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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Review of "101 Things You Didn't Know about Irish History"

Writing this review of the non-fiction paperback titled, "101 Things You Didn't Know about Irish History," written by Ryan Hackney and Amy Hackney Blackwell, is a challenge.

If I tried to entice readers of this blog with the entertaining facts from the book, I'd be having to say, "Spoiler Alert" all the time.

Still, it is a book you should read.

Before I read the book, I knew some parts of Irish history, but I probably knew "enough to be dangerous," as the saying goes, because I could conflate causes and effects and confuse places and times. So as not to mess it up, I tried not to talk about things I wasn't sure of, and that was most of Ireland's history.

Now, I'm not an expert from reading this book.  One book could never do that. However, I have a better appreciation of the history of Ireland and a handy reference book so I can find the right slot when I'm asked in the future to focus upon any part of Irish history.

I admire that the book deals with the sectarian divides that rend Ireland, especially in Northern Ireland, with even handed explanations and a plethora of facts. Maybe the authors' American perspectives have served them well. Maybe the authors are removed enough from the present day conflicts to sort through all the conflicting Irish viewpoints and stay neutral. Whatever the cause, the result is refreshing.

The coverage of topics is wide and not just about battles and dates. The important persons are all included. However, the common people and a wide range of institutions are related as well. The times discussed vary from the end of the most recent ice age up to the present time at the book's writing (the book's copyright is 2007, and is noted to have been abridged or adapted from the Everything Irish History Book copyrighted 2004 by the same two authors).

The format of the book is helpful.  There are 101 labeled segments or chapters in 236 pages, so the average is a little over 2 pages per segment.  The pages are on the small side, but the fonts are clear.  Reading a segment can definitely be fit into the small spaces of a busy person's day.  Still, the flow of the topics builds, so those who want to read a lot at once won't feel slighted.

There are almost no illustrations.  I think they could have added a particular illustration: a timeline to graphically illustrate the topics discussed in the segments.

My wife says I'm such and engineer, but personally I find the use of bulleted or numbered lists is relatively sparse. The bulleted list on Oliver Cromwell is a devastating indictment.  More use of these lists may have helped organize and relate thoughts.

The mention of the Irish language (Gaeilge) throughout and the inclusion of a very small Primer of the Irish language (and another of Irish Proverbs and Blessings), will help explain to the uninitiated that Ireland has another language from English and a long cultural history.

I would have been okay with a longer book if it expanded he discussion of the Troubles, the peace process, and the modern Irish politics.  Or maybe these authors would do that in a new book?

My final observation is that the entire book, although non-fiction, does show that the authors did inherit the Irish knack for story telling, and there are some doozies they tell. Whether you read it under a fluorescent light in a hotel room or near the glow from a peat fire, enjoy the stories of a real country coming to grips with the past and the future.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Review of "O Come Ye Back to Ireland: Our First Year in County Clare"

On the surface "O Come Ye Back to Ireland:  Our First Year in County Clare" is a book about a married couple moving from New York City to a small farm in the west of Ireland. But on a deeper level it's about the changes in relationships that result from a life changing decision.

At first, the differences in the new place swell in importance. The driving on the "wrong" side of the road. The accents and local expressions.

Then the wetness, the unrelenting wetness slowly drives them crazy.

Slowly, the initial shyness and subsequent openness of their new Irish friends begins to reward their patience.

Still, the missed conveniences and special worlds in New York nag Christine and Niall. The lost excitement of densely populated New York gnaws at them. The variety and ease of food, in the metropolitan center they used to live in, is sorely missed.

Some images of Ireland, formed before they crossed the Atlantic, might not materialize.

Will Niall bond with the land? Could it start with the backbreaking work of cutting, drying, and collecting turf to burn through the long dark winter? Even with expert help, the task appears hopeless to achieve. 

Will Christine always be grinding out the existence that rural life demands? Can she catch up and get ahead enough to produce art strongly connected to the land and its people?

All these quandaries are told in the organic weave of unflinchingly truthful stories.  

Stories are the root core of memoir, but the stories in this book relate the surprises, the connections, the struggles, the disappointments, and the breakthroughs that are as stirring as any great fiction.

If you have an interest in the real Ireland, not just the tourist attractions, you will enjoy this book.

If you may have little or no interest in Ireland, think on this - from the lessons of people of different cultures relating, experiencing the lows and highs of emotion, and finding grace in the face of vast change, you will enjoy this book.

"O Come Ye Back to Ireland: Our First Year in County Clare" Paperback,
 233 pages, a memoir by Niall Williams, Christine Breen
Look for it at your local used or new book store! My store for new books in the USA is Market Block Books.
Other reviews? Goodreads