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How the Irish Screwed Up Civilisation?

Don Akenson's History of the (Irish) World (Volume One)

Book Review

Seaghan O Murchu • 2 April 2006

An Irish History of Civilization, Vol. 1: An astonishingly comprehensive and extremely idiosyncratic combination of anecdotes shared through fiction, fact, and faction--in more than one sense of that last word. The title is misleading, of course. "How the Irish Saved Civilisation" this is not. In an 800+ page work starting with S/Paul of Tarsus and ending as the Great Famine looms, this collects, in the fashion of the Uruguayan storyteller Eduardo Galeano's three-volume History of Fire did so well two decades ago for Latin America: Akenson displays a collage of people, events, and situations that span roughly 18 centuries. This first volume assembling two "books" through smaller regionally-centered chapters that alternate and appear as the chronology spreads the Irish across the globe, stops before the Great Famine; the second volume will continue the story, of not only the Irish, up to us.

Why start so far back? First, Christianity and its separation from Rabbinic Judaism establishes the missionary momentum that impels the gospel towards Hibernia--well before St. Patrick. Second, Akenson is not only an historian of Ireland but of Judaism at this time, and he seeks to give us a talmudic take on not only all things Irish, but how the Irish diaspora--as with that of the Jews--swirled over nearly all of the planet as colonisation, technology, and ambition all drove the Irish into every corner of the Commonwealth, and far beyond even its ever-expanding domains. Third, what worked for Paul worked for Pat: they both knew how to lay on the shame and then offer their hearers the remedy--baptism. Akenson links Patrick's nagging mistrust of the body--based on an intelligent if inevitably speculative interpretation of his crucial letter admitting a secret sin--with a culturally Irish desire to save face. This union of shame with its antidote resulted in his success, legendary or historical--since Christianity quickly spread. How? Patrick knew how to manipulate the pride and the status of those nobles listening to Patrick's exhortations, and once these influential Irish leaders capitulated, their followers with little resistance humbly and inevitably followed suit.

Akenson emphasizes a few key points among thousands of equally thoughtful, if less consistently repeating but historically inspired situations that speckle his vivid vignettes. First, the Irish, until the Famine, were as much characterised by Protestant as by Catholic emigres. Next, many of these same Irish contrary to the lore of Orange lodges and parochial catechisms alike, hopped back and forth over the supposed sectarian divide much more nimbly and often for less than sanctified reasons--usually relating to marriage, wealth, survival, pragmatism, and/or ambition. Also, these claim-jumpers complicate any descendent's assertion that one's Irish ancestors were forever faithful to the true Faith, whichever one that may have been. Not to overlook that many Irish found Canada--with its legacy from the French of comparatively greater religious toleration and a more congenial cultural climate than that of the United States--a more appealing destination that until the Famine rivalled or bested the U.S. in its Irish contingents.

Finally, also contrary to custom, the Irish were not "black slaves in white skin." Akenson rejects a lazy Marxist superstructure thrust upon the quicksands of historical certainty. Nearly every tale he tells challenges 'fact'. Barbados may have been unpleasant, but freedom awaited those even if convicted or indentured, which was more than their African and Indian counterparts could expect. Akenson never lets us escape the uncomfortable legacy of the Irish throughout worlds, New perhaps more often than Old: they were happily as much victimisers as they were victims on behalf of British Civilisation as We Know It. Montserrat--where briefly an Irish-dominated 'republic' showed no less mercy towards its darker inhabitants from its sunburned social climbers--and the other slave-dominated Caribbean islands provide a particularly rueful surfeit of plenty to back up this claim. Republicans, throughout these pages, often turn coats rapidly, and more often than not find England a convenient refuge after their activism ceases. More than one family tree hides both those judged heroes as well as those who later generations would call traitors. Akenson insists that no Irish truism as to loyalty on either side of the divides long built can remain impervious to the steady nudge of the historian's trowel beneath these sectarian and ideological facades. Religion and ideology prove more flags of convenience than banners for processions when genealogies are scrutinised. The Irish had the comparative luxury in those harsh early modern centuries of a choice to leave their island hell for an island less romanticised but more profitable for many gamblers and chancers--those willing to manipulate the slave economy, rig the sugar or pirate trades, and spin its imperialist wheels and capitalist roulette to their advantage.

