Cathal Brugha, a brave soldier but an inept politician, is probably best known for his tense relationship with Collins and his refusal to surrender during the fighting in O’Connell Street in the early stages of the civil war. He preferred to die fighting, charging his opponents head on.
David Kynaston, in the first volume of a projected major work, accomplishes his ambition to tell the story of the postwar changes in ordinary people’s lives with a prose style that balances entertainment with erudition and in-depth historical assessment with gorgeous, fact-laden word pictures, all fused together in an exemplary narrative of a fascinating period.
John Burrow’s survey of the history-writing tradition, covering practitioners as diverse as the church father Eusebius and Henry Adams’s American classics, betrays a boyish delight in a fracas. His trademark is the chuckle that implies an acceptance of imperfection. Such, it concedes, is life.
Slavery was not an institution in colonial Ireland. Rather the condition was reclassified as an almost ontological one, that of ‘poverty’. This had a natural alliance with ‘Irish’, just as ‘negro’ had with ‘slave’ in the racial hierarchy that helped assuage class subjection among American whites.
Northern unionists developed the political and paramilitary muscle in the crisis of 100 years ago to defy nationalism and stay out of a united Ireland. Their Southern brethren were left with the options of accepting the will of the majority and becoming a minority in the new state or leaving.
As a popular explainer of what philosophy is concerned with, Bryan Magee had few equals. Never, perhaps, has so much been owed by so many curious minds to a single intellect. But as his frank memoirs show, Magee was not just a man of intellect but one of will and, above all, appetite.
We are inclined to think of social identities as traits that are common to all members of a group, that a person cannot help acting like ‘a woman’ or ‘a Frenchman’. But identities are fluid and dynamic. People perform their identities, playing up, or down, their social roles and positions.
Jonathan Coe’s strengths as a writer – his humour, his clarity, and particularly the deft way he can sketch in the political background – make him well-equipped to sustain a state-of-the-nation novel that is credible and wide-ranging yet avoids being dragged down by the weightiness of its theme.
A narrative structure which inverts fiction’s usual propulsion from a ‘then’ towards a point of closure that seems to be an inevitable consequence of events resembles our habits of reminiscence, which start with the vivid ‘now’ and look backwards towards a more sketchily remembered past.