An Historical, Environmental and Cultural Atlas of County Donegal, Jim Mac Laughlin and Sean Beattie (eds), 638 pp, €59, ISBN: 978-1859184943
Cork University Press’s atlases have been one of the great achievements of Irish publishing over the last twenty years. They include such gems as Billy Colfer’s The Hook Peninsula (2004) and Geraldine Stout’s Newgrange and the Bend of the Boyne (2003), beautifully written and elegantly presented books that probe the relationship of people to resources in small and discrete places over the longue durée. Here, however, the focus is on the country’s second largest county. And that is unfortunate.
Leaving its administrative definition to one side, Donegal comprises sections of two internally differentiated regions, one centred on Derry and the other on Enniskillen, which, since the early 1600s ‑ the period on which three-quarters of this book focuses ‑ have been culturally and politically quite distinct. For instance, in northwest Ulster ‑ west of the Sperrins and north of Bearnasmore ‑ Presbyterians came to outnumber Anglicans in all heavily Protestant districts, which gave the political culture an anti-establishment and sometimes liberal cast. In the southwest, Presbyterians were few and far between, and Anglicans were in a majority in areas with a substantial Protestant population ‑ meaning there were lots of poor Anglicans ‑ and there, with that bedrock, the political culture was more conservative.
Either of these watershed-defined regions would be a suitable subject for an atlas. Better still a case might be made for focusing on a district within one of them. In Donegal, Inishowen comes to mind. So too does the Laggan ‑ the rich agricultural lands in the northeast of the county ‑ and the Croaghs, and the Rosses, and those mountain-shadowed areas in the south-west where the cults of Conall (Inniskeel) and Colm Cille (Glen) were central to popular Catholicism.
All those districts are petites patries in the same sense as the Hook or Conamara, the Fews or the Glens of Antrim, and an “atlas” of any one of them might be a coherent and welcome addition to Cork’s list. Focused on a county, this book is not conceived in the spirit of the best of its atlases; nor does it share their strengths, which derive from a single scholar or small group of scholars focusing on a small place over a long period. The population of Donegal on the eve of the Great Famine was near 300,000; there were not fifteen thousand people in the Hook, and it is the subject of a fine atlas.
But then this book is not truly an atlas. There are near six hundred pages of text here, and there are only thirty-five maps, eight photographs of old maps and six satellite photographs. These maps are not evenly distributed ‑ the majority appear in the first quarter of the book ‑ and many of them, such as Garret FitzGerald’s maps of Irish-speaking areas, simple maps of electoral divisions and landed estates, have appeared elsewhere. The contrast with Stout’s Newgrange is striking. There, in a book of approximately two hundred pages, one finds more and better maps, and more original maps, that delve far below the level of the county. For instance, five case studies of discrete communities, all within the bend of the Boyne, track landscape development in a series of eight figures ‑ Prehistory, Iron Age/Early Christian, Medieval, Seventeenth Century, Eighteenth Century, Nineteenth Century, Twentieth Century, and Future Trends. Those forty maps are but a fraction of the total in a volume which is about a third of the length of the book under review.
The Donegal Supporters Club may be pleased to get a big book, but on reflection its members may realise that the county’s little kingdoms are not deemed worthy of attention. Anyone interested in those places can turn to such lovingly crafted works as AG. Lecky’s In the Days of the Laggan Presbytery (1908), Maghtochair’s (Michael Harkin’s) Inishowen (1867), Brian Lacey’s Lug’s Forgotten Donegal Kingdom (2012), Robin Fox’s The Tory Islanders (1978), Niall Ó Dónaill’s Na Glúnta Rosannacha (1952), Lochlann MacGill’s In Conall’s Footsteps (1992), and a clutch of fine studies on Glencolumbkille to Killybegs, ranging from “Kinnfaela’s” Cliff Scenery of South-western Donegal (1867) to Lawrence J Taylor’s Occasions of Faith (1995). And for the county’s most mobile people ‑ an lucht siúil ‑ and their hosts and partners in music, there is The Northern Fiddler (1980), the remarkable collaboration of Allen Feldman and the late Éamonn O’Doherty, which cries out for republication. None of these books claims to be an atlas, and yet something of the spirit that animated Colfer and Stout moved their authors.
