Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

23 June 2005 Edition

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An Irish history treasure trove

BY John Corcoran

Book Review

A New Dictionary of Irish History from 1800

By DJ Hickey and JE Doherty

Gill and McMillan


This is a handy pocket format of the hardback edition of this reference text, which was first published in 2003. It should become a prized addition to the library of anyone with even a passing interest in modern Irish history, and retails at a very affordable price of just under €17.

The main attraction of this dictionary is the sheer breadth and depth of the references, which are written in a concise and brief and readable format. The authors have certainly succeeded in abiding to Ralph Waldo Emerson's advice on a dictionary, namely that "there is no cant in it, no excess of information, and it is full of suggestion".

Furthermore, where an entry makes a reference to another entry in the dictionary, this is indicated by an extremely useful highlighting of the connection through the use of capital letters, creating connections between entries that prove both useful and fascinating.

The scope is wide, ranging from the Irish secret societies of the past 200 years to detailed entries on Irish emigration.

As a brief example, if we look at just pages 140 -141, the entries run from Robert Emmet, The Emmet Monument Assoc-iation, the Employers' Federation, Employment Equality Act (1977), Encumbered Estates Act (1848 and 1849), the historic vessel the Erin's Hope, to the unionist politician David Ervine. After reading all about Ervine, you can relax with an entirely unconnected section on the practice of Ether drinking.

Printed in a small typeface, the book permits an enormous amount of information to be cram-med into each alphabetical section. With a highly condensed format, and containing 520 full pages, it is perhaps possible to comprehend that this is more than just a cursory coverage of Irish history since 1800.

Another important strength is the prominence given throughout to the events, personalities, and organisations associated with the struggle for Irish independence, a movement which the authors pointedly assert to be an ongoing process.

Noticeably, whilst detailing the various splits, breakaways, and schisms, the entry for Sinn Féin takes the reader from the party's formation in 1905 up to the Sinn Féin of 2005, so, at least for these authors, the Céad Bliain celebrations are no more than historically logical. Consequently, there is no credence given to Michael McDowell's rather bizarre musings that the right-wing Progressive Democrats are carrying the republican banner raised in 1905 onwards into the 21st Century!

This little gem is a constant source of interesting information, and there is many a fascinating fact to be gleaned by a casual glance when you have the odd five minutes or so of reading time available. It's just too interesting to be left languishing on a dusty bookshelf, so easy and frequent access is highly recommended.

For example, the entry for Ernie O'Malley (1898-1957) in just a four-minute read takes you from his role in the Easter Rising, through the Civil War, to his time spent in the mountains with the Basque Separatist movements in the late 1920s, to his time living in New Mexico, to the writing of his classic books On Another Man's Wound and The Singing Flame, and then on to his election to the Irish Academy of Letters in 1947.

As Emerson said, there is a wealth of "suggestion" here; it whets the appetite to look further into the subject referred to, an enormous spur to the acquisition of further knowledge.

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