Fintan O’Toole’s ‘personal history’ of Ireland

Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole leverages his life experiences from the 50th anniversary of Ireland’s independence to its transformation “from backwater of Europe to one off the most globalized societies in the world” as “a different way of writing the history of a country.”

At a St. Patrick’s Day eve talk in Washington, D.C., to promote his new book, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, O’Toole said the Irish experienced “an existential crisis” during his mid-20th century youth. People were asking, “Is this place viable?” and “What does independence mean?”

Fintan O’Toole, March 16, 2022

Many answered the question with one-way tickets to England (The late oppressor, how ironic!), America, and elsewhere. Ireland’s population fell to half of what it had been 100 years earlier, before the Great Famine. The emigration, in turn, bolstered Ireland’s global identity as a conservative Catholic country. The church, O’Toole said, “governed lives and governed the state.”

Those who left, including a notable preponderance of single women, learned to nurture and manage diverse and even conflicting identities in their new homes. But they found themselves, “half there, half here” and suspended between versions of Ireland’s past and present. The Irish, O’Toole said, developed a profound capacity “for thinking one thing about themselves, and knowing it was something else.”

This concept is also reflected in the long-running “collusion” (O’Toole’s word, both joking and serious) between the Irish and Irish America. The Irish lied about themselves and their country to cover up painful truths; Americans agreed to believe the stories, which they weaved into an idealized nostalgia for a place “as unlike America as possible.”

Now, the Irish are staying home. Despite the economic setback of the “Celtic Tiger,” the country has grown progressive and prosperous. The Irish are comfortable (or becoming so) with “complex and multiple identities,” O’Toole said. They live in a world of grays, not only vivid greens … and orange. The “radical change” in Ireland, the author continued, is the Irish are learning this doesn’t make them “less Irish.”

O’Toole noted that demographers forecast Ireland’s population by 2040 will reach 8.5 million, the same as before the Famine. He concluded: “It’s quite an optimistic place to be.”

I’ve only begun reading this book, which is divided into 43 short chapters pegged to individual years or groups of years over the author’s lifetime. O’Toole and I are roughly contemporaries. He was born in suburban Dublin in February 1958, 18 months before my birth in suburban Pittsburgh. He was eight at the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising and subsequent commemorations of Ireland’s revolutionary period, soon overshadowed by the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I was six at the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War and subsequent civil rights turmoil; 17 when America celebrated its bicentennial in 1976.

Every country has national foundation myths and internal strife.

So I am very interested in O’Toole’s “personal history” as vehicle for “the history of a country.” As fellow Dublin writer Colum McCann writes in his New York Times review of the book, “it is not a memoir, nor is it an absolute history, nor is it entirely a personal reflection or a crepuscular credo. It is, in fact, all of these things helixed together: his life, his country, his thoughts, his misgivings, his anger, his pride, his doubt, all of them belonging, eventually, to us.”

I will write more in a future post.

St. Patrick’s Day, 1919-1922, in four quotes

War and other strife in Ireland drew special attention in America at St. Patrick’s Day from two months after the first Dáil Éireann in January 1919, to two months after approval of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in January 1922. The four quotes below reflect developments on March 17 over this period. They are taken from my American Reporting of Irish Independence archive .

St. Patrick’s Day in America, 1919: “Irish freedom was demanded, and the league of nations, as proposed at present, was condemned at a mass meeting last night at Liberty Hut under the auspices of the United Irish Societies of the District that was the climax of the National Capital’s celebration of St. Patrick’s day.” — The Washington Post

St. Patrick’s Day in America, 1920: Politics and poetry: “Those of our race who are citizens of this mighty land of America, whose thoughts will help to mould the policy of the leader among Nations–how much the world looks to you this St. Patrick’s Day–hopes in you–trusts in you.” —Sinn Féin leader Éamon de Valera, then touring America, in a message widely quoted in U.S. newspapers. Denis Aloysius McCarthy also released a poem that emphasized the historic connections between Ireland and America.

St. Patrick’s Day, 1921: ‘A Summons to Service’: “Day after day you read with fainting heart the desolation that is gripping Ireland. You know that what you read is but half the story. … This is not an ‘appeal.’ It is rather a summons to Americans to join wholeheartedly in an enterprise of mercy.” — From A Summons to Service from the Women and Children of Ireland, the 16-page booklet used by the American Committee for Relief in Ireland to support its humanitarian fundraising drive.