If not itself an atlas, this volume is certainly a large collection of essays, by professional and part-time researchers (and some of the most original, most thoroughly researched and best-written pieces are not by professionals). In that regard, it might be compared to a bumper issue of the Donegal Annual. Alternatively, it might be compared to Donegal: History and Society, edited by Willie Nolan, Liam Ronayne and Máiréad Dunleavy (Geography Publications, 1995), or to Donegal: The Making of a Northern County, edited by Jim MacLaughlin, lead editor of this volume (Four Courts, 2007). And well might it be compared to that 2007 book for a number of the seventy essays published here previously appeared, in some form, in it. In a disappointing departure from standard practice, the place of original publication is not always acknowledged.
Likewise, six of the seven “documents” or literary items reproduced in the Atlas have already appeared, with far fewer errors and omissions, in Making of a Northern County.(1) The sole document that did not make the cut in 2007 is a song, “The Hills of Donegal”. It is given with neither composer nor date nor any annotations; in other words, it is used as a gardener uses rubble, as filler. It is by Niall Mac Giolla Bhríde (1861-1942), and it appeared in his Blátha Fraoich (1906). Mac Giolla Bhríde was then something of a celebrity, having appealed a conviction for having his name on his cart in Irish; he was unsuccessfully defended by PH Pearse in his only appearance as a barrister. Whether the latter detail is worthy of note is moot. The man merits mention as the composer, the piece should be dated, and it should be noted too that it is an extract, for omitted are lines about how “the Saxons came with sword and flame to hold the clans in thrall / and rule the glens, the fertile plains, and the hills of Donegal”. Also omitted is a verse on the assassination of Lord Leitrim.
In short, this type of thing has been done before for “dear old Donegal”, and done better, most obviously by Geography Publications. But as historian David Dickson has observed, if those Geography Publications county histories have been a “remarkable success for a small private imprint, made viable thanks to strong local government sponsorship and county patriotism”, they have had only “limited intellectual impact”. He attributes that limited impact to “the artificiality of the county as a unit of analysis”. Cork University Press would have done well to consider that “old problem”, as Dickson describes it, before shifting the focus of its atlases.
The contents of the volume are divided into six sections: 1. Physical Environment, Wildlife and Climate; 2. Prehistory and pre-Colonial Period; 3. Dislocation and Transformation; 4. Making of Modern Donegal; 5. Cultural Traditions, Music and Sport; 6. Art, Literature and Architecture. The first two sections are the most coherent. The last is a veritable grab bag, with any notion of chronological or thematic organisation thrown to the wind. If the logic of the organisation of that section perplexes, so too does the inclusion of “Planning and Place-making in Donegal: An Exercise in Democratic Decision-Making”. It is a guide to the workings of the Planning and Development Acts 2000 and 2010 and the National Planning Strategy ‑ change little more than a few place-names and it might be about landlocked Monaghan. It is hard not to conclude that it began life as a talk for county councillors entitled “How To Do Your Job”. I quote, “Having received the manager’s report on the latest public display period, the members of the council ‑ over the coming months ‑ will be faced with the difficult choice of deciding on which of the alterations are appropriate and which are not.” The italics are mine.
There is doubtless a place for a civics lesson, but not in a “Historical, Environmental and Cultural Atlas”. And not only cynics will be amused by the Panglossian notion that one of the “core interests” of politicians and officials is “to ensure a sustainable future for the county based on best planning practice and advice”. One remembers Frank McDonald of The Irish Times calling Letterkenny a “visual disaster zone” in 2002. Whatever the justification for that description, a history of the interplay of social, cultural and political factors that shaped the built environment (including the road network) of contemporary Letterkenny would be worth reading. So too would an analysis of the factors that generated a visceral reaction, from some quarters, to McDonald’s depiction of it.
