March 4th, 2020


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A Popular History of Ireland, by Thomas D’Arcy McGee

Second paragraph of third chapter (a long one, I’m afraid):
The best accounts agree that Patrick was a native of Gaul, then subject to Rome; that he was carried captive into Erin on one of King Nial's returning expeditions; that he became a slave, as all captives of the sword did, in those iron times; that he fell to the lot of one Milcho, a chief of Dalriada, whose flocks he tended for seven years, as a shepherd, on the mountain called Slemish, in the present county of Antrim. The date of Nial's death, and the consequent return of his last expedition, is set down in all our annals at the year 405; as Patrick was sixteen years of age when he reached Ireland, he must have been born about the year 390; and as he died in the year 493, he would thus have reached the extraordinary, but not impossible age of 103 years. Whatever the exact number of his years, it is certain that his mission in Ireland commenced in the year 432, and was prolonged till his death, sixty-one years afterwards. Such an unprecedented length of life, not less than the unprecedented power, both popular and political, which he early attained, enabled him to establish the Irish Church, during his own time, on a basis so broad and deep, that neither lapse of ages, nor heathen rage, nor earthly temptations, nor all the arts of Hell, have been able to upheave its firm foundations. But we must not imagine that the powers of darkness abandoned the field without a struggle, or that the victory of the cross was achieved without a singular combination of courage, prudence, and determination—God aiding above all.
McGee is a fascinating character, a Young Irelander who crossed the Atlantic and shifted dramatically from urging American annexation of Canada to playing a key role in the creation of the Canadian confederation in 1867, the year before he was assassinated coming home from a parliamentary debate in Ottawa (where he represented Montreal). He was one of the most noted orators of his time, and his death sent shockwaves through the Canadian political system (the only other serious Canadian political assassination was Laporte in 1970, over a century later, and that may have been unintentional; I do not count George Brown in 1880, who was killed in an employment dispute after he had retired from active politics).

Great orator he may have been, but his 1860 Popular History of Ireland is deadly dull, and I did not make it past the year 879 - chloroform in print, as Mark Twain so unkindly said of the Book of Mormon. Perhaps it livens up in the more modern period, but the early chapters are simply lists of kings without much sense of what if anything they actually did. I skipped ahead to some of the eras that I know a bit more about, and, well, the kindest thing to be said is that most of it has been overtaken by more recent scholarship. I am pretty sure that I got this for free from Amazon. (At least, I hope I did not pay for it.)

Third of three books in a row that I could not finish.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2012. Next on that pile is The European Parliament by Francis Jacobs, Richard Corbett, and Michael Shackleton.