DID SENATOR MITCHELL READ THIS BOOK?
An intelligent, cultivated foreigner is going to visit Ireland for the first time. You are asked to recommend just one book - short if possible - which will give him or her a quick and useful introduction to the place, the people, some of the problems. On mature consideration, to coin a phrase, you go for a book by a Welshman, a sparky, spiky, stimulating book. No, not Giraldus Cambrensis, but Estyn Evans, in this case The Personality of Ireland.
It is based on a series of lectures Evans gave in Queens University, Belfast, in 1971. Two years later it appeared under the Cambridge University Press imprint. Later that of Blackstaff and more recently turned up from Lilliput, Dublin. It's not much more than a hundred pages, but it packs a mighty amount of information and provocation between its covers. Paul Durcan, in a Foreword to the Lilliput edition writes: "Reading it, I knew I was reading one of the most important books of my life. It enabled me to jettison much of my own cant and prejudice and to articulate suspicions I had been having for many years about the murderous mythologies of an Irish racial purity. It was a small wisdom book and I knew it, and I felt lucky and privileged to have read it."
Durcan says that a prominent academic in Cork warned him that Evans was "a crypto Unionist". Further on Durcan quotes these words of Evans: "If we take the longer view, we see them (the two communities in the North) as a potential source of enrichment through cross fertilisation, both in Ulster and in all Ireland. To achieve this, it seems to me, one should first look towards the renewal of regional consciousness in the old province of Ulster, and to a culturally productive borderline."
One of the more contentious passages, when he first gave these lectures was. If it were possible to sort out the genes of the Irish people, I would hazard a guess that those coming from English settlers would exceed those deriving from `the Cells', and that those coming from older stocks would constitute the largest proportion."
Wicked stuff: Did anyone give Senator George Mitchell a copy? But it's not a confrontational essay. It's a warm, understanding tribute from a neighbour who became one of us.