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Green History

There's more to Ireland than St. Patrick's Day, according to Tim Pat Coogan's new history

By Allen Barra

TO TURN A QUOTE by one of Ireland's staunchest foes, Winston Churchill, back on the Irish: Never in the course of human events has so much fuss been caused to so many by so few. Ireland, a country with a population smaller than the state of Kentucky, has produced world leaders for other nations, successfully fought the largest empire in world history and decimated entire forests with the books of the 20th-century's most controversial and influential authors.

All this from a country that, in the words of its greatest historian, Tim Pat Coogan, "entered the 20th century as a slum-besmirched colonial backwater, a provider of cheap food and cheap labor to her imperial neighbor." Coogan's new book, Ireland in the 20th Century, is thick enough to stop a .45 caliber bullet--which it may have to do when Irish partisans at home and abroad start picking at it. For those of us with no partisan stake in the arguments, Ireland In The 20th Century is likely to stand as the definitive work on the subject for some time.

Coogan is that rare historian--an especially rare breed among Irish historians--who is both impassioned and disinterested. He has covered much of this territory before in his biographies of the legendary revolutionary leader, Michael Collins (his book was the basis for the 1996 film starring Liam Neeson), and Collins' wartime comrade and later adversary Eamon de Valera, and in his courageous and groundbreaking 1970 History of the IRA. But nothing prior to Ireland in the 20th Century has brought into focus the issues and personalities which make up the bloody mosaic of modern Irish history.

Coogan's judgment is unsparing: the British, the Ulster Protestant fanatics, the Catholic Church and, finally, the Irish people themselves all get their feet held to the fire for their roles in the Western world's nastiest and longest-lasting family feud. The six counties of Northern Ireland became "an unjust, resentful, sectarian, one-party statelet wherein fundamental democratic rights such as one man, one vote did not apply," in large part because Britain shirked a responsibility "to ensure that the same standards applied to 'the U.K. overseas' as to 'the U.K. mainland.'"

The Catholic Church did its best to insure a vicious internecine struggle between north and south by maintaining (despite an ardent plea for nonsectarianism by, most notably, Ireland's greatest poet, W.B. Yeats) that "Ireland free was going to be Ireland Catholic." Having thrown off the British yoke, the Irish, writes Coogan, must now free themselves of the constraints of "that other form of colonialism, the Holy Mother Church."

And if waging war against the British, poverty and religious factionalism weren't enough, many of the most patriotic Irish (particularly members of the Irish nationalist organization, Sinn Fein) have suppressed Synge, O'Casey, Behan, Joyce, Beckett and two score more of their greatest writers more thoroughly than any foreign power could ever hope to do.

Not a moment too soon comes the late '50s and the arrival of the "Celtic Tiger" era, best symbolized by former Michael Collins gunman, Prime Minister Sean Lemass, who helped push Ireland, much of it kicking and screaming, into an era of economic reform and realistic attitudes toward the British government. U2, Riverdance and Colin Farrell were just around the corner. "Ireland," Coogan is able to report, "left the 20th century looking far better then she entered it." Which suggests that the terrible beauty Yeats said was born in the 1916 revolution may at last be ready to blossom with an emphasis on the beauty.


Ireland in the 20th Century by Tim Pat Coogan; Palgrave Macmillan; 862 pages; $35 cloth.


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From the March 24-31, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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