Before I visited Ireland the first time, I did an enormous amount of reading—about history, culture, and so on. The history, in particular, is a lot to grasp for an American. That whole Troubles thing? We. Just. Don’t. Get it.
I’d long been fascinated by Ireland. This allure probably had some genesis in—don’t laugh—the 1966 Disney movie The Fighting Prince of Donegal. (I said don’t laugh. I still have a VHS copy. It’s based on a 1957 novel by Robert T. Reilly, Red Hugh: Prince of Donegal, and is Good Clean Fun.)
I’d read Joyce in high school, of course (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners; I’m not any braver than that). Ten years later I read Leon Uris’s Trinity (subtitle: A Novel of Ireland) and finally thought I understood the Irish Troubles. As we’ve discussed (here, say, and here), there is a power to convey history even through fiction. (Sadly, the book didn’t stand up well in a recent reread. Which isn’t to say you mightn’t enjoy it, just that it is no longer my cuppa.)
In the years that followed I read quite a bit of Roddy Doyle’s wonderful fiction; I’d found Nuala O’Faolain and Fergal Keane. I read The Great Shame: And the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World by Thomas Keneally (he of Schindler’s List fame) and another piece of Irish history fell into place. I found a little book called A Literary Guide to Ireland by Thomas and Susan Cahill (touring Ireland by way of its writers? you can imagine my delight). This led me to Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, which was pure nonfiction pleasure. Highly recommended.
Irish history has been discussed in a variety of fiction and nonfiction, all immanently readable. (It’s been covered in movies, too, but that’s another post.) It’s an ongoing thing, this personal study of Irish history, but by the time I finally visited Ireland, I at least had the basics in hand. Not everyone is as interested in drilling down the way I am, I guess, but if you travel to a country not your own, how can you experience it as anything more than a Disneyland (Oh, look, honey! Sheep! So cute!) if you don’t know at least a little something?
This was borne home to me in an incident I experienced in Dublin at Kilmainham Gaol. Now a museum, the gaol played an important role in recent Irish history, having been the site of the executions of fourteen men who participated in the Easter Rising, including all seven of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. It is a solemn and sorrowful place.
On this particular day our tour group was being led by a soft-spoken young man who looked to be in his mid-twenties; he was probably a graduate student at one of the local universities. Also in our group was a large American man who seemed desperate to show the rest of us—and the very Irish docent—how much he knew about Ireland, about the Rising (he called it the Uprising … sigh), really, about everything. He kept peppering our young guide with questions and comments, which were answered fully and patiently.
And then the guide said something about the Irish Civil War.
The big guy sputtered. “Civil war? What civil war?” Hahahaha. Yes, dude. Didn’t you watch the movie? Michael Collins didn’t die at British hands.
Without doubt, Irish history is complicated. And, as Fergal Keane notes, “ruthless … nasty, [and] tribal.” But if you want to understand it, you can. I can recommend a book. :) The Irishman and I found it in the United Nations bookshop, of all places: Ireland: An Illustrated History, by Henry Weisser. It’s short—you can read it in an afternoon—and has everything you need to know.
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