Issue 3-2023-200dpi

13 January 2000 Edition

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Criminal emigrant

Mad Dog Coll
By Breandán Delap
Mercier Press

In his acknowledgements for his book, Mad Dog Coll, author Breandan Delap states: ``In no way do I wish to offend any living relatives of Vincent Coll.''

Indeed, any mention of this man in the decades after his violent death in America would cause offence.

Any mention of him would bring out the barrackroom geneticist in every one in Gaoth Dobhair. His second cousin, SDLP Assembly member and Agriculture minister Bríd Rodgers tells, tongue in cheek, how she was reared with the belief that the ``bad blood'' in him came from ``the other side of the house'' ie. not her family's side.

Such was the shame felt by this tight-knit community that they forced the local cinema to back down when it wanted to screen a film about Coll in 1962. Instead, everyone went to Dungloe to watch it!

Might well have his kinsfolk felt offended, because the Vincent Coll portrayed in Burt Balaban's black and white movie grossly distorted the facts of the young Donegal man's life. The film contained a rape scene - a crime of which Coll was never accused, and he was generally portrayed as a slavering psycho.

The facts of Coll's life were awful enough without this type of pornography. Quite simply, Vincent Coll's childhood was awful. Delap's book is a fascinating insight into the brutal reality of the early 20th century of the American dream of the Irish Diaspora. Taken to the States by his parents when he was an infant, the Dickensian squalor of his upbringing reads like a social work case study on acid.

It is difficult to believe that anyone could have emerged from such a childhood without suffering major emotional and developmental damage. He didn't.

Coll's childhood was spent in and out of various institutions. The Catholic Church tried to break him with their brutal regime - sorry, pastoral care - in the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin.

What Mother Church ``actually achieved, however,'' says Delap, ``was to breed successive generations of professional toughs.''

From there, Coll passed on to the custody of the state and, following his first convictions, his parole was supervised by the Catholic Big Brother's League of the Bronx, a lay organisation of Catholic male social workers. By this time, he was massively stigmatised and labeled. He was told by a battery of experts that he was only fit to be a misfit.

Delap's fine work is at its weakest when he conjectures on the appropriate clinical label to attach to Coll. Here he is out of his depth and it shows. He is on firmer ground when he tells the tale of Coll's rise to power in prohibition New York to be Public Enemy Number One.

He was the prototypical ``Bowery Boyo'', later immortalised in the films of James Cagney. At a defining moment in American crime, the young Donegal man made his move to become part of crime's aristocracy. Although he could cut it on the streets, Coll could not survive as crime became corporate and moved to the boardroom, where the most dangerous thing he would be required to wield would be a ledger of figures on the year's takings.

Historically, the death of Vincent Coll marked the end of disorganised mob crime in early 20th century USA. The Syndicate made crime corporate - moving one Syndicate member to enthuse within five years of Coll's slaying: ``Hey guys, we're bigger than US Steel!''

Coll's brief, bright, appearance on the American crime scene was also played out as the Irish emerged from the social stigmatisation of immigrant status to becoming fully fledged white Americans.

This is a well written book on a part of the Irish experience that some would rather we didn't dwell on. Vincent Coll, at the end of the day, was an emigrant reared in a land he could never manage to call home.

Would he have been different had he experienced his childhood among his own in the Donegal Gaeltacht?

Ach mar a déitear, sin é scéal eile...


Sins of omission

100 Years of Derry
By Roy Hamilton
Blackstaff Press

I thought that when I sat down to write the review of this book that I would get the negative points out of the way first, but decided to say up front that this book as a collection of photos about Derry is as good a collection as any on the subject.

Nostalgia and reflecting on the past are the watchwords when it comes to a book like this and obviously it is an historical record. As such, the book gives some very interesting insights into life in Derry.

However, and there always is the however part, I have one big criticism; there are no positive images of republicans or republicanism in this book.

Call me biased if you will, but I'm a republican and a native of Derry.

I grew up there and spent so much of my life with republicans. I know Derry republicans and so am more than a little miffed that of all the recent photos that the author selected for his history of Derry, there is not one image of republicanism that would give a reader the view that republicans played a major role in the history of Derry.

The only photo that contains an image of republicanism is the photo of Patsy O'Hara's funeral.

Patsy was an INLA Volunteer who died in the 1981 hunger strike along with nine other men, including Michael Devine, also from Derry.

There no photos of any Derry republican, not even Martin McGuinness, yet there are photos of John Hume, Phil Coulter, and even Gerry `Stroke City' Anderson. I suspect that is because the author wants to present a cosy image of Derry - a political decision that leaves a gap in his book.

It is interesting that throughout the book there are plenty of photos of B Specials, Orange bands and British soldiers marching off to war, even a photo of a UDA mural. I almost sensed that these photos were used in a way that gave the impression there was no political baggage attached to them.

