I just finished reading Roddy Doyle’s The Dead Republic, and it made me realize how little I really know about the details of Irish history. I have the gist, and I recall some of the modern events from my childhood, particularly the hunger strikes of the early 80s and Bobby Sands. But I was a kid when that happened, and not really certain about the more nuanced aspects of the politics involved. I understood about the North and South (my grandfather was from Fermanagh in the North and my grandmother from Limerick in the South), but I didn’t know the details of the politics and the depth of the violence. I’d heard about Bloody Sunday, and when I was in 7th grade, I read Leon Uris’s Trinity, a tome that explored the origins of the Irish struggle for independence. I have forgotten some of Trinity, but I remember that it was part romance, part adventure, and part intrigue. Of course, it also was historical fiction, retelling the events from a decidedly biased perspective. Not that I disagreed with the perspective.
Doyle is always a pleasure — a witty and sharp observer of Irish life. The Dead Republic, the third in the decade old trilogy told through the eyes of Henry Smart, an aging Republican, raises important issues about how we invent our heroes and how sometimes opposing sides use heroes for purposes far beyond the immediacy of the actor’s own intentions. Henry Smart, like other heroes, becomes part of a narrative that is twisted by Ford and later by the Provos, and he has to find a way to reclaim himself amidst a long and seemingly endless struggle for Irish Independence.
The first part of Doyle’s novel chronicles Smart’s strange connection with John Ford as Doyle tackles a critique of The Quiet Man (a movie that I remember watching several times as a child, especially on or around St. Patrick’s Day). Inexplicably, Smart and Ford attempt to tell a more “true” history and instead film this syrupy fiction that appeals to the nostalgic Irish-Americans who fork over cash to fund the IRA — ironically, of course, because The Quiet Man is imbued with British imperialism and the imagined idyllic pastoral that never existed in Ireland under British rule. Doyle suggests that the Ireland of our nostalgic memory, and the one evoked by The Quiet Man, is the Ireland that will draw support and funds for the masked Provos, as long as the images of IRA violence are elided. Doyle certainly has something here, and I know from the mists of my memory that my grandfather would sing Kevin Barry songs when drunk, and when sober would sing songs about leaving his green homeland behind.
At the end of this novel, though, I found myself wanting more depth in my historical knowledge, so I’m looking for suggestions about solid historical works that discuss Irish Independence.