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Robert Kee - The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism Legolas Send a noteboard - 04/01/2013 10:57:53 PM
Every once in a while, one comes across a book of history, or other non-fiction, that makes for as gripping a read as any novel. Sometimes this comes at a price in the shape of diminished depth, or detail, or a polemic tone that, while not necessarily a bad thing in itself, threatens the objectivity and reliability of the work. But sometimes, quite rarely, you get historians who manage to write such a gripping work, while still adhering rigidly to the highest standards of accuracy and objectivity. Robert Kee's monumental "The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism" (published originally in three parts as "The Most Distressful Country", "The Bold Fenian Men" and "Ourselves Alone" ) is such a book.

Like many people on this site and elsewhere (and, might I add, many fantasy authors), I have long had a kind of fascination for Ireland and its culture, what with its notoriously counter-intuitively pronounced language, its music, its leprechauns, and so on. I had some notions of its history - not very detailed, perhaps, but more extensive than those I have of most countries of a comparatively limited population (or indeed many countries with a much bigger population). As this book proved with considerable eloquence, though, the history of Ireland and Irish nationalism is far too complicated to get any remotely accurate view of it by such haphazardly collected knowledge as I had. (To give just one example, my post here, and its implied gross overestimation of the size of the Easter Rising.)

The book is about 750 pages long, but even so it has hardly any room for Irish history prior to the beginnings of Irish "nationalism", or after the establishment of the Irish Free State. The book rapidly deals with the early centuries of British control over Ireland, but the vast majority of it is concerned with the roughly 150 years between 1782 and 1923, in which there was a real Irish nationalist movement with aspirations of various kinds, which eventually culminated in what is now the Republic of Ireland. Those hoping to read about Brian Boru or other big names of early Irish history who were subsequently claimed by the nationalist movement, will be sorely disappointed, and even the notorious Battle of the Boyne is treated in surprisingly cursory fashion.

The reason is simple and entirely defendable: Kee's focus lies on rigorously and mercilessly separating fact from legend, and debunking all attempts at projecting views and attitudes backwards in time on historical figures who had nothing of the sort. He consistently and constantly makes clear what the concerned persons or groups were thinking and writing at the time the events actually were happening, and how it's misleading to judge either the events or the people based on one's knowledge of subsequent events. Which is indeed sorely needed at various points, most especially in the period between the Easter Rising of 1916 and the escalation of the "War of Independence" in 1920 and 1921.

Kee's remarkable objectivity in the book have been praised in both the Irish and British media (well, according to the blurbs in my copy, anyway), though his views on how he would've preferred things to end are actually made quite clear. What they probably mean is that he condemns every mistake and every crime committed by each side in equal measure, while still offering justifications and explanations if such can reasonably be found.

These strenghts of objectivity and putting everything in its perspective do inevitably have downsides of a sort, as I can imagine that some would find the reading at times slow as a result, particularly in the parts of the book covering periods in which, for all the clamouring of the Irish, very little actually happened. Getting through those parts is essential to fully appreciate what follows, though. Fortunately, Kee is also quite good at fleshing out the personalities of the driving forces of Irish history, which helps to keep things interesting.

In conclusion, this book is a must-read for anyone with a particular interest in Irish history, but also for those who simply enjoy reading excellently written history. Kee's meticulous analysis of how the combination of a tiny extremist movement on the one hand, and badly handled government repression in reaction to it on the other, can create a widely-supported popular revolt in an amazingly short period of time, is well worth reading for anyone with any kind of interest in any separatist movement or civil war.

Oh, and let me end this review with a question: can anyone recommend me a good book (or several) that picks up where this one left off - both the history of the Republic of Ireland, and the history of Northern Ireland and its Troubles?
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Robert Kee - The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism - 04/01/2013 10:57:53 PM 7033 Views
It sounds a good book. - 05/01/2013 01:22:24 AM 703 Views
It sounds fascinating. - 05/01/2013 02:31:48 AM 552 Views

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