Tag Archives: ireland

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead Wake Cover

Book type: History/Nonfiction

Summary: With Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson continues his tradition of nonfiction storytelling, chronicling the last days of several passengers, from heirs and heiresses to rare book dealers, and average families. According to the author, he set about writing Dead Wake not specifically because the centennial of its sinking was approaching (May 7, 2015), but because it was such a good story. For those who don’t know the story of the Lusitania, it was a passenger liner carrying mostly British citizens from New York to Liverpool and was sunk about 12 miles off the Irish coastline by a German submarine, U-20, captained by Walther Schwieger, a zealous man on a mission to sink as much tonnage of enemy ships as possible during his voyage that spring. The Lusitania was filled to capacity with almost 2,000 passengers (including a high number of children) and was able to sustain a top speed of more than 25 knots (30 mph), making it both incredibly fast and also enormous at almost 800 feet long and several stories high (7-8). As the Lusitania made her journey across the Atlantic, Schwieger and his crew in U-20 traveled in the cold northern waters around Germany, England, Ireland, and France, waiting under the surface for vessels to attack.

Lessons:

  1. Be glad you weren’t in a U-boat in 1915. In addition to the fact that it would be maddening to embark on journeys with the same group of bros all the time and be stuck with them in a small space, that small space was disgusting. The men never bathed, wore leather clothes that made them stink, and shared one bathroom. And that one bathroom could do some damage: “The toilet from time to time imparted to the boat the scent of a cholera hospital and could be flushed only when the U-boat was on the surface or at shallow depths, lest the undersea pressure blow material back into the vessel. This tended to happen to novice officers and crew, and was called a ‘U-boat baptism'” (63).

    Joe Dirt Poo on Me

    At least Joe Dirt could wash the poo off in the bright sunshine outside.

  2. The attack on the Lusitania wasn’t a complete surprise. There was a German warning in American newspapers the week leading up to the voyage advising that passengers traveling on British ships would be doing so at their own risk, even if the vessels were flying flags of neutral countries like the United States. The passengers also knew there were German submarines in the Atlantic and some were concerned enough to go to sleep in full dress, while others made light of the threats. One such passenger was an Englishman who was finishing his lunch just before the torpedo hit and received his ice cream but no spoon with which to eat it. “‘He looked ruefully at it and said he would hate to have a torpedo get him before he ate it'” (234). Incidentally, he survived. The American ambassador in London even wrote to his son about the possibility of such an attack, speculating that “‘The blowing up of a liner with American passengers may be the prelude […] I almost expect such a thing.’ He added, ‘If a British liner full of Americans be blown up, what will Uncle Sam do? What’s going to happen?'” (150). And for his part, Winston Churchill welcomed the danger, telling Walter Runciman (head of England’s Board of Trade) that it was important to ensure neutral shipping to England: “After noting that Germany’s submarine campaign had sharply reduced traffic from America, Churchill told Runciman, ‘For our part, we want the traffic–the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still'” (190).
  3. Whether by fate or coincidence, everything that needed to happen for the ship to sink did happen. Larson makes a point of describing the failings of the British government in protecting the Lusitania from attack. British intelligence knew the location of German U-boats, knew that several ships had been sunk in the week leading up to May 7, 1915 (including non-warships), and also knew that the North Channel would have been a safer option, yet never communicated any of this to the crew onboard the Cunard ship. The Royal Navy also did not supply a convoy for the ship, something that many passengers thought was being provided right from the start of the voyage. But in addition to all of these curiosities (or conspiracies), other factors lined up in such a way as to ensure destruction for the Lusitania.

    Had Captain Turner not had to wait the two extra hours for the transfer of passengers from the Cameronia, he likely would have passed Schwieger in the fog, when U-20 was submerged and on its way home. For that matter, even the brief delay caused by the last minute disembarkation of Turner’s niece could have placed the ship in harm’s way. More importantly, had Turner not been compelled to shut down the fourth boiler room to save money, he could have sped across the Atlantic at 25 knots, covering an additional 110 miles a day, and been safely to Liverpool before Schwieger even entered the Celtic Sea.

    Larson goes on to explain the effect of weather conditions on the outcome, as well as the unlikelihood that Schwieger’s attack would actually cause the ship to sink, if it even made contact.

    Fog was an important factor too. Had it persisted just a half hour longer, neither vessel would have seen the other, and Schwieger would have continued on his way.

    Had Captain Turner not made that final turn to starboard, Schwieger would have had no hope of catching up. What’s more, the torpedo actually worked. Defying his own experience and the 60 percent failure rate calculated by the German navy, it did exactly what it was supposed to do.

    Not only that, it struck precisely the right place in the Lusitania’s hull to guarantee disaster, by allowing seawater to fill the starboard longitudinal bunkers and thereby produce a fatal list. No one familiar with ship construction and torpedo dynamics would have guessed that a single torpedo could sink a ship as big as the Lusitania, let alone do so in just eighteen minutes.

