Some of our regular reviewers select the book or books they most enjoy or were impressed by over the course of the last year…
Although it’s a serious and scholarly book, Religion, Landscape & Settlement in Ireland – From Patrick to Present, by Kevin Whelan (Four Courts Press, €45.00), is clear, accessible and full of riveting stories and information. It explains and illuminates how Irish landscape, culture, history and faith are interwoven.
“Erasing the Irish religious past proved notoriously difficult,” he writes of the Tudor period. His judgement on modern times is more exacting, but always rooted in the authority of knowledge. It’s expensive, but truly worth it.
Knockfane, by Homan Potterton (Merrion Press, €16.95) is an old-fashioned ‘big house’ saga set in Ireland from the 1950s to the present time, based on a Protestant family in the Co Meath area, written in a gentle and beguiling way.
I really wanted to know the fate of the Esdaile family members through the decades, whose essential values weren’t all that different from their Catholic neighbours.
The book I most enjoyed reading this year was Fergal Keane’s Wounds: A Memoir of War and Love (William Collins, £18.99), not exactly new (it appeared first in 2017) a passionate, but disturbing read by a brilliant reporter.
It is a story of the Troubles of 100 years ago in North Kerry, and is built around the killing of RIC inspector, Tobias O’Sullivan, on Church Street in Listowel on January 30, 1921.
O’Sullivan was from Connemara and his wife was from near Westport. He was a Catholic, as were the men who killed him, when, unarmed, he was walking home for his midday dinner.
His wife died of tuberculosis shortly afterwards. Some of his orphaned children stayed in Ireland, and one of his grandsons was in the FCA guard of honour outside the GPO on Easter Sunday in 1966.
This well written book shows that the War of Independence of 1919-1921 was almost as much an Irish Civil War, as was the subsequent fighting between pro and anti Treaty forces in the 1922-23 period.
Fr Sean Fagan, Marist priest and moral theologian, died in 2016, a broken man after years of being silenced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and being threatened with laicisation. It even ordered any unsold books to be withdrawn. During this difficult time he could only confide his feelings to a few friends he could trust.
One was Angela Hanly, a lay theologian and catechist, who has now published What Happened to Sean Fagan ? (Columba Books, €14.99). As he said to her in his last illness, she ought “to spill the beans in public on what really went on, to shame our sinful Church in the hope it would prevent further repetitions”.
She has faithfully carried out his wishes. Her book describes, for the most part dispassionately, what happens to theologians who fall foul of the CDF, successor of the Inquisition and later the Holy Office.
It is a depressing story, but des-erves to be heard and compared to the kid gloves with which the Church used to handle the clerics accused of child sexual abuse.
My choice is Rupert Sheldrake’s Ways to go Beyond and why They Work (Coronet, £20.00)
Since the 1980s Rupert Sheldrake, a successful scientist, has been publishing scholarly and readable books which support the general ideals of people of faith.
This, his ninth book, continues on from previous works in which he advances three important observations. The first is the degree to which even the most painstaking of scientists are influenced by sentiment as well as by their results. The second is the scientifically demonstrable prevalence of phenomena which do not conform to any known laws of physics.
The third is the probability of the existence of the spirit world, forces which influence human beings and the entire material universe but are not physically part of them. He very rightly notes that atheism and materialism are merely alternative belief systems as incapable of proof as any spiritual concept.
The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, £20.00) – it’s refreshing when good writers don’t stick to a formula, and Harris is one who doesn’t.
What his books have in common is that they’re all well researched and entertainingly written – and that in the case of this one and its predecessor, Conclave, the action is seen through the eyes of a priest.
Though I won’t spoil surprises here by giving away the plot – or even by telling you in which era it is set – his latest novel touches on themes that include the effects of technology on mankind and the tensions that may arise between religion and science.
The only downside is that it’s so compulsively readable that it won’t detain you long…
John Barton’s A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths (Allen Lane, £30.00) says one of the most damaging results of the Reformation was the doctrine of sola scriptura which has seriously distorted our understanding of revelation, with its presumption of an unmediated access to the word of God.
John Barton’s A History of the Bible: The book and its faiths is the product of many years scholarship as professor of the interpretation of holy scripture in Oxford and ministry as a priest in the Church of England.
Barton’s account of how the Bible was constructed and understood from its remote beginnings to the present, makes clear that the Bible is a compilation of the conversations between God and believers.
Every conversation is a ‘merging of horizons’. God’s words make sense because they fit into the world of the listener. That world is invariably time-bound. Our mind-set is far from that of Abraham.
Burton shows the compilation and interpretation of the conversations is no easy business. We see through a glass darkly and what we see, we see as a community of believers, guided by tradition, as we seek to make the scriptures speak to our time. Burton makes a considerable and welcome contribution to that task.
