by Padraig Reidy
A local retired fisherman takes a group of American tourists on a boat trip on the west coast of Ireland. One of the tourists, who fancies himself as a bit of an old seadog, is aghast when he comes across some strangely shaped lobster pots. "Those are just wrong," he points out to his old guide. "The design doesn't work the lobsters could just swim straight out again if they wanted to."
"Ah but, you see" says the old seaman, "these are Irish lobsters. We don't have to worry too much about them escaping. If one of 'em tries to get out, the rest will just drag him back down."
Being Irish, and this being a book about Ireland, the temptation to criticise is almost overwhelming. The Irish as a race have a weird relationship with self congratulation; while we know deep down we're the best in the world at everything, we still get terribly uncomfortable on the rare occasions when we're proved right. Somehow, a book like this seems a little cocky, a touch arrogant, and for many Irish people this is reason enough to want to see it fall flat on its face.
Unfortunately for this great nation of begrudgers, this book singularly fails to fail. Instead it swans along quite happily, being interesting and informative, without a care in the world for the pleasure of poor sods like me who crave disappointment.
Speaking at the launch of this hefty volume at the Irish Embassy in London, editor Brian Lalor made his mission statement explicit. This book is to be a portrait of a strong, confident nation, a factual response to fictional portrayals of Ireland as a rainsoaked, priestridden, povertystricken nation. New Ireland is bright, sunny, vibrant, full of wit, good looking and in all likelihood, bigger than your dad.
And New Ireland has a new book to go with it, also bigger than your dad, and definitely better looking.
The Encyclopaedia of Ireland is indeed a lavish tome; 1218 glossy pages play host to over 700 lovingly reproduced images and over 5,000 original entries, combining to make this, if nothing else, a wonderful book for a leisurely browse ( or as most Irish people will try, a quick search to see if anybody you know is in it; I managed a paltry three).
What is interesting is that some elements of the national character seem to come through in the choice of entries themselves. Obviously tied up with our notions of romantic revolution, Che Guevara gets a nod (obviously Irish with a name like that; well his people were from Galway). A fascinating combination of brilliance and downright eccentricity comes in the entry for James Barry, the British army surgeon who carried out one of the first successful Caesarean births of the modern era; only after Dr Barry's death in 1865 was it discovered that James was, in fact, Miranda.
We even find space for England's greatest Irishman, the Duke of Wellington (he of the stables/horses analogy though I was never quite sure whether that was dear old Arthur playing down his Irishness, or playing up his divinity). Along the way, the Irish also managed to invent the CIA (William J Donovan); the assembly line (Henry Ford) and [i]Riverdance[/i] (Michael Flatley). The eagle eyed reader will notice that all these are great innovators are American, but then again so was Eamon de Valera.
You do though, after a while, start to wonder exactly where this marvellous country is. Nothing actually seems to have gone wrong there. The trial of Brendan Smyth, a watershed in the Irish population's relationship with the church, barely gets a mention, while film director Neil Jordan practically gets a page to himself. Similarly, partition, something even the most blasé southerner would admit has had a bit of an impact on the island, gets less space than Van Morrison, whose sole input into Irish life was ensuring that [i]Browneyed Girl[/i] will be played at least once at every provincial disco in the country every night, forever.
But this all does seem like minor criticism for a book that does have to cover an awful lot of ground; for a small country, a lot has happened in Ireland. And for the most part, this encyclopaedia keeps up the pace admirably. All of course, terribly disappointing for your average Irish person. Or lobster, for that matter.