Dual delegations at St. Patrick’s Day, 1922: “The growing disunity among the nationalist leaders in Ireland was dramatically revealed to the Irish in America in the form of two rival delegations sent to the United States on behalf of their respective factions.” — Historian Francis M. Carroll. Civil war in Ireland began three months later and would not conclude until shortly after St. Patrick’s Day 1923.

Dual delegations at St. Patrick’s Day, 1922

St. Patrick’s Day of 1922 was the first since 1915 without war on the European continent or the island of Ireland. The saint’s feast arrived two months after Dáil Éireann narrowly approved the Anglo-Irish Treaty, a month before anti-treaty republicans seized the Four Courts in Dublin, and three months before their pro-treaty colleagues topped the 26-county Dáil election and bombarded the building holding outs, thus beginning the Irish Civil War.

Francis M. Carroll has written, “the growing disunity among the nationalist leaders in Ireland was dramatically revealed to the Irish in America in the form of two rival delegations sent to the United States on behalf of their respective factions. … Both groups began touring the country, denouncing their opponents in Ireland with all the malice and vituperation previously reserved for the British government. … This spectacle … severely demoralized the Irish American community.”[1]Carroll, Francis M., America And The Making of An Independent Ireland, A History, New York University Press, New York, 2021, p. 148.

The rival delegations arrived in New York City on St. Patrick’s Day 1922 aboard the Aquitania. The pro-treaty representatives included James O’Mara, Piaras Beaslai, and Sean MacCaoilte. Austin Stack and J.J. O’Kelly stood for the anti-treaty faction. The New York Evening World reported, “one hotel was not large enough to harbor both parties.” When Stack and O’Kelly checked into the Waldorf-Astoria, described by the paper as the original destination for all five men, the other three “traveled up Fifth Avenue until they reached the St. Regis, where they engaged quarters.”[2]”Two Rival Groups Come To Campaign For Ireland Here”, New York Evening World, March 18, 1922.

New York Evening World, March 18, 1922.

Both sides issued statements to the press. The pro-treaty group said:

We wish to make it perfectly clear that we have not come to America to make Irish internal political differences subjects of agitation in the United States. … We are not here to assert the exact political formula of the treaty is the ideal one which we would choose. It represents a compromise between two countries at war with each other, but we think the treaty gives us the substance of the liberty for which we fought–freedom from foreign occupation and foreign control–and the entire mastery of our own affairs without involving the abandonment of our right to future readjustment with England that might be considered necessary.[3]”Statement of the Free State Envoys”, The Gaelic American, March 25, 1922.

The anti-treaty delegation said it came to “explain the actual situation in Ireland” to national and state conventions of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic, the group created by Éamon de Valera at the end of 1920, a year before the treaty, in a split with the U.S.-based Friends of Irish Freedom. The delegation statement continued:

Multitudes are being misled as to the real character of the proposed Irish Free State by a press propaganda that is ill-informed, biased and in many cases, partisan. We wish to explain to the people of America the actual nature of the so-called Treaty and to tell them what the Irish people think of it. The people of America have heard one side of the story.[4]”Rival Envoys Here From Ireland”, The Gaelic American, March 25, 1922.

The Gaelic American, March 25, 1922, page 1.

The pro-treaty (and anti-de Valera) Gaelic American of New York City and anti-treaty Irish Press of Philadelphia (with direct ties to de Valera) each published statements from both groups in their March 25 editions. The Free State comments published in the Gaelic American (above) were attributed to the New York Herald. The Irish Press published different, though similar, remarks from the Free Staters, but the same anti-treaty comments.

Visitors from Ireland reinforced both sides in the coming weeks: Denis McCullough on behalf of the Free Staters and Countess Markievicz and sister of Kevin Barry for the anti-treatyites. The division worsened as the Gaelic American accused de Valera of encouraging civil war, and the anti-treaty Irish World of New York described “Freak State” leaders as “traitors.”

As Carroll has noted, “Very soon after, events in Ireland surpassed even this. … The shelling of the Four Courts and the outbreak of the Civil War in Ireland were calamitous for Irish American morale. Observers were shocked and bewildered …”[5]Carroll, America … , p. 149.

More at my American Reporting of Irish Independence series.


