Songs of Love and War by Santa Montefiore

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Word PressThis isn’t brilliant.  It sounded promising – the lives of three young women and how they were affected by Irish independence and the events leading up to and following it – but it was rather confused and full of rather unlikely events, non-sequiturs and storylines that weren’t fully developed.  The twist in the tale at the end wasn’t even remotely convincing.  Also, fancy referring to the marriage of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and “Prince George”!  I thought the Palmer-Tomkinsons and the Montefiores were as thick as thieves with Prince Charles, but evidently Santa doesn’t even know what his grandfather’s name was!

I gather from things people have written on Amazon that most of the author’s books are a lot better than this one.  Good!  It was an interesting idea, and some of what was written about the events in Ireland wasn’t bad, but there were too many characters and too many storylines and none of them were properly developed.  Could have done a lot better!

 

Tread Softly on my Dreams by Greta Curran Browne

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Word PressI didn’t deliberately arrange it so that I finished a book about Irish history just in time for St Patrick’s Day, honestly!   This book starts with the 1798 (Wolfe Tone) Rebellion, but its main focus is the 1803 Rebellion led by Robert Emmet, and it generally does a good job of getting across the horror of the very heavy-handed way in which the rebellion was put down but without sounding like a piece of propaganda.

Robert Emmet’s a figure who has been romanticised, because of his relationship with his sweetheart Sarah Curran, and the rebellion itself is often portrayed as a working-class, Catholic uprising, which is unfortunate because it masks the fact that this was an uprising of the United Irishman, and that Emmet himself was from a Protestant Ascendancy background. This book successfully steers clear of all that. It shows that this was an uprising of Irish people from different social and religious backgrounds. And Sarah Curran comes across as … well, a bit of a spineless jellyfish. The reader’s left feeling that the real heroine of the piece was Anne Devlin, who acted as Emmet’s housekeeper but was also a fellow conspirator. After the rebellion failed, Anne was tortured, and imprisoned in very harsh conditions which permanently damaged her health, but refused to turn informer. A very brave woman … but, as the author points out, no-one’s ever written any songs or poems about her.

There were many nationalist uprisings, both in Europe and in South America, during the 19th century. Some succeeded, some didn’t. Some got outside support, some didn’t. Some have come to be viewed romantically, some haven’t. Some were viewed romantically at the time – the movement for Greek independence being the obvious one, and maybe the movement for Italian unification another .,.. and then there was Poland, but that’s a long story. The 1803 uprising in Ireland isn’t usually spoken of along with the general increase of nationalism in the 19th century, maybe because it came so early, and in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars.  Unfortunate timing. Obviously its leaders were inspired by what had happened in America and then in France, but the British ruling classes have always been paranoid about the idea of France using Ireland as a launchpad for an invasion of the British mainland, and so for this to happen in the middle of a war with France, and for the rebels to invite French support, was always going to lead to very severe repression.

The paranoia amongst the British upper classes because of what had happened in France, and what had happened in America, is something which isn’t always given the consideration it should be. Just think about what went on – in Ireland, obviously, but also over here. The Peterloo Massacre – I could write a very long essay about that! The Combination Acts – even 19 years after Waterloo, even after Catholic Emancipation and the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, the poor Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to Australia, all because of this utter paranoia about uprisings. Maybe it can even be compared to the fear of slave uprisings in the Southern states of the US … er, I’ve only just had that thought, and it’s probably way OTT, but I thought I’d write it down anyway!

So not a good time for uprisings in Ireland, sadly. The real missed opportunity was the blocking by the House of Lords of Gladstone’s Home Rule Bills in the 1880s and 1890s. The upper classes strike again! That’s when there should have been a peaceful settlement for Ireland, and that’s when the real opportunity came to avoid all the bloodshed of later years. And it was missed. But that doesn’t really work for romantic ballads, and Robert Emmet does.

It’s a very sad story all round. Tales of repression and failed uprisings always are. But it’s a good book – it gets things across pretty well, and doesn’t fall into the usual traps.  Not a bad read at all.