    Moreover, Schwieger had overestimated the ship’s speed. He calculated 22 knots when in fact the ship was moving at only 18. Had he gauged the speed correctly and timed his shot accordingly, the torpedo would have struck the hull farther back, amidships, possibly with less catastrophic effect and certainly with the result that many crew members killed instantly in the luggage room would have survived to assist in launching the lifeboats. The steam line might not have failed. If Turner had been able to keep the ship under power, he might have made it to Queenstown, or succeeded in beaching the ship, or even leveraged its extraordinary agility to turn and ram U-20 (326-327).

  4. People died in all kinds of ways, some immediate, some prolonged, some violent. When we think of a ship sinking, we often tend to think of people drowning, or being trapped in the ship (and thus drowning), and while this definitely happened to many of the 1,198 who died, death came in many other ways as well. “The dozens of crewmen who were in the luggage bay at the time of impact were killed instantly by the force of the torpedo blast, but exactly how many and who they were was not known. Passengers were crushed by descending boats. Swimmers were struck by chairs, boxes, potted plants, and other debris falling from the decks high above. And then there were those most ill-starred of passengers, who had put on their life preservers incorrectly and found themselves floating with their heads submerged, legs up, as in some devil’s comedy” (308).
  5. The end was also peaceful for many in the water. Several survivors described floating in the water and looking at the sky expecting they would die, but being calm in what they thought were their last moments. One survivor even wrote to the mother of a lost passenger about “the disparity between what actually happened and what families imagine” advising “‘I know you must be tempted to have most terrible imaginings; may I tell you that although it was very awful, it was not so ghastly as you are sure to imagine it. When the thing really comes, God gives to each the help he needs to live or die'” (312). And while much conspired to cause the sinking of the ship, “The benign conditions of the day saved scores of lives, if not hundreds” (328) since the water was calm and did not overturn lifeboats or force more passengers underwater.

A final review/recommendation:

I’ve read almost all of Erik Larson’s books, including In the Garden of Beasts which I covered in June 2014. Larson is a master at weaving multiple storylines and viewpoints together into one cohesive narrative. And he manages to do it seamlessly. While The Devil in the White City is still my favorite of his works, Dead Wake is high on the list now. It’s compelling and tells you history without being a textbook (my one problem with Catastrophe 1914 as some of you may remember).

If you’re going to read one new release of history or nonfiction this year, read Dead Wake. It’s comprehensive, but the story moves along quickly, partly due to the alternating perspectives from chapter to chapter (several of which are only a few pages long). Just beware that you might end up hooked and wanting to read one or all of his books after putting Dead Wake to rest.

Photo credits:
Book cover: http://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/b6610f5ecbe12df06d2f4c16c595e9d93e2103e8/c=0-42-450-642&r=537&c=0-0-534-712/local/-/media/2015/03/18/USATODAY/USATODAY/635622763452409918-Dead-Wake-jacket-image.jpg
Joe Dirt Poo Tank: http://i.imgur.com/EnnsdD5.gif

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An Irish Country Doctor

Irish Country Doctor Cover

Book type: FIction

Summary: Dr. Barry Laverty, fresh out of medical school, finds himself in the countryside of Northern Ireland as an apprentice to Dr. Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, General Practitioner to the villagers of fictional Ballybucklebo. And as it generally goes in life, what he learned in school isn’t quite how the real world works. He’s frequently disappointed or upset by the methods used by Dr. O’Reilly, but he also learns a lot in his first few months as the senior doctor’s sidekick. He even comes to appreciate the small world of Ballybucklebo, with its eccentric residents–both humans and animals, like O’Reilly’s dog that humps his leg every time he ventures into the backyard. Life in provincial Ulster has its lessons for Barry and has some for us too.

Lessons:

