The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence 1918-1923

By Charles Townshend

Rating: 3 stars

I know that I’m really not very good at reading non-fiction, but GoodReads tells me I started this book in May 2023, so it’s taken me ten months to finish it! As often happens with non-fiction, I’ll read a little bit and then put it down for months at a time before resuming it and wondering why I’ve got no idea what’s going on. I’m guilty of doing that here, but then I made a concerted effort from the start of 2024 to finish it, as a result of which it only took another two and a bit months to finish.

I don’t know much about Irish history. Being schooled in Northern Ireland, we got English kings and queens, but nothing at all about Ireland. I’ve tried to rectify that a bit through my own reading and listening, and this was part of that self-education. But maybe it was the wrong place to start trying to learn about the Irish independence movement. I know so little about this period in history that a detailed account, running at times almost day by day was not a good idea, since I didn’t really have any knowledge of the overall shape of events.

Also, I think I learn history best though narrative events. Stories of people and how they were involved with historical events. The names and dates style of history leaves me entirely cold, and that’s what this book was. A big list of names (both people and places) and dates. It talked a lot about what the people did (and when) but without really any explanation of why. Some delving into their interior lives might have made a difference.

The book definitely did help cover fill in some of my blank knowledge, however. From the creation of the first Dáil in 1919, to the guerrilla war with Britain to the amazingly quick descent into civil war following the Truce and little glimpses of where things could have gone differently.

For a book called The Republic I was slightly surprised that it didn’t actually cover the final transition from Dominion status to full republic. The book really only covered the wars from 1919 – 1923, ending with the end of the civil war. I had to turn to Wikipedia to discover that there was a further constitution in 1937 that created the position of president and abolished the post of Governor-General, and not until 1948 did it declare itself a republic.

I can see that this would be a valuable book for someone already versed in the outlines of the war of independence and who wanted details. But both due to my lack of that knowledge, and the way I prefer to learn about history, it wasn’t as useful for me as I’d hoped.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141030043

Life in Medieval Ireland: Witches, Spies and Stockholm Syndrome

By Finbar Dwyer

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve been listening to the Irish History Podcast for a few months now, and in that time, have clearly decided that I favoured social history over “kings and battles” history, tending to skip episodes that favoured the latter in favour of the former. When I heard that the host of that podcast had written a book that looked at the social history through a number of individual stories, I was intrigued.

The book is composed of twenty two short chapters, each on a different theme around everyday life and how it was lived in medieval Ireland, using case studies from the historical record. As I say, the chapters are pretty short, and in some cases, I actually wished for them to be longer and more comprehensive. But the book is very readable (I can’t help narrating it in the author’s voice in my head) and the subjects are interesting. While the first few chapters deal with violence and politics, later chapters are more diverse, covering marriage, protest, food, healthcare and more.

I found the chapter on marriage quite depressing. I know that the rich (throughout the world) used women as political pawns, marrying them off to cement various deals, but it would have been nice to have some counterbalances to that. There must have been cases where people did marry for love, but I guess such things weren’t interesting enough to record. And it would have been nice to see what happened in the lower classes, where there was less politicking. Did poor women have more say in their marriages than the rich?

I was intrigued by the line that Dywer drew from the fall of the Knights Templar (due to the money woes of the king of France at the time) to the rise of a particularly intolerant kind of Christian theology and to the burning of women as witches. That’s not a connection I was aware of before and it’s a fascinating one. The book is filled with little nuggets like this, making it a fun thing to dip in and out of.

I’m usually really bad at reading non-fiction, but I raced through this. It’s a great overview of the social history of medieval Ireland, something that very often gets missed in favour of the big battles and the various kings and nobles at war. It’s not exactly comprehensive, but if you’re interested in the subject, it’s a good book to start with.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848407404

The Gun, the Ship and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World

By Linda Colley

Rating: 3 stars

In this book, Colley proposes the thesis that the rise of the modern written constitution wasn’t just related to democracy or “enlightenment”, but was closely linked to the total warfare that emerged in the eighteenth century, from the combination of war on land and at sea; what Colley calls “hybrid” warfare. It’s an interesting thesis, with a lot to support it, and the author does provide that evidence here, jumping across the globe from Haiti, to France, to the US, to tiny Pitcairn Island, to Japan, amongst others. I must confess that the inclusion of Pitcairn surprised me, being such a small island. I wouldn’t have thought it noteworthy, but Colley talks about how its lack led to increasing aggression from American fishermen and how increased interest in the subject meant that visiting British naval officer Russell Elliott was able to dash off a constitution for them based on his own knowledge and sympathies.