So I'm wondering how does Roy Hamilton decide not to use a photo of Free Derry Corner yet use one of a UDA mural. Overall a good enough book but politically I'm angry at the omissions.

Irish historical perspectives

Ireland since 1690: A Concise History
Roy Douglas, Liam Harte and Jim O'Hara
Blackstaff Press
£8.99 (pb)

The Sacred Isle
Daithí Ó hÓgáin
Collins Press
£30 (hb), £15 (pb)

Political Ideology in Ireland, 1541-1641
Edited by Hiram Morgan
Four Courts Press
£35 (hb)

Ireland since 1690: A Concise History is a handy sized book. As its title suggests, it is a concise history of Ireland from 1690 to the present day (December 1998, to be exact). It is a political and social history of the island. The chapters are in chronological order up until partition, and then both states are treated separately as their different experiences thereafter are dealt with. The style of writing is narrative and is easy to read, as this book is quite clearly aimed at general coonsumption.

While this book is definitely a step away from the abominable revisionism of the past, the line in it is fairly mainstream. Nonetheless, it gives reasonable coverage and analysis of republicanism, of what its aims and objectivesd were. It seeks to be objective and fair to all sides and succeeds in doing this for the most part. There is little for republicans and nationalists to complain about, nor for unionists (though they will probably find something to arouse their ire).

Overall, this book is to be recommended for those who wish to brush up on their history or for those who have no previous knowledge of Irish history. It is especially worth buying for the latter, as this book is a very good introduction. While it lacks the depth of James Connolly's Labour in irish History, its flowing writing and succinct points make it worthwhile.


The Sacred Isle is a sound piece of academic research and writing. The book deals with the belieff systems and pre-Christian religion that existed in ireland prior to the establishment of Christianity. Among the topics that are discussed are pre-Celtic cultures, the Iron Age, the teaching and practice of the druids, the various gods and goddesses, the sacred rites of sovereignty of the land, and how Christianity eventually established itself by displacing the earlier system of Celtic beliefs.

It draws together the evidence of folklore, early literature and archaeology in order to reconstruct what this ancient religion may have been. It also sheds light on the mysterious druidic cult and how it functioned, as well as on the otherworlds, which appear to have been fundamental to the mythology of the Celts. It discusses the customs, the beliefs and the rituals of these peoples and how religion and belief in the supernatural permeated almost every aspect of their lives.

For those interested in druids, human sacrifices and pagan ceremony, this book is a must. It is actually a very good read and I would recommend it to anybody with an interest in this topic. While this book is of a high academic standard, the style of writing makes it accessible to any interested layperson. It is definitely worth its price.


For those of you who thought that there was no political ideology in Ireland in the years from 1541 to 1641, Hiram Morgan, the editor of Political Ideology in Ireland, 1541-1641, begs to differ. Essentially a collection of essays by contributors, this book emerged from a seminar on the topic. The nine contributors are all academics with various qualifications and they deal with the written material of contemporary writers of this period.

Among those are the infamous Edmund Spenser, Giraldus Cambrensis (in the context of how his description of the Irish continued), Richard Beacon, Captain Barnaby Rich, Sir John Davis, James Usher, Philip O'Sullivan Beare and other Gaelic writers.

While many of the articles are interesting, they tended to focus on the written material of English writewrs, despite the wealth of written material from the Native Irish at this time. Moreover, the articles appear to be written for other academics who are `in the know', thereby making it difficult reading for others with a genuine interest in this subject.

However, this should not put people off reading some of the essays, which are definitely worth reading. David Edwards' Ideology and experience: Spenser's View and martial law in Ireland, discusses Edmund Spenser's treatise View of the Present State of Ireland. He says that Spenser ``advocated wholesale slaughter of the Irish... by a process of all-out war, characterised by state-induced famines and summary executions''. Sound familiar? Spenser also constantly refers to the English as ``civilised'' and the Irish as ``lewd'' and ``degenerate''. He would be thankful he did not live to see Ibiza Uncovered or have to comment on the behaviour of English stag and hen parties in Dublin's Temple Bar. There are a few essays on Spenser, but this one is the most satisfactory.

The other essays worth reading were those by Marc Caball, Vincent Carey and Claire Carroll. Caball's article deals with the Gaelic responses to the Elizabethan conquest and colonisation. Carey discusses Richard Beacon's machiavellian Solon his Follie, his republican leanings, and the influences he had on later thinkers. Claire Carroll tells us about O'Sullivan Beare's Historiae Catholicae Iberniae Compendium, or Compendium of Irish Catholic History, and how it raised much controversy in its day. She tells us much about the links between Ireland and Spain at this time on an intellectual level and of the shared common cause of Catholicism.

All in all, these three books are good reads, particularly the first two. I would recommend them to anybody with an interest in these subjects, and their prices are quite reasonable, especially given the rubbish and drivel that is on the market these days.


An Phoblacht
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