book which deals with Charlemont’s time in Dublin and involvement in Irish politics the most engaging – although long pieces of art historical detection (where was the lapis lazuli table intended for?) created some very tedious interludes. Overall I think that this mightn’t have been bad, if there had been more forceful editing.
“The Whistleblower” by Kathryn Bolkovac with Cari Lynn [New Year’s Resolution]
My sister gave me this for Christmas. Somehow when people see a book set in the Balkans and subtitled “sex trafficking, military contractors and one woman’s fight for justice” their thoughts, quite mistakenly, turn to me. My heart sank and I put it on my bedside table with a heavy heart. However, it wasn’t too bad. The writing was pedestrian but the story was interesting. The title says it all really. I spent some time in Bosnia myself just after the war so the background was somewhat familiar to me. It underlines what I’ve always thought – that you have to be extremely brave and a little odd to be a whistle blower. You must be the difficult person that won’t sway to the prevailing wind. Worth a read, actually – not so much for the Balkan angle as the indictment of private police contractors.
“The Illustrated Wee Free Men” by Terry Pratchett
I love Terry Pratchett but I find the wee free men a little tedious. This book is quite clever. It’s a children’s book. And it references a lot of other children’s books. You can see trace elements of the Narnia books. And Alice in Wonderland. Very readable ,like the best children’s books. Mr waffle laughed when he saw me reading this. I think, secretly, he envies my shameless reading of children’s books.
“Call my Brother Back” by Michael McLaverty [New Year’s Resolution]
This was lent to me with a ringing endorsement which, I find, often leads to disappointment. It’s set in Belfast during the Civil War and War of Independence. The early chapters are set on Rathlin Island and it is a relief when we leave it as the author is very fond of descriptive adjectives. The book is alright and I suppose it provides an interesting (fictional) counterpoint to my reading on happenings in Cork during the same period. But, frankly, I wouldn’t press it on anyone.
“Wigs on the Green” by Nancy Mitford
A surprisingly entertaining early novel. For me, the triumph was the social climbing Mrs. Lace who is hilarious. She has spent six months in Paris and on foot of this changes her name from the prosaic Bella to the glamorous Anne-Marie. Clearly trends in names are no longer as they were in 1935.