It’s clear that many constitutions emerged as the product of warfare – either imposed by a conqueror, as Napoleon was wont to do, or as the result of a revolutionary struggle against a foreign occupying power, but it’s equally clear that many (most?) written constitutions have a very limited shelf life and are revoked or replaced in a short space of time. This makes their continuing popularity, both in the period of this book, and right up into the modern era, frankly bemusing. But it’s clear that if you have revolution or a coup, one of the first things you do is add a new constitution.

It’s interesting to consider just how central the UK, and particularly London, was to the fad for constitutions in this period, especially given our lack of a written constitution of our own. But London was the centre of one of the great world empires at this time, had huge amounts of shipping, many, many printing presses and so people flowed through it, exchanging ideas and generally being a melting pot, that led to the new constitutions that were already being installed being pored over and armchair experts writing their own, with people coming from all over the world to compare ideas.

There’s a lot of interest here, but I’m struggling to to pin the book down. It’s easy enough to read, being written mostly for a general audience (although it still took me over two months to finish – but that’s a me problem, not the book’s fault), but I just have a vague sensation that I’ve come away without necessarily getting it. I learned many individually interesting things (such as that Catherine the Great penned her own proto-constitution for Russia) but I think it felt disjointed, overall. I’m still not sure if that’s an issue with the book, or just my difficulty in reading non-fiction though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781846684982
Publisher: Profile Books
Year of publication: 2022

The Great Hedge Of India

By Roy Moxham

Rating: 4 stars

This was a random find in my favourite second hand bookshop in Glasgow. I know embarrassingly little about my ancestral homeland, even during the period that the British ruled it. Like the author, I initially thought this would be an interesting diversion to find a harmless eccentricity of the Victorian era. Along with him, I learned that it was anything but. That it was the visible symbol of a terribly unfair and hated tax that killed far too many people.

Moxham alternates chapters between his search for the hedge, with the history of the customs line that it protected and the salt tax that it enforced. The historical chapters don’t skimp on showing the horrors that were inflicted on Indians in the name of collecting this tax, even when there was famine and no ability to pay. The book also details the effects of salt deprivation, which isn’t something that I really knew anything about (indeed, in the modern era, the worry is not too little, but too much salt) and although he makes it clear that salt deprivation doesn’t result in any cravings for salt, in the way that dehydration results in the craving for water, I had the urge to go and eat something salty. Just in case.

In the modern-day chapters, Moxham reveals himself to be an amiable, if sometimes single-minded, sort of chap. He did, after all, spend three successive years travelling to India to search for remnants of the hedge, and hundreds of man-hours back in Britain poring over documents and maps trying to figure out its route and history. His journey through India is evocative and engaging, as he finds dead end after dead end. His perseverance is impressive in the face of repeated failures.

The one thing that the book could have done with is some pictures. Although Moxham describes his travels well, some photographs and more maps would have been welcome. But other than that, a fascinating detective story unearthing an almost forgotten artefact of the British occupation of India.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841192604

Ingenious Pursuits: Building The Scientific Revolution

By Lisa Jardine

Rating: 3 stars

I’ve owned this book for the best part of twenty years, but at some point it ended up being moved from my “to read” pile to the main bookshelves, at which point I forgot about it. I only realised I hadn’t read it when I was browsing the shelves recently. I also have no memory of buying this book, and my edition has no hints of what it’s about on the back cover (possibly one reason I kept ignoring it all those years ago, when I couldn’t just google it), but it turns out it’s a history of the scientific revolution that went hand in hand with the Enlightenment in Britain and across Europe in the second half of the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth century.

Jardine uses the Royal Society, its members and associates as her touchstone for the discoveries and inventions of this period. She talks about contributions from Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and many others, in diverse fields. She covers the creation of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich; the importance of accurate clocks; telescopes and microscopes; and several other topics, that tend to become interrelated by the people involved. Hooke, in particular, is a recurring character, turning his hand to everything from clockmaking to microscopy to blood transfusion.

One thing that the book makes very clear is the level of cross-pollination of knowledge across Europe at the time. Henry Oldenburg, in particular, seems to have acted as a clearing house for knowledge, being secretary of the Royal Society. He received and sent correspondence across the continent, passing papers between people he thought would be interested, even when the corresponding polities were at war with each other, thus ensuring that the knowledge was spread around, and enabling new connections to be made that enable further discovery and invention.