1 Carroll, Francis M., America And The Making of An Independent Ireland, A History, New York University Press, New York, 2021, p. 148.
2 ”Two Rival Groups Come To Campaign For Ireland Here”, New York Evening World, March 18, 1922.
3 ”Statement of the Free State Envoys”, The Gaelic American, March 25, 1922.
4 ”Rival Envoys Here From Ireland”, The Gaelic American, March 25, 1922.
5 Carroll, America … , p. 149.

Exploring the Samuel Duff McCoy Papers at Princeton

Journalist Samuel Duff McCoy and seven other Americans traveled to revolutionary Ireland in February 1921 to assess its humanitarian needs after two years of war with Britain. Six weeks later, McCoy, then 39, wrote the delegation’s investigative report as he returned home to urge the U.S. State Department to distribute relief funds being collected in America. Unsuccessful in that effort, McCoy sailed back to Ireland that summer to coordinate the relief effort with the Irish White Cross and report on the end of the war for U.S. newspapers and magazines.

Samuel Duff McCoy, probably January 1921 passport photo. It is stamped on the back from a Washington, D.C. studio. Samuel McCoy Papers, 1868-1964, Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

McCoy’s work with the American Committee for Relief in Ireland has been documented by historians of this period’s U.S.-Irish relations, notably Francis M. Carroll and Bernadette Whelan.[1]Carroll, Francis M., America and the Making of an Independent Ireland, A History, New York University Press, New York, 2021, and Whelan, Bernadette, United States Foreign Policy and Ireland: From … Continue reading But McCoy’s reporting from Ireland has not received much attention. And historians appear to have overlooked McCoy’s personal papers, which are held at Princeton University in New Jersey.

I have just completed a review of the Ireland-related material in this archive. It includes nearly 100 letters to and from McCoy, most dated from January 1921 through the first half of 1922. His correspondents include Clemens J. France, an American lawyer, leader of the relief delegation, and an early assistant to the fledgling Irish Free State government. Other writers include top officials of the American Committee based in New York City, Lord Mayor of Dublin Laurence O’Neill, Irish historian Alice Stopford Green, and IRA commander and Dáil Éireann member Seán MacEoin.

The material also includes hand edited typescripts of McCoy’s “The Lads Who Freed Ireland” series, syndicated in early 1922 to U.S. newspapers including the New York Morning World, Chicago Daily New, San Francisco Examiner, and Minneapolis Star Tribune. United Feature Syndicate publicity material describes the 10-part series as “The Red Hot ‘Inside’ Story of the Dramatic Struggle That Led to Liberty.” McCoy’s work, or articles about his work, also appeared in Leslie’s Weekly and The Literary Digest.

The archive also includes:

  • Unpublished or draft manuscripts by McCoy, American suffragist and author Doris Stevens, and Irish writer James Stephens, under the pseudonym James Esse.
  •  A report by New York banker John J. Pulleyn and lawyer Richard Campbell, the American Committee’s  treasurer and secretary, respectively, on their October 1921 visit to Ireland, plus McCoy’s press release about their arrival to the London newspapers.
  • A map of Ireland showing the nearly 100 cities and villages in 22 of the island’s 32 counties covered by the investigative team in February 1921, a notated Irish-English dictionary, and ephemera such as a March 1921 Abbey Theatre playbill and October 1921 Phoenix Park racing form.
  • Dozens of black & white photographs by McCoy and Dublin’s William David Hogan, including key revolutionary figures and various urban and rural scenes.

Over the remainder of this year I will use the McCoy material in new pieces or to update existing stories in my American Reporting of Irish Independence series. Princeton digitized the letters portion of the McCoy papers at my request during the COVID-19 pandemic. I am willing to share my notes of the non-digitized portion of archive, viewed during my Feb. 20-23 visit to the Firestone Library, with researchers interested in Irish or journalism history. Unsurprisingly, Princeton will not reveal who has previously looked at this material. I welcome information about historians who have tapped this archive or written about McCoy.

Ledger of “civilian passes” for the eight-member delegation of the American Commission for Conditions in Ireland, dated March 3, 1921, and signed by McCoy. Samuel McCoy Papers, 1868-1964, Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


1 Carroll, Francis M., America and the Making of an Independent Ireland, A History, New York University Press, New York, 2021, and Whelan, Bernadette, United States Foreign Policy and Ireland: From Empire to Independence, 1913-29. Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2006.