The Burning Time by Robin Morgan

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Word Press This claims to be based on historical fact, but it’s actually based on an early twentieth century theory which has been completely discredited and is, basically, a load of twaddle. It’s an entertaining book, with some wonderful, vivid descriptions – although it’s extremely infuriating that the author puts t’is and t’was instead of ’tis and ’twas, and her attempts at Irish dialect sound like a bizarre cross between Scottish, West Country and Yorkshire – but it’s presented as being historically accurate when it really isn’t.

It’s based around the Kilkenny witch hunt of the 1320s, something which definitely did take place. Witch hunts in the British Isles are usually associated with the late 16th and the 17th centuries, but they went on before and after that as well. Dame Alyce Kyteler, a wealthy woman living in the Kilkenny area, and several people associated with her, were accused of witchcraft by a fanatical churchman called Richard de Ledrede. Alyce herself escaped, and is thought to have lived out the rest of her life in England. Her son was, thanks to his powerful connections, let off fairly lightly … on condition that he pay to have the local cathedral re-roofed. The poorer people accused, without money or connections, were imprisoned, and one of them, Dame Alyce’s servant Petronilla de Meath, became the first person burned as a witch in Ireland, in 1324.

The whole witch hunting thing was utterly horrific. I was in the Pendle area on Sunday, and being there always makes me think about witch hunts. People murdered – there’s no other word for it – because of a bit of hearsay, the word of someone who had a grudge against them, knowing a bit of herbal lore, having a mole on their body … it was just horrendous. And, as Robin Morgan says, a lot of it was about misogyny and a lot of it was about money. However, she claims that up to nine million people may have been killed as a result of witch hunts, whereas the usual estimate is around fifty thousand. And the way things are portrayed in this book … well, as I’ve said, it’s all based on a totally discredited theory.

The idea is that pre-Christian, pagan ideas continued to be practised across the British Isles and Europe well into medieval times and beyond. Now, there is an element of truth in this. Hallowe’en is very definitely pinched from the Celtic festival of Samhain, and a lot of traditions relating to Easter, and indeed the very word “Easter”, are also pinched from pre-Christian times. Some old traditions lasted … well, probably until industrialisation and urbanisation. But what’s shown in this book is nonsense. For a kick off, some old traditions may have lasted but that doesn’t mean that people were worshipping pagan gods and goddesses, setting themselves up in covens, casting spells and carrying out pagan rituals. The way it’s shown is actually a bit insulting to the memory of pagan times: some of it sounds as if Mildred Hubble and Miss Cackle are about to turn up!   Most of it doesn’t, to be fai;, but it’s based on modern Wicca, which was only developed in the twentieth century. There is an idea that Wiccan traditions have been handed down from pre-Christian times, and that’s all tied up with this theory that the witch hunts were really all about persecuting Wiccans, but it just isn’t the case. This isn’t in any way meant as a criticism of modern Wicca – the world would be a much better place if all religions would concentrate more on nature – but it was not practised in today’s form in the 14th century.

These ideas all seem to be linked up with the growth of interest in folk culture in the 19th century, which again is all tied up with nationalism. And another issue with this book, linked in with that, is the strange ideas which some American authors have about Ireland. I read a book last year, called “Away”, by an author who seemed quite convinced that everyone in 19th century Ireland thought that people could literally be away with the fairies.   The idea that the witch hunts were about persecuting Wiccans isn’t particularly associated with Ireland, but Robin Morgan seems to’ve got it all mixed up with this idea of Ireland as a land of faerie folk!   She claims that Christianity in medieval Ireland was a syncretic religion of pre-Christian traditional beliefs and a bit of Catholicism. Maybe she’s got Irish Catholicism confused with the genuine syncretic religions found in parts of South and Central America!  Even better, she claims that Catholicism in Ireland was imposed by the English! In the High Middle Ages. I’d love to know who she thinks St Patrick was, in that case!

