Sunday, March 16, 2008

THE ISLES by Norman Davies

The Book: Norman Davies, THE ISLES: A History. Oxford University Press, 1999 (second U.S. printing). Very good book in fine dust jacket.
First read: Still reading
Owned since: 2000

I got halfway through this book and set it down, not because it isn't terrific -- it is, it is fascinating and as entertaining as a gossip magazine -- but because it's 1,058 pages long, with another 164 pages of equally interesting notes, appendices and index. It got too inconvenient to haul around -- but I could not leave it behind when I moved, because I do mean to finish it. What I need is a week's vacation, where I can sit somewhere in bright light and do nothing but read. (Yes, I read for a living, which is many people's fantasy; the downside of reading for a living is that I have less and less time to read for pleasure, and almost no time for the kind of sustained attention that a book like this demands.)

Anyway, tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day -- observed by the Catholic Church yesterday, because Holy Week starts today -- and since I have a lot on my shelves about Ireland and by Irish writers, we'll start the theme here.

Mr. Davies, I should note, is English, of Welsh descent; but as he points out, those distinctions aren't meaningful in any way but social tradition. The Irish, like everyone else who lives on the two British Isles, are a mongrel nation whose genetic makeup is -- sorry -- not much different from that of the English, the Scots or the Welsh. The Celts, small and dark, came up from the south; the Romans invaded and married or molested the locals; the Vikings raped and pillaged on such a regular basis that the west coast of Ireland was their own version of Fort Lauderdale.

Any large Irish family reflects all of this heritage -- Alice McDermott describes it beautifully in Charming Billy -- and so does mine. My Grandma Lamb (nee Hogan) was short and dark, not even entirely gray-haired when she died at 84; my aunt Debbie is the same. My mother's branch of McLaughlins are tall and fair, with red and blonde hair and freckles. My father and my uncle Eddie have the "black Irish" coloring, as did my Grandmother McLaughlin (nee Molony): fair skin, dark hair, bright blue eyes.

It's wrong to assign character traits to ethnic heritage, but it's my ethnic heritage, so I will say that the Celts were sharp and volatile, while the Norse were stubborn and fierce, and the Romans were devious and secretive. Throw all those things together on a small island (or in a large family), and is it any wonder the Irish bicker?


JIM LAMB said...

You forgot to mention the fondness for the drink.

Anonymous said...

I never knew there were redheads on the McLaughlin side until Lucy came along! Do you know who had the red hair?

AnswerGirl said...

Papa had red hair -- reddish, anyway. His brother William had reddish hair, and I think their sisters might have, too.

Red hair turns white early, so William's the only one whose hair I remember personally.

Ed Lamb said...

I think I would have made a rather convincing Viking. A warior-poet type, if you will. At least if my poor eyesight hadn't consigned me to the role of village idiot.

-- Ed