I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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All About Helena

Emmet O’Connor
Navigating the Zeitgeist: A Story of the Cold War, the New Left, Irish Republicanism, and International Communism, by Helena Sheehan, Monthly Review Press, 308 pp, $25, ISBN: 978-1583677278 Autobiographies are tricky things. The memoir can ground the writer in external events or situations and provide an objective rationale. The autobiography places oneself at the centre of the narrative and is an act of whopping self-regard that demands a weighty justification. The primary challenge is to get the balance right between the internal and the external. Too much of the self, or inordinate self-defence, will leave the author open to accusations of egocentrism; too little and the author will look weak. Even Caesar wrote of his Gallic wars in the third person. In this first half of a proposed two-volume study, Professor Helena Sheehan addresses these problems at the outset. Her aim is to tell the story of the left from the heady days of the 1960s to the “fall of the wall”, but to go beyond memoir “for a work of intellectual, social, and political history within the narrative framework of autobiography”. There is a cursory acknowledgment of the pitfalls of “first-person writing”, and a sweeping dismissal of much of the genre: “I have read many memoirs and autobiographies and found many lacking in critical self-reflection, proportion, socio-historical consciousness. Few represent the relation between self and world satisfactorily.” Why Sheehan thought she could do better soon becomes apparent to the reader. The book is divided into an introduction and seven chronological chapters, each dealing with a major phase of the author’s intellectual life. The first chapter, covering her upbringing in a conservative, Irish-American family in the late 1940s and 1950s, is the least satisfactory, or the least amenable to Sheehan’s cerebral method. We learn enough about her family to understand her background. Her great-great-grandfather emigrated from Co Waterford to Philadelphia in the revolutionary year of 1848 and his descendants carved out a living for themselves in a variety of working class occupations. Her mother’s people were better connected but not much wealthier and followed much the same path. Sheehan seeks to make their story illustrative of the evolution of white, east coast, working class America. It works up to a point. She paints a textured picture of a happy childhood in 1950s America, a confident land of plenty, still haunted by communism and the Cold War. It’s vivid and the…

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