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Reviewed by:
  • An Irish History of Civilization
  • Brad Patterson
Don Akenson . An Irish History of Civilization. Volume 1 McGill-Queen's University Press 2005. 828. $39.95

This is a book that is big and lively in every sense. In the space of 800 pages the author guides the reader on a rollicking historical journey, one that stretches over two millennia, visits at least four continents, and introduces a cast of over a thousand individuals. And at the end there is promise of a second volume of similar length to carry the story forward. Long regarded as one of the foremost writers on the Irish diaspora, more recently praised for his work on Judaism and early Christianity, Canadian historian Donald Akenson, at latest count, has authored sixteen major scholarly studies, as well as five works of fiction. Several of the former are already considered to be historiographical landmarks. Akenson has amply demonstrated his mastery of a range of genres, and his publications are characteristically innovative and challenging. The present volume adds further lustre to the list. While arguably there is little substantive that is new, Akenson revisits old preoccupations and looks at them in new ways. The result is an opus by a historian at the height of his powers.

The book will nevertheless confound librarians, bibliographers, even casual readers. How should it be classified? How much is fact and how much fiction? Equally, the absence of footnotes and the lack even of a bibliography will, no doubt, irk some scholars. Akenson artfully anticipates such criticisms in his preface. What he is presenting is 'a collection of fictive short stories.' 'Some of the stories are accurate,' he [End Page 195] notes, 'all of them are true.' Moreover, 'not all seeming errors in the text are accidental.' The author's message is clear: take the work on its own terms. For those prepared to do so, there is much to absorb. Commencing with St Paul, coverage extends to the eve of the nineteenth-century famine. Gaelic Ireland, St Patrick, and the Normans are swiftly dealt with, things hotting up with the Elizabethan conquest. Thereafter there is a dual focus as the Irish move to the Americas and the Caribbean. Subsequent chapters outline the spread of the Irish to all parts of the globe. Divided into two 'books,' themselves split into chapters on particular places and times, the kernel of the work is a succession of short pen pictures and anecdotes, often amusing, sometimes horrific, but all with a point to make. Yet what may initially appear to be a disparate pastiche of people, events, and situations quickly emerges as nothing of the sort. The parts are cunningly bound together over space and time through family connections, subsequent actions, and parallel happenings.

Irish history, more than most, has been bedevilled by blind believers, the guardians of hagiographic received wisdoms. The author of Being Had: Historians, Evidence and the Irish in North America has never been one to eschew controversy, and nearly every tale in the present volume challenges established 'facts.' The vignettes amplify and reinforce a number of arguments previously advanced elsewhere. For instance, that until the famine those leaving Ireland were as likely to be Protestant as Catholic, if not more likely. That there were few early distinguishable differences between the groups is reiterated. Contrary to what either side would subsequently care to acknowledge, prior to the Devotional Revolution of the mid-nineteenth century, 'people were back and forth across the religious divide like ferrets in a rabbit warren.' They switched for reasons of marriage, survival, or pure ambition. Similarly, nationalist traditions were by no means as fixed as has been suggested. Ideology could be as much a flag of convenience as religion. Further, the proposition that the emigrant Irish were largely exiled victims is again resoundingly rejected. While some Irish may have been driven to leave by hard times or limited prospects, prior to the 1840s few went unwillingly. Ironically, too, once overseas, many of the alleged victims were skilled victimizers in the service of self and empire, whether in the Caribbean slave islands or the Aboriginal districts of the Australian colonies.

It is hard to do justice to a...


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pp. 195-197
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