IRELAND: A History by Robert Kee

IRELAND: A History

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A lavishly-illustrated BBC television spinoff, timed to coincide with the start of the 13-part series on American screens this spring, and aimed primarily at people ""who have very little knowledge of the history of Ireland."" Kee races through the pre-1800 period at breakneck speed, pausing only to dwell on particularly gruesome atrocities (a preoccupation throughout the book) or to note absolutely unavoidable events--e.g., the flight of the earls, the siege of Derry, the revolution of 1798. The Famine receives full treatment, however, and Kee's use of excerpts from contemporaneous accounts of irish misery as a stark counterpoint to the terrifying laissezfaire views of the British press and government (the problem, said Treasury head Trevelyan, should be left to the ""operation of natural causes"") is adroit, though hardly original. Post-Famine, Kee touches the necessary bases: the Fenians, Parnell's rise and fall, the Home Rule movement, the Easter Rising and the Troubles. Mercifully (at least for those without much background), the intricacies of Irish politics in the Free State period are largely bypassed. Less explicably, scant attention is devoted to Ulster's past decade of violence or to the return of the once-moribund IRA to prominence. Throughout, Kee stumbles often into the standard pitfalls of a television-oriented presentation: selective focus and sweeping generalizations. Daniel O'Connell, we learn, ""did more than any other Irishman before, or perhaps since, to give power to the Irish people."" Meanwhile, Young Ireland visionaries like Thomas Davis (whose fusing of politics with cultural nationalism was, in the long run, perhaps as important a contribution as O'Connell's) get short shrift. Similarly, Michael Collins is spotlighted here (""only [Collins] stands out as a really effective revolutionary""), to the near exclusion of (for example) James Connolly. Major figures such as Henry Grattan, John Mitchel, John Devoy, and Michael Davitt draw only brief mention, and names like Douglas Hyde, John O'Leary, and Bulmer Hobson do not appear at all. Eamonn Ceannt and Eamonn Kent are both mentioned, however, as though they were two people. A handsome book, then, but no more than adequate, even within its obvious limitations.

Pub Date: April 30th, 1982
Publisher: Little, Brown