This version of events is actually considerably more interesting than what really seems to have happened, which is that Alyce Kyteler was denounced by her stepchildren because of bad feeling over money, and various other people sadly got caught in the crossfire. But it’s quite frightening how these alternative theories of events – not this particular witch hunt, but witch hunts in general – can be presented as fact. There are a lot of theories about … well, a lot of things. Take the idea, famously presented in The Da Vinci Code but around well before that was published, that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and they had children and their descendants have for nearly two thousand years been protected by a secret society. Some of the ideas in The Da Vinci Code, about the suppression of the idea of the mother goddess by misogynistic religions, come across in this book too, incidentally – and the fact that most, if not all, major religions are misogynistic is one thing that certainly is true. Anyway, the point is that long, involved theories about history can be formulated with very little evidence. Sometimes they can be very dangerous, when they’re used against a particular group of people.  This idea about the widespread practice of Wicca in the Middle Ages, and witch hunts being all about attacking it, really isn’t given any credence by any respected historian. This is an entertaining book, but it claims to be based on historical fact and it just isn’t.

Rosenheim and Windermere by Brian Lalor

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Word PressAlthough this sounds as if it should be about lakeside holidays, it’s actually the author’s memoirs about his children in Cork during the Second World War.  Windermere was the name of his house and Rosenheim was the name of his grandmother’s house.  I always have mixed feelings about people writing childhood memoirs.  If there was something historically significant about your childhood, it’s understandable that you’d want to write about it – think Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example.  If not … well, even in the age of the Jeremy Kyle show et al, would you really feel comfortable writing about how your auntie was a “termagant” (Brian Lalor’s word, apparently used by his father) and the rest of the family couldn’t stand her, or how your mum didn’t actually like the neighbour who thought they were bosom buddies?  Or imagine being on the receiving end.  You hear that someone you used to know has written a book about their childhood, rush out to buy a copy, start reading, and then realise that the character whom everyone hates or whom everyone makes fun of behind their back is actually you!

I don’t know how much of this book, or any childhood memoir, is 100% accurate, or whether names have been changed, but I still find the idea of it a bit odd.  However most of the people Brian Lalor’s written about were in their 30s or 40s or older during the War, so it’s unlikely that they’re still alive, and, apart from this auntie, he isn’t really negative about anyone.  He even points out that his grandmother’s light-fingered housekeeper was poorly paid.  He was off school for part of the period he’s writing about, due to health problems, so presumably he didn’t have to deal with school bullies, and they’re the people who tend to be the baddies in most people’s childhoods.

The book’s actually pretty positive generally.  A lot of childhood memoirs are full of woe, maybe because people do tend to wait until they’re older to write them and so a lot of the ones published in the last 20 years or so have been about growing up during the Depression.  This is about a rather comfortable life in a middle-class area.  Yes, it’s set during the war, but the war doesn’t have all that much impact in a country which is staying out of it.  Brian’s family have a live-in maid, and his grandmother has both a maid and a housekeeper.  Most of the action takes place at the grandmother’s house, and involves the different maids and their foibles.  And, intentionally or no, the grandmother is the most interesting character, because she represents a generation who grew up in Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, and who were involved in the First World War and then had to cope with the war which killed so many of their friends and relatives becoming a taboo subject in the Irish Free State.  Brian says that, as a child, he himself was rather confused about whether or not he was living in part of “England” (like Elizabeth Bowen, he doesn’t seem to distinguish between England and Britain) – even though his father was involved with the IRA from his teens and his mother is also a staunch Irish nationalist.

Books like this are fascinating.  They sound as if they shouldn’t be interesting, because they just tell about everyday life, but everyday life is interesting.  It’s perhaps only recently that the importance of everyday life, as well as famous people and great events, has really been recognised.  And now there seems to be an idea that the lives of ordinary people in middle-class suburbs are boring, but, as this book shows, they don’t need to be.  This makes for very interesting reading.