  1. Don’t worry about the consideration of others. Early on in Barry’s introduction to Ballybucklebo, he discovers the dynamic between the country doctor and country villagers isn’t what he expected. One of the first lessons O’Reilly gives him is to never let the patients get the upper hand. At first this seems antithetical to the point of practicing medicine in Barry’s mind, however O’Reilly then tells him that if he didn’t operate the way he does, they would walk all over him, saying: “‘Didn’t take me long to find out that consideration for other people can be one of the lesser attributes of some members of the species Homo sapiens‘” (80). This lesson has an actual application that hits close to home for me, or at least for my brother. Recently my brother told me a story of how our grandmother, when she was still living, had given him some sound advice. He was concerned about how other people would think of him for something seemingly trivial. She stopped him and said, “If you knew how little other people think of you it would hurt your feelings.” Zinger! But really, stop being worried about whether other people consider you or whether they’re considerate to you. As the popular wisdom goes: go ‘head girl, you do you. That’s an Emerson quote, if I’m not mistaken.
    Emerson Quote - Be Yourself
  2. Sometimes life makes you shovel shit. Barry has a friend in the novel, Jack, who is a surgeon at the nearest hospital and he sometimes meets him for dinner or drinks. During one such visit they reminisce about life during medical school and how boring so many things were that they had to do as students, and how boring things continued even after they finished school. Jack reminds Barry of the words of an English registrar from their time there (after he complained to her about his boredom): “‘Old boy, in this life there will always be a certain amount of shit to be shovelled. I really would urge you to buy a long-handled spade and simply get on with it'” (99). This is a valuable lesson for all of us. Some people hate household chores, others hate workplace politics, still others hate family or social obligations. The fact is that either you can refuse to participate in any of those things and have a) no clean underwear, b) no possibility of being promoted, and c) no family/friends, or you can man/woman up and start shoveling that shit.
    Dog Lesson - Kick Grass Shit
  3. Advice doesn’t always have to be true to be helpful. Not long after Barry starts his work with Dr. O’Reilly, he has a day off and takes the train into Belfast and happens to meet a woman named Patricia who utterly captivates him. Unfortunately, she’s also a very serious student of engineering and doesn’t think she has the time or energy to spend cultivating a relationship with Barry, so their courtship ends. Barry, being the hopeless romantic that he is–and I do mean hopeless–is having a hard time getting over the loss of his soulmate. Compounding his sorrow is the fact that he made a misdiagnosis of a local resident, Major Fotheringham’s symptoms, resulting in his hospitalization and a difficult recovery. O’Reilly gives him some advice: “‘So finish your whiskey. […] Forget about Fotheringham. Forget about your heart. Girls are like buses. There’s always another one along soon.'” Barry then asks O’Reilly if he really believes what he’s just said: “‘No,’ said O’Reilly, ‘but there’s no reason you shouldn’t'” (238). Even though O’Reilly doesn’t believe it and even though it may be trite, his advice isn’t necessarily unsound. There’s a reason clichés become just that: sometimes the advice is good, but it’s cited so frequently that it loses its power. Sometimes those sentiments just need to be rephrased to be useful (i.e. instead of “plenty of fish in the sea,” comparing love interests to buses) and sometimes advice doesn’t have to hold true to help someone through a difficult moment.

A final review/recommendation:

Taylor, an established doctor himself, does a great job of creating a backdrop for the education of Barry Laverty. In some ways An Irish Country Doctor is almost a Bildungsroman, except instead of being the coming of age of an adolescent boy, it’s of a nascent doctor. The book is very simple, much like many of Ballybucklebo’s residents, but like them it’s simple in the best of ways: unpretentious, relatable, and entertaining. The first book in a series of many, An Irish Country Doctor is a quick read and makes for great spring reading, so next time March comes around and you’re considering an Irish book for St. Paddy’s day, pick up Taylor’s novel and be entertained by witticisms like this one about a “change of heart” that’s happened to a character named Councillor Bishop: “‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. That bugger Bertie Bishop? That man has a heart that would make Pharaoh’s hard one look like a marshmallow, so he has'” (302). And if you’re a reader you’ll appreciate the two doctors’ constant quoting of literature. And if you’re like me, you’ll smile ear to ear for the fact that Dr. O’Reilly is named after the fabulous and somewhat supercilious Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde–the greatest of the great.

Photo credits:

Book cover: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-P-4GrrorB-4/Uxe1N1vaEAI/AAAAAAAAS5A/MRaOfdl-rUo/s1600/IrishCtryDr.jpg
Sassy Emerson: http://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0273/4903/products/ralph-waldo-emerson-fridge-magnet-1_large.jpg?v=1380467104
Kick That Shit: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/474x/a3/26/91/a326913fd2e35c68d5d8b9016acafe95.jpg

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Catastrophe 2014! Oops, I mean…1914.

Catastrophe 1914 Cover

Book type: History/Military History

Summary: Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings is an extremely thorough account of the first 5 months of a conflict that no one expected would last another 3 years and cost millions of lives. The first few months of the war were agonizing for all parties involved. The battles on the Western Front in Belgium and France were fought back and forth in an attempt to control a line that barely moved, while the engagements on the Eastern Front in Poland and Serbia were marked by ruthlessness and damage. And mud. This year marks 100 years since the conflict began in August 1914 and Catastrophe 1914 has some valuable lessons for us as individuals even now.

Lessons:

  1. Spirit is not enough. You must also prepare. One of the greatest mistakes that all countries involved in 1914 made was to misjudge the current conflict based on previous wars. An example that Hastings provides comes from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905: “All the nations’ assessments were critically influenced by by Japanese successes in attack in 1905, against Russian machine-guns. They concluded that this experience demonstrated that if the spirit was sufficiently exalted, it could prevail against modern technology (34). Newsflash: it couldn’t.
  2. Being flashy doesn’t always work. Now don’t get me wrong, I love shiny things (or brightly colored things) just as much as the next guy. Sometimes though, it’s better to leave the crazy in your closet. The French missed that message at the beginning of World War I. “The Germans who deployed to defend Alsace gazed in wonder at the first French soldiers they glimpsed before them, clad in the same long blue overcoats, red trousers and képis their fathers of the Prussian army had known and vanquished back in 1870. One of the Kaiser’s men wrote home: ‘They really look like something out of a picture book'” (166). Let’s be real though, if this old German guy is any example, then the Central Powers were dressing like nut jobs as well.