Catching up with modern Ireland

A periodic post of curated content …

Northern Ireland Assembly election are scheduled for May 5. The DUP’s Paul Givan resigned in early February as the power-sharing Executive’s first minister to protest the Northern Ireland Protocol, the Brexit-driven trade rules that separate the region from the rest of Britain. Givan’s move resulted in Sinn Féin‘s Michelle O’Neill losing her role as deputy first minister and cast doubt on whether the Executive, or the Assembly, could return after the election … if it takes place. The New York Times featured Upheaval in Northern Ireland, With Brexit at Its Center.

  • Ireland is repealing nearly all of its COVID-19 restrictions as the pandemic reaches its second anniversary. Overall, Ireland did pretty well dealing with the pandemic when compared with how other countries responded, Irish Times Public Affairs Editor Simon Carswell told the Feb. 27 In The News podcast.
  • U.S. President Joe Biden will travel to Ireland this summer, according to media reports that surfaced before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He visited his ancestral County Mayo homeland as vice president in 2016 and 2017.
  • Claire D. Cronin presented her credentials as United States Ambassador to Ireland to President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins on Feb. 10. Cronin is 25th U.S. ambassador to Ireland and third woman in the role, following Margaret Heckler and Jean Kennedy Smith.

Higgins, left, and Cronin.

History notes:

  • Two former nuns created a “Coastal Camino” that is bringing travelers to an otherwise neglected part of Northern Ireland, reports BBC’s Travel section.
  • Seventh century Irish monks who were largely responsible for transforming this sacrament into the version with which we’re familiar, John Rodden writes in Commonweal.
  • My story on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday for History News Network at George Washington University.

See previous “Catching up with modern Ireland” columns and annual “Best of the Blog.”

Guest post: ‘Periodicals & Journalism in Twentieth-Century Ireland’

Dublin historian Felix M. Larkin wrote this piece. He is a co-founder of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland (NPHFI) and has previously contributed to this site, including Kennedy and Parnell, lost leaders. Mark O’Brien is a former NPHFI chairman and co-editor of Politics, Culture, and The Irish American Press 1784-1963. Larkin’s November 2021 virtual presentation about their book to the European Society of Periodical Research is posted below. … Journalists, historians, authors, researchers, and travelers to Ireland are always welcome to offer guest contributions. MH


Mark O’Brien and I have edited two volumes of essays on the theme of periodicals and journalism in twentieth century Ireland. The first appeared in 2014; the second in December 2021.[1]Mark O’Brien & Felix M. Larkin, Periodicals and journalism in twentieth-century Ireland: writing against the grain (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014); Mark O’Brien & Felix M. Larkin, … Continue reading Both seek to address a particular gap in the field of press history in Ireland – namely, the links between Irish periodicals of the twentieth century and current affairs journalism. The scholarly work that has previously been done on Irish periodicals has tended to concentrate on the journal as literary miscellany rather than as a vehicle for news and commentary.

Vol 1.

Roy Jenkins, then British home secretary, observed in 1975 that “choice is as essential to a free press as the prestige of journalists and the protection of resounding constitutional declarations”.[2]Roy Jenkins, Government, broadcasting and the press: the Granada Guildhall lecture, 1975 (London: Hart-Davis, McGibbon, 1975), p.18. In other words, there is no genuine freedom of expression in the public sphere unless a wide variety of outlets is available to accommodate those with something to say. In twentieth century Ireland, many of the national and provincial newspapers were effectively organs of or associated with political parties or other dominant interest groups. There was, accordingly, little space for diversity of opinion. Whereas newspapers must appeal to a wide readership, periodicals – with a smaller cost base – can afford to reflect specialist or minority interests. Thus, the importance of Irish periodicals of the twentieth century is that, for however small an audience, many projected an alternative view of the world to the narrow one that was propagated by the Irish establishment in its various incarnations, both before and after independence. By providing an outlet for those writing against the grain of Irish society, they made freedom of expression a reality in Ireland.

Moreover, in the last 40 or so years of the twentieth century there began to appear a new breed of periodical that concentrated on the seamier side of politics, promoted investigative journalism and exposed the often opaque goings-on within the world of Irish business. This was a more aggressive form of writing against the grain than had been the norm in the first half of the century.

The voices finding expression in Irish periodicals are not, however, only dissenting voices. There are certainly organs of dissent among the periodicals featured in the two volumes that Mark and I have edited; but, more typically, Irish periodicals have catered for specific communities within Irish society that might not otherwise have a voice in the media – in other words, marginalized communities. In our two volumes are heard the voices of women, the young, the gay community, religious interests, the labor and republican movements and the Irish-Ireland lobby promoting revival of the Irish language.