Would you want to write your childhood memoirs, though – assuming that they’d be interesting enough to be published and read, which, hey, I’m sure they would be 😉 ?  Or would it feel a bit too weird to know that complete strangers were reading about you and your family, friends (or indeed foes!) and neighbours?  Hmm …

 

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

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Word PressVery little happens in this book until the last few pages, but that’s the point of it.  As the Troubles rage across Ireland in 1920, life for 18-year-old Lois, a member of a wealthy Anglo-Irish family living in a large house in County Cork, and her relatives and friends carries on as normal.  For them, that means dances, tennis parties, gossiping about possible romances, and an awful lot of apparently doing not much at all.  The main impact of the political situation on their lives is that it ensures the presence of a plentiful supply of British officers to provide different partners for the girls at the aforementioned dances and parties.  Naturally, it’s only the officers with whom they mix, never the rank-and-file British soldiers.  Incidentally, the word “English” is used in pretty much every single instance in which the word “British” would have been more appropriate.  A lot of American authors do that, and that’s annoying enough, but it’s even more annoying from an Irish author, whom you’d think would have known better.

Anyway!   It ought to be incredibly annoying and frustrating that the characters do their best to act as if the Troubles aren’t happening, but it isn’t, probably because the book’s written in such a wonderfully ironic way.  Shades of Jane Austen, shades of Oscar Wilde, and shades of the Dowager Countess of Grantham!  (Apparently there was a film adaptation of it in 1999, and Maggie Smith was in it, but I don’t remember ever having come across it.)  There are some absolutely glorious lines in it!  As for Lois, she doesn’t see much beyond herself and how things and people relate to her.  She over-dramatises things, either in her own head or in letters to friends, to make them seem meaningful and exciting.  I do that, but, whilst it’s rather pathetic in someone of my advanced years (my life is far more sad and boring than hers, it should be pointed out, though), it’s quite understandable in her.   Then things nearly become very real indeed, when she nearly, sort of, becomes engaged to one of the officers … but she doesn’t really want to marry him, she just feels as if she ought to want to marry him, because it’s something to do, something you do.

Then, at the end, real life and the Troubles come crashing into the lives of everyone involved … but Lois goes off to an art school in France.  We aren’t told what happens to her, but it seems unlikely that she’ll ever return to County Cork.   The world of The Last September, a very insular world, has gone.

An interesting book, especially as much of it seems to have been semi-autobiographical.

Away by Jane Urquhart

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Word PressJane Urquhart did the same in this book as she did in The Stone Carvers, which was to juxtapose two very different themes and try to make them into one story.  Again, I don’t think it really worked.  This book was supposed to be about the experiences of Irish immigrants in Canada, and some sort of way of enabling Irish-Canadians to discover their heritage; but all it really was was the reinforcement of two rather unhelpful stereotypes.

The first was the stereotype of the fey (not that she ever actually used the word “fey”, come to think about it) red-haired (why are fey people always depicted as having red hair?) Irish girl in a remote part of the countryside.  That’s where the title “Away” came from – the lady in question, when she started acting strangely after coming across a drowned sailor, was apparently literally away with the fairies, and all her family and friends apparently believed this.  It’s the romantic-ish idea that some people, although most of them in late Victorian and Edwardian times rather than in the 21st century, had of Ireland, and indeed the Scottish Highlands and some other parts of the British Isles, as being full of myths and legends and the wee folk and people who believed in it all.  Writing a book about that sort of thing can work, but not when set alongside the harsh reality of people emigrating to Canada because of the Potato Famine.

The second was the stereotype of the feckless Irish male sitting around in the pub all day, doing very little work, ranting and raving about the injustices done to Ireland by England, and then getting involved in violence at a political meeting.  It’s not exactly a positive stereotype, and I was quite surprised that someone with Irish ancestry would have chosen to use it.  However, it then turned out that Mr Feckless Ranter was actually a spy, who was just pretending to be like that in order to spy on the Canadian Fenians – in between seducing the daughter of Mrs Fey Away With The Fairies, who then went away with the fairies herself.  However, he then did a bunk, and the book then ended rather abruptly.

Somewhere in the background were the husband and son of Mrs Fey Away With The Fairies, the father and brother of Miss Fey Away With The Fairies.  The former tried to educate children in poverty-stricken rural Ireland, before making a new life for himself in Canada.  The latter worked hard, married a hard-working woman, had children, and generally fulfilled the much happier image of an immigrant settling into a new country and making good there.  That’s a story that’s been told many times before, but it would still have made a much better story of Irish immigration to Canada, and of Ireland generally, than being away with the fairies or getting drunk in the pub.  Very odd choice of storylines.