Sunday, February 3, 2013

WFJ Book Club #10: Malachy McCourt's History of Ireland

Before there was history there was oral tradition, and historians will be sure to tell you that they are very different things.  The modern practice of history aspires to scientific accuracy, distinguishing clearly between facts and fictions, and sometimes sacrificing simple clarity for the sake of a more complete understanding of the past.

The oral tradition, on the other hand, arose from the human love of storytelling and consequently is much more tolerant of "facts" which cannot be substantiated.  We tell stories to get at a different kind of truth, the kind that conforms to our expectations of how the world works: that the lives of people and countries have beginnings, middles, and destinies.  Oral tradition forcefully implies not only that we've come from somewhere, but that we're going somewhere too.

Malachy McCourt's History of Ireland does not present these two traditions as incompatible with one another, and the history is a better read for that.  McCourt introduces his book by invoking Peig Sayers, the great storyteller of the Irish language in modern times, and placing himself in her tradition of preserving traditional stories and culture.  But the book is thoroughly researched and broad in scope, and does not allow itself to get bogged down in one perspective. 

Divided into a series of biographies of notable Irish men and women, McCourt makes a number of special claims about Irish history.  He promotes a familiar romantic notion of Ireland as a land of heroes of all stripes: not only warriors and politicians, but also writers, artists, and poets, and many otherwise less-exalted types.  Irish culture is heroic, and Irish people (both male and female) are singled out for acts of uncommon patriotism, wisdom, and courage.  Ireland itself is heroic, passing as it has under English domination to a new age of freedom, though it still has a legacy of sectarian violence to confront.

In telling the lives of these heroes, the book freely introduces legend and anecdote into what would otherwise be a straight historical narrative.  This happens particularly in the early chapters, which essentially are just legends, from Ireland's prehistorical period.  As the documentation grows more prominent, colorful anecdotes still work their way into the story in a free and unobtrusive way, but McCourt retains a healthy respect for the distinction between fact and fiction.  Often he will shrug off the incongruity with a wry observation that, true or not, a little myth certainly makes for a better story.

I was particularly pleased to find among Ireland's gallery of heroes a healthy sampling of women: famous and strong willed ladies like Grace O'Malley, Maud Gonne, and Bernadette Devlin, among others.  The author praises these women for their boldness and their unique contributions to history, noting that independent woman are in keeping with Ireland's independent national character.  His descriptions of ancient Ireland as something of a proto-feminist exemplar (at least in comparison to mainland Europe) stretch credulity at times, but it does fit in with the larger theme that Ireland is a heroic country, and that heroism comes from all quarters.

Ireland is a storytelling nation, and has been for a very, very long time; this is the book's great premise, and it's a little bit overstated.  After all, virtually every country on Earth has a storytelling tradition and a love of its own history.  But there's no denying that Irish stories come with a particular flavor and that the Irish people are very proud of it.  That pride is very seductive, and if you've got Irish heritage (like I do) then I imagine you're bound to get wrapped up in the underdog's story.  The loss of political liberty chipped away for centuries at Ireland's native language, customs, and identity, but in spite of that all those things are alive today; it's an inspiring tale.

As I mentioned, the historical narrative is mostly conveyed as a series of short biographies, and many of these could easily be read as independent essays.  The consequence of that is that many incidents and events, relevant to the lives of more than one person, are related more than once in a notably repetitive fashion.  For someone used to scholarly, straightforward biography or history, too much repetition can be tiresome.  But in the tradition of Peig Sayers, a little incidental repetition from story to story is a virtue for the listener: it ties events together in a way that emphasizes their interconnectedness.  And again, as far as Malachy McCourt is concerned, there's no point in sacrificing the virtues of a good story. 

The conventions of Irish writing and orthography are not intuitive to most English speakers, so a comprehensive pronunciation guide for many of the names and places mentioned would have been a blessing for the readers.  Instead, we've got to make whatever sense we can out of the names; it is my fervent hope that not too many people ever ask me to pronounce a name like Cúchulainn out loud (at least until I've had time to learn Irish).  But in spite of some pronunciation questions it really is an accessible book with a lot to offer anyone with an interest in Irish history.

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