By virtue of their influence on the ideas of an intellectual elite who were the makers of public opinion in Ireland – in politics, the public service, the universities and elsewhere – many of the periodicals featured in our two volumes helped shape the final phase of the struggle for independence in Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century and then, post-independence, the thinking that ultimately led to the emergence of a more open Irish society from the late-1960s onwards.

Of course, periodicals in Ireland in the twentieth century were never anything other than doubtful ventures in business terms. In our second volume, there is a chapter on the business of publishing periodicals in Ireland in the period 1930-55 – and it was often a messy business.[3]Sonya Perkins, “Friendship of the intelligent few and hostility of the unimaginative many: the business of publishing periodicals in Dublin, 1930-55”, in O’Brien & Larkin, Periodicals and … Continue reading Many periodicals had, however, a faithful readership that sustained them for quite long runs of publication, and the influence they had via that readership was entirely disproportionate to their circulation levels and profits, if any. They were the fulcrum on which the intellectual foundations of Irish society moved – slowly, but irrevocably.

Split between our two volumes is a total of 29 chapters – most of them studies of individual periodicals; but some survey a number of periodicals with a common purpose and/or the same target audience; two refer to notable series of articles that appeared in influential periodicals in the 1940s and 1950s; and one (as already noted) discusses the business aspects of publishing periodicals in Ireland in the mid-twentieth century.

Vol. 2.

Both volumes are rich collections, and the range and variety of the periodicals that our contributors have written about is impressive. But what, if anything, did the periodicals in question have in common? The most common feature is the omnipresence within each of them of a dominant personality, or two – as editor and/or proprietor. This omnipresence of a dominant personality is the generally recognized paradigm for journals, both in Ireland and elsewhere. Thus, Malcolm Ballin – in his study of Irish Periodical Culture, 1937-1972 – observes that “a periodical is produced by a guiding intelligence, seeking to project an identity”.[4]Malcolm Ballin, Irish periodical culture, 1957–1972: genre in Ireland, Wales and Scotland (New York, 2008), p 2.

Another common feature is that the periodicals were, and are, largely metropolitan phenomena. Even where the periodical was one that championed the ideal of Irish-Ireland and a return to the lost paradise of an imagined Irish past in a rural idyll, its message was addressed principally to urban readers – mainly Dublin-based ones. The contents of the periodicals are, by and large, indicative of a middle-class urban elite engaging in public discourse with itself.

Finally, these periodicals had in common a certain style, which derived perhaps from a sense of their own necessity: without them, who or what would facilitate critical thought – or, indeed, any thought – in the Ireland in which they strove, and may still strive, to exist? They were not always stylish in their physical appearance, but there was a quality in the writing that conveyed a confidence that the work they were undertaking was important. It should therefore be done well, and it usually was.


1 Mark O’Brien & Felix M. Larkin, Periodicals and journalism in twentieth-century Ireland: writing against the grain (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014); Mark O’Brien & Felix M. Larkin, Periodicals and journalism in twentieth-century Ireland 2: a variety of voices (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2021).
2 Roy Jenkins, Government, broadcasting and the press: the Granada Guildhall lecture, 1975 (London: Hart-Davis, McGibbon, 1975), p.18.
3 Sonya Perkins, “Friendship of the intelligent few and hostility of the unimaginative many: the business of publishing periodicals in Dublin, 1930-55”, in O’Brien & Larkin, Periodicals and journalism 2, pp. 60-81.
4 Malcolm Ballin, Irish periodical culture, 1957–1972: genre in Ireland, Wales and Scotland (New York, 2008), p 2.

Presentation thank you & suggested reading

My thanks to the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh for the opportunity to make my Feb. 17 presentation, “The Irish Revolution in Pittsburgh.” If you couldn’t attend, watch the recorded version, which should be posted within the next few days.

As promised to live attendees, here is some suggested Irish reading that will keep you busy up to St. Patrick’s Day … and beyond:

Irish Pittsburgh:

  • His Last Trip: An Irish American Story, by Mark Holan, 2014. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh called my book “a fascinating snapshot of one family’s Irish-American experience and how their lives were shaped by circumstances here and in Ireland.” Available at CLP and the Heinz History Center.
  • Irish Pittsburgh, by Patricia McElligott, 2013. Part of the Arcadia Publishing series about people and places, mostly photos and captions.
  • Pittsburgh Irish: Erin on the Three Rivers, by Gerard F. O’Neil, 2015. A more detailed general history.
  • “Across ‘The Big Wather,’ The Irish Catholic Community of Mid-Nineteenth Century Pittsburgh”, by Victor A. Walsh in The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 66, No. 1, January 1983.
  • “A Fanatic Heart: The Cause of Irish-American Nationalism in Pittsburgh During the Gilded Age,” by Victor A. Walsh in Journal of Social History, Vol. 15, No. 2, Winter 1981.

