Irish History

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An Irish football player is a finalist for FIFA’s Puskás award, which recognizes the “most beautiful goal of the year.” But this isn’t one of Ireland’s famous footballers; the footballer fans have placed on par with Manchester United’s Robin Van Persie and Real Madrid’s James Rodriguez, is 25-year-old Stephanie Roche, star of the Irish women’s national football team, who plys her trade in the French Women’s League.

Stephanie Roche Puskas Award

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Des Ekin has studied the Spanish invasion of 1601 and its aftermath for years, and his new book, The Last Armada, makes a compelling case to re-evaluate what we think we know about the Battle of Kinsale.

Last Armada detail large“Too little, too late,” runs the conventional wisdom regarding the Siege of Kinsale in 1601. It’s what I remember being taught in school, and that’s almost all I could remember about this pivotal piece of history before I read Des Ekin’s fantastic book. Read the rest of this entry »

‘Tis that time of year when people start making lists of potential gifts for their friends and/or family and publishers launch new books to appeal to every personality type and disposition. One of these gift books is Who’s Fecking’ Who in Irish History by Colin Murphy (with hilarious illustrations by Brendan O’Reilly).

Whos Feckin Who in Irish HistoryWho’s Feckin’ Who is the latest installment in a popular series of humorous books about all aspects of Irish life. It comprises hilarious biographies of famous and infamous figures from Irish history.

To start with, I should point out that the title is not as scandalous as the unfamiliar might think. Feckin’ is not an exact synonym for a much more-well-know and internationally used four letter word. While feckin’ is a gentle curse — one your Granny might use when discussing politicians — it isn’t used as a coarse description of the act of love. So, the title of the book does not refer to who’s getting it on with whom in Irish history — that might be a very interesting book, but it’s not this one. (With notable exceptions for Charles Stuart Parnell and Katherine O’Shea, as well as Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan, whose stories, like their lives, are entwined.) Read the rest of this entry »

Fore Abbey is one of the lesser-known monastic ruins in Ireland, which is a shame, as it’s a great place for a family day out, offering places to climb, a stream to play in, a rag tree to decorate, and hills to explore. 

Fore Abbey Rag Tree

The Rag Tree with Fore Abbey in the background.

Founded about 630 by St. Fechin, Fore Abbey lies near Lough Lene in Co. Westmeath. The original monastic community was largely rebuilt by the Benedictines in the 13th and 15th centuries, and these comprise most of the ruins you can visit today.

In its heyday, there were seven “Wonders of Fore,” but not all are verifiable anymore. These were:

  1. The monastery in a bog
  2. The mill without a stream
  3. Water that flows uphill
  4. The tree that won’t burn
  5. Water that won’t boil
  6. The anchorite in a cell
  7. The lintel-stone raised by St. Fechin’s prayers

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On an unassuming road between Ballymoney and Ballycastle in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, you’ll come upon the tiny community of Armoy, which contains a slightly unusual round tower.

Armoy Round Tower. (L) the step below the door. (R) view from the inside looking out. (Photos: atriptoIreland.com)

Armoy Round Tower. (L) the step below the door. (R) view from the inside looking out. (Photos: atriptoIreland.com)

At first glance, the only unusual thing about the meticulously kept graveyard of St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland in Armoy is the fish decorating its weather vane, but as you come around the bend in the road that wraps around the church you’ll see the tiny round tower that stands beside the church’s more-modern (1869) bell tower. Read the rest of this entry »

As we enter the “decade of centenaries” that marks 100 years since many of the founding events of the Irish Republic, a whole slew of books focusing on the revolution and subsequent civil war are being published.

Fergal Tobin’s The Irish Revolution: An Illustrated History 1912-1925 is an excellent one-volume introduction to this contentious corner of Irish history. The great strength of the book is, perhaps surprisingly, not the pictures and maps — although they are extensive and very well integrated into the text — but the clear way the author sets out the shifting political world views of Irish people at the time. One of the remarkable things about this time is that the population moved from a point where the partition of Ireland was not even conceivable in 1912, to becoming the only possible solution a decade later.  Read the rest of this entry »

The best illustrated histories and coffee table books about Ireland and the Irish.

It’s no secret that Ireland is a photogenic country, so there are many glossy coffee table books published every year showcasing our gilded country houses, unbelievably tall cliffs, crumbling castles, and scenic vistas. Here are a few of the ones you’ll find on my coffee table, and that visitors are always drawn towards.

Vanishing IrelandVanishing Ireland: Friendship and Community by James Fennell & Turtle Bunbury

The Vanishing Ireland series focuses on interviewing the oldest and most-experienced members of the Irish community. The reminiscences they unlock are a fascinating chronicle of how the country has changed multiple times over the last century, and the wonderful photography reminds us that a vital generation with first-hand memories of rebellion, independence, emigration, the arrival of automobiles, phones, televisions, and computers are still alive and well, and are a vibrant part of their communities.  Read the rest of this entry »

Just who was Jonathan Swift, political satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels? A new biography by Leo Damrosch paints a vivid and most compelling picture of a multi-faceted and contradictory individual.

Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.

Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Leo Damrosch’s new biography of Jonathan Swift, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, is clearly an attempt to write the definitive work. The previous incumbent weighed in at 3000 pages, so its approach was clearly to overwhelm the reader with detail and sheer volume of material. Damrosch is more selective, and turns the copious material of Swift’s life (letters, diaries, account books, pamphlets — acknowledged and anonymous — books and more) into a vibrant and colorful life.  Read the rest of this entry »

Today (May 1) is Bealtaine; happy first day of summer to you all! But, what exactly is Beltaine?

The Wishing Tree at the Hill of Tara

The May Bush/Wishing Tree(s) on the Hill of Tara.

A short perusal of online resources about Bealtaine quickly conflates every “fire festival” tradition together in an unfortunate mish-mash. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do like to know the difference between one festival and another and the later Christian traditions that have come to replace them. So, here’s a summary of what Bealtaine is really be about in an Irish context.  Read the rest of this entry »

Brian Boru began life as the son of a minor regional king, but he ended it as the first High King of Ireland from outside the Uí Néill dynasty. 2014 marks the 1000th anniversary of his death, and a great many events and exhibitions are planned to commemorate the battle.

The Battle of Clontarf by Hugh Frazier, an example of the battle as nationalistic propaganda. (source: wikipedia commons)

The Battle of Clontarf by Hugh Frazier, an example of the battle as national propaganda. (Source: wikipedia commons)

 

Fin Dwyer, creator of the excellent Irish History Podcast, calls the Battle of Clontarf “the most-famous and most-misunderstood battle in Irish history.” It’s easy to see why. During the many centuries of rebellion and resentment against the English occupiers, the Battle of Clontarf was held up as a great example of the Irish throwing off their occupiers (in this reading, the sole enemy was the Vikings) — indeed, while I was at national school in the 1980’s it was very much the official line. (Witness High Frazier’s romantic depiction of the struggle above.) Modern historians have largely rejected this simplified interpretation. The Battle of Clontarf was fought to put down a rebellion against Brian’s authority, not expel invaders.  Read the rest of this entry »

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