Passage through the annals of Irish civilisation

Joe Jamison reviews Eyewitness to Irish History by Peter Berresford Ellis, John Wiley & Sons, 2004, US$ 24.95; Canadian $35.99; UK £16.95 hbk

RENOWNED CELTIC scholar Peter Beresford Ellis offers in Eyewitness to Irish History a documentary history of Irish civilization over its 3000 years. The book can be thought of as a kind of 'photo' album of Ireland and the Irish people -- beginning with pre-history and legend in the Book of Invasions, and concluding with the contemporary conflict in Northern Ireland.

It draws upon original texts - from bardic poetry, letters, diaries, memoirs, treaties, newspaper accounts, public decrees, secret memos, and even graffiti - to capture the feel and the sweep of Irish history.

Of course, everything depends on the choice of the snapshot. No stranger to Irish Democrat readers, with his sweeping command of Irish history, Ellis’s frank commitment to Irish national democracy guides his hand.

He has a keen eye for the important moments of conflict, the decisive turning points, the most believable witnesses, and the most telling social realities.

A special thematic strength of this book is its sensitivity to the role of culture in the national struggle, above all the Irish language. He documents centuries of concerted, conscious efforts by the English rulers, beginning with Henry VIII, to snuff out the Irish language and with it, national identity.

The small country showed extraordinary absorptive and assimilative powers against every invader -- Viking to Tudor -- until, beginning the 17th century; it was overwhelmed by sheer force.

If the selection may be said to have a thesis it is that Irish history is mainly a tale of struggle for national independence at least since Dermot MacMurrough foolishly appealed for Henry II’s aid in the 12th century. Its twin themes are the endless succession of catastrophes visited on the Irish by British imperialism, triggering indomitable national resistance.

A most interesting item is the papal treachery toward Ireland in two documents. Sounding not unlike like Bush and Blair justifying their imperial misadventure in Iraq, Pope Adrian IV writes to Henry II:

“whereas, then, well-beloved son in Christ, you have expressed to us your desire to enter the island of Ireland in order to subject its people to law and to root out from them the weeds of vice……we do hereby declare our will and pleasure that, with a view toward enlarging the boundaries of the church, restraining the downward course of vice, correcting evil customs, and planting virtue, and for the increase in the Christian religion, you shall enter the island.” (p 31)

His successor Alexander III sent a congratulatory message to Henry after the “glorious” victory over the Irish, who

“ignore the fear of God in an unbridled fashion and who wander through the steeps of vice, and have renounced all reverence for Christian faith and virtue, and who destroy themselves in mutual slaughter.” (P 36)

The book, however, is not a miscellany. There is an underlying logic and dramatic progression to the selections. Connecting the documents, italicized commentary by Ellis illuminates the selections, and puts each in context. Nor is it all battles and kings. Everyday life in Ireland throughout the centuries is depicted in, for example, entries lifted from St. Patrick's Confessions, or a gruesome first-person famine diary of 1848.

One cold-blooded entry by early English political economist William Petty (p 119) notes that 504,000 Irish died of “sword, famine, hardships, and banishment” in the Cromwellian onslaught of 1641-1652.

With three millennia to cover, appropriately, about half the book centers on 1798 forward, illuminating Ireland’s modern history. There is a thorough index and bibliography.

I did not know that Daniel O’Connell in 1861 used the phrase “West Briton.” (p 167) “The people of Ireland are ready to become a kind of “West Briton” if made so in benefits and justice, but if not, we are Irishmen again. “ It’s a kind of commodification of national identity and another black mark against O’Donnell, in my estimation.

This splendid book is an antidote to the antinationalist revisionism that, though past its peak, I hope, is still around marring the writing of Irish history. The book is going into my collection of Ellis’s books, joining his History of the Irish Working Class, Celt and Saxon, and To Hell or Connaught.

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