General histories:

  • How The Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall
    of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, by Thomas Cahill, 1995. A bestseller and good
    foundation for subsequent events.
  • Ireland before the Famine, 1798-1848, by Gearoid O Tuathaigh
  • The Depictions of Eviction in Ireland: 1845-1910, by Lewis Perry Curtis, 2011. The late American historian gives an overview of how land-related hardships in rural Ireland during the second half of the 19th century set the stage for the nationalist revolution in the early 20th century.
  • The Modernisation of Irish Society, 1848-1918, by John Joseph Lee
  • The Transformation of Ireland: 1900-2000, by Diarmaid Ferriter, 2004. At 884 pages,
    this book may be more than you want, but it’s surprisingly readable, in part because it is carved up into bite-size subsections. Ferriter is probably Ireland’s most recognized
    contemporary historian. He writes a regular column in The Irish Times.
  • Peace After the Final Battle, 1912-1924, by John Dorney, 2014. The heart of the Irish
    revolutionary period.
  • Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America’s Fight For Ireland’s Freedom, by Terry Golway,
    1999. Devoy’s life and this book stretch from the Famine to the revolutionary period, including the role of the Irish in America. This “popular history” is a fast read.
  • Living With History: Occasional Writings, by Felix M. Larkin. The Dublin historian offers nearly 100 pieces, ranging from 500 to 5,000 words; sectioned under nine themes, including one on American people and events. Written for general audiences.

The Troubles:

It’s said that more books have been written about The Troubles than any other conflict. Maybe.
This go-to database contains more than 22,000 entries.

  • Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by
    Patrick Radden Keefe, 2018. A vivid, street-level view of the viciousness and brutality of the
    Catholic v. Protestant and Irish v. British conflict as told through the particulars of one notorious case. The title is from a 1975 Seamus Heaney poem about the conflict: “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.”
  • Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland, by David McKittrick and David McVea, 2002.

Journalism & travel:

  • Christendom in Dublin, by G. K. Chesterton, 1932. The English writer and Catholic
    convert attended the June 1932 Eucharist Congress in Dublin, which drew an international crowd of about 1 million to the Irish capital a decade after the revolution. Arguably the peak of “Catholic Ireland.” One-sitting essay.
  • Irish Journalism Before Independence: More a Disease Than a Profession, Kevin
    Rafter, editor, 2011. (The subtitle comes from the Dublin Evening Mail, 1908.) Academic
    essays about 19th and early 20th century Irish reporters and reporting.
  • Politics, Culture, and The Irish American Press 1784-1963, Debra Reddin van Tuyll, Mark O’Brien, and Marcel Broersma, editors, 2021. 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 wrote in the Forward.
  • On Celtic Tides: One Man’s Journey Around Ireland by Sea Kayak, by Chis Duff, 1999;
    and The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border, by Garrett Carr, 2017. Social,
    political, and environmental journalism.
  • See Travellers’ Accounts as Source-Material for Irish Historians, by Christopher J. Woods, 2009, and The Tourist’s Gaze, Travellers to Ireland, 1800 to 2000, edited by Glen Hooper, 2001, for further reading ideas.

Poetry & literature:

  • Any collection of poems by William Butler Yeats or Seamus Heaney.
  • Dubliners (1914 short stories) and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916 novel) by James Joyce. The Irish capital at the turn of the 20th century.
  • Trinity, by Leon Uris, 1976. A hugely-popular best seller and an early influence on my interests in Irish history. Covers the period from the 1880s up to the 1916 Rising.
  • Transatlantic, by Colum McCann, 2013. Based on three historical events: Frederick
    Douglass’s 1845-46 lecture tour in Ireland; Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown’s 1919 flight
    across the ocean from Newfoundland to Ireland; and U.S. Sen. George Mitchell’s role in
    brokering the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
  • Short Stories of John B. Keane or The Teapots Are Out and Other Eccentric Tales
    From Ireland, or similar collections by the late essayist and playwright affectionately
    known as “John B”. A distant relation from the same corner of County Kerry as both of
    my maternal grandparents and other Irish relations. The dialogue in his short stories and plays perfectly captures their cadence and wit, which I still hear when visiting my living relations in this part of Ireland. More 20th century folklore and folkways, than history.

