Tag Archives: Diarmaid Ferriter

Ten books for year-end gift giving, or your ‘shelf’

Most of the 10 books described below the photo focus on 19th and early 20th century Irish history. A few were published before this year. One is a first-ever English translation of a German work from 1913; another is an on-demand reissue of a 1922 title. Two books on Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania history are only tangentially about the Irish. Four of the authors are personal acquaintances, marked by *. I hope my readers will support their work. Titles are listed alphabetically and linked to where the books can be ordered online. That convenience notwithstanding, please support small history presses and independent booksellers whenever possible. Enjoy. MH

There’s a mistake in the order of this stack to make you look closer at the list below.

A Journey in Ireland, 1921, Wilfrid Ewart. The author, journalist, and retired British military officer traveled around Ireland for several weeks in spring 1921, shortly before the truce. Unfortunately, his book of experiences wasn’t published until spring 1922, after the treaty and the country’s lurch into civil war. That doesn’t matter as much today. This is a good travel read about Ireland at war, with plenty of passages beyond Dublin and Belfast. I wrote a 10-part blog serial revisiting the people and events Ewart encountered 100 years earlier.

America and The Making of an Independent Ireland, Francis M. Carroll. The book consolidates Carroll’s long career of scholarship on this topic. It “argues that the existence of the state of Ireland is owed to considerable effort and intervention by Irish Americans and the American public at large.” Beginning with the 1916 Rising, the final chapter pushes the story into the early phases of U.S.-Irish relations after partition and the civil war. It compliments Bernadette Whelan’s United States Foreign Policy and Ireland: From Empire to Independence, 1913-29, and Michael Doorley’s Irish-American Diaspora Nationalism: The Friends of Irish Freedom, 1916-1935.

Ireland [1913], Richard Arnold Bermann. Translated from German and edited by Leesa Wheatley and Florian Krobb. The book is a snapshot of Ireland at the start of its revolutionary period and a year before the Great War. In their Introduction, Wheatley and Krobb also note Bermann’s “umbrage … at traces of mass tourism prone to erode the serenity of the autochthonous culture where it might still survive, and the blatant exploitation of visitors by entrepreneurial yet intrusive individuals who offer their services as guides or coach drivers.” See my post, Welcoming American tourists to Ireland, 1913-2021.

Living With History: Occasional Writings, Felix M. Larkin*. A former Irish civil servant, Larkin is one of the 2008 founders of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland. He has devoted special attention to the late Freeman’s Journal and is a regular contributor to the book review pages of The Irish Catholic and letters to the editor section of The Irish Times, plus more than two dozen academic works. His collection of nearly 100 pieces, ranging from 500 to 5,000 words; sectioned under nine themes, including one on American people and events; are all written for general audiences, Larkin says; and can be read sequentially, or dipped into, set aside, and returned to later with ease. I am honored that Larkin included my 2018 Q & A interview with him.

On the Edge: Ireland’s Offshore Islands, Diarmaid Ferriter. My wife and I have hiked and biked two of the three Aran Islands and look forward to a future visit to Inis Meáin. Until then, Ferriter’s “comprehensive study of Ireland’s offshore islands purposely eschews” the “reverent, patronizing and romantic tone” of earlier “cultural archivists and spiritual dreamers … seeking to understand – or even momentarily become part of – a mystical ancient Celtic society,” The Irish Independent wrote in its 2018 review. “Ferriter avoids single definitions, broad brushstrokes and hyperbole. Primarily because he is a historian who always favors fact, sources and evidence, over subjective opinion; and the great array of archival material he brings to the surface here is a good testament to his dedicated approach to research.”

Politics, Culture, and The Irish American Press 1784-1963, Edited by Debra Reddin van Tuyll, Mark O’Brien, and Marcel Broersma. This collection of 15 pieces “tell a number of important stories and provides invaluable insights about journalism, about Ireland, about America, and about the ethnicity of the Irish in America,” Irish Ambassador to the United States Dan Mulhall writes in the Forward. It is divided into three sections: the 1700s, the 1800s, and the 1900s. The book covers subjects you’d expect to find: Gillian O’Brien on Margaret Sullivan and Michael Doorley on the Gaelic American; and more obscure stories, such as Colum Kenny on Michael Davitt’s work for William Randolph Hearst, and Mark O’Brien on American influences at the Irish Press–Dev’s Dublin daily, 1931-1955, not his supporters’ earlier Philadelphia weekly, 1918-1922. A welcome addition to any journalism collection.

The Catholic Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania: Its Origins, Establishment, Decline, and Resurrection, John C. Bates*. Cork-born Michael O’Connor in 1843 became the first bishop of the new see at Pittsburgh. He built churches, schools, hospitals, and other institutions (He founded the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper.) as waves of Irish Famine immigrants and poor Catholics from Eastern Europe populated the workforce of America’s most industrialized city. The Catholic Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania was created 100 years later to share the church’s history in the region and preserve its records and artifacts. Bates’ detailed reference book documents both efforts, a “history within a history.” I’ve found this book useful in my own research, including this post: Don’t drink: Father Mathew’s temperance tour in Pittsburgh.

