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3 April 1997 Edition

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New in print

A landcsape masterpiece

Reading the Irish Landscape
By Frank Mitchell and Michael Ryan
Published by TownHouse
Price £18.99

Did you know that Ireland was once where South Africa is today and that it was well and truly partitioned, being in two parts? That was 500 million years ago when the Earth's continental plates were shifting to slowly form today's land masses. Moving at a few millimetres a year, our little bit of land drifted northwards to eventually settle in this cooler climate.

That fascinating snippet is where this revised edition of a marvellous book begins. If you have ever wondered what forces gave rise to the wonderful Errigal in Donegal or why farming is so poor in Leitrim, this book has the answer.

The authors merge history, geography, geology and archaeology in telling how our landscape looks like it does today. And they are not afraid to include politics. They decry the decision to abandon the Boyne hydroelectric scheme in favour of costly and useless drainage: ``the sight of a great excavator crawling up and down a river bed - even if it is ruining the landscape by degrading the river to the status of a half-filled canal, destroying its fish and piling up spoil-banks along its margins - is a much greater winner of local rural votes than the idea of a distant power-station bringing benefit to faceless city-dwellers.''

The book doesn't shirk from technical explanations but it is so well-written - at times passionate and lyrical - that you won't be swamped. Moreover there are over 200 illustrations and photographs, 52 of them in colour, which are an excellent complement to the text.

Above all, you'd find it difficult to read this book without becoming an environmentalist. It shows how people have had an accelerating impact on our landscape since they first inhabited Ireland 9,000 years ago, until now we have the power for ruination or great positive change.

In particular, the book deals clearly with the issue of afforestation. ``After oil, wood is the largest single import by value into the European Union,'' it says. Today 8% of the land is covered by trees and the goal is to reach the EU average of 24%. That would be an enormous change to our landscape, particularly in the West where most of the forests would be planted. The authors warn that native species should be planted as well as conifers if afforestation is to be friendly to the environment. It is an issue which should be more widely debated and this is a good place to start.

I'd highly recommend this book. It's quite expensive but well worth it.

By Brian Campbell

Saint Fintan the Obscure

The Ex-Isle of Erin
by Fintan O'Toole.
Published by New Island Books.
Price £7.99.

In the last piece in this book Fintan O'Toole modestly describes himself as ``an obscure journalist''. The modesty is false and points to the weakness in his analysis. In fact O'Toole is one of the leading lights of the intellectual establishment in the 26 Counties, not simply a commentator but a key opinion-former.

This book is the latest compilation of his journalism. Let it be said that he is a very talented writer, a keen observer of social, political and cultural life, with engaging powers of description. But often these powers are used in an entirely self-indulgent way.

For example only Fintan O'Toole could intellectualise about the experience of playing Santa at a children's party. Santa is a ``great celebration of cultural collissions, of glorious impurity''. This kind of mere cleverness abounds in the columns of the Irish Times star.

O'Toole's main theme has always been the transition from a Catholic Church-dominated society to a more pluralist Ireland. But his view requires the ditching of nationalism as well as clericalism and he almost always equates the two. This precludes the possibilities of being a believer in the seperation of church and state and Irish unity, a supporter of divorce and the Irish language, a socialist and an advocate of British withdrawal. This is precisely what modern republicans are, but a modern republicanism is anathema to O'Toole.

O'Toole excludes Northern nationalists from his world view. While the old Free State establishment which he criticises paid lip service to them while effectively abandoning them, the new establishment of which O'Toole is part, simply ignored and abandoned them. He rarely deals with the subject of partition or the conflict in the Six Counties, thus reinforcing partitionist mentalities. The war in the North is not about anti-imperialism but is ``a squalid ethnic conflict in an obscure corner of the First World'' or a ``medieval sectarian conflict''. This can lead him up very odd by-ways for a supposed great social critic - like when he criticised the British police last year for the killing of IRA Volunteer Diarmuid O'Neill on the basis that it helped the IRA's ``self-justifying martyrology'' which ``confers the right to kill''.

The killing was stupid because ``it defines the conflict in exactly the way the IRA wants: a war between itself and the British state...'' Did it not occur to O'Toole that what happened did indeed prove the point?

The piece on O'Neill is not included in this collection; it was written for a British audience in the Observer and can only have served to confirm the prejudices of those readers about Irish people in general and Irish republicans in particular.

O'Toole's anti-nationalism distorts much of what he writes. He speaks of the ``genocide of Native Americans'' but no such description can be used in the relation to the Irish experience. It was the Christian Brothers who ``invented the narrative of 800 years of oppression''.

One remarkable thing about this book is the absence of economics. Emigration and social change are defined almost totally in cultural terms. The assumption throughout is that a society dominated by American consumer capitalism is infinitely preferable to one dominated by the Catholic Church. That the former can also be oppressive and limiting of the Irish people's potential is not recognised.

O'Toole is the arch-critic of conservatism in the 26 Counties, and much of his criticism is devastatingly accurate. But the new inequalities, the greed of the new rich, the hypocrisy of the liberals who proclaim freedom on some social issues but reinforce economic inequality, get off lightly.

Intellectually as well as architecturally columns are akin to ivory towers. As his career has proceeded O'Toole the columnist has climbed higher up the stairs of his ivory tower.


An Phoblacht
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Dublin 1