    This is August von Mackensen, with his signature Totenkopf (skull & crossbones) on his hat. I think Ralph Lauren brought that hat style back a year or two ago. Nice, Augie.

    This is August von Mackensen, with his signature Totenkopf (skull & crossbones) on his hat. I think Ralph Lauren brought that hat style back a year or two ago. Nice, Augie.

  3. Beware of the notion of enemies. Sometimes groups of people really are bad. (There were definitely armies in World War I that we can safely say fall into that category as we’ll learn below.) But often we have more in common with our enemies than we think. In the case of World War I, “…Soldiers of the rival armies felt a far stronger sense of community with each other than with their peoples at home, whom all the belligerent governments sought to quarantine from any real knowledge of what was being done in their name on the battlefield” (440). Further, those higher up the military rank were beyond dismayed to find that their soldiers were fraternizing with rival infantries: “Early in December, a German surgeon reported that his neighbouring infantry regiment had a regular half-hour evening truce with the French, during which the dead were brought in for burial, and the combatants exchanged newspapers” (526).
    One of the most common methods used to get individuals to hate other people, is to ascribe negative character traits–if not atrocities–to them. The German armies could undoubtedly be ruthless, but many of the horrors attributed to them by French and British newspapers were wholly fictitious (e.g. impaled babies on bayonets, mothers’ hands cut off by Prussian grenadiers, 188). This caused the publication the New Statesman to declare its skepticism “about tales of the enemy’s alleged enormities against civilians: ‘It seems to be universally the case that, if one’s enemy does not commit atrocities, one has to invent them for him in order to hate him as he requires to be hated'” (189). And we are just as likely to be goaded into distrusting or hating groups of people now as civilians and soldiers were a hundred years ago, so pay attention and resist the temptation to believe everything you hear in the media–you probably have more in common than you realize.

    He [Constantin Schneider] described a symbolic encounter in those days, when he came upon a Russian and an Austrian who lay where they had been striving to bayonet each other, only to be killed by the same shell (504).

  4. “Boredom feeds depression.” Seaman Richard Stumpf of the British navy said this in 1914 of the minimal activity they had at the time (358). Often soldiers and seamen in World War I had nothing to do, sometimes for months at a time. The war was not what they’d expected it to be–glory, excitement, action, adventure. Many men sat around playing cards or just trying not to freeze for weeks and months on end. Moral of the story: keep yourself interested and busy with something.
  5. Sometimes even the worst periods have glimmers of joy. In December 1914, various regiments on all sides on both the Eastern and the Western Fronts decided to have celebrations for the Christmas holiday. Some regiments found Christmas trees and brought them back to their trenches, some even showed kindness to their rivals, and in the case of some French and German soldiers, they even had a singing contest. But perhaps a non-holiday story takes the cake and proves there’s always something positive to find, even in times of war.

    The most exciting thing to befall pilots of the RFC billeted in a girls’ school on 6 September was that they donned the pupils’ nightgowns over their uniforms and staged an epic pillow fight” (322).

Here are a few overall lessons about the war itself from the first few months:

  1. Almost everyone thought the war would be brief. (Don’t we always?) Because of this, armies were slapdash, ill-prepared, or unequipped to deal with the realities of total war. “…Every commander was prodigal with manpower and careless about casualties–only much later were the belligerents obliged to recognise that flesh and blood were finite resources” (176). And unfortunately, unlike failures in everyday life, “in war the penalties for bewilderment are paid with lives” (251).
  2. Austria started it, but Germany bore most of the blame. Germany’s rulers, “accepted the role of war as a natural means of fulfilling national ambitions and exercising power. […] The Kaiser and his key advisers underestimated the magnitude of the dominance their country was achieving through its economic and industrial prowess, without fighting anybody” (45-46). And while Germany definitely wasn’t alone in accepting (or willing) the inevitability of a major conflict, since “continental war was viewed as a highly plausible, and by no means intolerable, outcome of international tension,” (25-26), Germany does shoulder most of the responsibility, as Hastings notes:

    The most important immediate cause of the First World War was that Germany chose to support an Austrian invasion of Serbia, believing that the Central Powers could win any wider conflict such action might unleash. […] Even if it did not conspire to bring war about, it declined to exercise its power to prevent the outbreak by restraining Austria (561-562).

    And finally, on a somber note: “It is merely a trifling irony of history that a teenage terrorist killed a man who, alone among the leaders of the Hapsburg Empire, would probably have used his influence to try to prevent a cataclysm” (xxvii).