The Fall of the Fitzmaurices, Kay Caball*. A professional genealogist and author of the definitive Finding Your Ancestors in Kerry. (She has helped me find relations and other Kerry characters.), Fall tells of the demise of the Fitzmaurice family, who had been powerful Lords of Kerry since 1235. “What could have happened to this Kerry dynasty after almost 500 years of acquisition and expansion, which was then so reduced in such a short space of time?” Caball asked in a late 2020 guest post that previews her book. “We would have to say improvidence, extravagance, careless management, and improvidence.”

The Irish Assassins, Julie Kavanaugh. This new treatment of the 1882 Phoenix Park murders and their aftermath is the most commercially popular title on this list. The Irish Times said, “Kavanagh’s is a sweeping and compelling narrative of a story that more than bears retelling. What she has sought to do, which has not been done before, is to try to connect in time the political and social lives of what is an extended and diverse cast of characters in Britain and Ireland.” Author John Banville’s New York Times review described the book as “an adroit unpicking of the intricacies of the history, and her book is at once admirable for its scholarship and immensely enjoyable in its raciness.”

The Mount Washington Transit Tunnel Disaster, Mary Jane Kuffner Hirt*. On Christmas Eve, 1917, my Kerry-born grandfather was working as a motorman for a Pittsburgh streetcar company. That day, a car in the fleet lost power as it entered the decline of a tunnel. The crash at the other end resulted in a dozen deaths and scores of injuries, still the city’s worst transit disaster. My grandfather was not involved in the episode, but he would have felt the aftershocks of the streetcar company’s bankruptcy in this dark period of the city’s history, eight months after the United States entered World War I and weeks before the outbreak of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Kuffner Hirt’s research is meticulous. My full review in Western Pennsylvania History Magazine.

Ireland’s broadband push recalls rural electrification effort

In a ceremony days before Christmas 1947, Ballymacelligott parish priest Fr. M. O’Donoghue “made alive” an electric connection to the rural community four miles east of Tralee in County Kerry. (The town obtained electricity 20 years earlier.) “Appropriately the first house to be lighted up was the House of God,” The Kerryman reported.1

The church connection completed a year of similar events in the Irish government’s Rural Electrification Scheme. At the time, about two thirds of Irish homes were without electricity. It would take until the late 1970s to connect 99 percent of those homes, with the Black Valley in Kerry, about 25 miles south of Ballymacelligott, being among the last places lighted.

Now, two generations after completing the electric grid, the Irish government has embarked on a similar effort to supply high-speed broadband service beyond the country’s cities and towns. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in November hailed the initiative as the “biggest investment in rural Ireland ever” and the “most important since rural electrification”.2

Dromiskin, County Louth, c. 1949. ESB Archives

The €3 billion National Broadband Plan (NBP) “aims to radically change the broadband landscape in Ireland,” the government’s website says. “It will ensure that all citizens and businesses have access to high speed broadband no matter where they live or work.”

Over the next four years, 1.1 million rural residents will receive broadband service through a combination of commercial and State-led investment, according to the plan, “securing equal access for every person in Ireland to opportunities which will transform [their] lives,” whether through agriculture and other economic development, healthcare, or education. The 90 percent coverage goal includes portions of Ballymacelligott. 

The project is likely to have its share of setbacks on the way to success, as happened with rural electrification. That history is detailed at the online Electricity Supply Board (ESB) Archives, and in Michael J. Shiel’s 1984 book, The Quiet Revolution: The Electrification of Rural Ireland, 1946-1976. Sheil was a Galway-born, ESB engineer at the start of the venture who eventually became one of its directors. He also was one of its first customers, with his residence transformed into a “show house” to persuade reluctant farmers about the benefits of electricity.3

Electrification had massive social and cultural consequences for rural Ireland. Many rural households replaced the free 100W bulb they received with a lower wattage because the new light made them feel sick or “tended to put out [the glow of] the fire.4 Others at first agreed to take electricity, then changed their minds, in part because of the costs. They became known as “backsliders.” 

In a 1984 review of The Quiet Revolution, Dan Collins wrote: “Some to this day regret that rural Ireland ever became ensnared in the State-backed corporate scheme which they argued sounded the death knell for many of the old traditions which characterized the unique heritage of the Irish.”5 Historian Diarmaid Ferriter at least twice has used an anecdote from Quiet Revolution about a War of Independence veteran who asserted, “it wasn’t for street lamps that we fought.”6

But rural electrification expanded inexorably. Shiel, in a 2007 chapter for a U.S. energy management publication,7 maintained that government officials and business leaders recognized the positive social and psychological components of rural electrification. “They viewed electricity not only as a means to improve rural productivity, but also as a way to free rural people, particularly women, from the age-old drudgery of farm life. … It gave rural people a belief in themselves and their potential, which had hitherto been lacking.”

