The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Putting on the Poor Mouth

Don Akenson's An Irish History of Civilization: Vol. 2

Book Review

Seaghan O Murchu • 9 April 2006

In the last issue of The Blanket, I reviewed the first volume, that is "books 1 and 2" of this ambitious, offbeat, downright inexpensive, handsomely bound, and truly eclectic compendium of anecdotes and vignettes dramatising the Irish and whoever they encountered, all over the world from the time of Paul/Saul up to the eve of the 1845 Famine. (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP/London: Granta Books, 2005) I refer you to the earlier article for an explanation of Akenson's approach and his wry tone. This report will be briefer; "books 3 and 4" are about 150 pp. less in the body text, but the total weighs in at just under 700 pages nonetheless. You would need to read the first volume first; some characters, such as the perplexing John Nicholson turned Sikh deity, cross from that earlier tome into this one. Towards the end of this second volume, I began to weary, as I had after 700-plus pages of the first. Margaret Mead oddly comes in for no less of an vicious attack than, say, Father Coughlin! By the end, in two strange postludes, he seems to lose the scent of whatever long trail he's tracked over the Diaspora's two thousand years for good. His scholar's range plays off of a pundit's animus, to bracing if disorienting effect. Akenson's two books are best picked up and perused a chapter or so at a time. He breaks up the global Irish experience into roughly Asian, African, Protestant Irish and Catholic Irish (but more about the subversion of sectarianism in a moment), United States, a bit of Caribbean (but not nearly enough Latin American) and Canadian sections, dealing with these regions in book 3 as in the 19th century and book 4 in the 20th, more or less--stopping, however, at 1969.

His major thesis is that the Irish, despite An Gorta Mór, should not be complaining too much or trumpeting their supposed underdog, beaten cur, and/or kicked pup predicament. He reminds us that by mid-20th century the Catholic Irish were second in American ethnic groups ranked by success in education and income and social status only to the Jews. He also notes that the lowest group according to these same indicators in the U.S. were the "Ulster-Irish" Protestant descendents. He links the perigrinations of the latter tribes to an immensely influential strain of millenarianism rooted in, of all places, Lady Powerscourt's estate in Wicklow around the 1830s. Here, John Nelson Darby, itinerant preacher, managed to sway the Lady and enough others from the C of I into the folds of a determinedly "Dispensationalist" movement that wound up changing the way nearly every American Protestant in the next centuries would read the Bible. In and out of the White House. This may seem arcane. But Akenson painstakingly traces this crucial tendency to and manipulate the Bible so as to interpret future events. The success of the "Left Behind" books, although this is out of the scope of this book's era, the expectation of the Rapture, the glee in separating Bible verses by cross-referencing them via the "Scofield" Bible's verse correlations: these enabled millions to cut-and-paste the Bible out of context in, perhaps, millions of ways. This led, as the author reminds us, to the likes of Ronald Reagan and Billy Graham and, although the latter's too caricatured for me to recognize within this parade, Richard Nixon.

In fact, Reagan's parentage, in the wake of the Ne Temere decree of 1908 which put a papal end to the widespread practice in mixed marriages that saw the father's faith taken by the sons and that of the mother by the daughters, shows the effect of this judgment on millions of partially- or wholly Irish or Irish-descended families. Reagan took up, as a young man, with the Disciples of Christ, and was led away from the path of his older brother (born before the decree) that was parallel with Rome. Akenson may try one's patience by linking so many seemingly disparate events ultimately back to Ireland, but he has done his homework and makes such lessons dramatic and convincing, for the most part and considering the stamina that both author and reader must possess to master this bibliographical pursuit.

He is especially cogent in showing other such effects of families, or the lack of such cohesive parenting, upon children. How cruel was a Republic that went beyond the pope's strictures--no marriage once deemed legal anywhere could be otherwise in the 26 counties; church annulments and unions hitched by a justice of the peace were no less binding than those joined at the Catholic altar. The architect of such a prison himself had a chequered paternity, and here Akenson deftly plays his cards to stunning effect. Eamon DeValera's famously enigmatic birth records are shown not only in the aftermath of 1916 but much earlier in Bruree and much later when the 1937 Constitution was formulated with the ghostwriting of John Charles McQuaid towards the sanctity of the home presided over by a mother able to care for her weans. I leave it to the adventurous reader of this review to connect the dots in this fascinating puzzle that makes up the Long Fellow's profile. Likewise, on such as James Connolly (an observant bit of advice he conveys to striking 1913 female textile workers), Seán MacBride (whose half-African, quarter-Malay, quarter-Irish grandson James joined a South African guerrilla force), and even the Kennedys, Akenson manages to uncover the telling obscure detail to silence the tired barstool truism about such men.

The Nationalist cause, as in the first book, comes under harsh attack as much as that of the Union. Why? It's so difficult to pin loyalties down for long when tracing any family's lineage very far back to Ireland. Few heroes stand proud under so much scrutiny. Few if any Irish can boast truly of unbroken vows. Take this trade union activist: "Proud. Stiff-necked. English. Irish. Protestant. Catholic. Atheist. There are no sociologists' boxes tight enough to confine the identity of Margaret McCarthy, nor those of equally complex mid-twentieth century women and men of Irish background and English nationality." (546) England even in or because of its post-WWII penury grants Irish immigrants full benefits even as Ireland shrinks from the "Mother and Child" campaign of Noel Browne. Ulsterisation as applied to gerrymandering and Catholic ghettoisation under the Housing Act builds the neighborhoods where paramilitaries will decades later concentrate their own ranks and repel the other side's fire--since the Catholics are crammed so close amidst the comparatively wider room given their Protestant neighbours. Ballymurphy exemplifies Akenson's chain of causation.