  3. While all armies committed at least some heinous acts of violence, German armies were the worst. “A grand total of around 6,427 civilians are known to have been deliberately killed by the Germans during their 1914 operations” (192). All the countries involved in 1914 inflicted violence against their enemies, and even against men of their own ranks for desertion, “But no major massacres of civilians were ever laid at the door of the British, French or Italians to match those repeatedly committed by the Germans, Austrians and Turks. The Germans later became responsible for recruiting large numbers of Belgian and French men in occupied regions as slave labour, under atrocious conditions” (545). That being said, the Russian army did inflict horrible persecution on Eastern European Jews in 1914 and 1915.
  4. The casualties are incomprehensible. 1.3 million French from metropolitan Paris died–16.5% of those conscripted; 40% of all conscripts became casualties of one kind or another (death, injury, capture, etc.). For the British, just in the Battle of Ypres, there were 54,105 casualties, which from August to December 1914 made their total 89,964 (553). The numbers of dead and wounded are so high the only comparison that came to mind for me was the amount of people that can fit into a modern sports arena at one time. In the Battle of Tannenberg, 92,000 Russians were taken prisoner by the Central Powers. That would be like if the police decided to arrest almost all the fans at Michigan Stadium during the middle of a U of M football game. 92,000 people. 

A final review/recommendation:

If you are a history buff or love World War I and would like a detailed account of the first few months of the war, then this is the book for you–and especially so if you like military history like troop movements. For me, based on the book’s cover and the sensationalism of its title, I expected Hasting’s work to be more, well, flashy like the French uniforms, I guess. It’s definitely a well-written book, full of valuable information, but it took me several months to make my way through it, often having to stop and read other books in between to keep myself going. It was worth reading (once in your life), but it’s definitely not for the casual reader.

Photo credits:
Book cover: https://p.gr-assets.com/max_square/fill/books/1375116229/17412744.jpg
German hat fashion: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/b1/2f/d5/b12fd54a774692df40090682cc1fb6cc.jpg

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The Oxford History of Ireland (A Juicy Read)

 

Book type: History

Summary:

The title says it all, this book is a condensed telling of the long history of Ireland. It summarizes ancient Ireland (the days before St. Patrick and Christianity), explains how Vikings and then Anglo-Norman (that is, English-French) settlers came to live on the island, and it details the long and complex interactions between the “Irish” (which included several ethnic groups over time) and their British neighbors to the east. It would be ineffective to try to provide a summary of a summary here, so let’s just cover a few quick overarching themes and the lessons we can take away from them.

 

Lessons:

  1. Reactions are everything. I would venture to guess that most everyone is familiar with the adage “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” While this cliché has often made me want to chuck a heavy object at the person reminding me of it, it is certainly applicable for Irish history. Some of the most pivotal moments in Irish history had two (or more) possible reactions to a given event, and what the actors at the time chose forever altered native and foreign relations. Although there are tons of examples of this, here are a few. In the mid-1100s there were various power plays by Irish kings that resulted in Cambro-Normans (Welsh-French) invasions which ultimately caused the King of England (partly due to the appeals of Irish people themselves) to land near Waterford with a large army. (Whoopsie daisy! This also fits in with lesson three below, but stick with me for a minute.) Fast forward 750 years (and a lot happened in the meantime, believe me) to the 1916 Easter Rising, when Irish nationalists engaged in acts of violence that many average Irishmen and women were stunned by:

    Initial popular response to the Rising was general fury and disgust at the human and material wastage. Rebels were roughed up on active service by enraged women and pelted with tomatoes after surrendering. Had [Chief Secretary of Ireland] Birrell’s astuteness been shared by his successors, Pearse’s suicide squads would probably have died or languished unregretted by most nationalists. Instead Asquith’s government over-reacted beyond even the dreams of the conspirators. […] Sir John Maxwell was given command under martial law without explicit restriction or definition of his powers; 3,500 people were arrested, courtmartialled, or deported for internment in Britain. The number of arrests was double that of rebels, and included a representative range of dissident nationalists from groups and districts untouched by the conspiracy.

    The effect of this heavy-handedness and brutality was to congeal the forces of Irish nationalism even more. Much like the idea that a petty criminal goes into jail with minimal knowledge and comes out a criminal mastermind, those interned by British forces–and who likely would never have met otherwise–were thus able to share revolutionary ideas with one another. And that’s not all.

    While the new revolutionary elite crystallized in detention, a sentimental cult of veneration for the martyrs developed outside as after previous failed risings. The conspirators thus achieved their aim of reversing the movement towards Anglo-Irish reconciliation (198-199).

    A similar situation happened after 1919. Crown reprisals against rebels extended beyond the scope of those directly involved and resulted in destruction of property (including fifty-three creameries) and several arrests, which were then “followed either by internment or by summary conviction at the hands of special tribunals or courts martial” (209). A lot of disaffection and violence could have been avoided in these instances had cooler heads prevailed.

