“A microcosm of Irish history” – On the Edge by Diarmaid Ferriter

In On the Edge Diarmaid Ferriter explores the history of Ireland’s islands. These islands, on the very edge of Europe itself, have always been regarded by those who did not live on them as mythical preserves of the Gaelic spirit. Michael Collins, a Republican leader during the Irish War of Independence, believed they were where “any native beauty and grace in Irish life survive” while a century later Michael D. Higgins, the current President of Ireland, describes them as “this living part of our heritage.”

Over the century, the islands have faced poverty, emigration and government indifference (whether that government was British or that of an independent Ireland). In many ways, the history of Ireland’s islands is a microcosm of Irish history. From tensions with English landlords and famine driving thousands to emigrate to the power of the Catholic church in these isolated communities and the eventual decline of that power (giving way to the power of European Union funding), On the Edge gives us the history of twentieth-century Ireland on a smaller scale. This occupies the opening of the book and it is a fascinating perspective despite the flow of statistics and fleshed-out lists, it survives the whiff of the university library to engross the reader.

On the Edge passes the test of any wide-ranging history. Flicking through the Index leads into endless entertainment. There is John Lennon, who bought Dorinish Island at the height of his fame in 1966 and his first visit lasts two hours (there was only one further visit), both Flann O’Brien and the American poet Theodore Roethke planned trips to the islands in the hope that the isolation would help deal with their alcoholism (Roethke ended up in a mental hospital) while a Prime Minister of Ireland, Charles Haughey, bought an island then built his house on it at taxpayers’ expense. It is the cultural role of these islands that Ferriter focuses on.

The Gaelic-speaking islands are “part of the creation myth of the Irish state”, and that of Irish literature (thanks to J.M. Synge). W.B. Yeats sent J.M. Synge to Aran island to “express a life that has never found expression”, it gave Synge a subject and language that would be a major influence on Ireland’s literary revival. That literary revival of the early twentieth-century would then feed into the independence movement, though

“the relationship between the islands and the state was a reminder of how limited ‘freedom’ would be.”

James Joyce visited Aran in 1912 (with Nora Barnacle), while Gerard Dillon (“a gay, northern nationalist” painter) found that living “a real peasant life” on Inishlacken island allowed him to escape “the suffocation of his era.”

Any Cop?: On the Edge will appeal to anyone interested in Irish history, especially its cultural history, and with all the footnoted academic credentials that any Professor could hope for.

 

James Doyle

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