Saturday 01 January 1994
This is a large, imposing and provocative biography of the senior political figure in modern Irish history. De Valera was the inspiring figurehead of Ireland's nationalist emotions: he was one of the leaders of the Easter 1916 uprising, and later founded Fianna Fail. American- born, he secured Ireland's neutrality during the Second World War. But he also emerges, in Tim Pat Coogan's compelling account, as a harsh political realist driven by a 'lust for power', whose rule has had unfortunate consequences. 'De Valera,' he concludes, 'did little that was useful and much that was harmful.' He promoted a fierce, intolerant brand of Catholicism and allowed violence and censorship to infiltrate the body politic. Those to whom he remains a legendary hero will hate the book; but few will fail to by impressed by Coogan's cool, deep handling of the material.
VIVE MOI] by Sean O'Faolain, Sinclair Stevenson, pounds 20
Ireland's master short story writer revised his autobiography shortly before he died in 1991. And here it is, with added love life: 'Good reader] I admit, in schoolboy language, I had a crush . . .' (on Elizabeth Bowen, but it might be others). The old stuff remains: holidays in places no other man came to; lonely childhood in the household of an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary; bomb-making for the IRA. There's some great writing. Clearest in the clear, romantic air of Ireland's West, the prose thickens on contact with Yeats and Joyce and old Henry James. But O'Faolain's style is wonderfully vivid, and always persuasively humorous.
HERESY: The Battle of Ideas in Modern Ireland by Desmond Fennell, The Blackstaff Press, pounds 25
'Irish Socialist Thought', 'The Independence of Ireland in The 1990s': an odd republican-socialism runs through these essays. There's also a lament for the Gaeltacht, Ireland's Irish-speaking population (25,000 left); and a long, sceptical essay on Seamus Heaney ('intellectually poor' because conveying no 'worldview'). One long essay in self-defence sounds almost paranoid: are Fennell's ideas truly 'ranked as thought-crime' in Dublin? Are the capital's media really all 'apparatchiks'? And at least one piece seems dated: Labour surely no longer survives on 'crumbs left over by the two big parties'. But this is strong, expert writing. Just beware: polemicist at work.
THE CONSEQUENCE by Colbert Kearney, The Blackstaff Press, pounds 8.95
When Fintan Kearney's novel becomes a best-seller his problems are only just beginning: he doesn't even remember writing the book. Intriguing situations follow (how to talk on TV about a novel you never wrote, how to behave at your launch party . . .) But the heavy hand of the Academy smacks things out of shape (the 'Death of the Author' and 'Derridean prose' both force entry) and even real people popping in for a chat (Brendan Behan, 'dark and loud and merry') don't set things right. And hang on, isn't the protagonist's surname the same as the author's? And aren't they both lecturers at University College, Cork? It's that kind of book.
FATHER RALPH by Gerald O'Donovan, Brandon, pounds 6.95
Celtic revivalist, founder of working men's clubs, Gerald O'Donovan was also a 'very distinguished ecclesiastic' who left the priesthood in anger - as does Father Ralph in this novel of 1913. It's hardly surprising: Ireland's poor starve as the bishops guzzle and Ralph's crusade to help them is thwarted by the Church. In the end the battling cleric is forced to throw off his collar and join the ranks of the oppressed. It's good drama, if not great art. The simple folk may be see-through ('Sure, 'tis Miss Evans the fine girl, now'), but they make their point. And the novel's passion and commitment are stirring.
ERRISLANNAN by Alannah Heather. The Lilliput Press, pounds 14.99
Chapter 11: 'Picnics'; Chapter 12: 'Alcock and Brown; Sundays at Home'. The scope of this often charming family memoir isn't large. Yeats stayed 'nearby'; Ranjitsinhji owned a castle where the family went for fetes. The house at Errislannan in other words, is solid nostalgia. 'We were totally ignorant of what was going on in Ireland,' writes the author, a former art mistress at Benenden School. And it's true. Events rarely impinge; 'Donald always carried a loaded revolver' is generally how they do. Then it's back to Uncle Walter and his splendid tomatoes.
WALKING THROUGH IRELAND by Robin Neillands, Little, Brown, pounds 14.99.
Robin Neillands took months to plan his 500-mile walk across Ireland from north to south. He consulted maps, bought some exciting kit and was no novice, but 'didn't actually notice the absence of footpaths in Ireland until I was about three days into the walk . . . when it finally dawned on me the discovery came as something of a shock'. He keeps going, dipping in and out of Irish history and in and out of bogs. Jolly old fellows sipping Guinness and venting their ire at the English in picturesque pubs make their inevitable appearance, but the book is funny and informative and full of love for this untamed and almost unwalkable country.
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