  2. History almost never happened the way we think it did. Because we have emotions and vested interests in the way we understand our history, we tend to misremember how things actually happened, no matter where we’re from. In Ireland this happened after the Great Famine of the 1840s when all landlords were lumped together as being greedy bastards who ruined people’s lives, even though several of these landlords were not Anglo-Protestant landholders, but regular Catholic folks just like those who were blaming them. Also, while the failure of potato crops in the 1840s was horrible and caused Ireland to lose an incredible number of its people due to hunger (“…By 1847, nearly a quarter of a million were emigrating annually…” [167]), it also paved the way for subsequent economic stability. Birthrates were high in Ireland and the only way it managed to sustain itself economically was by shipping its sons and daughters off to distant countries like the United States and Australia:

    Ireland’s apparent stability was dangerously dependent upon population drainage through emigration. This in turn depended upon the persistence of demand for Irish labour, service, and marriage overseas. By 1870 more than half as many natives of Ireland were living overseas as at home (175).

    Hopefully if we can recognize that “history” is not static, that it changes as our cultural values change, we’ll be better able to view ourselves and our heritage from a somewhat removed space, and therefore avoid some of the mistakes of previous generations.

  3. Beware of expediency. For a very long time there existed a division of Protestants and Catholics in the north of Ireland, that is, in Ulster. The fact that Ulster Protestants (mostly Scots) enjoyed higher accessibility to employment and economic stability than their Catholic counterparts–both in Ulster and in the south–led them to a willingness to insulate themselves. This was expedient to protect their interests at the time, as it was for the southern Catholics, who were mostly happy to be rid of their northern adversaries: “Partition had practical appeal to every party but one, the vulnerable and confused Catholic population of Northern Ireland” (211). This would later have a devastating effect on the residents of Northern Ireland, resulting in acts of terrorism that lasted decades. We can’t always predict what will happen down the road, but if we fail to even consider the possibilities, we may find ourselves in suffocating circumstances with no practical way out.

 

A final review/recommendation:

If you’re a history buff and enjoy reading academic summaries of various countries, then I would definitely recommend this book. If you are specifically interested in Irish history it’s a great book to start with (although it was published long ago and you can probably find a more updated version at this point). If neither of these apply to you, just be glad I spent the three weeks it took me to read this book so you didn’t have to. It is extremely informative, but as far as being a page-turner goes, it’s on about the same level as Microsoft Office for Dummies. Still, I’m glad I read it. Maybe you will be if you read it too. But you’re probably better off skipping it and just googling your questions if you’re not super serious about learning the ins and outs of Irish history of the last several millennia.

Photo credit: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/515Q8G4MMEL._SL500_AA300_.jpg

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day / Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh

Perhaps more so this year than in years past I’ve seen articles on the Internet decrying various forms of celebration for St. Patrick’s Day, particularly in my home country of the United States. Now, not being a drinker myself I don’t fully comprehend the allure of drinking to the point of one’s own public humiliation and I wouldn’t condone it–it’s not a good look–but there are plenty of us on this side of the ocean who like to go out with friends or family, have some drinks, and still be able to walk out of the bar on our own.

Of course for many, particularly in America, St. Patrick’s Day is just an excuse (much like Cinco de Mayo) to get hammered on imported liquor. But for a lot of us it’s also a link to our shared history. Most Americans share the historical experience of being immigrants to our country, and tens of millions of us have Ireland as our ancestral homeland (or at least as one of them). When I was growing up the only ancestry that my family was actually sure of was our Irish heritage. Incidentally, my great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother were also the most recent immigrants I’ve been able to find in my family tree, having come to America just before the turn of the last century. Now I know more about my family’s history: we have a significant representation of German and English ancestors, along with some French, Scottish, and possibly others thrown in. But my Irish ancestry will always hold a special place for me. It was one of the first things I knew about myself, specifically my first and middle names, and it was the very first story I heard of how my family got here. Further, it prompted me to learn about the others who came here too, and to take interest in the place they left.

I think the true spirit of St. Patrick’s Day, at least from my Irish-American perspective, is that we should embrace our shared history, whether linked to a specific place like Ireland or only linked by our humanity. St. Patrick was born in Britain and was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken back to Ireland as a slave at the age of sixteen. He escaped in his early twenties, made it home to Britain, but later had a vision telling him to return to Ireland. He stepped out on faith and returned to a place where he had been enslaved. He forgave and loved the people he returned to and spent his life sharing a message of trust and love with them. (It’s worth noting here that the “conversion” of Ireland was one of the most peaceful in all of Christian history.)