Any such analysis would probably make reference to a sense of being neglected by Dublin which, rather obviously, developed post-partition. As it happens, partition does not figure in this book. The border is not there ‑ not as much as a photograph of a checkpoint or a cratered road sullies its pages never mind a research-based analysis of partition’s socio-economic, cultural and political effects. Its absence baffles. After all, from 1921, until the recent construction of a by-pass, the vast majority of the county’s inhabitants had either to cross a narrow bridge at Ballyshannon and then travel a circuitous route via Sligo to get to their state’s capital, or twice traverse what, for much of the last three decades of the twentieth century, was a militarised “international” frontier. Moreover, all inhabitants had to cross that border to get to their historic commercial hubs, Derry and Enniskillen.
Notwithstanding the welcome changes over the last two decades, partition continues to have a deleterious effect on northwest and southwest Ulster, not least through the absence of regional planning ‑ the Border, Midlands and Western Region is no more a region than this book is an atlas ‑ and the resulting duplication of less than first-rate services. Letterkenny might not have a “general hospital” had there been no border. However, a single regional hospital somewhere in the Foyle valley would surely have amounted to something greater than the sum of present-day Letterkenny and Altnagevlin (Derry), and patients would not be shunted by ambulance from one location to the other for MRIs. Likewise, in the pages of the Derry Journal, Eamonn McCann regularly ‑ and rightly ‑ deplores the underdevelopment of the University of Ulster’s Derry campus, but one doubts that he believes that it will ever rise and shine, when at least half the potential students in its natural hinterland ‑ northwest Ulster, as defined above ‑ do not have to pay tuition fees to attend university in NUI Galway, a four-hour drive from north Donegal, but must pay fees to go four miles beyond Bridgend. The burghers of Galway cannot believe their luck. They now have a public holiday, Donegal Day, to celebrate money being spent on the Corrib that might be spent on the Foyle.
Partition and planning are but two topics which one would have expected to loom large in a historical geography of Donegal. Poverty is another. At the height of the boom, Combat Poverty published Mapping Poverty: Local, Regional and County Patterns (2005). Then, Donegal had the highest unemployment rate (15.7 per cent) of all local authority areas in the state; the next were Louth (13.2 per cent) and Mayo (10.7 per cent). It also had the highest ratio of poverty to the national average, the highest income poverty risk and the highest percentage of early school-leavers. And that was in the good times. In summer 2012, when I was last in Donegal for an extended period, the unemployment rate was over 26 per cent, and it showed in the leavetakings of people in their thirties and forties for places beyond their known world, such as Battleford, Saskatchewan, and the shuttering of shops and public houses that had been guy-lines of community for generations. Above all, it showed in an acceptance by once devout Fianna Fáilers that a party that had been an expression of confidence by some poor people in the dark days had, in brighter days, become a confidence trick upon them.
Other than a cogent essay on the agricultural sector by Tony Varley, who touches on small-scale farming in the noughties, one gets no nearer contemporary poverty than Jim MacLaughlin’s “Donegal: The Emigrant Nursery and the Global Economy”, passages of which strongly echo his pamphlet Ireland: The Emigrant Nursery and World Economy (1994). MacLaughlin has little to say about contemporary emigration. A paragraph discussing “new wave” emigration “in recent years” proceeds to cite data from the 1980s, that is, from thirty years ago. Brian Lenihan is here Charlie Haughey’s minister for foreign affairs, not his son the late minister for finance. Errors made two decades ago remain uncorrected ‑ Kirby [sic] Miller did not publish his classic Emigrants and Exiles (1985) in 1971. And, bizarrely, a sense of déjà vu can be experienced by readers who have never browsed the pamphlet, for ghosts that glide into “Donegal: The Emigrant Nursery and the Global Economy” also appear in “Donegal: Dynamics of the Human Landscape”; for examples see pages 21–22 and 267–69, and there are other examples involving other essays. Let us not be precious. Scholars, in various disciplines, rework material to probe related but distinct topics and to address different audiences. But reworked versions of the same passages appearing twice in a single collection is, well, pushing it. The most charitable reviewer must consider it excessive.