The writing is lucid and easy to follow, something that I was relieved about after reading the introduction, which was denser and, to my mind, more deliberately academic. Jardine doesn’t focus much on the personalities behind the scientists — instead concentrating on the discoveries themselves and the relationships between them, although there are some cases when the personalities overshadow everything else. There are very few women mentioned in the book, possibly inevitable due to the period under discussion, although in saying that, I think there has been much more scholarship reviewing these discoveries and the contributions of women since this book was written.

An interesting book telling a fascinating story, and one that has an important message for today: science is international, and operates best in a spirit of cooperation, where people and ideas can flow freely through borders. Something that builders of walls and those stirring xenophobia would do well to remember.

Book details

ISBN: 9780316647526

Huns, Vandals, and the Fall of the Roman Empire

By Thomas Hodgkin

Rating: 3 stars

Despite being written in the 19th century, with footnotes in Latin (everyone learns Latin at school, right?), this book is actually fairly easy to read. It does sort of throw you in at the deep end, but that’s at least partially because it’s part of a larger work, so by the start of this book, the Roman Empire has already split into Eastern and Western empires, and the Western one isn’t even ruled from Rome any more.

I picked this up mostly because my knowledge of Roman history is pretty weak. The book is split into two sections: a shorter one covering the Huns, and a longer one covering the Vandals. I knew very little about Attila the Hun and the way he swaggered across Europe. Hodgkin is certainly opinionated; he doesn’t try to take a neutral tone at all. He sneers at Attila and the Huns generally, very much giving the impression that he favours the civilised Romans over the “barbarian” invaders. He doesn’t rate Attila’s abilities as a general, despite his obvious accomplishments. This is sort of refreshing, given how used we are to historians trying to remain impartial.

However, I got to the end of Attila’s life, and Hodgkin started setting the scene for the Vandals, and I found myself caring less and less. There’s so many different players, petty politics (some things never change) and armies marching around, that every time I picked it up, I would lose heart after barely a handful of pages.

So I’m admitting defeat. Maybe I’d be better off starting smaller, like with a Wikipedia page summary or something. So despite being well-written, easy to read, I just don’t care enough about the subject matter to continue.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853672422
Publisher: Greenhill Books
Year of publication: 1996

A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided

By Amanda Foreman

Rating: 4 stars

It usually takes me ages to read non-fiction books, but I raced through this one, and given that it’s over 800 pages, that’s not to be sniffed at. It’s very well-written, and keeps you turning the page, with a well-structured narrative, and lots of interesting characters. Despite its prevalence in popular culture, the American civil war is not one that I know very much about. This book has its particular angle, regarding the British links and reasons for British neutrality, but it also does a good job in covering the major reasons for and battles of the war.

I did find myself struggling a bit towards the end, as the number of people increased. Keeping track of who was who and which side they were fighting on was much harder by then, but made easier thanks to a very comprehensive index.

The book covered the political and diplomatic aspects of the British involvement with the civil war quite well, with Lords Lyons (the British “Minister” to the American Legation [not embassy]), Russell (the foreign secretary) and Palmerston (the prime minister) on the British side and William Seward (the American Secretary of State) and Charles Francis Adams (Lyons’ counterpart in London) on the American. It also covers individual stories well, following Britons who joined both sides of the war through their letters and other historical documents.

What I think it does less well is talk about the reasons that the average Briton joined or supported the different factions of the war. I was surprised by just how popular that the Southern cause was in Britain (Liverpool, in particular seems to have been a hotbed of sympathy for the South), given the general disgust with slavery, and I would have liked to have seen more on that.

Something else that I never really appreciated with the depth of enmity of America (both sides) to Britain in this period. It seems Seward in particular was happy to whip up the public against foreigners (particularly Britain) to bolster his political standing (plus ça change, eh?). This leads me to view the so-called “special relationship” between Britain and the US with more than usual cynicism.

This is a very readable, in-depth history of the American civil war, from the very particular perspective of the British links, but it’s a page-turner, and with nearly 200 pages of endnotes if you want to go into more depth. A good overview of the war.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141040585
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2011

The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps

By Edward Brooke-Hitching

Rating: 3 stars

This is a quite interesting book of maps of places that don’t exist. Whether by mistake, through hearsay or just plain lying, people were persuaded that these places were real enough to draw maps of, and Brooke-Hitching has collected a number of these, which he presents, along with their stories.