St. Patrick’s Day then, should be a day of communion and of joy. It doesn’t have to only be spent in somber reflection of one’s past and it doesn’t have to be spent passed out under a table at an Irish bar (or worse, in jail for drunk driving). If there’s one thing that the Irish have been great at for centuries, it’s mixing traditions. Ancient Celtic rituals from thousands of years ago persist in subtle ways in contemporary Irish Catholic traditions, despite the attempts of some to squash these “pagan” holdovers from so long ago. And besides, as my mom always told me: everyone is Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. It’s a day to be together, to toast with your friends and also with the strangers next to you, to sing Irish songs as though you actually have some idea of what they’re saying, and to pinch the bastards who don’t get the point of St. Patrick’s Day in the first place and aren’t wearing any green.

One of the great things about the Irish is the richness of their culture–religious, mischievous, kind, sharp-tongued, reserved, spilling over in vitality, and also sometimes troubled. These are the qualities that make me proud to be a fifth generation Irish-American, and my continued interest in the other identities that have combined to make me the person I am today ultimately stems from the story I knew first, that of being Irish.

So everyone, I hope you have had a great St. Paddy’s Day, have boosted the Irish economy a bit, and felt at least a little bit Irish today yourselves.

And I hope you were at least a little whimsical as I was here on the southeastern coast of Ireland in March 2009.

And I hope you were whimsical as I was here on the southeastern coast of Ireland in March 2009.

Further reading:

http://www.salon.com/2014/03/15/how_did_irish_americans_get_so_disgusting/
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/03/17/the-irish-american-population-is-seven-times-larger-than-ireland/
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-stieger/st-patricks-day_b_4911866.html
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seamus-mckiernan/st-patricks-day-ireland_b_4976705.html

Sources: R.F. Foster, The Oxford History of Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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Transatlantic

Book type: (Historical) Fiction

Summary: TransAtlantic is a novel of individual stories woven together over centuries and across continents, oceans, and cultures. It’s a book about flight–whether by plane or boat–of people like Frederick Douglass trying to establish freedom, of people like a New York Senator trying to create peace in a war-torn capital city, and of people like journalist Emily Ehrlich and her daughter Lottie, who pursue their passions and their heritage. All these people moving back and forth between Ireland and North America. People pushing boundaries and making history. People whose perseverance in the face of tragedy nurtures and supports future generations.

Lessons:

  1. “Cynicism is easy. An optimist is a braver cynic” (150). All of the characters in this book have something to be cynical about, and most of them are, at least to some extent, cynical. But beyond their cynicism is a tenacity for life that keeps them going, even after the deaths of their children, husbands, and friends. Their optimism may not be your standard “glass-half-full” type, but it’s a form of optimism, or of faith, nonetheless. Faced with death, they build new lives. No matter the situation, they figure out some way to get through it. So be like them: a cynic, but be a brave one. Don’t let cyncism hinder your progress.
  2. “Ashes don’t become wood” (120). There are very few things that you can change back to how they originally were. This blog entry, for example, was completely lost when I was almost at the end of writing it (because for some unknown reason, the little gnomes that I imagine inhabit my computer and make everything work, decided not to auto-save anything I did after putting the book cover into the entry).  I can’t make this entry what it was before the entire thing disappeared, but–in following the lesson I just gave you–I’ve decided to be optimistic and hope that this new version proves to be even better than the last one was. Whether it’s an object, a relationship, or an aspiration that has changed or fallen apart over time, learn to live with the ashes instead of trying to force them futilely to be wood again. Move on, try again, or in my case, scream, cry, eat a cinnamon crunch bagel, and then start over.
  3. Don’t let other people take your passions from you or lessen your sense of self-worth. Emily Ehrlich, a female journalist around the turn of the last century, becomes involved with the editor of the newspaper she writes for, and in a bitter display of douchebaggery, he claims to the other heads of the newspaper that he’s written every single article ever published with her name on it. The result is that she can never work for that newspaper or any other one in the city again. But instead of giving up on her passion because one man ruined her opportunities in one city, she picks herself up and takes her daughter and her passion to a new place (ironically, Newfoundland) and continues to hone her writing skills. At a time when everything about her was an affront to established social norms (an unwed mother, non-church goer, and journalist), she took the jeers and slights of other people in stride, like Frederick Douglass does elsewhere in the novel when he states: “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than be false, and incur my own abhorrence” (54).
  4. “A man knows where he is from when he knows where he would like to be buried” (106). This was something I’d never thought of before, which is surprising if you consider that at the age of ten I had a shoebox containing details for how I wanted my funeral service in the event I died. (There was also a will, and yes, at the time stuffed animals were the most difficult thing to divide up amongst my theoretical heirs.) Anyway, this isn’t so much a lesson as an interesting thing to think about. So for those of you who are macabre like I am, next time you’re introduced to someone new, try using this question as an icebreaker and see where it gets you. If you’re like me, it will probably make you a friend for life.