Looking beyond this issue, one finds many fine essays in this volume. The contributions to the section on the natural environment are well written and informative. I particularly enjoyed Andrew Cooper’s discussion of “how the coast works”, Kieran Hickey’s explanation of Donegal’s weather and Ralph Sheppard’s survey of plants, moths and butterflies. Indeed, Sheppard’s succinct essay might have been much longer, so that, as he himself suggests, he could use HC Hart’s Flora of the County Donegal (1898) as a yardstick for measuring the changes wrought by over a century of agricultural and demographic change.
Among the most striking essays in the section on “Prehistory and pre-Colonial Period” are Brian Lacey’s erudite and accessible discussions of the archaeology and early political history of west Ulster. This prolific and unpretentious author’s two essays include some of the best maps in the volume, and, not surprisingly, he crosses the county line, tracking the territory of Cenél nÉogain up the eastern shore of Lough Foyle. In another strong piece, Darren McGettigan revisits Brendan Bradshaw’s influential depiction of Manus O’Donnell as a “renaissance prince”, in an engaging study of early sixteenth century Tír Chonaill, which compares the principality’s elite warriors to Japanese Samurai and early modern Polish cavalrymen. Later, Annaleigh Margery gives a stylish account of the crushing of that principality, which suggests that Donegal’s warriors were not sufficiently like those Samurai and cavalrymen, or, if they were, that there were not enough of them.
For the modern period, Aidan Manning brings a gauger’s documents and a poitín-maker’s guile to a brisk survey of the illicit whiskey industry. This essay is a distillation of his thoroughly-researched and thoughtful Donegal Poitín (2003), a privately published but significant contribution to eighteenth and nineteenth century Irish history that deserves to be more widely known. And there are other strong pieces. Drawing on research begun in the late 1980s, Martina O’Donnell offers a detailed analysis of the estate system in late nineteenth century Donegal, which I hope will yet evolve into a book, and Seán Beattie gives a useful account of lacemaking in the county around 1900, a foretaste of his (since published) volume on the operation of the Congested Districts Board in the county, which I now look forward to reading.
Elsewhere, Lillis Ó Laoire, one of Ireland’s leading authorities on singing, writes with insight and affection of the coteries that sustain the Irish-language song tradition. One wishes only that he was not required to crush so many peoples’ republics of song into the imperial county, but given space instead to look at one community in depth and detail, as he has done before with great éclat, most obviously in an award-winning book on the singers and songs of Tory. Something similar might be said of Róise Ní Bhaoill, who delineates contours of language change in the nineteenth-century county; and of Conor Curran, who offers a well-researched consideration of the development of Gaelic games and soccer, and Liam Ó Duibhir, who surveys the events of 1919-22, both boiling down their impressive books on sport (2009) and the Tan War (2009) and Civil War (2011). In an atlas devoted to one of Donegal’s petites patries ‑ perhaps the Rosses ‑ these three researchers, who have interesting things to say, would doubtless make deep impressions. And the same might be said too of other contributors, notably Helen Meehan, an independent scholar who has produced work of a high order on Inver and Frosses, but is here tasked with a seven-page survey of “Donegal Women in History” ‑ from Máiréad Ní Mhaonaigh back to the mythical Ruad, who sailed across the western ocean in a bronze boat with a tin sail to find her lover; and Pádraig Ó Baoighill, author of a substantial biography of Cardinal Patrick O’Donnell, who is given space to discuss the then archbishop’s construction of what one critic called “that metropolitan cathedral in that petty town” (St Eunan’s, Letterkenny), but not the controversies surrounding it; and Nuala MacAllister Hart, who has lit the footlights of the eighteenth-century Derry stage in From Farquhar to Field Day (2012), but here gets to give only a slim biography of Charles Macklin, who had left Inishowen by his early teens.
In short, reading this Atlas, one time and again thought of missed opportunities to produce respectable companions to Stout’s Newgrange and Colfer’s Hook ‑ smaller books than this one, but with many more maps, on the Erne (James Anderson), Glen (Manning), Cloughaneely (Lacey; Ó Laoire), the Laggan (Sheppard; Margery; Frank Ferguson), and Inishowen (O’Donnell).
