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Book Review: Ireland in the Twentieth Century by Tim Pat Coogan

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The old yarn about travellers landing at Dublin Airport being advised to set their watches back three hundred years is, of course, a piece of Irish blarney. But at times during Tim Pat Coogan's history of twentieth-century Ireland, the myth doesn't seem so fanciful.

It was only in 1958, for example that married women in the Irish Republic were allowed to become teachers. Until then, the prospect of a pregnant woman flaunting her bump in front of impressionable youngsters was too much for the Catholic clergy to contemplate.

In Ireland in the Twentieth Century Coogan mingles such oddities with the mightier matters of history to create a comprehensive work that comes close to being definitive. Its size — over 850 pages of densely-packed print — signals an exhausting read. But to wade through the eye-watering detail is to encounter some eye-opening revelations about a country we thought we knew pretty well.

The early part of the book is devoted to Ireland’s bloody path to independence and descent into civil war. Much of this is well-trodden, but given the Coogan treatment, the faded flags of rebellion flutter again to life. He's helped by the presence of big characters, such as Michael Collins, Winston Churchill, and Eamon De Valera. These, and the dour politicians governing the six counties of Ulster, make for an arresting Irish stew.

The new Irish Free State barely had a chance to draw breath before being plunged into new turmoil. Known in Eire with understated panic as "The Emergency", World War II made its mark on both sides of the Irish border. At the time, the Taoseach (Prime Minister) De Valera insisted Ireland could not fight alongside Britain while six Irish counties remained under occupation. But, as Coogan makes plain, Eire was totally unprepared for war. Defence spending was actually being cut when the war began, and neutrality was the only realistic option. This didn't stop Churchill and later Franklin D. Roosevelt putting extraordinary pressure on Eire to declare war on Germany. The Allies were further infuriated by De Valera's inexplicable visit to pay his respects to the German emissary in Dublin after the death of Hitler.

Ever-present throughout Ireland is the brooding presence of Mother Church, the power of which is best illustrated by Coogan's examination of the Mother and Child scheme. What began as a modest proposal to provide free health care for mothers and babies ended with the downfall of the governent, signalling just how close to a theocracy Ireland had become. Coogan depicts the scheme’s champion, health minister Noel Browne as the hero of the hour and Dublin's Archbishop John McQuaid as the villain of the piece. But, this being Ireland, things were not so black and white. For while Browne was trying to convince the hierarchy that his scheme was not the dawn of socialised medicine, his coalition partner, Irish Taoseach John Costello, was briefing the Archbishop behind his own minister’s back. The bad taste left by the strangled scheme heralded the beginning of the end for crozier-wielding bishops striking terror into ministers of the state.

Coogan paints Eamon De Valera as a ruthless and ambitious politician. But in the post-war years, "Dev" appeared content to let the world pass Ireland by. For 16 years, De Valera dominated his country's politics, promoting a romantic notion of Ireland as a rural backwater of "cosy homesteads" and "comely maidens". The result was a haemorrhaging of young Irish men and women from the Republic to America and Britain. By the time he was “parked” in the largely ceremonial role of President, De Valera was almost totally blind, perhaps symbolising his lack of vision for the nation he had fought to create.

Only when Sean Lemass assumed power did Ireland drag itself into the modern age. Television, sweeping reforms in education and health and the abandonment of protectionism in preparation for EEC membership were just some of the advances during the Lemass years. Yet even as a new day was dawning in the Republic, Northern Ireland was about to enter its darkest night.

It's impossible to be even-handed about Ulster, and Coogan plainly comes down on the side of the nationalists. He's at his strongest when describing the impact of partition on those who had to live with it. The Unionist stranglehold on power in Ulster is related with all its petty prejudices and naked bigotry. Such was the stranglehold of the Unionists, that the apartheid regime in South Africa could only look on enviously. But Coogan's criticism is not restricted to the Unionists. The IRA's murderous campaign, and the ineffectual responses of London and Dublin governments are subjected to the full beam of Coogan's searchlight.

Ireland contains some real howlers. Coogan gets into a terrible fankle over who succeeded Fine Gael leader John Bruton, while a Bishop Comiskey and a Bishop Cumiskey both appear in the text and the index, despite being one and the same person.

But Coogan wraps the book up with a strong showing on the cultural and social changes Ireland has seen in the past century. For women, politics has become less of a closed shop, but although the country has had two women presidents and one female deputy prime minister, representation in the Irish Parliament is still below the European average.

Coogan also relates the sorry saga of the the Church's decline. From guardian of the nation's morals, the Roman Catholic Church became a laughing stock when one of its most popular bishops was revealed to have fathered a son. Worse was to come, with the exposure of shocking abuse by clergy into whose hands parents had entrusted their children. Coogan concedes that while church attendance has gone into meltdown, the Irish still turn to their priests for high occasions, such as weddings and christenings. But he believes that Ireland, having cast off the burden of Mother England, can only be free of its colonial past by unshackling itself from the constraints of Mother Church.

Published before the sheen vanished from the Celtic Tiger's coat, Ireland in the Twentieth Century concludes that while economic prosperity endowed its benefits on this small country, the same prosperity left the Republic open to greater opportunities for corruption. With each new financial scandal, public confidence in political and business leaders has evaporated.

Coogan brings clarity, authority, ability and knowledge to his subject, and only an author of his calibre could have had the panoramic vision to accomplish such a work. The substantial bibliography and two dozen pages of notes lend weight to the book. But its not a dusty academic work. Ireland sparkles with those most Irish of qualities: melancholy, humour and, above all, a the gift of the gab. There's little doubt that it could easily have spilled over into another volume. Because if there's one thing Ireland isn't short of, its history.

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