Category Archives: History

52 books / 52 weeks – Michael Collins & The Troubles

Review – Michael Collins & The Troubles,
by Ulick O’Connor

A Keeper? Probably

Well, I know a LOT more about the Irish revolution than I did a week ago.

Admittedly, what I knew a week ago was almost nothing. When I was in high school, history class somehow always ran out of school year around about 1870. If the material had been paced better, I’m sure my teachers would have taught us about World War 2, and even World War 1, before finding time for a (still) controversial period of somebody else’s history. I had heard, vaguely, of Eamon deValera and Parnell, enough to know they were involved in the Irish fight against England, and that there were some sort of events known as the Easter Uprising and Bloody Sunday (and I knew about that partly because of the song).

Ulick O’Connor does not even try to play the historian’s or biographer’s game of blank slate objectivity. He’s pro Irish, all the way and no matter what. The book starts well before The Troubles, well before Michael Collins was born, with the story of how the British Secret Service spied on O’Connor’s great grandfather Matthew Harris during the 1870’s and 80’s. Then we’re taken through the ins and outs of Irish politics, and British politics as they related to Ireland, over the next thirty years; and somehow O’Connor makes it all understandable and mostly interesting (I’ll admit that sometimes I got a little weary of the parade of names and the fine points of policy).¬†Ulick O’Connor stresses repeatedly how important these century-old events were to later movements of civil disobedience and anti-imperialism.

Oddly, though perhaps unavoidably since O’Connor needed time to explain the background, Michael Collins doesn’t appear until halfway through the book, at the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin and the siege of the post office – a catastrophe for the people directly involved, but apparently crucial in kickstarting the rest of the Irish revolution. Before long, Collins, still in his twenties, is one of the main revolutionary leaders, the organizer of IRA assasinations – particularly Bloody Sunday. (All fully justified, O’Connor assures us.)¬† We follow Collins’ career in detail from then on until his assassination in 1922; then a brief wrapup of Irish history since those days, and the story’s over.

(But what genre is this book? I’m not really sure, though probably it doesn’t much matter. We hear less about Michael Collins’ life before 1916 than we do about the backgrounds of various other Irish leaders; Wikipedia gives much more detail there than O’Connor, and Collins isn’t even seen for the book’s first hundred pages. So it must be a history, not a biography. On the other hand, once Collins makes an entrance, he is the primary focus, and the book pretty much stops with his death, before the Irish Civil War is finished, before Ireland is officially its own country. So it must be a biography, not a history. Oh well.)

At work – the photo

Another entry in the 2012 Dark Globe February Shoot-off – category is “People at Work”.

He’s working three jobs at once – he’s a wheelwright caught in the middle of making a hub for a wagon wheel; he’s an actor playing the role of an 18th-century craftsman at Williamsburg, Virginia; and he’s a teacher ready to explain how wagons were built all those years ago.

52 books / 52 weeks – The World of Late Antiquity

Review – The World of Late Antiquity, by Peter Brown

A keeper? Definitely. Absolutely. No question.

 

I bought this one for the pictures. Really. I thought it was an art book – it is delightfully cluttered with pictures of all sorts of Roman and Persian and Byzantine art and architecture. I never bothered to plow through the text, because I assumed it would just be droning about ancient artistic styles.

Boy, was I wrong. Brown jams a vivid explanation of how and why the colorful people who lived in several great nations over a five hundred year period thought and lived the way they did – anyway, he squeezes a lot of history into only two hundred pages. Along the way, he never forgets to keep track of how widely different topics like war, religion, taxes, and nostalgia all played off each other. And, apparently just because the subject excites him so much he can’t help himself, he tosses off little images like the Byzantine courtier / accountant who kept pen, ink, and a night light next to his bed in case he wanted to work in the middle of the night, or the way that snobbery and self-righteousness helped to cause the barbarian conquest of Rome, or the Persian emperor who kept three empty seats below his throne “for the emperor of China, the great khagan (ruler of the nomads of central Asia), and the Roman emperor” to use when, some fine day, those rulers came to court as Persian vassals.

It’s packed with information about times and places nobody ever taught me about. It’s full of pictures. And it’s smaller than a “trade paperback” and only half an inch (or, about 1.4 cm) thick. What’s not to like?