The North Kerry coast, July 2016.

Feb. 17 presentation: The Irish Revolution in Pittsburgh

About 14,000 Irish immigrants lived in Pittsburgh during Ireland’s War of Independence, fifth largest in the United States, with tens of thousands more first-generation Irish Americans in the city and surrounding region. They read letters and newspaper accounts of developments in Ireland, staged rallies both for and against separation from Britain, and welcomed several Irish leaders to the city.

I will give a free virtual talk on this topic for the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh at 7 p.m. Eastern, Feb. 17.  REGISTER HERE

The presentation is based on my work for this blog and other publications, which can be found in the Pittsburgh Irish section. I hope you’ll join me.

James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ at 100



James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in Paris on Feb. 2, 1922. A new book by Dan Mulhall, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States , is among numerous international commemorations of the centenary. The 324-page Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey is “a turning of the sod rather than a full excavation” of Joyce’s masterpiece, the ambassador said during a Jan. 31 Irish Network-D.C. virtual event. “You could dig forever and ever and never get to the bottom of it. …

… if there is a bottom,” he later qualified.

James Joyce

Ulysses famously chronicles one day–June 16, 1904–in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom. Mulhall described the date as “the cusp of Irish history,” roughly halfway between the 1891 downfall and death of Irish parliamentary leader Charles Stewart Parnell, and the revolutionary period of the 1916 Easter Rising. A year after Ulysses was published, W. B Yeats called this period the “long gestation” of a “disillusioned and embittered Ireland.”[1]Irish poet William Butler Yeats. “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1923“.

Parts of Ulysses were serialized from 1918 to 1920 in The Little Review, an American literary journal. This resulted in a 1921 obscenity trial, which effectively banned the book in the United States for another decade. Joyce continued to revise the manuscript to within two days of publication, which happened to be his 40th birthday.

The publisher was Sylvia Beach, an American who had just opened Shakespeare and Company, an English-language bookshop in Paris. The print run of 1,000 included 750 numbered editions, some copies of which today sell for more than $70,000.

Press coverage and reviews of the Paris edition of Ulysses appeared in America by spring 1922. Dr. Joseph Collins, a prominent New York neurologist and author, reviewed the book for The New York Times under the headline “James Joyce’s Amazing Chronicle.” His opening sentence:

A few intuitive, sensitive visionaries may understand and comprehend ‘Ulysses,’ James Joyce’s new and mammoth volume, without going through a course of training or instruction, but the average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it — even from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of it — save bewilderment and a sense of disgust.

This was not an indictment, the Times reported 94 years later. Dr. Collins was simply acknowledging that the book was tough going. He was unequivocal when he got to his opinion of the work: “‘Ulysses’ is the most important contribution that has been made to fictional literature in the twentieth century.”

I began reading the book years ago but was unable to finish. I felt chastened by Mulhall’s comment: “You have to be willing to put in the effort. It’s like learning a difficult language, the more you put in the more get out.” My high school French teacher would surely agree.

As noted by his publisher, Mulhall has written and lectured around the world about Irish literature in general and Joyce in particular. He “has worked tirelessly throughout his career to further the impact and reach of Irish writing.”

The Contemporary Music Centre, Ireland and Centre Culturel Irlandais are also presenting a celebration across Ireland and Europe through June. Ulysses Journey 2022 includes the simultaneous world premieres of six newly commissioned music and film works. And come June 16,  “Bloomsday” events worldwide will again celebrate the book and Irish culture.


1 Irish poet William Butler Yeats. “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1923“.

A Pittsburgh boy remembers ‘Bloody Sunday’, 1972

Above the fold: Pittsburgh’s morning daily after Bloody Sunday …

As a 12-year-old boy in Pittsburgh, I was beguiled by the brogues of my Kerry immigrant relations as they talked at the kitchen table. Ireland seemed a misty, green isle of shamrocks and St. Patrick, 3,400 miles away across the Atlantic. The bloodshed and deaths in Derry on Jan. 30, 1972, changed that childish view as I read the newspaper coverage seen on this page.

Read my piece on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday for History News Network at George Washington University.

… and the city’s evening paper later the same day.