Thomas J. Morrissey
The present of a de Valera biography was not received with enthusiasm. The story had been told too often. But I had not long started on David McCullagh’s De Valera, Rise, 1882-1932 (Gill Books, €25.00), than I was caught by the author’s detailed research, in America as well as in Ireland, his objective presentation, and a style which carried the reader smoothly through the vicissitudes of the young de Valera from arduous childhood through political eminence to splitting his country in civil war, and from there to political redemption and the assumption of government.
McCullough’s second volume, De Valera: Rule, 1932-1975 (Gill Books €25.00), brings us through the 1930s and the challenge of neutrality and economic survival during World War II, all dealt with clearly, if succinctly, before considering de Valera’s post-war election defeat, his subsequent mixed political fortunes and his eventual retirement from the Dáil.
The account of the final years as the elected president of the Irish Republic brings de Valera’s career to a fitting conclusion.
My read of the year was Caleb Wood Richardson’s Smyllie’s Ireland: Protestants, Independence, and the Man who ran the Irish Times (Indiana University Press, £27.99).
A lively and insightful discussion of Irish identity after independence is hung on the very substantial frame of R.M. Smyllie, editor of the Irish Times from 1934 to 1954. Smyllie was of Sligo Protestant stock. He spent the Great War in an internment camp in Germany, having found himself on the wrong side of the line – much like southern Irish Protestants after independence, then. Richardson’s original ‘take’ is to interpret Smyllie and his ilk in terms of success rather than failure, and he does this with great panache.
The book is enhanced by the effervescent writing and apposite phraseology, such as ‘…most of the snobbery of Dublin’s Protestants was self-inflicted: directed not at Catholics but at fellow members of the minority’. A short book, but a most refreshing read.
One of the major events of the year for Catholics, the canonisation of John Henry Newman, saw the appearance of many books around the world”
Rev. Robert Marshall
John Barton, A History of the Bible: The Book and it Faiths (Allen Lane, €30.00): Has the bible a theme? With deep scholarship Barton examines, from the perspectives of all People of the Book, the gap between the Bible and faith. Barton excites and challenges, as he moves from ancient Israel and the canon of what Christians call the Old Testament, through Christian beginnings in the New Testament, to the Middle Ages, the Reformation and meaning, concluding with controversial issues of translation.
He points out that many of the texts from which the current translations are drawn, are themselves also translations from earlier languages. Food for thought.
Barton concludes with an interrogation of the Bible which feeds the faith of Jews and Christians, each of whom have many traditions.
Easily read, engaging, questioning and, for all traditions, often provocative it is a worthy stocking filler.
Rolf Loeber (1942-2017) was a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, specialising in juvenile delinquency – but he had another career as a scholar of Irish literature, art and architecture.
He pursued his Irish interests with vigour and peerless scholarship during innumerable visits here in the company of his wife and collaborator, Magda Stouthamer-Loeber. The result was a body of published work which will endure – most notably, their magisterial 2006 Guide to Irish Fiction, 1650-1900 (Four Courts Press, €90.00).
Irish Houses and Castles, 1400-1740 is a posthumous collection of six major articles by Rolf, edited by Kevin Whelan and Matthew Stout as a tribute to him (Four Courts Press, €55.00)
It is richly illustrated, and includes a listing of Rolf’s publications in the field of Irish studies which extends over five pages. The book was launched in Dublin in November with an evening of words and music in memory of Rolf. It is, by far and away, my ‘book of the year’.
One of the major events of the year for Catholics, the canonisation of John Henry Newman, saw the appearance of many books around the world. Those published here in Ireland, such as the excellent one for those unfamiliar with the details of the new saint’s life, A Perfect Peace: Newman Saint For Our Time by Bishop Fintan Monahan (€7.99), dealt in part with Newman’s time in Ireland as the first Rector of the Catholic University.
Newman had a stellar career as an apologist and a divine. A prolific author, he published some 40 books on serious topics. Newman was first rector of Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin in 1854 and published a universally-acclaimed study on university education. That Catholic University evolved into University College, Dublin, now regarded as the leading university in Ireland.
And yet, showing a woeful lack of the broadness and openness of mind which university education is intended to develop, the UCD authorities initially indicated they would not be represented at Newman’s canonisation.
In the event, owing to protests by the university’s graduates and the prospect of becoming a laughing-stock in the academic world, eventually representatives of UCD did travel to Rome to honour their university’s founder.
Having been writing over the course of the year about art as well as books, my book of the year is devoted to religious art. Dark Beauty: Hidden Details in Harry Clarke’s Stained Glass, by Lucy Costigan & Michael Cullen (Merrion Press, €35.00), is a further investigation of the stained glass window of that often enigmatic artist.
The authors admit they are very much following in the footstep of Nicky Gordon-Bowe, but they are also probing into examples and details she never got to explore. Clarke was a artist not only of the beatific, but also of the macabre. His was a mind that needs further exploration by many hands.