The Princes of Ireland: The Dublin Saga, Part I
Famous for his sweeping historical epics (Sarum, London, The Forest, et al) that aim to tell the history of a land or people via a fictional narrative, Rutherfurd delivers here the first of his two-volume chronicle of the land named for the ancient Celtic goddess Eriu – Ireland, the Emerald Isle.
It begins in 430 A.D. with the fictional, ill-fated love story of Dierdre and Conall, in the time of the Druids just before the dawn of christianity. Given what little and conflicting information historians have about the Druids, ancient Celts and this period in history, what Rutherfurd does put together is a lovely mystical snapshot of ancient Ireland, the sacred land of Tara and its people. It may be the best part of the book, actually.
On to the story of St. Patrick and the coming of the Vikings, the legend of King Brian Boru, and of course the inevitable domination by the English, who would waste no time trying to stamp out everything that was Irish – language, music and even clothing. Same treatment they delivered to the Scots. I’m sure the Irish didn’t anticipate that in the beginning, but it soon proved to be the case when Rome and England became blood brothers in politics and religion. No one could fight that two-headed monster. It’s a moot point now, I suppose, but I wonder how many lives were destroyed as the Irish were forced to help the English fight their battles, from the Wars of the Roses to Henry VIII’s split with the church and on down the line. I suppose I’m making my Irish roots obvious here, and it has to be admitted the Irish were often too busy fighting amongst themselves to pose the united front that would have had any chance against the English machine. I’m actually quite the Anglophile for the most part, but I do think it’s tragic that Ireland missed a golden opportunity to join with the Scots in the 14th century in rising up against the English, as they did do from time to time but never on a large-scale, definitive basis. It probably would have been for naught in the end, but who knows? One does wonder how things MIGHT have turned out. Of course it’s all in the past and Ireland is a wonderful place just as she is, and at this late date the English element is as inseparable from the land and culture of Ireland as the Vikings.
I’m making it sound like this book is all about fighting and it’s not, although war both civil and foreign is an unavoidable part of Irish history. At any rate, Rutherfurd uses portraits of both historical and fictional characters, loosely tied together in the same families and using some of the famous names to come down through history – O’Neills, O’Byrnes, O’Briens, Fitzgeralds, Doyles, et al - to move the narrative through the centuries. It was interesting and held my attention throughout, no mean feat given the 800-page length, but I have to admit that I was not quite as impressed by Rutherfurd’s writing as I thought I’d be. I’ve read numerous praising reviews of his books, so I was expecting to be wowed. I guess my expectations were too high because although I drank in the historical facts, names and explanations of the rather unique political and social structure, the actual storytelling aspect fell a little short. It did not come off with the skill of, say, a Margaret George. It seemed a little stilted and awkward, very unlike what one would expect of such a respected and seasoned writer. I think it would have been a better book altogether had he just written it as a straight historical text. Still, it couldn’t have been bad because as mentioned it did hold my attention all the way through, and I plan to start the second volume, The Rebels of Ireland, after the new year.