Big topic, big book


Tim Pat Coogan is an internationally respected journalist. Since his departure as editor of the Irish Press, he has become better known as a prolific historian who is among the most widely read in this country and abroad. His biographies of Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins have enjoyed wide success, while his work on the IRA and on the Northern "Troubles" can be found in bookshops all over the world. When he published Ireland Since the Rising in the 1960s, he was one of the first historians to tackle systematically the history of the Irish State.

Coogan always brings a journalist's eye to his choice of historical subjects. He has never been afraid to take on a topic in advance of the professional historians. His work, however, has often obliged professional historians to address the same topic in order to "correct" the "Coogan thesis". That was certainly the case when he published his biographies of both Collins and de Valera. He holds strong historical views and is trenchant in his manner of expressing them.

Coogan would recoil at being described as a "revisionist". Yet his work fits that description when it is understood in its wider professional context. Of course, he is not a member of the school of historical revisionism he describes as " `Dublin Four' revisionists", whose approach to the writing of history employs "sonorous language and pitying condescension" (p.348). As this book becomes a best seller in Ireland and abroad, I have no doubt that it will provoke a series of historical debates in academic circles - not merely among the "Dublin Four revisionists", whoever they might happen to be.

This book, in keeping with his other works, is trenchantly written. The author is opinionated and unafraid of polemics. It is at once a maddening and a refreshing read. The reader is unlikely to remain neutral. I certainly wasn't. Wherever Green is Worn is not by any means a perfect historical monograph. There is a tension running throughout the text between historical and journalistic methodologies.

It was courageous, and some historians might say foolhardy, for the author to write on the entire Irish diaspora. But that was the magnitude of the task undertaken by Coogan as he travelled over the past few years to Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, the Caribbean, Japan and Far East, Africa, the US, Canada, Britain and many countries in continental Europe.

While it required intellectual courage to tackle such a capacious topic, it also took physical courage to go into some of the areas of the world visited by the author in order to undertake the necessary research. In most cases, he availed of the generous help of Irish diplomats, lay and religious missionaries and, of course, members of the diaspora. Here lies the greatest strength and weakness of the text.

In order to study the Irish diaspora it is necessary to check repeatedly how the group being studied is perceived by other national, ethnic and religious groups. This book is very much a view of the diaspora from within.

It is evident throughout that the author takes a benign view, tempered by a critical historical perspective, of the role of the educational and pastoral work of Irish missionaries. His travels reveal the level of idealism and commitment they continue to show in the face of terrible odds and violation of human rights. This book is at its most compelling when the author describes with sensitivity a number of stories involving Irish people and their heroic opposition to military dictatorship.

He describes the work of Patrick Rice, a "former" priest from Fermoy, Co Cork, who went to work in Buenos Aires in the 1970s with the Divine Word Missionaries, left the order and joined the Little Brothers of Charles de Foucauld, where he became a worker priest. Disappeared by the military in 1976, together with a young woman catechist, Fatima Cabrera (21), they were tortured in adjacent rooms so that Patrick could hear the screams of his parishioner. Coogan tells this extraordinary story with great sensitivity. Thanks to the Irish Ambassador, Wilfred Lennon, and to the diplomat Justin Harmon, Patrick's whereabouts were discovered. He was released after strong Irish diplomatic pressure and deported to Ireland.

The story has a happy ending, as the book relates. Pat returned to Buenos Aires after the fall of the military in 1982, met Fatima again, they fell in love and married. They now live in Buenos Aires with their three children (I am godfather to the youngest girl, Blanca), where their home continues to be a centre of human rights activity as I discovered on a recent visit.

Coogan also recounts the story of the massacre of Belgrano, a rich suburb in Buenos Aires, where three Pallottine priests and two seminarians were murdered by the military in 1976. All had Irish and Spanish connections. A number of other members of the community, either Irish or of Irish descent, escaped death because they had the good fortune to be absent from the house at the time of the raid.

The riddled red carpet on which they died in a room on the second floor of the parish house is now a wall-hanging in a small oratory adjacent to the church, which serves a community in which many leading members of the military elite are resident. If it is possible to feel evil then one feels it in that room. Again the author relates this story with great sensitivity.

He also uses the episode to illustrate the divisions in Irish Argentinian society. For many, those who died were martyrs; for others they were contemptible guerrilla sympathisers. This is almost the 25th anniversary of their death, and much will be heard about this case soon, as nobody has yet been charged with the crime.

Coogan also throws new light on the missionary, mercenary, commercial and educational roles of the Irish in the Caribbean. He is strongest here also when dealing with the personal histories of members of the contemporary diaspora. He records the educational work done by the late Maurice O'Callaghan, who helped establish the Presentation Brothers' school in Trinidad at the end of the second World War.

He later married the former head of Human Rights at UNESCO, Dr Marion O'Callaghan, a novelist and a sociologist who has returned to live in Trinidad. The role of the teaching orders in Trinidad, Holy Ghost, Holy Faith, Presentation and Sisters of Cluny, has been quite outstanding, numbering among their students Nobel Prize winners, prime ministers and leaders in the professions throughout the Caribbean.

However, Tim Pat Coogan, a Blackrock old boy, will have to make an act of public confession when he next visits his alma mater. It was not the case, as he writes, that the Holy Ghost-run St Mary's in Port of Spain refused as a matter of policy to accept black pupils. Marion O'Callaghan's father, a leading Trini trade unionist, was black/Chinese and he was educated there at the turn of the century. St Mary's did not exclude on grounds of race or illegitimacy.

When writing about Grenada, the author is responsible for another slip. The leader of the government, Maurice Bishop, was murdered in a coup before the US invasion and not during it. The above illustrate the difficulty of accuracy when dealing with so many different countries and diverse historical experiences in a single volume. There is much to be said, therefore, for choosing between either writing a historical work or producing a journalistic book dealing with the contemporary diaspora. The tension between the two genres is sometimes strained to breaking point in this volume.

There are a number of surprising omissions from the list of works consulted in the writing of this book. I may be mistaken, but I have not seen any reference in the index or bibliography to the work of Professor D. H. Akenson, who published in 1996 The Irish Diaspora a Primer. He has also written more recently a volume called If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730 which does not appear either in the bibliography. As the book was completed in May 2000, it might also have been possible for the author to benefit from the edited work of Andy Bielenberg, The Irish Diaspora. There are other surprising omissions from the bibliography.

Yet, there is no rival to Wherever Green is Worn (the author also covers Protestant and Orange emigration). Historians will find many legitimate grounds for criticism: the Irish in many parts of the world may find flaws in the historical treatment of their respective areas.

Nevertheless, Wherever Green is Worn is an intellectually ambitious work, the result of great energy, imagination and painstaking detective work. Tim Pat Coogan manages to find "the story" in almost every country he has visited. This volume will stand as a challenging and controversial work on the Irish diaspora.

It will also stand as a reproach to professional historians like myself who are quick to criticise and find fault, but slow to do the type of research necessary to write an influential and important book of this kind. It is a big book on a big topic. Don't just read it. Buy it and reread it.

Having read this work, I feel even stronger that the moment is long overdue for the erection of a national monument to all those obliged to emigrate out of economic necessity since the foundation of this State - a state which failed the generations who left with their cardboard suitcases and their dashed dreams.

Professor Dermot Keogh is chairperson of the History Department at University College Cork. He is the author of Jews in Twentieth Century Ireland, and Ireland and Europe, 1919-1989