Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Ireland: A Short History, by Joseph Coohill
I consider myself a fairly well-educated person. And I recognize that in the island of Ireland, there is the Republic of Ireland and there is Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. So when I met a group of Irish people -- that is, from the Republic -- about this time last year, and I wanted to find out where exactly they were from, I thought it reasonable to ask whether their hometown was in north Ireland or south Ireland.
Apparently that's the wrong question to ask a group of Irish people.
I caught the blunt end of a diatribe about the difference between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and how the Republic is certainly NOT to be distinguished as "south Ireland," and so on. In vain I attempted to explain that I simply wondered where, geographically, on the island they were from, and that my cardinal directions were in no way political differentiations.
Eventually I patched things over, but I learned how -- or at least how not -- to ask that one question of a person from the island of Ireland.
I have my reasons for choosing this book to read right now; same goes for many of the likely upcoming books. If those reasons develop into anything, I'll certainly mention something here. But even without said reasons, this book was a good introduction to the major themes of Irish history -- which, as with most good history, granted insight into the psyche of the Irish and Northern Ireland people as a whole. More than many western countries in the last two centuries, Ireland has had to deal not only with war, colonization, religious conflict, and terrorism, but with its very identity. Being Irish does not simply mean being born in Ireland -- true, granted, of any nationality. But the question of Irish identity carries with it heavy questions of religion, of opinions about the English crown, of how one reads the history of this small island.
Many Americans, in my experience, relate to the Irish; whether because of immigrant backgrounds or whether because of Saint Patrick's Day, I can't say. But in general, our level of ignorance about our closest European neighbors (does Iceland really count?) and their incredibly relevant social and political history is fairly shocking, considering how much their history since the founding of the United States has actually affected America. Even just getting an idea of the themes of Irish history would help prevent people like me from loading an innocent-enough question and shooting it off to the wrong Irishman.