Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

27 March 1997 Edition

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New in print: The Wild Geese of the Antrim MacDonnells

Looking to Europe

The Wild Geese of the Antrim MacDonnells
By Hector McDonnell
Published by Irish Academic Press
Price £25

``The art of war is the only patrimony my ancestors have left me''. Thus wrote Enrique Reynaldo MacDonnell, one of the last of the Wild Geese, to the King of Spain, in about 1788.

In the centuries after the Battle of Kinsale (1601) the systematic destruction of the Irish-Gaelic civilisation, values and language meant there was no hope of a career or any way of life in Ireland for thousands of people in each generation.

With the Flight of the Earls in 1608 the pattern was set for the ongoing almost ritual emigration of the young that has lasted until the present day. Many left in the 17th and 18th centuries.with the names changing from Alistair, to Alexandre, to Alejandro, and from MacDomhnaill to Macdonnelle.

This book is about one family and so it carries its three centuries of history lightly. The writer travelled to France, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Naples, Sweden, researching ``in forgotten libraries while the heavy heat of summer beat down beyond half-closed shutters''. His book, following the pioneering work of Micheline Walsh, stresses the importance of Europe rather than England to the Irish during the last four centuries.

Giving a vignette of Clann Ian Mór MacDomhnaill, who were Lords of the Isles and Antrim from the 15th Century, the writer traces the internal feuds and then the consequences of the English decision in the early 16th Century to destroy finally the Scottish/Irish polity and their shared Irish language.

An account of young men in Ulster, after the plantations, travelling from chieftain's house to house carrying a painted wooden box in which were letters from abroad promising help to expel the foreigners, gives an unforgettable picture of the disintegration of society in the 1600s. Promises of help from Europe occupied the Irish psyche for over four centuries, and only now with the Peace and Reconciliation Fund is a serious effort at supplying this promise being made. In proceeding centuries ``an Fíon Spáineach'' was always too little and too late.

The book is dedicated to Captain Sorely MacDonnell who emigrated to Europe in 1616 after helping his cousin Colla Ciotach in the Scottish Isles. Following some colourful adventures Sorely became a Captain in the Spanish Army in the Low Countries. Here with only his captain's salary and with the help of a Franciscan priest O Mullarkey, Sorely paid two scribes to copy out Irish bardic poetry, especially Dúnaire Finn. These manuscripts were preserved in the Irish College in Louvain, which was a ferment of Irish learning in the 1620s and `30s.

Sorely died in 1632 and his son James fought in Ireland in the 1642 rebellion, escaping after 1648 to wander in Europe. He wrote an account in Latin of the 1642 rebellion, giving a correct analysis of the absolute necessity for sufficient European help to assist Ireland in counterbalancing England's strength. He suggested that Ireland should be organised as an aristocratic republic under Spanish protection and stressed the importance of the Scottish connection.

This story of the Wild Geese finishes after the Napoleonic Wars, about 1820, when the MacDonnells in Europe had become assimilated. ``The Irish Brigade an anachronism and the MacDonnells in Ireland indistinguishable from the rest of the Anglo-Irish, living richly off the revenue of their estates, more English than Irish in their outlook, and ill at ease in their native land''.

One complaint I have with this book is the use of the geographical term ``The British Isles'' - this term is unacceptable to most Irish people, as a lively correspondence in the Irish Times in 1996 showed. The term ``The Irish Islands and Britain'' would be more acceptable and definitely more accurate.

By Maedbh O Néill

Is it about a bicycle?

A History of the Garda Síochána

By Liam McNiffe.

Published by Wolfhound.

The life of the rural Irish policeman was brilliantly satirised by Flann O'Brien in his novel The Third Policeman. One of the photographs in this book could be used to illustrate O'Brien's novel; it shows gardai playing cards in the barracks with the caption ``the actual amount of work to be done was frequently insufficient to occupy a guard's time totally during his long hours of duty''.

This is confirmed by the diary of Garda John Hartigan, County Tipperary where on three successive days reproduced here he repeats that ``nothing of any importance occurred or transpired''. Unlit bicycles, agricultural statistics and poitín figured largely in Garda life during the period covered by this book, a far cry from crime today. Marking 75 years of the gardai, the chief value of this book, such as it is, comes where it deals with the founding of the force. I had not been aware of the extent of the Kildare mutiny of Garda recruits in 1922 and its connection with the Civil War. Some light is shed on the real founder of the force, the comic-opera, quasi-fascist General Eoin O'Duffy, who treated the guards like a private army. He delighted in military display and his proudest moment was when he brought them on pilgrimage to Rome to meet the Pope.

But this is a very small part of a book which is not really a history of the gardai at all; nor is it a social history since it fails to deal with their role in society. McNiffe dutifully deploys the statistics supplied to him to complete his dry survey which reads like an internal audit of the first 30 years of the force 1922 to 1952. The period to today is dealt with in brief overview at the end.

A real history of the gardai has yet to be written and would include their contentious political beginnings and their political deployment ever since; their relation to the conflict in the North; their role as pillars of a conservative society; their power structures and the unexplored area of corruption; their adaptation - or lack of it - to Irish society in the `90s. Their role in the issue of drugs alone could fill a volume. Instead we have this deferential book which is little more than an anniversary souvenir.


Easy listening

Irish Voices: Irish Lives
By Ben Lander

Published by Brandon Books

Price £6.99

Author Benjt Viklander (Ben Lander) has lived in Ireland since 1992 and this book of twelve interviews is his way of working out the complexity of Irish society. He doesn't claim it as a complete picture and, at 156 pages, it can only be a skim over the surface. At times it is homely, almost whimsical but there are little gems of insight.

Sinn Féin's Jim McAllister talks about the community of South Armagh which looks South to its hinterland and the PUP's Billy Hutchinson shows genuine signs of grappling with his Irish cultural identity (should be interesting when the hard talking about political identity begins). Nell McDonagh is marvellous in asserting the strength of travellers' identity and Noreen Byrne charts the changes in the struggle for women's rights over the last twenty years.

Tourists who read the book will come away with a picture of Ireland that is progressive, varied and confident. Not such a bad place to live.

By Brian Campbell

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1