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Speaking ill of the Dead 

Speaking ill of the Dead

published by RTE/New Island

Publishers' blurb 

A collection of character assassinations that is bound to have the living and the dead up in arms!

The passing of great historical figures nearly always brings out a stream of platitudes, warm recollections and reminiscences of their outstanding achievements. It is only with considerable passing of time that the true legacy of major figures can be looked at in all objectivity and fair mindedness, free from the distorting elements of nostalgia and hysteria. And sometimes, the results are not quite so positive!

Speaking ill of the Dead is taken from the series of lectures aired last year on RTÉ Radio 1 where historians were asked to choose a figure from Irish history (though not necessarily Irish born) for whom they had an aversion and to speak about them before an audience.

Among the historians featuring in this new book are Professor Tom Bartlett, Professor Paul Bew, Senator Martin Mansergh, Senator David Norris, Ruth Dudley Edwards and Dr Patrick Wallace. Among reputations under attack are those of Edward Carson, William Gladstone, Kevin O'Higgins, Arthur Balfour and Countess Markievicz.

Reviews: 

No Turn Unstoned 

A gloriously erudite bitching session about some 'greats' of Irish history has Sean McMahon enthralled

Well, we've always really wanted to do it and the editor and publishers have allowed us the vicarious thrill.

The idea and the title began with the Montana History Society's usual light·hearted concluding session 'Jerks in Montana History' and Dungan, Ireland's authority on the Irish in the American west, immediately realised that the same could be done for our own sacred cows — and bulls. Dave Walter, whose original idea the jape was, has given an introductory explanation and a contributing case-history on 'the unsaintly' Sir St George Gore, a trigger happy Irish aristocrat from Sligo who in 1854-7 slaughtered 4000 bison, 1500 elk, 2000 deer, 1500 antelope and 500 bear, just for the fun of it, thus making him both a Montana and Irish 'jerk'.

Our own targets for cold-eye appraisal include Leonard MacNally, the defence counsel for the United Irishmen who, 'turned' by the British, made his defence pleadings known before the trial to the authorities and was not discovered until his son applied for the same stipend when the old man died. Tom Bartlett is too kingly to attach the second generation (and does not mention the slightly redeeming fact the Castle spy wrote the excellent ballad, 'Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill') but does a great job of speaking ill about the da. Other competent eviscerations are carried out with varying degrees of gusto by uncosmetic surgeons like Ruth Dudley Edwards — who leaves the vain, irredeemably aristocratic Con Markievicz — a prime example of her friend Yeats's phrase, of a heart 'fed on fantasies' and 'grown brutal with the fare' — in pieces. She wasn't a countess and was less than heroic at the prospect of execution. Edwards's piece gives the greatest impression of sheer enjoyment at the opportunity but David Norris's anatomising of Sean MacBride has the same air of justice finally achieved.

Other, more judiciously serious, reappraisals are an accusation by Martin Mansergh of betrayal of southern Protestants by Edward Carson; of recurring equivocation by Gladstone in his view of Ireland enumerated by Paul Bew, with many arresting sentences as: 'As was often the case with Gladstone, self-proclaimed, long-term intellectual convictions turned out to be strikingly compatible with short-term tactical advantage.'

Peter Hart ironically calls Walter Long, the most recalcitrant of British right-wingers, an Irish revolutionary because of his unwitting services to IRA recruitment. By contrast Margaret O'Callaghan finds herself for the defence of Arthur Balfour. Rosemary Cullen Owens raps Kevin O'Higgins for cynical and convert anti-feminism and Terence Dolan discovers a new medieval saint from Dundalk. Much the longest piece is a fascinating account by Pat Wallace of the career of Adolf Mahr, Nazi and reformer of the National Museum of Ireland, which leads him, like Margaret O'Callaghan, to find for the defence. It is clear that all of the contributors heartily enjoyed the experience and the book is an interesting counterblast to our endemic hagiography of heroes.

Belfast Telegraph Jan 2008

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