Tag Archives: northern ireland

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.


  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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The Oxford History of Ireland (A Juicy Read)


Book type: History


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.



  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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David & Goliath [And It’s Not The Story You Thought It Was]

Book type: Sociology

Summary: In David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, published October 2013, Malcolm Gladwell continues his tradition of compiling individual stories of success and failure and weaving them together to illustrate broader theories than what they could’ve told us on their own. He begins with the age-old tale of David and Goliath, a battle between a small shepherd boy and a warrior whose very name would become a synonym for giant. He walks the reader through the story step by step and then tells us that we’ve misunderstood the point of the story for centuries. The meaning of the story isn’t that David beat all odds and actually won against Goliath, it’s that the odds were actually on his side–he wasn’t really an underdog after all, because his tactic was one that Goliath didn’t expect. Let’s dig into some lessons that can be learned from underdogs.


  1. “Giants are not what we think they are.” One of the very first assertions Gladwell makes is that “The same qualities that appear to give [giants] strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable” (6). In the case of David versus Goliath, when each side chose the fighter to represent their entire army, the Philistines–in an obvious move–chose their largest, most intimidating warrior. The Israelites, having no comparable warrior, struggled to choose a representative until David volunteered. Even then they struggled, but he insisted and they let him go. He won because he had no intention of going mano-a-mano, he was a skilled slinger, and when he threw his stone, Goliath had no chance. Goliath’s size and abilities would have been unmatchable had the battle been a conventional one, but David exploited his opponent’s weaknesses–his size, his armor, and his expectations–and he walked away with his head. (Pretty much what the Seahawks did to the Broncos during the Super Bowl tonight.)

    Sometimes giants are exactly what we think they are: freaking giants. Robert Wadlow here, is the tallest person in history at over eleven feet tall.

    Sometimes giants are exactly what we think they are: freaking giants. Robert Wadlow here, is the tallest person in history at over eleven feet tall.

