Death on the ice, life in the zoo


LOCAL HISTORY: Buried in the Arctic Ice: One Irishman’s Role in 19th-Century Polar Exploration, by Cyril Dunne (Nonsuch, 288pp, €16.99), recounts how 28-year-old Jim Hand, from Bray, Co Wicklow, came to die in the arctic expedition of 1875-76.

It is both an absorbing piece of history and a brilliant adventure tale. Cyril Dunne, a great grandnephew of the explorer, tells the story with colour and vitality, using contemporary writings, including the log of Capt George Nares, leader of the expedition, newspaper and public inquiry reports, and more. It is a sad story, but anyone who is interested in the subject will be fascinated. How, although they were aware of the disease, and carrying supplies of lime juice against it, the crew were stricken with scurvy (because the lime juice had been boiled in copper pots to concentrate it, thus destroying its vitamin C content) is one of the subplots. Cyril Dunne provides excellent historical context for the Arctic explorations of the late-Victorian era, and helps the reader to understand the background.

Written in Stone: The Graffiti in Kilmainham Jail, by Niamh O’Sullivan (Liberties Press, supported by the Irish Heritage Council and the Office of Public Works, 100pp, plus audio CD, €12.99), is a record of, and commentary on, the graffiti left by the prisoners in Kilmainham. Much of the graffiti was done in black pencil on plaster and therefore very vulnerable to weathering. Some has disappeared. The CD is a further commentary on and expansion of the book, and a couple of tracks record the visits of relatives to the cells where their ancestors were held. The graffiti is recorded in photographs, and among those mentioned in the book are Robert Emmet, de Valera, Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy.

Dublin Zoo: An Illustrated History, by Catherine de Courcy (Collins Press 356pp, €20) is lavishly illustrated with lovely photographs of animals and people – and her text is peppered with interesting stories. What happened to the zoo in the Famine years? Food was scarcer, but only a black bear died from want of it. There were other deaths then, too, but they were by mischance; an African eagle died when the roof of his cage blew off in a high wind, and an Egyptian goose that strayed into the bear’s cage died as a result.

Maynooth Local History studies, edited by Raymond Gillespie (Four Courts Press, €9.95 each) this year include the following six: Piss-pots, Printers and Public Opinion in Eighteenth Century Dublin: Richard Twiss’s Tour in Ireland, by Martyn J Powell, (72pp) is an examination of the controversy that followed the publication in 1776, of Twiss’s hatchet job A Tour in Ireland in 1775. In riposte, chamber pots with Twiss’s likeness in their base were sold and a print war blew up in which he was publicly excoriated at every turn. The book, full of atmosphere and wit, cleverly links its subject to political developments.

Dublin in 1707: A Year in the Life of the City, by Brendan Twomey (80pp), looks at an unexceptional year when nothing of huge significance happened. The foundation of the Ballast Office, of Marsh’s Library and the development of the Registry of Deeds were all mooted at that time. The book examines the work of the Irish Parliament, the decisions of Dublin Corporation and of the parish vestries of the Church of Ireland – an important arm of local government in the city. The Dublin Liberties 1600–1850, by Kenneth Milne (64pp), explains how the four semi-autonomous Dublin Liberties – St Patrick’s; Christ Church; St Sepulchre; and Thomas Court and Donore – got their names, the internecine disagreements between one Liberty and another, and how they retained their individual powers well into the 19th century.

Clonsilla and the Rebellion of 1798, by Ciarán Priestley (70pp), is a close examination of the social unrest and civil disorder of the 1790s in North Co Dublin leading to the 1798 Rebellion, while Who Killed the Franks Family? Agrarian Violence in pre-Famine Cork, by Denis A Cronin (64pp), examines the consequences for one Co Cork loyalist family of the Rockite disturbances in the Cork area in the 1820s. Gypsum Mining and the Shirley Estate in South Monaghan 1800-1936, by Micheál McDermott (64pp), links the discovery of gypsum to significant social, political and economic developments.

Nostalgia mixes with local history and some lovely images in Ranelagh in Pictures: A Place in Historyby Susan Roundtree (AA Farmar, 320pp, €14.99). Pictures include then-and-now shop-fronts, portraits of “ordinary” people and local notables such as photographer Father Francis Browne, who studied at Milltown and taught at the Jesuit College in Belvedere, journalist Mary Holland, writer Maeve Brennan and James Culwick, founder of Culwick Choral Society.

Less overtly nostalgic and with more historic grit is Frontier Town – An illustrated History of Newry, by Tony Canavan (Choice Publishing, 264 pp €19.95), in which the author looks at the history of one of the oldest towns in Ireland, now more than 5,000 years old. Also lavishly illustrated, the book bears out its author’s assertion that “to know the history of Newry is to know the history of Ireland”.

Ríocht na Midhe – The Journal of the Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, edited by Seamus MacGabhann (published by the society, 340pp, €22 from bookshops and from the society’s publications secretary, Oliver Ward, Nobber, Co Meath, tel. 046-9052236), is full of reading. Archaeology is not neglected, with pieces on the Dowth Passage Tomb by George Eogan, an article on Newgrange, and one about the excavation of a fulacht fiadh in Carranstown.

Rambling Down the Suir: The Past and Present of a Great Irish River, by Michael Fewer (Ashfield Press, 288pp, €25), does exactly what the description promises. The title is appropriate – Fewer’s style is discursive, describing how he finds things, what they mean and their history. Lovely photographs, relaxed text, beautiful format.

Inishvickillane: A Unique Portrait of the Blasket Island, by Micheál Ó Dhubshlaine (Brandon, 284pp, €19.99), is a history of the island from earliest times to the present day, including an account of the refurbishment by the Haughey family, who still own it.

Death Customs in Rural Ireland, Traditional Funerary Rites in the Irish Midlands, by Anne Ridge (Arlen House 158pp. €17), describes death, wakes, and burial customs in the midlands and West of Ireland in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Noeleen Dowling is a freelance journalist and local historian