Notwithstanding some fine ingredients ‑ and there are other strong pieces beside those mentioned ‑ this particular scone does not rise. Cork University Press’s publication of this county history does not bode well for the future of its atlases. And anybody wanting to locate “the making of modern Donegal” in time and space can start with Mapping Poverty, and continue with a more recent and most appropriately titled report by the Research and Policy Unit of the County Council, The Unemployment Landscape in Donegal (2010). It should be read in Dublin.
Breandán Mac Suibhne is a historian of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland. He lives in the United States. His previous contributions to Dublin Review of Books include http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-lion-and-the-haunted-house.
- The six recycled documents are as follows
i. An unannotated reprint of Patrick’s McKye’s Memorial to Earl Mulgrave. It is misdated in both volumes to 1837, presumably on the basis of an error in the hotelier Lord George Hill’s Facts from Gweedore (1845). The memorial was written in 1836, and a copy can be found in official papers for that year in the National Archives of Ireland.
ii. An unannotated extract from evidence to the Devon Commission on landholding in pre-Famine Glenties and Mountcharles.
iii. An Irish Press article, by Peadar O’Donnell, on the Arranmore drowning disaster of November 9th, 1935. It is the sole document to earn a short commentary, by MacLaughlin, and it is the same as that which appeared in the 2007 volume, but with one difference—the nineteen unfortunates now drown in October. The drowning is also misdated in the caption of a photograph. It is, however, correctly dated elsewhere in the Atlas, in a biographical sketch of O’Donnell by the careful historian Dónal Ó Drisceoil. No date of publication is given for the Irish Press article; nor is it mentioned that it was soon reprinted in O’Donnell’s The Bothy Fire and All That (Irish People Publications, 1937).
iv. Máire’s “Trathnóna [sic] Beag Aréir”; here, it appears with many síntí fada absent without leave ‑ including some that were present and correct in the 2007 volume (lár; rún; stór, &c.) ‑ and now a noun must be reported missing in action (ab áille [gnúis] is pearsa). Nowhere is there any indication that “Máire” was Séamas Ó Grianna (1889–1969), which suggests that “mid-1900s” would be a better effort at dating it than the “n.d.” offered by the editors. In fact, the date has been clarified elsewhere, in Máire: Clár Saothair (1990), by Nollaig Mac Congháil, who, ironically, is a contributor to this volume; it was first published in 1926.
v. Cathal Ó Searcaigh’s “Anseo ag Stáisiún Chaiseal na gCorr”: conspicuous spelling mistakes in the 2007 book (bhuil instead of bhfuil) are left uncorrected, and new errors added: “is mé ag feacheáil [sic] chriocha [sic] mo chineáil” should read, “is mé ag feiceáil chríocha mo chineáil”. The publication cited, Chaiseal [sic] na gCorr (2002), is not the first collection in which the poem appeared; it is Suibhne (1987).
vi. An unannotated essay on conditions at the French front in 1917 by Canon Pádraig Mac Giolla Cheara. I knew nothing of Mac Giolla Cheara before I picked up this book, and I learned little from it. I have since learned a good deal about his career as a priest, teacher and author, from a scholarly essay by Fionntán de Brún, in Taighde agus Teagasc, 2004. I also learn from de Brún that the original title of this piece was “From the Valley of Death”, and that some lines from the conclusion and a postscript in Irish have here been silently omitted. But I still cannot grasp why a discussion of early twentieth-century France closes a book about Donegal, just after a lively item on the twenty-first-century county’s “thirteen weekly papers and two online news services”.
This much seems clear: Four Courts copyedited these items ‑ far from perfectly, but they copyedited them ‑ and, in the case of Arranmore, they checked facts. Cork University Press did not. Let me emphasise, one rarely encounters a book without error ‑ and I have made my share of errors as editor and author. Still, on one’s second shot, one hopes to be closer to the target.
Publishers are navigating troubled waters, but if Ireland’s leading universities are to compete internationally their presses should copyedit. And yet there is only so much a copy-editor can do, and the problem here is not simply one of copyediting.