Glimpses of Irish fairylands


LOCAL HISTORYTHIS MONTH’S books offer glimpses of fairyland: momentary visions of another, better-organised world where architecture is always beautiful, people are always fascinating and history can be benign and progressive.

Recently voted one of the top 10 cities of the world by the Lonely Planet guidebooks, Cork has changed over the years from a bustling port to a thriving city. Michael Lenihan has produced Pure Cork (Mercier Press, 286pp, €25), and he captures the city’s evolution through a selection of advertisements, maps, sketches, postcards and photographs. The book pays tribute to the people of Cork and their resilience through the developments of the harbour, the business life of the city and its physical area.

The book is handsome and well produced, with its marbled duck-egg-blue endpapers and text that moves from the city’s beginnings through less happy parts of its history (such as the burning of Cork in 1920). It is accompanied by brilliant photographs showing the damage. This deliberate act of arson and looting by the British military, which destroyed the commercial heart of the city, was a reprisal for IRA attacks. The use of informal documentation such as advertising flyers, invoices and business cards lends a strong sense of identity to the book.

Where Bridges Stand: The River Lee Bridges of Cork City (History Press Ireland, 159pp, €13.50), by Antoin O’Callaghan, examines various bridges, their development and future. It includes excellent black and white photographs, many originating with Michael Lenihan, the author of Pure Cork.

Once Upon a Time in Tallaght: Tinker Tales and Traveller Stories is by Mervyn Ennis, with photographs by Alen MacWeeney (South Dublin County Council and Libraries, 148pp, €15). This is a story of traveller life, with gritty photographs of the main characters in black and white. It is based in the 1960s and early 1970s, covering the main events of lives lived under canvas, from weddings to funerals and ordinary lives in between. The glimpses it offers are of a rich, meaningful and neglected culture that is often funny and always fascinating.

Those of us who are fascinated by maps will want Mapping Sligo in the Early 19th Century, by Arnold Horner (Wordwell, 96pp, €35). This book illustrates the mapping of the county in the early 1800s by the surveyor and road engineer William Larkin for the county grand jury. Larkin’s work emerged as a huge piece of cartography, measuring almost six feet wide and five and a half feet high. The large-format book is beautifully produced, lavishly illustrated and definitely one for the enthusiast.

More glimpses of what might be fairyland come from Killasser: Heritage of a Mayo Parish, by Bernard O’Hara (Killasser/Callow Heritage Society, 431pp, €20 plus postage). It explores the religious, archaeological and cultural heritage of this east Co Mayo parish. It is very detailed, but it is a valuable resource for a local historian.

In a different vein, two new books examine the roots of conflict in Connemara in the 19th century. The conflict in The West of Ireland: New Perspectives on the Nineteenth Century (History Press Ireland, 240pp, €22.50) culminates in the Great Famine of 1845-1848, the single worst catastrophe to befall the west of Ireland.

The book contains a series of articles about the development of Connacht, edited by Carla King and Conor McNamara of NUI Maynooth history department. For example, McNamara finds that the Famine was not an isolated event but was preceded by several decades of consistent and profound food shortages. King’s article examines the problem of poverty in the later years of the century and the work of the Congested Districts Board. She concludes that the famine of the 1920s followed the closure of the board, suggesting there was still a need for some kind of structured assistance

A Colony of Strangers: The Founding and Early History of Clifden, by Kathleen Villiers Tuthill (Connemara Girl Publications, 332pp, €30), focuses on John Darcy as the developer of Clifden. He was just 19 when he inherited his family estates in 1804 and proceeded with youthful naivety and self-belief to build a town and populate his Connemara estate with industrious tenants, capitalists, artisans and merchants. The arrival of Alexander Nimmo and his skilled workforce in the 1820s took the town to a more professional level. The book is lively and well-constructed.

Noeleen Dowling is a freelance journalist and local historian