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IRELAND’S HOLY WARS by Marcus Tanner


The Struggle for a Nation’s Soul, 1500-2000

by Marcus Tanner

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-300-09072-2
Publisher: Yale Univ.

Tanner (Croatia, 1997, etc.) painstakingly scrutinizes the Irish struggles of the last half-millennium through the lens of religion, which by necessity brings to bear facets of ideology, class, politics, and the distribution of wealth and power.

Five hundred grim years in the making, the religious strife that continues to bedevil Ireland is not a pretty picture. The animosities among the various parties—the natives, the Old English, the New English, the Presbyterians, the Church of England, the Church of Ireland, with the odd Methodist, Calvinist, and Congregationalist thrown in—seemingly have forever been at or near the boil, and have been since the Middle Ages. Tanner's marvelously detailed study traces tensions back to the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169, but it was Henry VIII's split with the Pope that started the troubles in earnest. It is a miracle that Tanner can make sense of the byzantine convolutions that make up the political-religious matrix, though it requires careful reading and the memory of an elephant: “a Dutch Calvinist prince allied to the Catholic Habsburgs and the Pope, who was claiming the throne in the name of his Anglican wife, daughter of the English Catholic king.” It also feels just plain ridiculous, though always mortally so: slaughters haunt this tale. It is not Tanner's intent to suggest that religion is the sole motivating factor behind the endless turmoil—he is aware of the political and economic machinations at work and weaves them into the narrative—though he does feel that the religious angle, now that the Sinn Fein, the RUC, and the bombing have taken the limelight, give religion short shrift. Ironically, he sees religion as having lost importance in the last decade, as church indiscretions, and its lack of employment opportunities, have undercut its authority and sense of sanctuary.

Tanner's concurrent personal explorations of the real and symbolic Irish landscapes bring an immediacy to this ancient fight. Unfortunately, such immediacy doesn't lend much hope for a solution ere long.