Currently Reading:

Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Making of Ireland and Ireland Now

The Making of Ireland

James Lydon

Ireland Now

William Flanagan

It’s rare for me to start a book and not finish it.  I don’t know if it’s virtue or vice, but once I’ve started reading, I generally plow through to the end, no matter how bad the book.  I guess I always hope for a payoff at the end, even if it seems unlikely.  But this time, I just couldn’t do it.  Two hundred pages into The Making of Ireland, I had to stop.  I just couldn’t go any further.

I don’t know if it’s a “bad” book, necessarily.  It’s incredibly thorough, very well researched, and remarkably detailed about those parts of Irish history over which most other books quickly skip.  Where other books skate from the druids to the first English settlement in a chapter or so, The Making of Ireland spends hundreds of pages on it.  The problem is that the attention to detail is mostly just attention to names, dates, and battles.  Frankly, I didn’t know that anybody wrote that kind of history anymore.  It’s exactly what I was trained not to do in my graduate history classes.  There’s virtually no analysis, no social context, no thematic connecting of events.  Just a massive litany of who fought whom on what battlefield in which year, who got appointed to which political office, and how many heads of cattle were seized by which governor.  It’s all What and no Why.  It’s not even really the trap of Whig history; it’s more like reading an almanac or encyclopedia.

In contrast, Ireland Now is an absolutely fascinating slice of modern life on the Island.  To be fair, it’s more sociology than history, but the quality of the storytelling is also vastly better.  Ireland Now avoids the clichés of mystical Ireland, English-oppressed Ireland, Celtic tiger Ireland.  Instead, it tells its stories by way of case studies.  It answers the question “What is rural life like in modern Ireland?” not solely by statistics and dates (although it uses those, too), but primarily by interviewing Irish farmers and letting them tell their stories.  It does the same for immigrant Ireland, Irish musicians, and the Irish clergy.  The end result is a portrait painted by the subjects themselves, with the connections made less by the author’s words than by the sequencing and the editing of the first-person stories.

For me of course, the most interesting chapter was the one on Irish music.  Flanagan skips right past generalizations about tradition and authenticity — notions over which trad musicians often get themselves into a huff — and bravely takes Riverdance by the horns right out of the gate.  Traditional musicians sneer at the mention of it, and yet it continues to sell out shows all over the world.  It’s the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.  What do you do with Riverdance?

I was talking to a music sociologist friend of mine about what he has heard described as “the set list from hell”.  The set list from hell is that set of songs or tunes that have become so successful as to be known by people outside the musical subculture, but which no self-respecting musician inside the subculture still plays.  So, “Danny Boy” for Irish musicians, “Rocky Top” and “Dueling Banjos” for bluegrassers, “Freebird” or “Stairway to Heaven” for rock musicians.  It’s not that any of those are bad songs; on the contrary, they are fine songs — good songs, even.  But they’re so well-tread and so oft-requested by the punters that you can’t play them without slipping into parody.  The purists just won’t do it.

And yet, you can’t talk about the Irish music diaspora and ignore Riverdance.  When we say the phrase “traditional Irish music and dance”, the first image in the minds of most people in the world will be Michael Flatly in a mullet and tight pants prancing about in a multi-million-dollar stage show. (Skip ahead to 4:46 to see what Irish step dance would have looked like if it had been birthed in Las Vegas.)  There’s almost nothing “traditional” or “authentic” about the production, but because of it, Irish step dance classes were full for years throughout the world.  Whether the purists like it or not, it becomes part of the tradition, part of the storytelling.  Traditions are living things, and the stories are never over and are constantly being written and revised.  Ireland Now does a fine job of telling some of those stories, while The Making of Ireland mothballs them and renders them dead things.


Dante Alighieri


I flew into Italy last week without a book, the idea being 1) not to carry anything extra and heavy and 2) to force myself to study vocabulary during my reading time.  That worked well enough; I reviewed my phrase book during the flight, and while I certainly don’t speak Italian, I was at least able to get around OK, stay fed and sheltered, and have a good time in the process.  For the flight home, however, I would need brain fuel.  So, in Florence, I set out to find an English language bookstore.

As it happened, there was one near the home of a certain Dante Alighieri, a couple of blocks from the chapel where he first laid eyes on his beloved Beatrice and where Beatrice lies entombed to this day, receiving the prayers of stricken lovers with a pure and reproachless heart.  I had my own mystical experience with Beatrice at the chapel (a story for another day), which prompted me to track down La Divina Commedia at the bookstore shortly thereafter.

It’s of course grossly unfair to read Dante in English and make any assessment of the quality of the language.  So I won’t.  Having read The Inferno years ago, it wasn’t until I read The Purgatory on trains and buses across Tuscany and Umbria that I started to see what Dante was up to.  Not just language, although I expect that shines as well, and not just an epic allegory, although it’s that, too.  What first struck me was the painstaking attention to structure and symmetry — the structure of the cantos laid out with numerological significance, each of the three books (the trinity) ending with the same word (stars), the mirroring of each of the cardinal sins with a corresponding beatitude, ad infinitum.  The Divine Comedy isn’t just an epic, but a clockwork machine, a catalog of antiquity, a political treatise and the shaping of modern Catholic thought.  It’s poetry of such a completely different character than that of impressionistic lines dashed in a beat café.  Dante is no mere poet — he’s an astronomer, a theologian, an historian, a politician, a bibliophile and perhaps above all else, a lover, loyal beyond marriage, loyal even beyond death.  As when I read so many other great writers, I am utterly humbled to understand even a portion of what’s he’s up to.  It’s like seeing a watchmaker create a timepiece from ore and sand — it seems impossible, but the product is undeniably real.