The book itself is lovely, with large, colour reproductions of the maps, often with boxouts of details (if the mistake is a tiny island on a map showing the whole Atlantic ocean, for example). I do feel that some of the entries could do with being longer, and I did get a bit tired of islands in the Atlantic that were probably just cloud banks. The book itself says that mythical islands are as abundant in the mythologies of Eastern cultures as that of the west, but it only devotes a single entry (Wak-Wak) to any of them. I would have happily lost a few of the Atlantic islands in favour of some stuff that wasn’t centred around the West.

There was a lot of interest, though. The story of Gregor MacGregor and his shameless invention of a territory in Latin America is fascinating, not to mention heartbreaking for the people he hoodwinked. And the idea that people for a long time thought that California was an island isn’t something that I had encountered before. Nor the belief that Australia had a huge inland sea, fed by a huge river network.

So a lovely book to dip into at random, but could have done with being a bit more balanced and less Euro- and American-centric.

Book details

ISBN: 9781471159459
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
Year of publication: 2016

The Black Death

By Philip Ziegler

Rating: 4 stars

This book charts the arrival and spread of the black death of the 14th century in Europe, and particularly England. This isn’t a subject I really knew anything about, so I was coming in with a pretty blank slate. The book doesn’t really cover the plague’s origins in Asia other than to note that it probably arrived in Europe along trade routes into Italy, and spread throughout the continent from there.

It’s a good overview book, pulling together academic research from multiple different sources, and synthesising an overview, pitched at the interested layman, rather than the academic world.

Possibly the most interesting notion that came out of the book for me was the psychological state of the population into which the plague spread. The idea that medieval man was conditioned to just accept what was happening as a punishment from God, and so didn’t make any serious efforts to learning what caused it and steps to mitigate it. This is fascinating, and alien. Another reminder that the past really is another country.

Beyond that, I learned something about the Flagellants (who I’d never heard of) and the persecution of the Jews (not that Christian Europe needed any additional excuse for that) as well as the state of medicine during the period.

The least interesting part, for me, was the region by region description of how the plague spread across England (and, as I said, it is mostly England, with Wales, Ireland and Scotland getting one chapter between them – and even that is shared with the Welsh border counties in England). As Ziegler himself says, the pattern was fairly similar across the country, as it spread from county to county and region to region.

More interesting was the analysis towards the end, regarding the long-term consequences of the plague and the arguments for and against it being the catalyst for long-term political and economic changes across Europe.

I’ve come away feeling more informed about the period, which is the best case after reading a history book aimed at a general audience. Recommended as an historical overview of a grisly period.

Book details

ISBN: 9780750932028
Publisher: Sutton
Year of publication: 1969

The History of England in the Eighteenth Century

By Thomas Babington Macaulay

Rating: 3 stars

This volume stitches together the essays of Thomas Macaulay to form a moderately cohesive narrative history of 18th (and first 30 years of 19th) century Britain. The introduction tells us that the editor pulled this together using essays, often for the Edinburgh Review spread across many years, so the editing and bridging is also quite impressive.

The history itself is quite odd. It does refer to interacting nations and chains of events, but often it focuses closely on the British Parliament, and follows the political knockabout of the great (and not so great) figures of the day. We cover administrations including Walpole, the Pelhams, both Pitts, Chatham and many more, often in enough detail to reassure me that modern politics aren’t so different to those of our forefathers. There was the same pettiness, infighting and occasional sparks of grace that we see today.

The history is focused very much on the Palace of Westminster, although the section talking about the attempts, and repeated failures, to deal with Ireland post-Union was very interesting to me. Although the book covers momentous periods – including the American war of independence and the Napoleonic Wars – it doesn’t cover them in any great depth.

Much of the book is told in a slightly detached tone, although you always get the impression that he’s more sympathetic to Whigs than Tories, but the tone gets warmer and more impassioned in the final chapter as he relates the first Reform Bill and its passage. At times I could just imagine strains of Land of Hope and Glory in the background and almost stood up and saluted!

So an interesting book which provides a very good Parliamentary history of Britain (tsk, people in the period and their conflating of England and Britain). Not really useful as a general history of the country, but in its place it’s both useful and informative. I’m very much struck by the last sentence though, which is wise and as relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 19th:

Those who compare the age on which their lot as fallen with a golden age which exists only in their imagination may talk of degeneracy and decay: but no man who is correctly informed as to the past will be disposed to take a morose or desponding view of the present.

Book details

Publisher: The Folio Society
Year of publication: 1980

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