The mystery of why the Irish Republic was declared in of all places Ottawa in 1949 is explained as a reaction to the Governor General's claim: "Surely the Royal Toast covers Eire." (593) And, finally, the reasons are shown why Britain so much more than America attracted so many of Ireland's immigrants last century--rather than America. For all of the Crown's cruelty within Ireland, plenty of luxuries and more freedom across the Irish Sea paradoxically awaited the younger sons and the restless daughters of the few farmers who held the land. The Devotional Revolution of the post-Famine period terrorized the natives into embracing piety rather than one another, at least outside of the conjugally approved state. The lowest rate of illegitimate births in the world marked 20c Ireland, at one point not so long ago, and this system was enforced by clerics sworn to enforce chastity and separate, even in infants' schools, the separation of the sexes. Families grew, but few remained at home. The old few who owned many farms gave their second and fifth and eighth children the choice to stay and toil in fields that they would never inherit, an often as celibates unable to afford to marry. Those who emigrated, Akenson shows, bettered any other migrants in their devotion to save, invest, and better themselves financially, wherever they found themselves in the Diaspora. The author unsparingly expresses the material success of the Irish abroad, as opposed to their enduring and distorted love of a long-cherished self-portrait of themselves--as much as their ancestors--as downtrodden peasants and rosary-hobbled drunkards.

You may likely be angered by some part of these pages, as all sides come up short. Myths demolished, the historian imagines what he cannot always document, and this invention accompanies the records and rolls pored over by Akenson's more cautious colleagues. But this professor, resident in Canada, reminds us that the Irish experience is as far more often Canadian, Pacific, African, rural American (only 44.5% of emigrants wound up in U.S. cities), and Protestant. Yes, the Famine did tip the balance away to the urban Yankee stereotype for a few decades, but millions who emigrated stayed Catholic not long at all--most descendents who claim Irish blood seem to have at some point, or recurring points, abandoned the Faith of Our Fathers for love, out of isolation from its sacraments, or out of relief while out on the wild frontier or made anonymous within the sordid slum. Few genealogies if any reveal endless generations vowing papist and republican fidelity "in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword." The "1848 Martyrs" transported to Australia make for especially corrective demolishment of nationalist hagiography. Read here how William Smith O'Brien wound up his long life.

Akenson, if a moral can be wrested from so many hundreds of scenes and seemingly thousands of characters, would tell us that the Irish never really had it so bad, compared to all those they helped subdue in the name of Crown and Church. Slavery and its ensuing market economy thrived on the colonial expertise, not only as servants but bosses, that the Irish provided willingly--anything to get off the island. This is revisionism of a 'plague on both your houses variety', therefore. No one is innocent, and we're all, if we claim to be Irish, guilty of collusion, bad faith, hypocrisy, and dissembling, to put it mildly. Always readable, often cruelly funny, mordantly moral, these two books' conclusions seem to unveil our green and orange banners as torn bunting and moth-eaten tapestries. Too many nations suffer today, Akenson implies, partly due to a system all too eagerly built by and sustained with Irish power harnessed into the endless energy of capitalism, clericalism, and imperialism. Yes, a few socialists and caring missionaries and gentle reformers receive fair recognition here. More than a few worthies probably will emerge for the first time here before a wider audience, and deservedly so. Ultimately, the Irish claims to a particularly burdensome past fade. More Irish have benefitted than languished when the ledgers align. It may take hundreds of years, but the conclusions here point--despite the uncertainties glimpsed in 1969--to the Irish as far ahead of the rest of the planet's more deserving destitute. Truth's bright light diminishes the agonies of a few million Irish placed against the torments of so many billions. Perhaps more deserving in Akenson's unrelentingly even-handed (he slaps down all hands raised in allegiance or attention) analysis as an aspiration than Loyalism, the nationalist cause nevertheless receives cold comfort here. Akenson, reading between as well as within these thousands of pages would tell us that republicanism, despite all of its claims to counter this thick imperial thumb on the scale, by comparison, counts for probably and ultimately very little correction faced with such weighty corruption. Perhaps the third book, post-1969, will reveal a happier ending that fulfills the aspirations of 1798. We, however, need to craft that narrative.



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Index: Current Articles

11 April 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Shed No Tears for the Donaldson Family
Geraldine Adams

Buried in Secret
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The Donaldson Dilemna
Bill Ashe

Motive for Murder
Mick Hall

Victim or Pawn?
Dr John Coulter

Agent of the Peace Process
Anthony McIntyre

Happy Easter
John Kennedy

Where, O Where, Is Our James Connolly?
Paul Maguire

Nice One, Tony
John Kennedy

Putting on the Poor Mouth
Seaghan O Murchu

Spare Us the Cures from Quacks
Dr Seamus Kilby

Profile: Antoine Sfeir
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The Letters page has been updated:

Standing Up to the Enemies of Free Speech


Irish Republicanism and Islam


Real human rights - without any religious blackmail


Resisting Censorship


and more...

Freedom of Speech index

4 April 2006

Interview with Michael McKevitt
Forum Magazine

Catching the Monkey
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Policing the Status Quo
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John Kennedy

T.W.A.T and the problem with Leopard spots
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Bigotry Imperils the Union
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'Fury over British PM bigot remarks'
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Then Why Is My Colour On Your Flag?
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Exorcise the Ghosts to Revive the Party
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How the Irish Screwed Up Civilisation?
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Play Ball
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Cumann Frithdheighilte Na h-Eireann - An outline
Fionnbarra O'Dochartaigh

Irish Prisoner Suffering Extreme Medical Neglect in English Prison
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Profile: Maryam Namazie
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Freedom of Expression: No Ifs and Buts
Maryam Namazie

Manning the Firewalls
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Ulster Muslims' Fury at Web Cartoons
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