Kitchen Power: Women’s Experiences of Rural Electrification”, an exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland/Country Life, Mayo, explores the female perspective of the “quiet revolution” until July. Listen to oral history interviews with four women who lived through the transformation.

The digital divide is also a problem in rural America, just as spotty electric service kept these communities isolated during the Great Depression. In January, the U.S. government announced a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund totaling $20.4 billion over 10 years.

“It’s about time. They take care of their cities, but they don’t take care of you,” President Donald Trump said in a speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation, exploiting the same rural/urban division that is also exposed in Ireland, whether related to garda stations or post offices, economic development or healthcare services.8

Faster access to the internet will not by itself solve such problems on either side of the Atlantic. “Utopia of course is far from being reached,” Shiel concluded in his 1984 book. “At the time of writing there are immense problems, economic and social, looming. The progress of the people of rural Ireland, however, … has been by any standards remarkable.”9  

And so the remarkable changes in rural Ireland since 1947 … or even since 1984 … will continue with the implementation of broadband service. Sometime in the coming years the Ballymacelligott church pews will be digital hot spots.

First pole at Kilsallaghan, County Dublin, Nov. 5, 1946. ESB Archives.

Irish film celebrates archives & ordinary lives

I  got to watch “Keepers of the Flame,” a 2018 documentary about some of the more than 85,000 people who in the 1920s applied for state pensions based on their actions in the 1916 Easter Rising, and the subsequent Irish War of Independence, and Irish Civil War. Only 18,000 received any money.

The Irish Military Service Pensions Archive became public in 2017. Most of the massive collection of government forms, personal letters, and related materials is available online.

“We need those archives, not just in Ireland, but everywhere. And we need those archives in order to come to some sort of an approximation of who we are are,” Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter says in the film. He co-wrote the script with director Nuala O’Connor.

Read the Irish Independent‘s 2018 interview for more of Ferriter’s views about the project.

The Irish pension archive, like the similar American Civil War archives that Damian Shiels has expertly mined for Irish immigrant stories, is remarkable because it contains fragments of so many lives forgotten in most historical accounts. Such stories “humanize and enrich history by reminding us that the study of the past should include the study of the lives of ordinary people, their attitudes, beliefs, motives, experiences and actions,” Bill McDowell wrote in “Historical Research: A Guide for Writers of Dissertations, Theses, Articles and Books.”

Among some of my own works in this effort:

I leave debates about the “archival sliver” versus “total archives” to others. If you love exploring archives, as I do, you must see this film. As someone said after the screening I attended: panning shots of shelves of boxes in temperature-controlled rooms never looked so good.

Below, the official trailer for “Keepers of the Flame.”

Debate heats up over separation of church, state and schools

Debate in Ireland is heating up about the role of religion in managing school admissions. The Humanist Association of Ireland is calling for a ban on baptism certificates or other proof of a child’s religious affiliation.

Brian Whiteside, an official with the secularist group, told The Irish Times:

There is a new reality that has to be addressed. One third of couples are getting married in non-religious ceremonies. It’s reasonable to ask what sort of schools they want for their children.

The HAI says it “promotes the ideals and values of Humanism, working for people who choose to live an ethical life without religion.” The organization has made strong inroads in Ireland’s marriage ceremony business, as the Irish Independent reported last summer.

About 257,000 of 4.5 million living in the Republic in 2011, or just under 6 percent, said they had no religion. Catholics remained the majority at about 85 percent, according to the Central Statistics Office, and the church controls about 90 percent of Ireland’s primary schools.

The schools debate is more than just the usual separation of church and state struggle. It also brings full circle a vision for the Irish education system that began in the first half of the 19th century, long before independence.

Historian Diarmaid Ferriter writes this opinion column in the Times about Thomas Davis, a Young Irelander, poet and journalist, who argued for a state-endowed secular system of third-level education based on national colleges. Davis believed a “mixed education” was a vital component of an inclusive form of nationality in Ireland.

Buying history at “independence sales” in Ireland

Historian Diarmaid Ferriter is calling on wealth collectors to buy up artifacts from Ireland’s revolutionary period and donate them to the Republic.

In an opinion piece for the Irish Times, he writes:

Auction houses have been gleefully trumpeting their “independence sales” in recent times, as they seek to drum up business selling Irish historical memorabilia from the 1916-1923 period. … There is something unseemly about this kind of historical artifact being traded in this way, but it is equally a pity that those who have the wealth to buy them do not see fit to donate them to the State, thereby bringing significant pieces of our heritage into public ownership.

Ferriter is a member of the Expert Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations, which is focused on recognizing the historical events of 1912 to 1922. Lots of great stuff on the website linked above.