  2. Advantages are sometimes disadvantages. There are two stories that deftly illustrate this principle. The first is about a Hollywood exec who was raised without all the advantages of wealth, but then having amassed great wealth himself, struggled with raising his own children to appreciate the value of a dollar. What Gladwell asserts is that wealth, like many other advantages, can cease to be an advantage at a given point and then actually become a challenge (in this case, a family’s overall happiness will increase to around the point of a family income of $75,000, then it maxes out, and at some point can make a family unhappy, 49). The second is about a woman who loved science, was very smart, and therefore decided to go to Brown University, an Ivy League school, over the less prestigious University of Maryland. The conventional thinking is that a degree from a more prestigious school is worth more than one from a regular public university. And this is sometimes true. But in the sciences, if you’re average at Brown or Harvard or MIT, you’re much less likely to get published (and therefore less likely to be impressive) than if you were brilliant at an average school (87-89). He further points out that if you’re in the bottom third at Harvard in terms of your math/science SAT scores, you’re just as likely to quit your science-related major and get some other degree as someone in the bottom third at a less prestigious school like Hartwick College, even though your SAT score was higher than the highest third at Hartwick. In other words, the bottom third at Harvard (the group you fall in) has an average score of 581. The top third average score at Hartwick is 569. So your low score at Harvard is still better than the best average score at Hartwick, but it doesn’t end up mattering. The ostensible advantage you expected to gain from going to Harvard is moot and you’ll probably end up publishing less than if you’d been the big fish in the little pond at Hartwick. For the woman who went to Brown over the University of Maryland, the outcome was that she quit her science major, her real passion, because she compared herself to several other brilliant people and fell short, even though she would’ve been brilliant at another school: “What matters, in determining the likelihood of getting a science degree, is not just how smart you are. It’s how smart you feel relative to the other people in your classroom” (84). Feeling dumb at college? Try switching to a different school before you abandon your passion.
  3. Disadvantages are sometimes advantages. You saw that one coming, didn’t you? Much like David opposing Goliath, several people have had disadvantages that end up propelling them to greatness and Gladwell’s book contains several examples. One specific challenge that he focuses on is dyslexia. He tells of several highly successful businesspeople and entrepreneurs who, because of their dyslexia, have had to learn in ways that are different than most of us. (One example in the book is a lawyer who grew adept at listening and memorizing speech because of his difficulty with reading.) In addition to this “compensation learning” (113), the effect of dyslexia for some children can be that they become so accustomed to “failing” that they don’t feel the social anxiety many of us would feel about being what psychologists call “disagreeable” (123). One example given is Gary Cohn, President and COO of Goldman Sachs who jumped into a cab with a Wall Street big shot and pretended he knew about options trading (when really he had no idea whatsoever) and managed to be offered a job and then had to learn everything he needed to know before he started his job the following week. Most of us would never dream of doing something so bold as what Cohn did; we’d fear being found out or being shunned and embarrassed. But for Cohn, who was accustomed to failure, it was an opportunity to get himself out there. And it worked. We may not believe his method was right just as many didn’t believe it was right for Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights protestors to allow children–or use them, depending on your viewpoint–to attend their rallies and be attacked by police dogs in order to bring awareness to their cause, but Gladwell points out that “…We need to remember that our definition of what is right is, as often as not, simply the way that people in positions of privilege close the door on those on the outside” (190). Hearkening back to a book I covered last year, Nine Lives, the best way is not always through, sometimes it’s around. Sometimes you can’t play by the rules because the rules are not made to include you, so you have to be creative and get it done your own way.
  4. “When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters–first and foremost–how they behave” (207). Gladwell gives a few different examples to drive this point home, the most heartbreaking of them being the force used by the British Army in responding to unrest in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and ’70s that resulted in thirty years of warfare and appalling bloodshed. The failure of the British Army was that the method they followed was one of showing their might instead of understanding how the people, particularly in Belfast, saw them, namely as invaders who were there not to keep peace, but rather to protect and defend the Protestants, who were like them. Had the Army behaved differently, perhaps the Troubles wouldn’t have happened as they did. Another example, and one that we would do well to follow in our own lives, particularly as parents (of children, or if you’re me, of puppies) is of a teacher and a classroom gone haywire. Gladwell describes a video of a teacher whose class of youngsters has gone off the rails: kids with their backs turned to the teacher, a little girl doing cartwheels, etc. and he points out that many of us would be quick to say the kids are misbehaving or just general troublemakers. But really the fault lies with the teacher in this case because if you see the whole video, you see her focus on one child and become unaware of the needs of all the other students. As Gladwell puts it:

    We often think of authority as a response to disobedience: a child acts up, so a teacher cracks down. Stella’s classroom, however, suggests something quite different: disobedience can also be a response to authority. If the teacher doesn’t do her job properly, then the child will become disobedient (206).

    Remember that next time your kid won’t stop whining or your dog chews the legs of your couch. It’s most likely not them, it’s you.

A final review/recommendation:

As you may know already if you’ve followed my blog for a while, I’m a big Malcolm Gladwell fan (read my lessons from Outliers and Blink if you haven’t already). He consistently does a great job at gathering compelling stories and including data from studies that corroborate his theories (although if you also read the lessons from Proofiness, then you’ll know you should always be wary of numbers). Overall, David and Goliath wasn’t my favorite Gladwell book–Outliers is probably still my top choice, though I have yet to read The Tipping Point–but it was an interesting read and a fast one, so if you’ve read his other books and liked them, or if you’ve read my blogs on his books and liked them, I would recommend checking it out. And if you don’t feel like reading it, you can listen to it on YouTube for free (although admittedly I didn’t listen to much of it, seeing as I’d already finished the book in paper form).

Thanks for reading, congrats to the Seahawks, and please take note that my birthday is in 15 days and I might just post a wish list on here, considering when I mentioned in a previous post that a neighbor may have stolen my orange watering can, a brand new one from Amazon arrived at my door a few days later (thanks to my aunt and not a stalker, I discovered later, much to my relief), so make sure you check back to see what I want before that special day sneaks up on you.

From an underdog–no, just a misfit,



Photo credits:
Book cover: http://static4.businessinsider.com/image/525d891e6bb3f785521e39b2-1200-2000/gladwell_david%20and%20goliath.jpg
The real Goliath: http://designyoutrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Robert-Wadlow-1-650×951.jpg

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