An Irish History of Civilization, by Don Akenson

The global Irish joke

Stephen Howe
Tuesday 16 July 2013 23:05

An Irish History of Civilization, the first part of a vast two-volume endeavour, is an Irish story presented in a Jewish form by a US-born Canadian historian of Swedish Protestant ancestry. The title is, of course, a kind of joke, albeit with a very serious intent. One of Don Akenson's many previous books, focused on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat, was entitled If the Irish Ran the World. This one proves they almost did...

The upshot of the Montserrat story, surprising only to the most sentimental of Emerald Isle patriots, is that Irish colonisers and slave-owners were no more benevolent than any other kind. An obvious lesson of An Irish History - amid hundreds of more surprising teachings - is that this was true on a global scale. Akenson's astonishing series of vignettes, mini-biographies and running jokes features Irish pirates, missionaries, colonial governors, slaves and slaveowners. We find Irish soldiers fighting for the English, French, Spanish, even the Russians; Irish priests, doctors, adventurers in Poland, Jamaica, the Congo, Australia, Polynesia... There are heroes, villains, victims, and oddities like the Irishman who, for a bet, walked all the way to Jerusalem and played handball against the ancient walls.

Many of the stories are grim. "Effecting grievous bodily harm" was, Akenson suggests, Ireland's "unofficial national sport". The sport was much exported, by bizarrely horrible characters like "Bloody O'Reilly", slaughtering in Spanish service. But Akenson's love for the country and its diaspora always shines through, even it it's a hard kind of love, without the mawkishness which clogs so much writing on Irish emigrants.

Akenson has written major scholarly books on Irish history, as well as several novels, a biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien, a brilliant comparative analysis of Ulster, Israel and South Africa, and books on Biblical history. An Irish History brings together all those preoccupations; it mingles history and fiction, the horrifying and the hilarious.

Some of Akenson's conceits are delightful. A few fall flat. But that's a great merit of the mosaic form. You can dip in, skip the bits you don't like, revisit those you do. This is a very odd book, but a genuinely brilliant achievement.

Stephen Howe is author of 'Ireland and Empire' (OUP)

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