Ireland: A History

Thomas Bartlett

Cambridge University Press 2011
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011
Bartlett's history of Ireland is lively and engaging and easy to read. Written for a popular audience, it wears its scholarly underpinnings lightly, not attempting to reference or justify every detail and rarely entering into historiographical debates.

One significant limitation is that Bartlett largely restricts himself to political history. He makes no use of archaeology at all, starting his account in 431 AD, with a reference to Palladius being sent to Ireland as bishop, and devoting just thirty pages to the next 750 years. Nor does he venture into biography, providing enough background on key figures to understand their political careers but no more.

Similarly, economics, demographics, and social and cultural history are touched on only where politically significant. The rise of a Catholic middle class in the 18th century features because of its political influence, trade comes into focus in the context of the politics of tariffs, demographics really only rears its head with the Great Famine and in emigration, the rise of heavy industry in Belfast is covered because of its role in Belfast's position as a bastion of opposition to Home Rule, and so on.

This restriction helps to convey a feel for the continuities of Irish history, however, allowing Bartlett to maintain more of a narrative flow. He provides good coverage of legal and constitutional changes, and of the shifting balance of power between different parties, factions, social groups and individuals. Even the complexities and confusions of the late 16th century or the early 20th century seem to make sense! Bartlett is generally sympathetic to everyone involved, even while he reveals their pretences, self-delusions, and other failings.

The last chapter, covering events from 1945 down to the ongoing financial crisis, has more coverage of culture, news events, and economics, perhaps reflecting Bartlett's direct experience. He seems somewhat less objective in some of this, too: his aversion to Charles Haughey, for example, comes across as quite personal.

Brief endnotes provide references in the early chapters but in the later chapters run more to general lists of sources and further reading suggestions. There's a nice selection of black and white halftones, reproducing manuscripts, paintings, documents, and photographs. And there are a dozen informative and thought-provoking maps, from an early medieval "Irish missionaries abroad" to "Ryanair destinations in 2007".

For anyone without a coordinated knowledge of Irish history, Bartlett offers a synthesis that should bring it all together. And it offers a useful framework to connect other information about Ireland, from biographies, demographic studies, essays on industrial history, or elsewhere.

July 2011

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%T Ireland: A History
%A Bartlett, Thomas
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 2011
%O hardcover, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780521197205
%P 625pp