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.