The revolutionary period in Munster 100 years ago has generated considerable interest amongst writers and historians. In Spike Island's Republican Prisoners, 1921 (History Press, €20) Tom O'Neill provides an insight into the 1,400 prisoners and internees held on the Co Cork island, the largest British-military-run prison in the Martial Law area.
Towards the end of 1920 and early 1921, the British government introduced Martial Law and the jail held men from south Leinster and the six counties of Munster – seen as the most violent part of Ireland.
The first 12 chapters outline prison routine, hunger strikes, riots and escape attempts. An alphabetical listing of the prisoners is followed by a separate much larger section on the internees. Dip into any page for absorbing pen portraits dealing with individual stories: for example, after surviving 94 days on hunger strike in Cork Male Gaol, John Leo “Jim” Buckley was transferred to Spike Island internment compound and finally to Bere Island camp where he escaped.
Around the same time, in the early summer of 1921, shortly before the War of Independence truce, a part of Kerry that had escaped relatively unscathed in the fighting was thrust centre-stage. Ballymacandy: The Story of a Kerry Ambush (Merrion Press, €14.95) by Owen O'Shea, recounts an IRA attack on an RIC cycling patrol between Milltown and Castlemaine.
The shootout, which lasted up to 45 minutes, resulted in the deaths of five policemen, among them a father of nine children. Drawing on first-hand accounts, diaries and previously unpublished official records, the book pieces together the incident, setting it against the backdrop of the struggle throughout the country.
The epilogue includes a reference to Spike Island where one of the participants in the ambush Dan Mulvihill, who features prominently in the story, raised the Irish national flag in 1938. This was to mark the taking over of the Cork Harbour Defences – one of the Treaty Ports – from the British with senior Fianna Fáil figures present including Éamon de Valera and the defence minister Frank Aiken.
Nearly five decades on from the ambush, an unidentified English visitor, who later turned out to have been a member of the Black and Tans at Ballymacandy, visited Milltown and in a pub asked about meeting Mulvihill. The men never met, but Mulvihill remained uncompromising until the end of his days in 1985, showing that the passage of time had made little difference in healing the bitter wounds that existed.
New light on the tragic events of the 1840s in West Cork is shed in A Want of Inhabitants: The Famine in Bantry Union (Eastwest Books, €17.99) by Geraldine Powell. Combining rigorous archival research with social history, the author outlines how the tragedy affected one particular area resulting in the poorest starving to death during the decade.
Even 170 years on, the community still professes to know little about the catastrophe and the author states that there is a void in present-day Bantry inhabitants’ knowledge of the Famine years. This may have arisen, she feels, because the losses were too huge to process and thus no details were passed down to younger generations.
A vital historic event that is not the about the Famine but represents a deep dive into the momentous aspects of life that immediately followed it, is exposed in Who Owns Ireland: The Hidden Truth of Land Ownership in Ireland (History Press, £20) by Kevin Cahill. The extraordinary story of redistribution of land from mainly aristocratic estates to small farmers covers a long-running period of 150 years from 1850 to the closing of the Land Commission in 1999. Every county is included with tabulated lists of the names of owners of land in 1876, ranked by acreage or valuation alongside startling figures.
Some of the aristocratic names will be familiar to readers – few were held in any esteem but one name, the Gore Booth family of Lissadell, Co Sligo, resonated as an exception, although it was well up the list with a valuation given of £16,774, equating to £1,409,106 in today’s money. The family came to Ireland in Cromwell’s time and prospered in the west.
What has lodged their name high in the annals of modern Irish history is the fact that two daughters of Sir Henry - Constance and Eva – both became social and political revolutionaries. Constance, known as the Countess Markievicz, took part in the Easter Rising in 1916 and was sentenced to death but reprieved, while Eva was a poet, dramatist and a committed suffragist.
In a book brimful with remarkable research the author, takes the view that at least the whole process of land redistribution was achieved with some civility and far less violence than the struggle for independence.
Faith and Fury
For a 20-year-period in the first half of the 19th century, a religious war inflamed passions leading to violence in a remote part of Kerry. In Faith and Fury: The Evangelical Campaign in Dingle and West Kerry, 1825-45 (Eastwood, €20) Bryan MacMahon outlines the work carried out by Church of Ireland evangelicals which was regarded as a model of a successful missionary campaign.
The missionaries, who were known as bíoblóirí or “biblers”, wanted to entice Irish-speaking people living in the Dingle peninsula away from what they saw as superstition and enthralment to Rome; 800 people shed their traditional religious allegiance in the area before 1845.
But the campaign stirred a passionate reaction from local Catholic priests who objected to inducements offered to convert, resulting in the description of “soupers” or “turncoats”.
The phrase “taking the soup”, referred to a shameful act of betrayal and was first coined in the 1830s by a Dingle curate, Fr John O’Sullivan. Peeling back the layers of history, the book presents an illuminating overview of the origins and progress of the conversion, as well as the responses to it, and brings into sharp focus the personalities involved.