A final review/recommendation:

I was having a hard time trying to figure out what I would rate this book on goodreads.com once I finished it, because I had mixed feelings. I loved the idea of the book and the lives and stories it contained, but I often found I wasn’t a big fan of the writing style. McCann’s sentences are almost exclusively short, terse statements, which, being a lover of Hemingway (no, not in that way, although he was pretty handsome when he went off to WWI), one would think would be right up my alley. But I found that the voice was too similar for all the characters, unlike Nine Lives, which I read a couple weeks ago. I would’ve liked more variety in the description of how the characters think and how they view the world around them. And my biggest complaint, if you were to call it that, was that often the language was too abstract for my taste. For example, “The car drives on. Beyond Belfast now, into the countryside. The light on the slant of the fields. Fenced here, unbounded there. There is always room for at least two truths” (152). Maybe it’s because I’m not as savvy as I generally think I am, or maybe it’s because I read this book for fun and not for an English lit class, but that last sentence sounds wonky to me. Like something someone from my Intro to Creative Writing class in college would’ve written. I can’t help but picture Keanu Reeves delivering that line if this book were a movie. That being said, the story is really great, so I recommend reading the book just for that. The chapters are a little long, but the fact that each one skips around at least a half-century or so, means that the novel never gets boring. So if you’re interested in reading a book that just came out, give this one a go.

Photo credit: http://media.oregonlive.com/books_impact/photo/ax215-30ea-9jpg-594cc3f574a7382e.jpg

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The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue

 

Book type: Fiction

Summary: The first book in the trilogy deals with the protagonist Caithleen (or Kate) in her adolescence in western Ireland, including the death of her mother, issues with her alcoholic father, and her complicated friendship with another girl, Baba. Book two is about the two girls’ lives in Dublin and Kate falling in love with an older man named Eugene (who turns out to be a jerk). The final book picks up with Kate and Baba and their husbads (including jerk Eugene) and then follows the decay of Kate’s relationship and her difficulties with living on her own and trying to see her son Cash so that he doesn’t lose his mother like she lost hers: too young.

 

Lessons:

  1. Fight fairly and if the other person doesn’t, leave ’em. Multiple times in this book Kate gets into arguments with her man Eugene and he calls her stupid, crazy, overly sensitive, and many other hurtful words. And she internalizes them and becomes convinced that she is all those things. Now, I’m not saying that you should disregard any criticism your partner gives you, but if (s)he can’t give it to you in a way that is respectful and seems constructive–versus destructive–that’s not a person you should take criticism from. The Golden Rule; it’s that simple.
  2. The best revenge is to live well. So after you’ve dumped the jerk you’re with, or the friend who doesn’t treat you well, remember that going back or showing off to your ex (friend/boyfriend/wife, etc.) just looks desperate. Focus on bettering your life and spending time with people that make you happy. And work on being happy being with just yourself. Someone who has belittled you will hope you’re thinking about them and living in the shadow of their memory. So don’t do that. Live well and occupy yourself with things that matter. I’m really starting to sound like Epictetus now, aren’t I?
  3. If it matters to you, do it now. The character Baba in this book says “I suppose up to the time people die you think their lives will improve, or you’ll get on better with them, but once they’re dead you know neither thing is possible” (386) and Baba is right. So if it matters, do it now.

    If you won’t listen to me, at least listen to Arnold.

     

  4. Go back to the lessons from the professor. A couple weeks ago I reviewed How to Read Literature Like a Professor and one of the lessons was that setting matters. O’Brien’s book demonstrates this point well: the main character could live anywhere and have her mother die and her father be an alcoholic, but only in certain places would the local priest chalk up alcoholism to tradition, or condone the father following his daughter across the country and physically forcing her back to her hometown, to the point where the law doesn’t matter, because the father is “justified” in his actions. So in this case, setting matters. Also, Kate travels to London (which, according to Foster, always equals a journey of self-discovery) and ends up in the same poor circumstances because she doesn’t grow and learn; she doesn’t discover herself. Remember what the professor taught you and think about why place matters.
  5. Always read the epilogue. In the case of O’Brien’s trilogy if you only read to the end of the third book and didn’t read the epilogue, you’d close the book with a very different idea of how the characters’ lives continue beyond the pages you’ve read than if you read the epilogue. The author wrote it intending you to read it, so read it and then determine which ending point would’ve been more effective from your point of view.

A final review/recommendation:

This trilogy is excellent and more than once I found myself a bit teary-eyed for the protagonist and wishing I could be there to give her advice, because who hasn’t been with someone (a friend, significant other, etc) who mistreated you? We all have. And some learn from these experiences, and others continue to seek out people with those same characteristics, to their own detriment. O’Brien’s trilogy is a heartbreaking look into a woman “acquainted with grief” (to borrow the saying about Jesus) and if you invest yourself in it, this insight will make you think more deeply about how you are with others and the effect that we can have on other people and that they can have on us. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

 

Photo credits:
Book cover: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41rJ14uV6GL._SY300_.jpg
Arnold: http://www.tfw2005.com/boards/attachments/transformers-toy-discussion/27352841d1363349738-uk-toy-discussion-arnold-schwarzenegger-screaming-kindergarten-cop_480_poster.jpg

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