That is, the Irish may have been driven to emigrate through undoubted hard times and few prospects, but few went unwillingly, and far more left with little regret as they sailed as close as Liverpool or as far away as the antipodes. Even the convicts shipped off for political reasons, Akenson argues, constituted only about 1.5% of those transported to Australia; the ODC's, moreover, were far more often indecent if all too ordinary: careerist criminals the norm rather than doe-eyed innocents trussed and tossed for stealing a loaf of bread.

If this was all, it could have been expressed in far fewer pages. This book took me about 10 nights of quite a lot of free time to finish; and I admit I did read quickly. The pace, luckily, prevents you from nodding off, and the bite-size slices of his history encourage nibbling. Akenson has a like it or leave it narrative style. The book did not weary me except in propping up its considerable bulk. I can't, however, award this less than a rare five stars. This quirky compilation creates rhythms that invade my reveries.

Happily, no mean feat in these days of expensive productions from university presses, this (Montreal/Kingston-printed McGill-Queen's UP/London, Granta Books) offering provides great value for the money. Yes, perhaps if I was editor I might dare to excise a couple of hundred pages. But, as I am sure Akenson himself asserted, which pages to be cut would be debated and deflected eloquently by their creator.

In its abundance, its rationalism, and its attitude, the result's reminiscent of the Enlightenment writers who cultivated a loftier distance from the fools that we mortals be, but not without a soft spot for the dreams, comforts, and illusions even the best educated and most rational share with the rest of us less benighted proles. Harvard and Yale taught him; he has written dozens of books and won prizes and earned richly endowed (undoubtably) chairs at prestigious universities. But, he still has the common touch--if that touch bears scorn perhaps a bit more often than sentiment. Akenson's more akin to Voltaire rather than Rousseau.

Consider, if you're wondering if this book's for you, these sorts of descriptions. 'Spenser, like Raleigh, was a man whose hard and instinctive brutality was constantly being overlimed with a wash of chivalry; and that wash then was enhued into a mural, one so graceful that the viewer forgot that the artist had used a pigment whose fixative was blood.' (161) This shows characteristically Akenson's choice of the arresting metaphor, the slightly erudite (and sometimes overly recondite, as he is wont to use archaic verbs that echo long-discarded Hiberno-anglicisms) word selection, and the graceful balance of his demotic but persistently graceful clauses.

He compares one memorable figure, the Jewish George Benjamin who led Canada's Orange Lodges (this is not a misprint), in his own horse-mounted posture to 'a sphere upon a pine table.' (778) He can be funny. He can be dramatic. Tairoa, a Cook Islander in 1801, looks back at a British ship from which he, in his grab for fame, speared a 'pale angel': he is confounded when 'a long bamboo stick was pointed at him from the foreigner's vessel. He saw a light and heard a noise only a decasecond before his world exploded into searing pain, blinding sunshine, and a roaring of reef-shredded breakers. He fell dead in the bottom of his canoe.' (532-3)

Rewardingly, Akenson can be wise. He compares the labors of Robert Maunsell to translate the Bible into Maori to the far less laborious efforts over exactly the same number of years of Darwin, and wonders why we only praise the latter scholar. Perhaps, as he contemplates when conjuring up Emain Macha in 200 CE, Akenson through craft, cunning, and compassion, rescues history for the rest of us, who too are minor unsung figures in the long march to and from and through civilisation, here and there intersected by the Irish, however dimly recalled as our ancestors, conspirators, conquerors, or companions. Why, as Saul wonders in an opening scene, recite so much seemingly useless information, not only the praises of those famed like Darwin but those otherwise forgotten such as Maunsell? 'Professional remembers counted a lot. One cannot have a world run by aristocrats unless someone remembers who is a ruler and who a commoner or slave.' (61)

Akenson returns his story of the Irish and so many others to those of us who come from not only aristocrats and commoners and slaves--and, in these pages, the frequent frictions and couplings among and between all three factions. While many of the latter two categories remain nameless, and many others mere mentions in testimonies or ledgers, all--not only the first class usually granted that dubious honor--find their voices here. The noble and the servant, the Catholic, Protestant, a few Jews, and one Irishman deigned a Sikh deity (the inconclusive, almost Borgesian account of John Nicholson) all jostle for position. I will have to wait for the reading of the second volume, I suppose, to find out if there is more about this Anglo-Irish Sikh god. One of hundreds of characters here.

This surprisingly affordable and handsomely designed volume, the first "two books" comprising the first installment of two volumes, preserves these voices from Asia Minor to the ends of the earth as of 1845, where there always, as Akenson imagines it, can be found an Irish man or woman or someone who once was one, or once was engendered by, or once was owned by, or once knew one!




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