[Marxism] Belated St. Patrick's Day item

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Mar 18 15:09:55 MST 2006

The Irish Times
September 17, 2005
Weekend; Book Reviews; Pg. 10
Debunking the diaspora myths

by Marianne Elliott

History: Don Akenson's monumental and engaging trawl through history reads 
like Ireland's 'Blackadder'

It is difficult to categorise this book. It is a work of monumental 
proportions - 800 pages dealing with several thousand millenniums - and 
another volume of equal proportions to come next spring. Does this man ever 
sleep? It is a fast-moving, Candide-like, moral tale, full of the 
absurdities and the discontinuities of human life. Even the title is 
tongue-in-cheek, for most of the multitude who people these pages are 
anything but "civilised", whatever that is.

It is very cleverly structured in short bites, with snappy titles and human 
stories, which move backwards and forwards through generations of the same 
families and across continents. It reads like Ireland's Blackadder. Book I 
is entitled: "Downpatrick is the Butterfly capital of the universe". 
Christianity has taken over the myths and manufactured genealogies of 
Judaism, then jumps on the back of secular princes - and pretty unsavoury 
ones at that - to spread its spiritual empire. No point talking to the 
great unwashed. You had to go for the leaders. So Patrick the Briton 
bumbles along the Irish coast and arrives amidst a freak wave of 
butterflies alighting on Dichu's barn. A barn with butterflies is then the 
foundation church for Catholicism throughout the English-speaking world - 
Irish Catholicism later using the structures of the British Empire to 
missionise, as the book goes on to show.

So the scene is set for the rest of the book: the "professional 
rememberers" of Judaism, Christianity, Gaelic Ireland, Tudor England and 
the American frontier have excluded stories which do not fit in. It is 
these which Akenson tries to recover in a testament to the forgotten, the 
excluded, the wee people. In this he is deeply subversive of received wisdom.

Roman Christianity sinks Celtic Pelagian Christianity as too optimistic. St 
Malachy burns out the Patrician church. The Munster Old English Catholics 
forced west by Cromwell, "the man with the bad haircut", displace others 
already there. English adventurers behave brutally in Ireland. Irish 
adventurers, Catholic and Protestant alike, then brutalise "natives" 
elsewhere, becoming particularly adept as slave overseers in the West 
Indies and the American colonies. Famous Irish names are followed through 
the generations, the Nagles, Cotters, Burkes, Nugents and Savages making 
family fortunes from slaves and "recycled slave money". Above all, the 
Irish in the New World were "Whites". Catholic priests won't baptise 
mulattos in Montserrat, but the Church of England did. So the "black Irish" 
are Protestant. Ex-1798 rebels and Whiteboys, transported to New South 
Wales, did a pretty good job of abusing the Aborigines, particularly the 
women. And if only the Irish in the New World had respected all those 
milk-coffee-coloured children of slave-women that their slave-owner and 
overseer ancestors had fathered, they could lay claim to dozens of American 
"All-Stars", such as Willie Mays, Walter Payton and Mr Grady's 
great-grandson, Muhammad Ali.

In the untidiness of history, Catholics became Protestants, and Protestants 
became Catholics and some were both at once. Those undone in Ireland could 
re-make themselves out of it, prospering and protected in the very British 
system which later nationalism denounced.

Akenson dislikes myths and the pompous exclusivism which goes with them. 
Take the God's Frontiersman myth of Ulster-Scots emigration, depicted here 
as transferring "frontier-hatred of Irish Papists" to frontier hatred of 
the Amerindians, both alike deemed ignorant, bloodthirsty savages - which 
helps explain why both ended up on the Loyalist side with Britain in the 
American War of Independence and why the independent United States created 
an anti-Catholic penal code much more long-lasting than anything in the old 

This is not history as we know it and Don Akenson has much to say that is 
critical of history as we know it. "Lazy historians" who claim that the 
famine did not need to happen. "Indeed it did not, for nothing is 
inevitable; but when the earth is so badly abused, it usually swallows its 
tormentors." He is particularly critical of how standard history ignores 
real heroes and heroines, who leave behind little or no documentation and 
he spares not the rod on some of the great men and events of the past. Why 
isn't Thomas Carlyle, with his anti-Irishness, on "the Geneva Convention's 
list of all-time racist assholes?" Why is the Ulster Scots-led Great 
Awakening not seen for "the great frontier Jesus Jumping" that it was? Why 
do we patronise the past and not accept that pragmatism was the biggest 
-ism directing people's lives. Did all those Irish soldiers really want to 
become wild geese with Sarsfield?

Typical is the half-page story, "Dates that Count". Here Don Akenson asks 
why in 20th-century Ireland were the dates that most people remembered from 
the past those of the "Big Wind" c.1840, rather than any political event. 
It was because the UK parliament brought in pensions for the over-70s, and 
since birth-registration records were so inaccurate, "every duffer fifty 
years of age or more went before the governmental commissioners and swore 
to events that verified their age as being at least seventy . . . The Big 
Wind indeed".

Don Akenson has a lengthy track-record in new approaches to history. He has 
already written extensively and seminally on everything that is touched 
upon in this book, so he has the pedigree and the intellect to withstand 
the criticism which will invariably come. The approach is probably too 
quirky for the po-faced, but will thrill most readers. It is great fun, 
terrifically written and down to earth: scholarship and the Irish diaspora 
as you have never seen them before.

Marianne Elliott is director of the Institute of Irish Studies and 
Professor of Modern History at the University of Liverpool. Her last book, 
Robert Emmet: The Making of a Legend, was published by Profile Books in 2003

An Irish History of Civilization, Volume I By Don Akenson Granta, 828pp. GBP 30

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