My top books on Irish history

There are a lot of books on Irish history, and the current Decade of Commemoration has prompted a flood of new ones. Here’s my choice of a few of those that have been around for a while but are still worth reading:

Jonathan Bardon: A History of Ulster

A book that I always feel compelled to refer to as “Jonathan Bardon’s magisterial History of Ulster”. This is not, it must be stressed, a history of Northern Ireland. Its scope is much larger than that, and it begins in the mists of pre-history, with what little we know of the first people to settle the area that much, much later came to be called “Ulster” (and who were, you’ll learn from this book, very probably the very first inhabitants of the whole island). The updated edition thus stretches from around 7000 B.C. to 2000.

Whenever I recommend this book to students they are always visibly put off by its size. It’s BIG. (I remember once sitting on the tram reading it. There were two young boys, aged maybe 10 or 12, opposite me. “That’s a big book!” said one to his friend. “Yeah,” replied the other. “It’s even bigger than the latest Harry Potter!”) But in fact, it’s extremely easy to read. Each section begins with an overview that summarizes a whole period, and chapters are divided into many short sections, usually only a couple of pages long, so you really feel you’re zipping through it.

Nevertheless, if you still want something shorter, you could try:

R. F. Foster: Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change 1970–2000

R.F. (Roy) Foster wrote a comprehensive Modern Ireland 1600–1972 and this smaller volume can be considered a kind of pendant to it. It began as a series of lectures and thus shouldn’t be considered a full overview of the period. But what a period! Incredible economic growth, social change and reaction, secularisation, scandals, the dumping of shibboleths such as the constitutional ban on divorce, all against the background of sectarian violence and terrorism in the North.

Foster picks out those topics that interest him most: secularisation, feminism, the fortunes of Fianna Fáil, the changing attitudes of the Republic to Northern Ireland and its nationalists, and the (often unreal) image of Ireland, especially as it is presented abroad through popular music, literature, and the efforts of the tourism industry.

His treatment of them is incisive and often witty. He has a gift for choosing a vivid fact or quotation to illustrate a point. Would you believe that in the nineties Fianna Fáil politicians hid dodgy donations and kickbacks in “tax-haven companies with names like ‘Caviar Limited’” (p. 94)? Or that Enya’s music, so beloved of airlines worldwide, also “provided the soundtrack for the most frequently televised replay of the World Trade Center’s apocalyptic detonation” (p. 154)? His dissection of the uses and abuses of ‘Celticism’ (such as the ubiquitous ‘Irish pub’) is highly entertaining. Nor is he afraid to praise or criticise when he think it fitting. For example, the wanton vandalism to city and countryside that was often justified as the price of economic progress is rightly held up for censure.

Talking of opinions, here’s another book that is more than just ‘straight’ history:

A.T.Q. Stewart: The Shape of Irish History

A.T.Q. Stewart, who died three years ago aged 81, was a distinguished historian from Northern Ireland. He wrote on many topics, such as the period of the anti-Home Rule movement and the history of the United Irishmen, in which he was particularly interested in the role of northern Presbyterians.

This book is only partly a history of Ireland. It’s also a meditation on what history is, and what it means to study or to teach history. It’s not hard to think Stewart’s viewpoint was conditioned by both his background and the topics of his research:

“Academic historians must resign themselves to the fact that they have little real influence on a nation’s view of its past. What a nation thinks of history is shaped rather by colourful narrative and the need for a political myth.” (p. 185)

The book’s title alludes to Stewart’s search for patterns in Ireland’s history, such as recurring constellations of similar situations, cultures, personalities, opinions… It’s a phenomenon Foster also notes at times, such as when he compares the attitude to the Irish language in the Free State of the 1920s to that in post-Agreement Northern Ireland.

Stewart’s book ranges further in geographical terms than Bardon’s A History of Ulster but over as wide a stretch of time. At the start, Stewart criticises the neglect of prehistory in Irish historiography — why, he asks, has this subject been left to the archaeologists? One of the tasks he sets himself in the book is to cast some light on less well known areas of Irish history. You will, of course, have heard of the Famine. Even people who know nothing about the history of Ireland have heard of it. But were you aware that the events of 1845–49 were just one instance of famine? The great famine of 1741, for example, killed a third of the population — in proportional terms more than the Great Hunger a century later. Yet it’s the latter that is always commemorated and memorialised. If you’re wondering why, then read the book.

To summarise, this book is eye-opening, quotable (“From the 12th century onward the inhabitants of [Great Britain] have desired both to rule Ireland and to leave it alone, and often they have succeeded in doing both at the same time”, p. 60) and at times controversial:

“[…] there is no misunderstanding between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland, none whatsoever. Nor do they need to get to know each other better. They know each other only too well, having lived alongside each other for four centuries, part of the same society yet divided by politics and history. This is not just a clash of cultures; it is a culture in itself, a point overlooked by most observers.” (p. 185)

Staying on the topic of Northern Ireland, we now come to:

Deaglán de Bréadún: The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland

There have been a number of accounts of the Northern Ireland peace process, by both spectators and participants. (I’m looking forward to reading Alastair Cambell’s recently published The Irish Diaries, which deal with events 1994–2003). De Bréadún, the Irish Times’ political correspondent, had already met and interviewed many of the main players even before he covered the events that led up to the Good Friday Agreement, and he brilliantly conveys both the thrilling drama and high farce of the negotiations. (I was particularly amused by the idea of one Unionist politician hiding in the toilet in Castle Buildings to avoid having to acknowledge Gerry Adams (p. 112).) The book is also very elegantly written. Here, for example, is de Bréadún’s pen portrait of the aforementioned Sinn Féin leader:

Unknown to me and most other observers of the political scene, Adams was working away on a possible solution, having joined with John Hume in the cause of achieving peace by non-violent means. Even his enemies would acknowledge that Adams looks at the Big Picture. Everything he says and does in politics is connected with a grand plan or strategy. His pronouncements are often enigmatic and hard to fathom at the time but this may be because he is so many jumps ahead of everyone else. His enemies and critics call him Jesuitical. His intellectual and tactical subtlety sometimes confuses and irritates people but he has brought the republican movement a long way down the peaceful road, in the process helping to create a large and powerful political consensus stretching from the White House to Leinster House. It has been a hard road for Gerry Adams. As a republican leader he has been sharply attacked over the great suffering inflicted by the movement, but he, too, has paid a price. Relatives and friends have died and he himself was the victim of an assassination attempt whose after-effects still remain. He pays close attention to detail and not all of his associates find him a delight to work with, but he would be the republican movement’s nominee for the title of Ireland’s Nelson Mandela. Like him or loathe him, Ireland’s fate is inextricably bound up with the success or otherwise of his political project. (p. 19)

I’m no fan of Adams (and the description probably needs to be revised after his recent move into politics in the Republic) but there’s a lot of acuity in what de Bréadún says here. Note its judiciousness: “the republican movement’s nominee for the title of Ireland’s Nelson Mandela”.[1] (He immediately follows this with a similarly incisive description of John Hume.)

This would be my recommendation if I had to choose one book to read on the Northern Irish peace process.

Terry Eagleton: The Truth About the Irish

Terry Eagleton is the Manchester-born son of working-class Irish parents, who made a name for himself by introducing modern literary criticism to the genteel lecture halls of Oxford University back in the sixties. He’s a prolific author and celebrity don, known for being a Marxist and iconoclast.

The Truth About the Irish is a jeu d’ésprit rather than a serious academic work. It’s a kind of mini-encyclopedia on topics related to Ireland, arranged alphabetically. So you get entries on topics such as the Aran Islands, Dublin 4, Oirish [sic], potatoes, and so on, some of which are brief essays, some tongue-in-cheek ‘explanations’ for the gullible. (Check out what he says “B&B” stands for and how you should behave in one.) As one would expect with Eagleton, there are plenty of pithy asides:

  • “The Irish love their country, but have invested an immense amount of energy in getting out of it.”
  • “Irish (the language), unlike Guinness, was not good for you.”

Nonetheless, you could learn quite a bit from the book too. (Did you know that the pig is the only farmyard animal native to Ireland?) And sometimes Eagleton really hits the nail on the head, as in his description of the nature of Anglo-Irish relations:

“After a long, turbulent marriage, the Irish and the English were finally divorced in 1922, when Ireland became partly independent. Nowadays they react to each other with something like the edginess of divorced partners, at once intimate and estranged. Like divorced couples, they know each other far better than anyone else does, yet never really got the hang of each other at all.”

Most of the entries, as you can perhaps guess from the samples above, are about history and culture. Individual Irishmen and women get less of a look in, though Eagleton does give an entry to (and is quite complementary about) Constance Markievicz, which bring us to:

Speaking Ill of the Dead, edited by Myles Dungan

This book contains the edited texts of a series of lectures, in which well known ‘opinion formers’ (academics, politicians and the like) were asked to pick a respected historical figure with a connection to Ireland and perform a character assassination on him/her. You may not always agree with the judgements but it’s fun nonetheless. Here’s Ruth Dudley Edwards putting the boot into ‘Countess’ Markievicz[2]:

The Constance Markievicz of whom I am speaking ill had nothing peaceable about her. She was a self-indulgent bloodthirsty show-off who brainwashed children into believing they must die for Ireland, who killed without pity and who — defying the vote of the Irish people in June 1922 to accept the Treaty — continued to murder during the civil war. Craving excitement and the limelight, she adopted causes she barely understood because she was mesmerised by charismatic male leaders.

Although she gave up a life of material comfort when she espoused revolution, Markievicz was a snob with a bogus title. Physically brave to the point of recklessness, she lacked the moral courage to admit her failure of nerve when faced with the prospect of execution. Beautiful and flamboyant, Constance Markievicz was all style and no substance.


Other highlights include Prof. Terence Dolan on ‘St.’ (another bogus title) Richard of Dundalk, who even by the standards of medieval churchmen seems to have been a right ’un, and David Norris, whose contribution on Sean MacBride is given added bite by personal antipathy. (MacBride was a good Catholic homophobe, who ranked homosexuals alongside heroin addicts, while Norris is, of course, well known as a gay rights campaigner.)

RTÉ broadcast the original lectures, and the recordings are still available online:

So there you have it: not a top ten, but a top five and a half (taking Eagleton’s book as the half, since it’s only partly about history). I had a pleasurable time rereading them in order to compile this list. You could do worse than putting a couple of them on your Christmas list.

(Affiliate link)

  1. I originally wrote this the week before the real Mandela died.  ↩
  2. If, like me, you’ve ever thought it strange that a Republican revolutionary should be constantly referred to by a noble title, you may be doubly surprised to find that Constance M. wasn’t even entitled (excuse the pun) to it. (Her husband wasn’t a count.)  ↩
My top books on Irish history by